The "Icons of Evolution" Have Joined the Ranks of the Undead
About fifteen years ago, I read Jonathan Wells's Icons of Evolution (2000). The sheer brazenness of the outdated information that continued to be paraded in decades of textbooks dealing with evolution was striking—even to a longtime textbook editor (now retired) like me. For example, Ernst Haeckel's doctored vertebrate embryo illustrations from more than a century ago (intended to cement the idea of common descent) were the best modern evolutionary science could offer.1 Which says something about modern evolutionary science.
The textbook publishing industry depends on a simple set of facts:
• Parents are required by law to present their children to the local public school system unless they can afford other legally acceptable arrangements.
• Homeowners and businesses are required to fund the public system.
• The system needs textbooks.
• Textbook authors, usually successful teachers, are well rewarded.
Thus, the opportunities for soft corruption (stale, dated content that lingers year after year) are vast and inevitable. Some such stuff is doubtless defended by pressure groups, anxious to retain a discredited icon that supports their cause.
Ancestry Without Ancestors?
Wells offers an update to Icons in his new book, Zombie Science (2017). Everything old is new again.
For example, consider the "tree of life": In the 1970s, the Archaea, a fourth kingdom of life, was discovered and identified by American microbiologist Carl Woese (1928-2012). Archaea are in some ways like bacteria. But in other ways they are like eukaryotes (for example, mammals, like ourselves). Woese concluded, much to Richard Dawkins's horror, that the differences were too great to be explained by descent from a universal common ancestor. Woese therefore proposed an alternative evolutionary scenario, one that started "when 'genetic temperatures' were very high, cellular entities (progenotes) were very simple, and information processing systems were inaccurate. Initially, both mutation rate and lateral gene transfer levels were elevated."2 A progenote was "more or less a bag of semi-autonomous genetic elements" but was not an organism "in any conventional sense."3
Doesn't make sense? No, but it gives us some idea of the uncertainty.
Wells, in his turn, asks, "If our common ancestor with archaea and bacteria was not an organism, in what sense was it an ancestor? Why stop with a community of progenotes? Why not say our common ancestor was the primordial soup? Or the elements in the periodic table?"
Life forms generally seek to remain in existence. Elements in the periodic table do not. So how or why did these amorphous not-quite-alive "bags" seek to survive?
As it happens, there is a politically correct talk-around of the problem. W. Ford Doolittle, an evolutionary and molecular biologist, wrote in 2009 that none of this means that life lacks "universal common ancestry" because "'common ancestry' does not entail a 'common ancestor.'" Why such mental gymnastics? Doolittle freely admits that the reason is the need to defeat "anti-evolutionists" in "the culture wars."4 So the culture war is what really matters? Not the facts?
Recently, I asked Wells three questions.
1. Why it is so easy for Darwinians to get away with disquieting misrepresentations in textbooks—for example, the idea that traditional Darwinism is a "done deal," when the lively Royal Society (founded in 1660), meeting last November, showed that the whole field is in ferment (much as many have tried to pretend otherwise)?5 Wells replied,
"Disquieting" is too mild. I would say "disgraceful," "appalling," even "evil." Every time we have tried to correct textbook misrepresentations, school boards or textbook adoption committees are bombarded by experts from the scientific establishment who assure them the textbooks are fine. Why does the scientific establishment go along with this? Most scientists ignore the issue and just want to be left alone to do their research.
2. But does that always work? The campaign to "Kill ENCODE" is an interesting example.6 The ENCODE project—a comprehensive parts list of functional elements in the human genome7—showed that there is very little "junk DNA" in the human genome. The claim that our genome contained masses of junk was once considered a big boost for Darwinism (including a boost for Darwinism among Christians8). As one opponent put it, "If ENCODE is right, then Evolution is wrong."9 What if Darwinists succeeded in killing ENCODE?
Wells replied by reminding me that science can be stopped, but only for a time. "It happened under Trofim Lysenko in the Soviet Union," he said. "What's happening now is a bit like Lysenkoism, though (thank God) anti-Darwin dissidents are not being jailed or executed."
Thank God indeed. Lysenko founded a discredited school of genetics favored by Stalin. Hundreds of biologists in the former Soviet Union who disagreed with his doctrines were imprisoned or shot.10 Worryingly, and closer to home in terms of time and place, the Council of Europe, Europe's leading human rights organization, claims that the idea of design in the universe is anti-human rights.11
3. But what is evolution anyway, versus design? Wells's critics say he does not believe in "evolution." What precisely does he not believe in? He answered,
I have no problem with "evolution" as simple change over time, or with microevolution (minor changes within existing species). I also have no problem with the fact that many plants and animals now living are different from those that lived in the past. Controversies over geological chronology don't interest me.
I have no theological objection to macroevolution (the transformation of one species into another and the evolution of new organs and body plans), as long as design is not arbitrarily excluded from the explanation [see Zombie Science, pp. 19-22]. But I do have an empirical objection to macroevolution because, as a biologist, I do not see sufficient evidence for believing in "transformism"—the idea that one species can transform into another. Even different species of fruit flies are so different, chromosomally and otherwise, that I see no empirical reason to believe they descended biologically from a common ancestor.
Science depends, in large part, on the capacity to accept evidence-based ways of looking at our world.Denyse O'Leary
is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #42, Fall 2017 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo42/zombie-killer