Critics Rave Over Icons of Evolution

A Response to Published Reviews

When my book Icons of Evolution was published in 2000, critics greeted it with rave reviews. I have been truly amazed at the outpouring of warmth from some of my fellow scientists, who have been trying to outdo each other in the superlatives they bestow on my work.

In my case, however, “rave review” doesn’t mean extravagant praise, but wild and furious denunciation; the outpouring of warmth has been a firestorm of vilification; and if the superlatives become any more spiteful I may have to enter the witness protection program.

It seems that I am guilty of the one unforgivable sin in modern biology: I am openly critical of Darwinian evolution. In Icons I pointed out that the best-known “evidences” for Darwin’s theory have been exaggerated, distorted or even faked. I argued that a theory that systematically distorts the evidence is not good empirical science — perhaps not even science at all. In fact, Darwinism has all the trappings of a secular religion. Its priests forgive a multitude of sins in their postulants — manipulating data, overstating results, presenting assumptions as though they were conclusions — but never the sin of disbelief.

One high priest of Darwinism, Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins, wrote in 1989: “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” [1] As far as I know my critics have not yet called me insane — perhaps because they feel it’s politically incorrect to bad-mouth the mentally ill, or perhaps because they might then have to let me off by reason of insanity. For the past year and a half, however, defenders of Darwin’s faith have been roasting me for being ignorant, stupid and wicked.

I confess that as a former Berkeley anti-war protestor I enjoy controversy, at least when I think I’m right. To someone like me (as Oscar Wilde once quipped), the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. And talked about I am. The Internet is buzzing with reviews of my book. alone lists 84 as of this writing, and there are more on various other web sites. Rather than deal with the seemingly endless Internet reviews, however (many of which make similar points, anyway), I limit myself here to seven critical reviews written by biologists and published in periodicals:

  • Larry D. Martin, “An Iconoclast for Evolution?” The World & I (February, 2001): 241-246.
  • Jerry A. Coyne, “Creationism by Stealth,” Nature 410 (April 12, 2001): 745-746.
  • Massimo Pigliucci, “Intelligent Design Theory,” BioScience 51:5 (May, 2001): 411-414.
  • Eugenie C. Scott, “Fatally Flawed Iconoclasm,” Science 292 (June 22, 2001): 2257-2258.
  • David Ussery, “The Stealth Creationists,” Skeptic 8:4 (2001): 72-74.
  • Rudolf A. Raff, “The Creationist Abuse of Evo-Devo,” Evolution & Development 3:6 (November-December, 2001): 373-374.
  • Kevin Padian and Alan Gishlick, “The Talented Mr. Wells,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 77:1 (March, 2002): 33-37.

Anyone reading (and believing) these reviews would judge me ignorant, and stupid, and wicked. Let’s look at each of these charges in turn.


To be ignorant is to be uninformed. According to some of my reviewers, I am embarrassingly uninformed about at least six of the ten icons of evolution: the Miller-Urey experiment, Darwin’s tree of life, Haeckel’s embryos, peppered moths, four-winged fruit flies, and ape-to-human evolution.

(a) The Miller-Urey experiment

To show how amino acids — life’s building-blocks — could have formed on the early Earth, the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment used a simulated hydrogen-rich atmosphere of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapor. By 1970, though, most geochemists were convinced that the Earth’s primitive atmosphere was nothing like this, but instead consisted of gasses emitted from volcanoes — mainly carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor. [2]

According to reviewer David Ussery, however, I failed to notice that “Miller himself describes his own more recent experiments under the conditions now believed to be those of the primitive atmosphere, where he found he could still generate many organic compounds.” (Ussery, p. 73)

I would thank Ussery for setting me straight, except that the organic compounds that are produced in this fashion are not amino acids. Instead, when a mixture of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor is used in a Miller-Urey-type experiment, the reaction products tend to be toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and cyanide.

This is not late-breaking news. As I pointed out in my book, Sidney Fox and Klaus Dose reported in 1977 that no amino acids are produced by sparking a carbon dioxide-nitrogen-water vapor mixture. In 1983, Miller himself reported that he could produce no more than a small amount of the simplest amino acid (glycine) by sparking an atmosphere containing carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, and then only if free hydrogen was added. And Miller conceded that glycine was the best he could do in the absence of methane. In 1984, Heinrich Holland confirmed that mixtures of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor yield no amino acids at all. [3] Perhaps Ussery was ignorant of these facts.

Reviewers Larry Martin and Massimo Pigliucci argue that the Miller-Urey experiment has nothing to do with biological evolution, anyway. Martin is “a bit puzzled why this chapter [on Miller-Urey] was included, as the origin of life does not seem to be an evolutionary question.” (Martin, p. 242) And Pigliucci writes: “The Miller experiments and the whole question of the origin of life have nothing to do with the truth, or lack thereof, concerning evolutionary theory.” (Pigliucci, p. 413)

If I am mistaken on this point, however, I must blame my biology textbooks — all of which include the origin of life and the Miller-Urey experiment in their treatments of evolution. For example, Campbell, Reece and Mitchell’s Biology, a widely used introductory college textbook, discusses the Miller-Urey experiment in its unit on “The Evolutionary History of Biological Diversity.” The Miller-Urey experiment is also standard fare in upper division and graduate-level textbooks devoted entirely to biological evolution, such as Futuyma’s Evolutionary Biology and Freeman and Herron’s Evolutionary Analysis. [4] Perhaps Martin and Pigliucci should inform the authors of these textbooks that the origin of life has nothing to do with evolution — then biologists such as I will not be so misinformed.

