Review of : Jonathan Wells - Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?
in Nature, 410, (2001) 745-46

Creationism by Stealth
By Jerry Coyne 

In 1976, Jonathan Wells a student in Moon's seminary, answered his leader's call. Wells writes, "Father's [Moon's] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me to enter a PhD program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle." The University of California supplied Wells with his weapon, a PhD in biology and, with Icons of Evolution, Wells has fired the latest salvo in the eternal religious assault on Charles Darwin.

This personal history, taken from the Unification Church website (http://www.tparents.org/Library/Unification/Talks/Wells/0-Toc.htm), is conspicuously missing from the author's biography in Icons. The book, aimed at the non-specialist, masquerades as a scientific critique of classic examples of evolution, but is actually a polemic intelligently designed to please Father Moon. Icons is a work of stealth creationism, and strives to debunk darwinism using the familiar rhetoric of biblical creationists, including scientific quotations out of context, incomplete summaries of research, and muddled arguments. But because Wells has scientific credentials, studiously avoids mentioning religion or God (who appears only under the alias "intelligent design"), and presents his book as an objective critique (complete with 70 pages of references and research notes), it is easy for the non-scientist to be taken in. Icons has been embraced with glee by anti-evolutionists, who want it included in the American school science curriculum.

Wells's book rests entirely on a flawed syllogism: hence, textbooks illustrate evolution with examples; these examples are sometimes presented in incorrect or misleading ways; therefore evolution is a fiction. The second premise is not generally true, and even if it were, the conclusion would not follow. To compound the absurdity, Wells concludes that a cabal of evil scientists, "the Darwinian establishment", uses fraud and distortion to buttress the crumbling edifice of evolution. Wells' final chapter urges his readers to lobby the US government to eliminate research funding for evolutionary biology.

To see his argument at work, let's look at development, which Wells has referred to elsewhere as "the Achilles' heel of Darwinism". As Darwin first realized, some aspects of vertebrate development especially transitory features provide strong evidence for common ancestry and evolution. Embryos of different vertebrates tend to resemble one another in early stages, but diverge as development proceeds, with more closely related species diverging less widely. This conclusion has been supported by 150 years of research.

Wells tries to refute this mountain of work by noting that, in 1891, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel published illustrations of vertebrate embryos that exaggerated their similarity, and that some biology textbooks still display these doctored drawings. This embroidery, however, was first reported by the British zoologist Adam Sedgwick in 1894, and has repeatedly been used to show the failings not of darwinism, but of Haeckel (see, for example, Nature 410, 144; 2001).

Despite Wells's arguments, one does not need Haeckel's wishful pencil to draw copious evidence for evolution from developmental biology. Human embryos, for example, have pharyngeal pouches, a tail and six aortic arches all features found in embryonic fish. But our pouches become glands and ducts instead of gill slits, our tail disappears, and our aortic arches (which remain six in some fish) either disappear or are transformed into carotid, systemic and pulmonary arteries. In our first trimester we develop the lanugo, a coat of hair that is shed before birth.

Are these patterns mere whims of the Intelligent Designer, or evidence of our common ancestry with fish and furry primates? Embryos of whales and some snakes develop hindlimb buds that regress before birth; embryos of baleen whales possess teeth that later disappear; and horse embryos have three well-developed toes, with the outer two shrinking to leave the single-digit hoof. Such examples abound, but you won't find them in Icons.

Wells also notes that the earliest vertebrate embryos (mere balls of cells) are often less similar to one another than they are at subsequent stages when they possess more complex features. According to Wells, this counts as evidence against biological evolution, which supposedly predicts that the similarities among groups will be strongest at the very first stages of development. But darwinism makes no such prediction. Darwin himself noted that embryos must adapt to the conditions of their existence, and the earliest stages of vertebrate embryos show adaptation to widely varying amounts of yolk in their eggs. Wells repeatedly fails to grasp the evidential value of phenomena that can be understood only as the result of a historical process, even if the results were not predictable. Perhaps an observer in the early Cenozoic could not have predicted that a lineage of ungulates would lose their hindlimbs as they became aquatic, but the development of the hindlimb in embryonic whales can be understood only as a result of descent with modification from a four-legged ancestor.

When discussing other 'icons', Wells uses the same tactic of selective omission to distort a body of literature he pretends to review. Nowhere is this more visible than in his chapter on human evolution. Faced with a series of hominid fossils showing transitions from ape-like to modern human traits over 4 million years, Wells can only mumble about the Piltdown Man hoax, and imply that the vigorous scientific debate about the course of human evolution proves that humans did not evolve.

It is telling that, although Wells repeatedly attacks evolution, he gives no hint of his own ideas about the origin and development of life. There is good reason for this. As one learns from his website sermon, Evolution by Design, Wells believes that "the human species was planned before life began, and that the history of life is the record of how this plan was implemented". To Wells, the fossil record does not represent a continuum of ancestry, but a succession of creations by the Intelligent Designer, with each species carefully devised to nurture the next product of creation up to the final goal, humans.

But this argument is blasphemous, for its logical consequence is that the pinnacle of evolution is not Homo sapiens but our ectoparasite Pediculus humanus, the body louse. It also turns the Great Designer into a Great Deceiver, who, in the manner of Satan, put fossils in the rocks and tails on embryos to mislead biologists of the future.

Finally, Wells's main theme about the collusion of evolutionary biologists is simply wrong. Authors of some biology texts may occasionally be sloppy, or slow to incorporate new research, but they are not duplicitous. And, far from representing a conspiracy, it is invariably evolutionists (including myself) who have noted problems with some classic icons of evolution. Wells has it backwards. It is creationists like him who are conspiring to purge evolution from American education. They hide their own differences about issues such as the fossil record and the age of the Earth, they pretend to be disinterested seekers after truth, they fail to do their own scientific research, and, like Wells, they avoid at all costs revealing their own theories about the history of life. Icons is exactly as even-handed and intellectually honest as one would expect from someone whose "prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism".