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Catch-23
By: Jonathan Wells
Research News & Opportunities
July 1, 2002


This article appeared in a discussion on the topic of Intelligent Design published in the July/August, 2002 issue of Research News & Opportunities In Science And Theology. Other contributing writers included Karl Giberson, Michael Ruse, Michael Behe, Eugenie Scott, William Dembski, and Robert Pennock.

In Joseph Heller’s classic novel about World War II, an aviator could be excused from combat duty for being crazy. But a rule specified that in order to be excused he had to ask first, and anyone who asked to be excused from combat duty was obviously not crazy. The rule that made it impossible to be excused from combat duty was Catch-22.

A similar rule was invoked before the Ohio State School Board on March 11 by defenders of Darwinian evolution, who argued that intelligent design theory is not scientific because it has not been published in peer-reviewed science journals.

Science journals, especially in biology, are strongly pro-Darwin. I had my first personal encounter with this bias about four years ago. While a graduate student in embryology at the University of California, Berkeley, I noticed something disturbing about my biology textbooks: They contained drawings to show how early similarities in vertebrate embryos provide strong evidence for the common ancestry of humans and fish. Yet, I knew from my training in embryology that the early embryos of humans and fish actually look very different from one another. I soon learned that the textbook drawings had been faked by 19th century German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel, and I decided to write an article alerting biology teachers to this fact.

In 1998, I submitted an article about this to the peer-reviewed American Biology Teacher, the official journal of an organization whose declared mission is to empower educators “to provide the best possible biology and life science education for all students.” My article did not criticize Darwinian evolution; in fact, it explicitly pointed out that “it would be illogical to conclude that Haeckel’s distortions invalidate Darwin’s theory,” because Darwin did not base his inferences on embryological evidence alone. My article did, however, state, “It might be better to look elsewhere for evidence of evolution.”

The article was given to two anonymous reviewers; one liked it, and the other did not. The only change recommended by the first was that I include more references. The second recommended, among other things, that I “emphasize what is useful about the study of embryology in evolution” and that I “detail some positive lessons that could be demonstrated through comparative embryology.”

The journal editor wrote to me: “Your paper is acceptable for publication, provided you revise the paper according to the comments provided by the reviewers.” I added some quotes from other biologists who thought that the study of embryology would add to Darwin’s theory; with this mandatory affirmation of faith in evolution, my article was published in May 1999.

The pro-Darwin bias in biology journals effectively excludes an alternative scientific theory such as intelligent design. Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, pointed out in a 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box, that some features of living things are “irreducibly complex”--that is, they function only when all of their parts are in place. Behe reasoned that such features could not have been assembled by “numerous, successive, slight modifications,” as Darwin’s theory requires, since the intermediate steps would have been non-functional and thus could not have been favored by natural selection. According to Behe, irreducible complexity points to intelligent design, rather than Darwinian evolution.

Darwinian biologists have criticized Behe’s view in several peer-reviewed journals, including Nature, Trends in Ecology and Evolution and The Quarterly Review of Biology. Yet, peer-reviewed science journals have consistently refused to publish Behe’s responses to such criticisms. One journal editor, in refusing to publish one such response, cited a reviewer who wrote: “In this referee’s judgment, the manuscript of Michael Behe does not contribute anything useful to evolutionary science.”

When Behe submitted an essay to another biology journal, the editor wrote back: “As you no doubt know, our journal has supported and demonstrated a strong evolutionary position from the very beginning, and believes that evolutionary explanations of all structures and phenomena of life are possible and inevitable. Hence a position such as yours, which opposes this view on other than scientific grounds, cannot be appropriate for our pages.” Since Behe’s essay dealt with evidence for his position (the hallmark of scientific reasoning), the phrase “other than scientific grounds” simply reflects the fact that for this journal, “science” is equated with “evolution.”

So the rule is this: A theory such as intelligent design, that fundamentally challenges Darwinian evolution, is not scientific so it can’t be published in peer-reviewed science journals; and we know it’s not scientific because it hasn’t been published in peer-reviewed science journals. Catch-23!

Jonathan Wells holds a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California, Berkeley, and has published articles in several peer-reviewed science journals. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and the author of Icons of Evolution (2000).


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