Reviewers Kevin Padian and Alan Gishlick, on the other hand, seem to think that the origin of life is relevant to evolution, but they take me to task for being ignorant of current studies on primordial oxygen and their relevance to the Miller-Urey experiment. First they argue that “there was little free oxygen” on the early Earth. To prove this, they cite an article by a freelance science writer about the continuing controversy over primitive oxygen levels. (Padian & Gishlick, p. 34)

My claim in Icons of Evolution, however, was that the issue of primitive oxygen remains controversial — a claim amply supported by the article Padian and Gishlick cite. [5] The problem with biology textbooks is that they routinely ignore the controversy and tell students that because the Miller-Urey experiment doesn’t work in the presence of oxygen there must not have been any oxygen on the early Earth. This is putting the cart before the horse: Demonstrating the absence of oxygen is necessary to establish the relevance of the experiment; assuming the relevance of the experiment doesn’t demonstrate the absence of oxygen.

Apparently wanting to cover all their bases, Padian and Gishlick argue that the controversy over primitive oxygen doesn’t matter anyway, because “amino acids could be synthesized even if small amounts of oxygen were present.” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 34)

To support this claim Padian and Gishlick cite another article — this one, at least, written by a scientist rather than a science writer. But the article’s only support for their claim is a secondhand reference to an obscure report from Slovakia. If the Slovakian report is right, this means that defenders of the Miller-Urey experiment can relinquish their cart-before-the-horse reasoning — but only if they first concede that what they have been telling students for years about the inhibitory role of oxygen is false. [6]

Having said this, I nevertheless admit that I am quite ignorant about the origin of life. But so is everyone else. Isn’t it time we admitted our ignorance to our students, instead of continuing to give them the impression that the Miller-Urey experiment shows how life’s building-blocks could have originated on the early Earth?

(b) Darwin’s tree of life

According to Darwin’s theory, all living things are modified descendants of one or a few original forms. If the theory were true, then the history of life would begin with an original ancestral species diverging into two different species, then different genera, different families, and so on — with major differences appearing only after millions of generations. The resulting pattern would be like a branching tree — what Darwin called the “great Tree of Life.”

Yet when animals first appear in the fossil record at the beginning of the geological period known as the Cambrian, most of the major differences — the basic body plans, or “phyla” — are already present. In the modern world, the phyla are represented by mollusks (e.g., snails and octopuses), arthropods (e.g., crabs and insects), echinoderms (e.g., starfish and sea urchins), chordates (e.g., fish and humans), and various kinds of worms, among others. These and many other phyla appeared in what is now known as the “Cambrian explosion” with an abruptness that is inconsistent with a branching-tree pattern. Darwin himself acknowledged it to be a serious problem for his theory. [7]

According to reviewer Ussery, however, I am mistaken about the suddenness of the Cambrian explosion, because “we see a gradual change in the fossil record from the earliest bacteria fossils of 3.8 billion years ago… to the Cambrian fossils of about 500 million years ago.” Thus “there is a large body of fossil evidence supporting evolution.” (Ussery, p. 73) Reviewers Padian and Gishlick similarly argue that “there is nothing ‘sudden’ about metazoan [i.e., multicellular animal] appearances in the Cambrian,” because “metazoan eggs, embryos, and bilaterian trace fossils [tracks apparently made by burrowing worms]… are present at least 40 (and maybe as many as 70) million years before the Cambrian ‘explosion’.” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 35)

But the three billion years to which Ussery refers show only single-celled organisms until just before the Cambrian explosion. Not single-celled organisms gradually becoming multicellular animals — just single-celled organisms. The animal eggs and embryos mentioned by Padian and Gishlick are sponges — one phylum that everyone agrees (and I point out in my book) was present before the Cambrian explosion. And the burrowing worms which presumably made trace fossils may have represented one more phylum that appeared just before the Cambrian. (Some experts think there may also have been jellyfish just before the Cambrian.) So not all animal phyla appeared suddenly in the Cambrian explosion — just most of them.

To put “gradual” and “sudden” in context here, imagine yourself standing at one end of a football field. Let the goal line where you are standing represent 3.8 billion years ago (when single-celled organisms are thought to have originated), and let the other end of the football field represent the present day. As you walk from one goal line to the other, you see only single-celled organisms as you pass the 25-yard line, then midfield, then the 75-yard line. Only as you approach the 84-yard line do you notice the first multicellular organisms — some sponges, and perhaps some worms and jellyfish. Then, in the space of a single stride, most of the other animal phyla appear, and most of these are still with you when you reach the other goal line.

This is not a branching tree pattern: no animals for 5/6 of the history of life, then most modern body plans in a flash. Some paleontologists have aptly compared this pattern to a “lawn” instead of a tree. [8]

Reviewer Eugenie Scott also argues that I am mistaken about the suddenness of the Cambrian explosion, not because there is a long history of animal evolution before the Cambrian, but because many major groups appear after the Cambrian. According to Scott, “the implication that most modern phyla and classes occur in the Cambrian… doesn’t hold true for either animals or plants. Wells neglects to mention that insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals are all post-Cambrian.” (Scott, p. 2258)

But I never implied that the Cambrian explosion included plants; indeed, there is no such thing as a plant phylum (the major groups of plants are called “divisions”). Nor did I ever imply that “insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals” appeared in the Cambrian explosion — though the phyla to which these organisms belong (arthropods and chordates) did appear abruptly in the Cambrian. So what Scott criticizes is something I never claimed. She can’t fault me for stuff I did write, so she tries to fault me for stuff I didn’t write.

Taking the opposite tack from Scott, reviewer Martin implicitly acknowledges that the major groups of animals did appear at the outset, but he argues that this is exactly what we would expect. Martin writes: “Actually, the fossil record and theory make a good fit. The higher a unit of classification is placed in the hierarchy, the earlier it is supposed to have appeared in time. Phyla are higher taxonomic levels and might be expected to appear before modern classes and orders. That is exactly what we see.” (Martin, p. 243)

But Martin is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. He sees a single phylum and surmises correctly that Darwin’s theory predicts the initial appearance of one or a few species in that phylum, followed by diversification into many different species within the same phylum. The problem with the Cambrian explosion, however, is that more than a dozen phylum-level designations appear together at the outset. Where is the evidence that they evolved from a single ancestral phylum, as Darwin’s theory claims?

