Study strengths, weaknesses of evolution

Jonathan Witt
Kansas City Star
May 8, 2005
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Biology textbooks diligently paper over the fact that biologists have never observed or even described in credible, theoretical terms a continually functional, macroevolutionary pathway leading to fundamentally new anatomical forms.

It seems the Darwinists in Kansas are living in the past.

Not the past of, say, the fossil record. The history written there tells of the abrupt appearance of major animal forms, nothing like the gradually branching tree of life that Darwin envisioned. The past that some evolutionists are living in, rather, is the Kansas science curriculum battle of 1999.

It's sturdy creation vs. evolution boilerplate and media outlets around the country have run with it. But the boilerplate in this case was showing rust. That is, it was false. The Associated Press was the first to issue the correction, reporting that the scientists that testified at the Kansas science hearings were “expected to advocate exposing students to more criticism of evolution, not teaching alternatives to it.”

In fact, alternatives aren't even on the table in the proposed science standards. And some of the scientists who testified, like Italian geneticist Giuseppe Sermonti, aren't even design theorists. They're simply calling for students to learn the strengths and weaknesses in Darwin's theory of evolution, rather than the air-brushed presentation they receive now.

If every design theorist dropped off the planet tomorrow, current textbook presentations of evolutionary theory would still be riddled with error and spin — Ernst Haeckel's 19th century embryo drawings, four-winged fruit flies, peppered moths hidden on tree trunks, the incredible expanding beak of the Galapagos finch.

These common textbook icons of Darwinian evolution in action have all been discredited. Haeckel faked his embryo drawings. Mutant fruit flies are dysfunctional. And peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks; the photographs were staged.

As for finch beaks, high school biology textbooks neglect to mention that the beaks returned to normal after the rains returned. No net evolution occurred. Like many species, the finch has an average beak size that fluctuates within a given range.

This is microevolution, the noncontroversial and age-old observation of change within species. Biology textbooks diligently paper over the fact that biologists have never observed or even described in credible, theoretical terms a continually functional, macroevolutionary pathway leading to fundamentally new anatomical forms like the bat, the eye and the wing.

Well, icons like the finch beak and the fruit fly are just used over and over to make a point, the Darwinists reassure us. Instead, look at a really central icon, the gradually branching tree of life.

You see, neo-Darwinism works by natural selection seizing small, beneficial mutations and passing them along, bit by bit. If all living things are gradually modified descendants of a common ancestor, then the history of life should resemble a slowly branching tree. Unfortunately, while we can find the tree lovingly illustrated in our kids' biology textbooks, we can't ever seem to reach it out in the wide world. The fossil record stands like a flashing sword barring our way.

More than 140 years of assiduous fossil collecting has only aggravated the problem. Instead of slight differences appearing first, then greater differences emerging later, the greatest differences appear right at the start — numerous and radically disparate anatomies leaping together onto the Cambrian stage. These aren't just distinct species but distinct phyla, categories so large that man and bat occupy not only the same phylum but the same subphylum. Later geological periods show similar patterns of sudden appearance, stasis and persistent chasms of difference between major groups.

Could it be that the millions of missing transitional forms predicted by Darwin's theory just happen to be among the forms that weren't fossilized and preserved? After a detailed statistical analysis to test this idea, University of Chicago paleontologist Michael Foote concluded, “We have a representative sample and therefore we can rely on patterns documented in the fossil record.”

He didn't mean that we will find no more species. He does mean that we have enough fossil data to see the basic pattern before us.

In other words, some evolutionists see the fossil record as a real problem. Will high school students learn this in class? In the past they haven't. The proposed science standards would merely correct this problem, directing public schools to teach students the strengths and weaknesses of modern evolutionary theory.

Meanwhile, the Darwinian scarecrow about the creationists coming to take us away has begun to show its straw.

Jonathan Witt has a doctorate in English from the University of Kansas and is a senior fellow and writer in residence with the Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture.