Jonathan Wells Lecture Report from Western Michigan University

Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution, spoke on Wednesday night March 14, 2001 to a group of approximately 350 students, faculty, and other interested people at Western Michigan University.  The local atheist group showed up with a few handouts:

These were actually quite helpful, though perhaps not in the way their distributors intended.  Wells began with a survey of some meanings of "evolution," indicating that he did not intend to address cosmic evolution or mere change over time (which pre-dates Darwin anyway) but would focus on biological evolution with its two key components: descent with modification from common ancestors and natural selection as the mechanism driving change.

But first, because it is so commonly covered in biology textbooks and because it makes sense to begin at the biological beginning, Wells discussed the Miller-Urey experiment. Readers of Icons will not need a summary of this, but one nice touch was that both here and throughout the talk Wells used quotations and pictures from Audesirk, Audesirk and Byers (2000 -- hereafter, AA&B), the textbook currently used in undergraduate biology at Western. Numerous people said afterward that this made a tremendous impact.

Moving on to the mechanism of change, Wells showed the photographs in AA&B of the peppered moth and described the well-known problems with that example. He indicated that if it were true that moths routinely rested on tree trunks in the wild, he would have no problem with someone's gluing a dead moth to a tree to take a picture: that would just be a shortcut. But since they don't, the pictures have no business in the book. He also stressed that natural selection does, of course, occur -- but that as far as our observational evidence is concerned, it does about what selective breeding can. The evidence for the grander claims is what he finds wanting.

Wells then took on the issue of the evidence for common ancestry, quoting from AA&B to the effect that three major classes of evidence for this are the fossil record, comparative anatomy, and embryology. He dealt with each in turn.

On the fossil record, he concentrated on the Cambrian Explosion and the two most common replies:

1. The pre-Cambrian strata were subject to heat, pressure, or other abuse that ruined the record of predecessors (Darwin's own move), and

2. Pre-Cambrian predecessors were too small or too soft to be preserved.

After presenting expert testimony to the contrary on both replies, he proceeded to show a quotation from AA&B describing the phyla in the Cambrian as evidence of "adaptive radiation," as an illustration of the theory-laden interpretation of data.

Moving to comparative anatomy, Wells made use of what Johnson calls "Berra's blunder," complete with drawings of the Corvette series. Again, after the explanation of the circularity involved in defining homology in terms of common ancestry and then trying to use it as evidence for common descent, Wells brought up a quotation from AA&B showing them doing exactly that.

For the final point, he discussed Haeckel's embryos and the multiple ways in which they are fraudulent (shapes changed, not drawn in scale, earliest (wildly dissimilar) stages ignored). To their credit, AA&B have actual photos of embryos rather than drawings: but judging from the photos, one would be driven to suppose humans are more closely related to chickens than they are to mice.

To wind up, Wells suggested that the mistakes could not be dismissed on the grounds that this text is unusually bad, that the errors were random, or that these are just a few dispensable trifles. Other texts are generally as bad, often worse. The errors all point in a single direction, and they are touted as the best evidence for evolution available. This suggests that there is a concerted effort to promote a particular viewpoint regardless of the evidence for it. AA&B, as it turns out, supplied a quotation endorsing not just methodological but metaphysical naturalism that illustrated his point. The talk wrapped up with a brief presentation of ID as a promising research program.

Here's a quick recapitulation of the issues raised in the Q&A together with very brief indications of Jonathan's line of response to each. [N.B. These are paraphrases, not verbatim quotations, and they are generally very compressed compared to what was actually said. So far, no tape of the presentation is available.]

Q: The Cambrian Explosion which you showed on a slide -- could this be compatible with Darwinism? [Exactly why the questioner thought this might be the case wasn't clear: he was speaking without a microphone.]

A: No. And in any event, the idea of a "universal common ancestor" is under fire from molecular studies.

Q: Does human DNA offer evidence for evolution?

A: Only in a minimal sense: it provides evidence, for example, that all of us have a common human ancestor. As far as common ancestry between humans and animals, this simply isn't supported by the DNA evidence. Hox genes have been used as evidence for common ancestry, but what they really show is that there are some common mechanisms. The leap from this to common ancestry is unwarranted on the basis of the facts we have.

Q [from the faculty sponsor of the campus atheists]: Hadn't Wells read the New York Times coverage of the mapping of the genome? In those articles, experts indicated that we now know that humans and mice shared a common ancestor perhaps 40 billion [some stumbling here, saved by Wells who suggested "million" might be intended] years ago? And in any event, perhaps 90% of our genetic information is "junk" DNA that is obviously borrowed from other animals. Isn't that evidence for common ancestry?

A: [I didn't catch Wells's response to the first point.] We've known for decades now that "junk" DNA actually plays an indispensable regulatory function, preventing (say) stomach acid from being produced in your eyeballs or bile in your brain. In the absence of "junk" DNA, the rest of one's DNA has about as much capacity to reproduce itself as a strand of nylon.

Q: You haven't shown that homology couldn't be due to common ancestry.

A: Quite true. But to define it as due to common ancestry is unwarranted, and to turn around then and use it as evidence for common ancestry is flatly circular.

Q: Couldn't the fact that there are "missing links" be used as an argument against evolution, since they are still missing?

A: Much depends on the level at which one wants to invoke this argument. In some contexts, we might not expect to have found intermediate forms and then the failure to have them would not be particularly significant counter-evidence. But for the more sweeping transition claims, their total absence does constitute a problem.

Q [from someone who had been handing out letters for the atheist group at the beginning]: First, isn't it bad science to postulate the existence of a designer and then go out looking for evidence of design? Second, there were no physical intelligent designers billions of years ago, so if there was a designer at all, it must have been God. But then who designed God?