Padian and Gishlick, like Martin, also suggest that it is not surprising to see phylum-level differences appear suddenly at the beginning of the Cambrian. This is rather comical, since Padian and Gishlick just finished arguing that there is nothing sudden about the Cambrian explosion. Covering all their bases once again, they claim that recent advances in genetics explain how body plans emerged relatively suddenly: “Wells entirely overlooks the explosive field of evolutionary developmental biology when he ignores the fact that evolutionary theory does not require the slow accumulation of small changes to produce body plan differences. Relatively early-acting, small, genetic changes in genes that affect features of body plans such as axis orientation, segmentation, and appendage formation can have substantial and immediate phenotypic effects. This is especially surprising because Wells wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on embryology.” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 35)

It certainly would be surprising if I had entirely overlooked my own field. Fortunately for my reputation, however, Padian and Gishlick are mistaken in their claim that I ignore “early-acting, small genetic changes” in development: I discuss them in my treatment of the four-winged fruit fly icon, below.

Now, I acknowledge that Martin and Padian are fossil experts, and I’m not. I freely admit my ignorance about the fine details of their field, vertebrate paleontology. But the geologically abrupt appearance of most animal phyla (not just vertebrates) in the Cambrian explosion is not a fine detail; it is one of the most obvious and undeniable features of the fossil record. Changing the subject from animals to bacteria or plants, pointing out that sponges are an exception to the other phyla, and playing semantic games with taxonomic terminology cannot alter this brute fact.

(c) Haeckel’s embryos

Aware of the problems with the fossil record, Darwin thought that the best evidence for his theory came from embryology. He believed that early vertebrate embryos “are closely similar, but become, when fully developed, widely dissimilar.” He concluded that this was not just evidence for common ancestry — it was “by far the strongest single class of facts in favor of” his theory. In the 1860s, German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel made drawings of vertebrate embryos to illustrate these “facts.” Yet (as his contemporaries pointed out) Haeckel faked his drawings: Vertebrate embryos actually start out looking very different, then converge somewhat in appearance midway through development before becoming more different again as adults. Haeckel misrepresented the midpoint of development as the first stage, then he distorted the embryos at this point to make them look much more similar than they really are. [9]

Reviewer Jerry Coyne focuses most of his remarks (at least, most of the few that actually deal with science) on my treatment of vertebrate embryos — a daring move on his part, since I’m a vertebrate embryologist and he’s a fruit fly geneticist. Coyne begins by re-stating the standard view: “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.” Coyne then takes me to task for foolishly trying “to refute this mountain of work.” (Coyne, p. 745)

Naturally, I would be grateful to Coyne for correcting me about this — if he were right. But his claim that vertebrate embryos are most similar in their early stages is dead wrong. As British zoologist Adam Sedgwick wrote in 1894, the claim is “not in accordance with the facts of development.” Comparing a dogfish with a chicken, Sedgwick wrote: “There is no stage of development in which the unaided eye would fail to distinguish between them with ease.” It is “not necessary to emphasize further these embryonic differences,” Sedgwick continued, because “every embryologist knows that they exist and could bring forward innumerable instances of them. I need only say with regard to them that a species is distinct and distinguishable from its allies from the very earliest stages all through the development.” (Emphasis in the original) [10]

Many other vertebrate embryologists have noted the same thing. In 1976, Dartmouth College embryologist William Ballard wrote that it is “only by semantic tricks and subjective selection of evidence,” by “bending the facts of nature,” that one can argue that the earliest stages of vertebrate embryos “are more similar than their adults.” And in 1987, Canadian embryologist Richard Elinson wrote that early developmental patterns in frogs, chicks and mice are “radically different.” [11]

So the “mountain of work” Coyne invokes actually buries his claim. But that doesn’t seem to bother him, because (in a cover-all-your-bases move worthy of Padian and Gishlick) he acknowledges that vertebrate embryos are not most similar in their early stages: “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.” Like other evolutionary biologists, Coyne argues that the dissimilarity of early vertebrate embryos can be explained in the light of Darwin’s theory, since “the earliest stages of vertebrate embryos show adaptation” to the conditions of their existence. Coyne even regards this as evidence for the theory: “Wells repeatedly fails to grasp the evidential value of phenomena [i.e., dissimilarities in early embryos] that can be understood only as the result of a historical process.” (Coyne, p. 745)

So let me get this straight. Some of the strongest evidence for Darwin’s theory is that vertebrate embryos are most similar in their early stages — except that they’re not. But if we just interpret the embryos’ dissimilarities in the light of Darwin’s theory, they then have “evidential value.”

Oh, now I get it! Darwin’s theory wins no matter what the evidence shows. Apparently I was just ignorant of how evolutionary biology works.

(d) Peppered moths

Peppered moths come in a light variety and a dark variety. Before 1800 the light variety was ubiquitous, but during the industrial revolution the dark variety became much more common. According to evolutionary theory, the shift occurred because of natural selection: Dark moths were better camouflaged against pollution-darkened tree trunks, and thus more likely to survive bird predation. In the 1950s, British physician Bernard Kettlewell released captive moths onto nearby tree trunks and observed as birds ate the more visible ones. He then released moths that had been marked on the underside with a tiny spot of paint. When he later recaptured some of the marked moths, the proportion matching the color of nearby tree trunks was significantly higher than in the batch he had released, consistent with the camouflage-predation theory. The peppered moth story soon became the classic textbook case of natural selection in action.

In the 1980s, however, scientists discovered that peppered moths rarely rest on tree trunks in the wild, and a growing number of biologists now question the classic story. For example, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (yep, the same Coyne cited above) wrote in 1998: “From time to time, evolutionists re-examine a classic experimental study and find, to their horror, that it is flawed or downright wrong.” According to Coyne, the fact that peppered moths do not rest on tree trunks “alone invalidates Kettlewell’s release-and-recapture experiments, as moths were released by placing them directly onto tree trunks.” [12]

Several reviewers of Icons of Evolution (not including Coyne, of course) fault me for getting the moths’ resting-places wrong. According to Scott, “Wells argues that moths don’t rest on tree trunks,” but “he ignores research showing that moths rest on all parts of trees (including the trunks).” (Scott, p. 2258) And Padian and Gishlick write: “Wells erroneously claims that moths do not rest on tree trunks, although research has shown that moths rest on trunks 26% of the time, and on trunk/branch junctions 43% of the time (Majerus 1998, p 123).” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 36)

But Scott doesn’t cite any research, and the research she says I ignore shows clearly that exposed tree trunks are not the natural resting-places of peppered moths. For example, in 1984 Kauri Mikkola reported that “the species probably only exceptionally rests on tree trunks;” and in 1987 Rory Howlett and Michael Majerus wrote that they were “convinced that exposed areas of tree trunks are not an important resting site” for peppered moths. [13]

What about the statistics Padian and Gishlick attribute to Majerus? Majerus’s 1998 book lists a total of 47 moths found in the wild from 1964 to 1996. Of these, 6 were found on exposed tree trunks, 6 on unexposed trunks, 20 in trunk/branch joints, and 15 on branches. Padian and Gishlick obtain their percentages from the first two categories (13% plus 13%) and the third category (43%). But Majerus’s 47 moths are not — and are not claimed to be — an unbiased sample representing peppered moths in general. In the decades since Kettlewell’s experiments, scientists have counted tens of thousands of peppered moths; one 1977 paper alone listed data for 8,426 moths in southern Britain between 1952 and 1974. [14] These thousands, however, were found in artificial traps, not in normal resting positions. Researchers suspect that the moths normally spend the day hidden under horizontal branches high in the trees, where they cannot be seen.

So even if all 47 of Majerus’s moths had been found on tree trunks, they would still represent less than 1% of all peppered moths studied during the same period. Trying to determine the normal resting-places of peppered moths by doing statistics on Majerus’s sample is a bit like trying to determine the normal habitats of ocean fish by doing statistics only on those spotted from a boat. But of course Majerus knows this, which is why he (unlike Padian and Gishlick) concludes that “peppered moths do not naturally rest in exposed positions on tree trunks.” [15]

Before biologists discovered that peppered moths don’t normally rest on tree trunks, many experiments were conducted by pinning or gluing dead moths to tree trunks. This practice should have been abandoned, however, once biologists knew that it fails to test the camouflage-predation theory under natural conditions. In Icons of Evolution, I criticized textbooks that continue to use staged photos of moths on tree trunks to illustrate natural selection — though I stopped short of calling them “fraudulent.”

Yet according to Scott: “Researchers glued moths to trees to test whether birds differentially prey upon moths that contrasted against their surface, an experiment necessary to test the hypothesis of bird predation. This is not fraud, it’s research.” (Scott, p. 2258) And Padian and Gishlick write: “Wells then pretends righteous indignation about ‘fraudulent,’ ‘staged’ textbook photographs of light and dark moths against light and dark backgrounds. But these photographs merely illustrate the differential camouflage that field experiments tested — a reasonable and expected part of science. Can Wells be so ignorant of this investigative tradition or the purpose of an illustration?” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 36)

In the investigative tradition that I was taught, however, field research is supposed to approximate natural conditions as closely as possible. Since the surface on which peppered moths rest is a key factor in the camouflage-predation theory, the tradition I learned would require that experiments be conducted using the moths’ normal resting-places — and that textbook illustrations portray those resting-places accurately.

Apparently, evolutionary biology relies on a different investigative tradition — one in which understanding nature is less important than finding ways to prop up Darwin’s theory. Maybe Padian and Gishlick are right, and I was ignorant of that tradition. But I’m learning.

(e) Four-winged fruit flies

According to neo-Darwinism (the modern form of Darwin’s theory), evolution results primarily from two factors: natural selection, which acts on variations already present in a population, and genetic mutations, which supposedly provide new variations which then become raw materials for evolution.

Since natural selection favors variations that benefit the organism, and tends to eliminate those that harm it, only beneficial mutations can provide raw materials for evolution. Some mutations benefit certain organisms by enhancing their ability to resist toxins (antibiotic resistance in bacteria is perhaps the best-known example of this). Such mutations typically act by deforming a molecule involved in the organism’s response to the toxin. Since organisms with the deformed molecule may survive in the presence of the toxin while others perish, such mutations are favored by natural selection. But Darwinian evolution needs a lot more than deformed molecules to explain the origin of new organs and body plans — it needs beneficial changes in anatomy.

To show how genetic mutations can provide raw materials for anatomical evolution, many biology textbooks feature pictures of a four-winged fruit fly. Fruit flies normally have two wings and two “balancers” — tiny appendages behind the wings that enable the insect to stabilize itself in flight. A skilled geneticist, however, can combine three separate DNA mutations to produce a fly in which the balancers are transformed into a normal-looking second pair of wings. Since some insects have four wings instead of two, the four-winged fruit fly seems at first glance to provide evidence for how one kind of insect evolved into another.

As I pointed out in Icons of Evolution, however, fruit flies with four normal-looking wings do not occur in nature; they must be engineered in a modern genetics laboratory. Furthermore, the extra wings have no muscles, so the mutant fly is a hopeless cripple that has great difficulty flying or mating. Outside the laboratory, natural selection would quickly eliminate it. Far from being raw material for evolution, the four-winged fruit fly is an evolutionary dead end. [16]

Reviewer Raff objects to my characterization of this icon: “Wells misuses the science he learned at Berkeley,” he writes, since “despite some pictures of suitably iconic four-winged Drosophila [the generic name for fruit flies], the discussion of genes and development in Icons of Evolution” is “shabby and misleading.” (Raff, p. 374)

Raff doesn’t say exactly what he finds shabby and misleading. Presumably, though, it’s not my discussion of genes and development in four-winged fruit flies, since that part of my chapter was reviewed before publication by none other than Edward B. Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who made the first four-winged fruit fly. Although Lewis doesn’t endorse my criticisms of Darwinian evolution, he was kind enough to help me get my facts right.