A: Actually, the approach of ID does not involve first positing the existence of a designer and then going out to look for evidence. Many biologists have stated very candidly that living systems appear to be designed for a purpose; one starts with that evidence, which is available to anyone and can be seen without any assumptions about designers.

As far as the question "who designed God" is concerned,

(1) Christian theology maintains that God is self-existent and needs no cause. If this were a theology discussion we could have a fun time debating whether that is a verbal dodge or a telling response, but that's not the issue tonight. But in any event,

(2) The same question can be raised about the universe itself. So there are some metaphysical puzzles here for everyone in the discussion, theist and atheist alike.

Q: Even in the Cambrian Explosion, the appearance of phyla does not entail the appearance of what we would now term "species." Bony fish may have appeared, but not humans. Doesn't this suggest that there must still be a place for common descent, albeit starting from the representatives of the phyla in the Cambrian period rather than from Darwin's "warm little pond"?

A: This has to be tackled on a case-by-case basis. As I've already indicated, I have no problem with descent-with-modification per se; the question is how much change can be induced by natural selection. The question of what counts as a species is a vexed one anyway, since the definition in terms of reproductive isolation is widely recognized to be inadequate.

Q: Even if evolutionists do promote an anti-religious philosophy, isn't there still some truth in evolution? And isn't it important for Christians not to throw out that truth?

A: As I've already indicated, natural selection works _at some levels_. But as far as the larger claims of evolution are concerned, they are contradicted by the evidence.

Q: What does ID offer as a research program?

A: It's a fledgling program, but there are some promising leads. It could have saved us 25 years if an ID approach to "junk" DNA had been pursued back when it was discovered. There are also applications now being pursued actively in embryology and the study of bacteria.

Q: Have you gone through other books looking for mistakes, like the Bible?

A: I take the Bible seriously, though I do not necessarily read every passage literally. Of course one should read any book critically.

Q [from the faculty sponsor of the campus atheists again, apparently reading points 3 and 4 from Massimo's "refutation" regarding Archaeopteryx]: Ancestors can live simultaneously with their descendants -- grandma can be alive at the same time as the grandkids. One of your ancestors could even be alive after your death! For Wells to pick on a few points shows that he subscribes to a naive falsificationism; historical sciences are built up by an accumulation of evidence, and theories thus supported cannot be overthrown by individual crucial tests.

A: Of course ancestor types and types descended from them can exist simultaneously. But if nothing resembling grandma arrived on the scene until 75 million years after the grandkids had appeared, this would cause some problems. Regarding naive falsificationism; no, I'm not subscribing to that. But these are the pieces of evidence touted as the best in textbooks. They are the ones that most biologists themselves learned in school and found convincing. There is lots of evidence for "evolution," but only on the micro-level. Macroevolution is not only not well supported; it is in many instances contradicted by the facts.

Q: How do you explain, without appealing to evolution, the relatively small number of organic molecules that seem to be the basis of life in all living things?

A: I assume you're referring to the fact that all life appears to be built up with about 20 amino acids. This is compatible with both common descent and a common design plan (Berra again). It is possible that this is necessary for any living system whatsoever, a functional constraint on the construction of a living organism. Frankly, we don't know -- but by swapping them out and experimenting with them we may come to know.

Q: What evidence do you find in the Bible to support ID? [Possibly an additional comment here about YEC.]

A: I don't go through the Bible in order to find evidence for design. When the Bible and science show parallels, that is interesting, but as a working scientist I look first at the scientific facts and try to fit them together reasonably. As far as the age of the earth is concerned, I haven't seen the evidence for YEC.

Q: Aren't you knocking down a straw man by attacking a 150 year old version of the theory? [This might have been prompted by Jonathan's use of quotations from Darwin, but it might also have come from the fifth paragraph of Weisenberg's letter.]

A: The quotations from Darwin were used to illustrate the historical origins of the theory. If you paid close attention, you would see that all of the primary targets of my critique were found in the AA&B text, which is copyright 2000.

Q: In what sense does Darwinian Evolution constitute an intentional, direct and malicious attack on Christianity?

A: Let's leave "malicious" aside for someone else to deal with. The direct and intentional attack comes at the level of the strong commitment to naturalism -- in many cases, not just methodological but also metaphysical.

Q: What if Dawkins or someone similar were here and charged you with "cherry picking" to support your own position. How would you respond?

A: These aren't just any cherries: these are _the_ cherries, the ones pointed to over and over again as the best evidence for Darwinism by advocates of the theory themselves. They are found in literally every textbook on the subject.

Q: Dawkins has already answered all of these charges, hasn't he?

A: If you read a book like The Blind Watchmaker, you'll find that Dawkins has computer simulations but no concrete scientific evidence. But waive that point -- even if he had a great case for descent with modification by natural selection, why isn't it in the textbooks? Get the lies out of the textbooks and put in the evidence. Then we can talk about that evidence.

Q: In the wake of the Kansas flap, a lot of people are beginning to wake up on this issue. Don't you think we should teach ID in science class along side of Darwinian evolution?

A: In my book, I don't defend ID: that's not the purpose for which I wrote it. It's a good question whether it would be best to teach ID and evolution side-by-side. But fundamentally, I'm in favor of teaching the truth, and what we have here isn't it. In the case of one teacher in Washington, the ACLU threatened to sue not only if he discussed ID but even if he handed out articles written by Darwinists that showed there are problems with the things said in the textbooks. This sort of censorship of the discussion is what I'm chiefly concerned with.

Q: Is it possible to have a form of theistic evolution that is consistent with Christianity?

A: In a minimal sense, sure -- if "evolution" is defined as mere descent with modification at _some_ level. But for the sweeping claims of macroevolution, no, I think it is not compatible with an orthodox understanding of Christianity