Reviewers Padian and Gishlick (as we saw above in the discussion of the Cambrian explosion) object that “Wells entirely overlooks the explosive field of evolutionary developmental biology when he ignores the fact that… relatively early-acting, small, genetic changes in genes [can] affect features of body plans such as axis orientation, segmentation, and appendage formation.” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 35)

Since my entire chapter on four-winged fruit flies dealt with genetic changes that affect appendage formation, it’s difficult to see how Padian and Gishlick justify their claim that I ignore them. But if mutations affecting appendage formation are a problem for neo-Darwinism, mutations affecting axis formation and segmentation are even worse. As I pointed out in my book, developmental geneticists in the 1970s and 1980s used a technique known as “saturation mutagenesis” to screen for all possible mutations affecting embryo development in the fruit fly. Although this work shed considerable light on the role of genes in development (and led to some well-deserved Nobel Prizes), it also showed that mutations affecting axis formation and segmentation are invariably harmful, and indeed often fatal. [17] Such mutations cannot provide raw materials for evolution.

Reviewer Ussery feels that my ignorance of molecular biology extends further than developmental genetics. He writes: “Does Wells really believe that it is not true that DNA makes RNA makes protein?… I am seriously concerned that Wells claims himself to be a molecular biologist.” (Ussery, p. 74)

Of course, I have never implied that DNA doesn’t make RNA, or that RNA doesn’t make protein. In fact, a main point of my chapter on the four-winged fruit fly is precisely that DNA (through RNA) does make proteins — but that proteins alone are insufficient to specify the body plan of an organism, just as building materials are insufficient to specify the floor plan of a house. Defective 2×4’s can produce a deformed house, and mutant proteins can produce a deformed organism. Mutant proteins might even explain how some organisms might have lost previously existing features. But they do not account for changes in body plans. When it comes to the evolution of new morphologies or body plans, the question remains: Where is the evidence that DNA mutations can alter anatomy in beneficial ways and thereby provide raw materials for evolution?

It seems to me that this is a reasonable question. Despite my Berkeley Ph.D., I certainly don’t know everything about genes, development and evolution (after all, who does?). But until I actually see some good evidence for beneficial anatomical mutations, I’ll keep asking the question.

Come to think of it, shouldn’t all biologists be asking it?

(f) Human evolution

The evidence for human evolution will always be meager in comparison with evidence drawn from other species. Experiments involving mutation and selection that can be performed with bacteria, animals and plants cannot be done with humans, because they would be both impractical and unethical. So evidence for the processes of evolution necessarily comes from organisms other than human beings.

As for patterns in the history of life: The vast majority of animal fossils are marine invertebrates. Fossils of land vertebrates are comparatively few and far between, and fossils of the ape-like creatures that supposedly evolved into humans are so exceedingly rare that their discovery is usually announced on the front pages of newspapers.

According to Scott, I exaggerate the scarcity of fossil relating to human origins. She complains that I ignore “the many significant discoveries of the past two decades,” giving readers the incorrect impression that “the human fossil record is unusually weak.” (Scott, p. 2258) Yet Martin writes: “Wells seems to accept the fossil evidence at face value,” so that the story of human evolution “remains intact using evidence that he allows.” (Martin, pp. 244-245) Coyne’s only objection is that I can “only mumble” when “faced with a series of hominid fossils showing transitions from ape-like to modern human traits over 4 million years.” (Coyne, p. 745) And Pigliucci writes: “Wells, as much as he desperately tries to debunk” the ape-to-human icon, “is backed against the wall by his own knowledge” of the fossil record. (Pigliucci, p. 413)

So reviewers Martin, Coyne and Pigliucci don’t think that I’m ignorant of the fossil evidence for human origins; they complain that I’m unwilling to grant that it demonstrates Darwinian evolution. And they’re right: Although a series of fossils may be consistent with Darwin’s theory of descent with modification, I do not think it is sufficient evidence for that theory. And I’m not the only biologist who thinks this.

Henry Gee, chief science writer for Nature, wrote in 1999: “The intervals of time that separate fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent.” Although Gee is a believer in Darwin’s theory, he acknowledged that one must assume the truth of the theory when studying human origins, because by its very nature the fossil record cannot corroborate it. Gee concluded: “To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story — amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.” [18]

I would go further than Gee, and point out that a series of fossils is just as consistent with intelligent design as it is with Darwinian evolution. Even if we had a complete fossil record of all animals that lived before the advent of human beings, it would not establish that the latter evolved from the former through descent with modification. This point was unwittingly illustrated by Ohio State University biologist Tim Berra in his 1990 book, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Berra compared the fossil record to a series of automobile models: “If you compare a 1953 and a 1954 Corvette, side by side, then a 1954 and a 1955 model, and so on, the descent with modification is overwhelmingly obvious. This is what paleoanthropologists [people who study human origins] do with fossils.” (Emphasis in the original) [19]

But we all know that automobiles are designed, so Berra’s analogy makes it clear that a sequence of fossil forms can be explained just as well by design as by Darwinian evolution. This is why one must first assume Darwin’s theory in order to get an evolutionary story out of the fossil evidence. [20] As Gee acknowledged, however, such a story is untestable, and thus has no more scientific validity than a bedtime story.

(g) Wells is factually accurate

In my humble opinion, my critics have failed to show that my disbelief in Darwinian doctrine is due to ignorance of the facts. Indeed, reviewer Martin acknowledges that Icons of Evolution “is factually accurate.” He concludes: “If Wells made a technical error, I missed it.” (Martin, pp. 242, 246)

At the same time, I freely admit my ignorance about many things. I am ignorant of how life originated — but so is everybody else. I am ignorant of many details of the fossil record — but the abrupt appearance of major animal groups in the Cambrian explosion is not a detail, it is one of the fossil record’s most obvious features. I am ignorant of many aspects of vertebrate embryology, despite my Ph.D. in the field — but I do know that what Darwin called the “strongest single class of facts” in favor of his theory is not factual at all. I am ignorant about many things concerning peppered moths — but I know enough about the “investigative tradition” in science to recognize the phoniness of statistics “proving” that the moths rest where experts say they don’t. I am ignorant of many things in developmental genetics, despite my Ph.D. training — but I do know that four-winged fruit flies are hopeless monsters, not raw materials for evolution. Finally, I am ignorant of many aspects of human origins — but I know that fossils alone are not sufficient to demonstrate descent with modification.

So the problem is not my ignorance. Perhaps it’s my stupidity. Let’s see.


Ignorance is a lack of knowledge, but stupidity is a lack of mental ability. A stupid person can’t think straight. According to some of my reviewers, I disbelieve in Darwinian evolution because I confuse “unexplained” with “unexplainable,” I illogically criticize evolution because of a few textbook mistakes, and I fail to grasp the proper relationship between scientific theories and the evidence.

(a) Confusing “unexplained” with “unexplainable”

One of the icons of evolution I discussed in my book is homology in vertebrate limbs. A bat has wings for flying, a porpoise has flippers for swimming, a horse has legs for running, and a human has hands for grasping, yet the bone structures in their forelimbs are remarkably similar. Pre-Darwinian biologists called these structural similarities “homologies” and attributed them to a common archetype, or design. Darwin attributed them to inheritance from a common ancestor.

How can we determine which is correct? As we saw in Berra’s Corvette analogy above, mere similarities are not evidence for ancestry and descent; they are equally compatible with design. The only way to show that the Darwinian explanation of homology is correct is to demonstrate a natural mechanism. Only by showing how one car model could change into another through unguided natural processes (such as rust and wind) could we show that they evolved in a Darwinian fashion, without the need for design.

In the case of living things, two natural mechanisms have been proposed to explain homology: developmental pathways (with homologous features originating from similar cells and processes in the embryo), and genes (with homologous features being programmed by similar DNA sequences). But neither one of these proposed mechanisms fits the evidence: As a general rule, homologous features are not correlated with either similar developmental pathways or similar genes. Therefore, the Darwinian explanation (common ancestry) remains uncorroborated, and the classical alternative (common design) remains a viable option.

Reviewer Raff begins his criticism of my treatment of homology by quoting an essay I wrote with Paul Nelson in 1997: “Homology… cannot be attributed to similar developmental pathways any more than it can be attributed to similar genes. So far, the naturalistic mechanisms proposed to explain homology do not fit the evidence.” Raff continues: “What logical gymnastics! If it’s unexplained, it must be unexplainable by evolutionary biology. If it’s unexplainable by evolutionary biology, it must require an intelligent designer.” (Raff, p. 373)

The logical gymnastics, however, are Raff’s — not mine. My argument is that the “common ancestry” explanation for homology has not been empirically demonstrated, so the “common design” explanation cannot be ruled out. Is homology “unexplained” by evolutionary biology? Yes. Is it “unexplainable”? I don’t know. If homology is unexplainable by evolutionary biology, does it require an intelligent designer? Perhaps, if those are the only two possibilities. But I did not argue this in Icons of Evolution. I merely asserted that because Darwinism has not explained homology, it cannot exclude alternative explanations such as intelligent design.

Most biology textbooks, however, give the impression that the issue has been settled. They do this, not by providing evidence, but by defining homology as similarity due to common ancestry. Yet the same textbooks also claim that homology is some of the best evidence for common ancestry. In effect, they claim that similarity due to common ancestry is due to common ancestry. [21]

Is that what evolutionary biologists mean by thinking straight?

(b) Criticizing evolution because of a few textbook mistakes

According to several of my reviewers, I illogically try to discredit evolutionary theory on the grounds that textbooks contain a few mistakes.

Coyne writes: “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.” (Coyne, p. 745) Pigliucci states the same thing, but more strongly: “Because there are omissions, simplifications, and inaccuracies in some general biology textbooks, obviously the modern theory of evolution must be wrong. This is the astounding line of reasoning that is the backbone of Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution.” (Pigliucci, pp. 411-412) Padian and Gishlick make the same point even more strongly — heavily seasoned with scorn: “The Whine Expert: Wells reminds us of those kids who used to write to the letters page of Superman comics many years ago. ‘Dear Editor,’ they would write, ‘you made a boo-boo! On page 6 you colored Superman’s cape green, but it should be red!’ Okay, kid, mistakes happen, but did it really affect the story? Wells cannot hurt the story of evolution; like a petulant child, he can only throw tantrums.” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 37)

If the icons of evolution were really just a few textbook “boo-boos,” however, the proper response from evolutionary biologists would be to correct or remove them. In November 2000, John L. Hubisz issued a Packard Foundation report on middle school physical science textbooks. Hubisz found many mistakes in the textbooks, the most-publicized (and funniest) of which was a photograph of singer Linda Ronstadt with a caption identifying her as a silicon crystal doped with arsenic. The caption was supposed to accompany a drawing of a silicon crystal on the following page, but it had been mistakenly shifted to the Ronstadt photograph instead. The publisher immediately moved to correct the mistake in future editions. [22]

Imagine, though, the following scenario: The mis-identification of Ronstadt as a silicon crystal is found year after year, in almost all physics textbooks from middle school up through graduate school; the mis-identification is consistent with other material in the text promoting the theory that human life is based on silicon rather than carbon; and the mis-identification is vigorously defended by advocates of the theory. Obviously, we would no longer be dealing with a textbook mistake, but a systematic effort to promote the theory that human life is silicon-based.

This is what we see with the icons of evolution: Several of them grossly exaggerate or distort the truth, while others are patently false. Yet they are found year after year in almost all textbooks dealing with evolutionary theory, and they invariably accompany other material promoting that theory. When someone points out that the textbook examples misrepresent the facts, Darwinists don’t rush to correct them. Instead, they rush to defend them.

It is not I but my critics who portray the icons of evolution as innocent mistakes — and they do so in order to make me look stupid for allegedly trying to discredit an entire theory because of a few isolated mistakes. In my book, however, I argued that the icons reflect badly on evolutionary theory precisely because they are not isolated mistakes. When my critics defend the icons (as we saw them do above), they refute their own argument that the icons are simply textbook errors. And when my critics defend the icons by denying the reality of the Cambrian explosion, distorting the facts of vertebrate embryology, misrepresenting the normal resting-places of peppered moths, ignoring the harmful effects of anatomical mutations, and pretending that fossils alone can establish ancestor-descendant relationships, they further substantiate my argument that the icons of evolution are part of a systematic effort to exaggerate, distort, or even fake the evidence to prop up Darwinian theory.

So the icons of evolution are not just “boo-boos.” Maybe I am stupid — but I’m not that stupid.

c) Failing to grasp the relationship between scientific theories and evidence

According to reviewer Pigliucci, I’m stupid not only because of my “astounding line of reasoning” that finds fault with evolutionary theory on the basis of a few textbook mistakes, but also because I think that removing a few pieces of evidence refutes a scientific theory. He writes: “Perhaps the most damning point about Wells’s book is the general conception of science that emerges from it. Given his scientific training, Wells should have known better. It is clear that the education system at Berkeley has failed in his case.” Pigliucci continues: “Wells’s whole argument hinges on the idea of the crucial proof of a scientific theory. If that pillar falls, the whole enterprise is useless. Now, Wells is far from showing that any of the icons are in fact fundamentally flawed or represent an insurmountable obstacle for evolutionists. But even if he succeeded, Wells’s conception of science is so simplistic as being labeled by philosophers of science as naïve falsificationism. Falsificationism, it may be recalled, is the idea proposed by philosopher Karl Popper.” (Emphasis in the original) (Pigliucci, pp. 413-414)

Popper maintained that a theory is not scientific unless it makes claims that can be falsified — i.e., proven wrong. For Popper, falsificationism is the hallmark of science. Naïve falsificationism, however, looks for isolated anomalies where an otherwise successful theory seems inconsistent with the evidence. Every scientific theory encounters such anomalies; often they turn out to be experimental artifacts, or they disappear as more data are collected. If I were to reject evolutionary theory on the basis of a few isolated anomalies while ignoring mountains of corroborating evidence, Pigliucci would be right to call me a naïve falsificationist.

“The real ‘evidence’ for evolution,” Pigliucci argues, “is not to be found in individual experiments, and it is certainly not to be expected in textbooks for beginning students. Rather, it is found in the plethora of facts about the biotic world that accumulate every year in the primary literature, facts that make no sense outside of the evolutionary paradigm. Components of this paradigm are constantly being tested in countless laboratories around the world, and — for the most part — the theory has withstood the test of time. More important, this is the way science really works.” (Pigliucci, p. 414)

But where are the mountains of evidence for Darwinian evolution? There are two basic elements in the theory: (1) the notion that all living things share common ancestors, and (2) the notion that differences in living things are due mainly to natural selection acting on random variations (with genetic mutations supplying new variations). Darwinists often claim that the first is so well corroborated that we are justified in calling it a “fact,” while the second is acknowledged to be a “theory,” generally well supported but still debated in its details.

Common ancestry is surely true at some levels. We directly observe it within species. All human beings are presumably descended from common human ancestors in the distant past. Members of the cat family can interbreed, so maybe they are descended from a common feline ancestor. But do bacteria, fungi, plants and animals all share a common ancestor? Maybe not. It depends on the evidence.

In Icons of Evolution, I questioned the evidence for common ancestry at the level of the animal phyla. The principal lines of evidence are the fossil record, homology, embryology, and molecular comparisons. Yet (as we have seen) one of the most striking features of the fossil record is the Cambrian explosion, which provides no support for the common ancestry of the animal phyla. Homology remains unexplained by evolutionary biology, so even at the level of vertebrate classes it cannot be used to distinguish between common ancestry and common design. And the early embryonic similarities that supposedly demonstrate the common ancestry of the vertebrates turn out to be non-existent, while embryos of other phyla are even less similar.

The evidence from molecular comparisons is also problematic. As biologist Michael Lynch wrote in 1999: “Clarification of the phylogenetic [i.e., ancestor-descendant] relationships of the major animal phyla has been an elusive problem, with analyses based on different genes and even different analyses based on the same genes yielding a diversity of phylogenetic trees.” [23]

Judging from these lines of evidence, the common ancestry of the major animal groups is not a “fact” — it’s not even a well-supported hypothesis. If (as Pigliucci claims) there is other evidence from “countless laboratories around the world,” where is it?

As for the supposed processes of evolution, natural selection and random variation: All observed cases of natural selection (such as Darwin’s finches, another icon discussed in my book) show only minor changes within existing species, like the changes domestic breeders have been observing for centuries. There is no evidence that selection can turn chickens into turkeys, much less turn bacteria into animals. Furthermore, as we saw, the most widely advertised anatomical mutant — the four-winged fruit fly — is an evolutionary dead end.

Selection and mutation have been studied most extensively in bacteria, because it is possible to experiment with millions of organisms and thousands of generations in a relatively short time. Yet as British bacteriologist Alan H. Linton wrote just recently: “Throughout 150 years of the science of bacteriology, there is no evidence that one species of bacteria has changed into another.” [24]

It is precisely because evidence for the two basic elements of Darwin’s theory is so thin that my critics defend the icons of evolution rather than replace them with better examples. Pigliucci and his fellow Darwinists are not protecting their theory from naïve falsificationism — they are protecting it from falsification altogether. One doesn’t have to be a Popperian to see that this is not good empirical science — and perhaps not science at all.

So, if the education system at Berkeley failed in my case, it’s not because I’m too stupid to grasp the difference between naïve falsification and no falsification. Something else must be wrong with me.

(d) Leaving the True Path

Reviewer Scott indicates that she, like Martin, found many factual statements in my book largely correct. She writes: “Individual sentences in Icons are usually technically correct, but they are artfully strung together to take the reader off the path of real evolutionary biology and into a thicket of misunderstanding.” (Scott, p. 2258)

So I’m not ignorant, because my statements are technically correct; and I’m not stupid, because my arguments are artful rather than illogical. The bottom line is that I take readers off the True Path. But if I don’t do this out of ignorance or stupidity, then I must be doing it out of wickedness.


Wickedness implies evil motivations, harmful actions, and moral corruption. My critics charge me with all three.

(a) Evil motivations?

Reviewers Coyne, Pigliucci, Ussery, Raff, Padian and Gishlick all make a point of mentioning a statement I made in 1994 (available on the internet) that my studies and prayers years earlier had “convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism.” [25] (Coyne actually begins and ends with this point, devoting about a quarter of his review to it.)

In my 1994 statement, I criticized Darwinism for claiming “that living things originated without God’s purposeful, creative activity.” It is no secret that Darwinism has such implications. As Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins wrote in 1986, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” And as Tufts University’s Daniel Dennett wrote in 1995, Darwin’s theory is a “universal acid” that corrodes “the fabric of our most fundamental beliefs” — especially belief in God. [26]

As a theology graduate student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I learned that the anti-religious implications of Darwinism have profoundly influenced modern theologians. Even with only an undergraduate background in science, however, I knew that the evidence for Darwinism was not as solid as the theologians seemed to think. If Darwinism were solid science, its anti-religious implications would (in my opinion) be inescapable. The more I learned, however, the more it seemed to me that Darwinism was just old-fashioned materialistic philosophy masquerading as modern empirical science. Because of its profound and harmful consequences for religion, science and culture, I decided to devote my life to criticizing this philosophy and destroying its domination of our educational system.

That was, and still is, my motivation. I have never concealed it.

The question is: How relevant is my motivation? A zealous prosecutor may be committed to bringing down organized crime, but his commitment may be motivated by any number of things — such as a righteous devotion to justice, or a self-serving desire for personal advancement. Once he’s in the courtroom, however, the only thing that really matters is the evidence. The mob’s lawyers can attack the prosecutor’s motivations all they want, but if they can’t refute his facts, their clients may be convicted. In science, too, what matters is the evidence.

Darwinism’s defenders often claim that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. But this is like a defense attorney telling a jury that nothing makes sense except in the light of his arguments. Ultimately, the jury must reach their verdict on the basis of the facts before them. So it is in science. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evidence. That is why the icons of evolution are so vigorously defended — even to the point of attacking my motivations.

(b) Harmful actions?

Among other things, my critics charge me with advocating censorship. Defenders of Darwinism often invoke the “Scopes trial” stereotype, according to which religious fundamentalists try to outlaw the teaching of evolution as they did in Tennessee in the 1920s.

Thus reviewer Martin claims that I am “crusading to take the teaching of evolution out of schools.” (Martin, pp. 241-242) Reviewer Coyne accuses me of “conspiring to purge evolution from American education.” (Coyne, p. 746) And reviewer Raff writes that my book “has already generated at least one state legislative bill and a number of law suits by parents to ban textbooks that present the supposed false icons.” (Raff, p. 374)

But I have never advocated the removal of evolution from the biology curriculum. Although I am certainly in favor of revising textbooks that misrepresent the truth, I actually want students to learn more about evolution than Darwinists would like them to know — especially the arguments and evidence against it. It is not I but the Darwinists who tend to be censors, opposing efforts to teach students any criticisms of their theory.

One egregious example of Darwinian censorship occurred in 2000 and 2001 in Burlington, Washington. High school biology teacher Roger DeHart tried to supplement his biology textbook with articles critical of Haeckel’s embryos and peppered moths from mainstream science publications such as The American Biology Teacher, Natural History, The Scientist, and Nature. The American Civil Liberties Union issued veiled threats of legal action, and the National Center for Science Education, a pro-Darwin advocacy group with which reviewers Scott, Padian and Gishlick are all affiliated, insisted that DeHart teach only orthodox Darwinism. Bowing to the intimidation, the superintendent of DeHart’s school district prohibited him from distributing the articles — or even talking about them! DeHart was subsequently removed from his biology teaching position. (This shameful episode is documented in a new film, “Icons of Evolution,” based partly on my book. [27])

Because of the Darwinists’ vigorous efforts to oppose teaching students about the falsehoods in biology textbooks, an appendix in my book includes some sample warning labels that can be affixed to textbook figures to correct the problems. [28]

Padian and Gishlick consider this a harmful action, and write: “The thought that anyone would encourage others to deface textbooks for ideological reasons is chilling.” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 36)

Yet my appendix specifically cautions readers that warning labels “should be applied only by, or under the direction of, the owner of the book.” In other words, a school district may use the labels on their books, but students should not use them to deface school property. Perhaps Padian and Gishlick regard any effort to correct textbook misrepresentations — even by the book’s owner — as “chilling.”

Finally, I am criticized for advocating harmful political action. Raff writes: “Wells makes an explicit call for political action, quite correctly pointing out to the reader that tax dollars pay for most of the research done by Darwinists in America.” (Raff, p. 374) And Padian and Gishlick note disapprovingly that “Wells concludes with an exhortation to activism, including organizing Congressional hearings to stop ‘supporting dogmatic Darwinists that misrepresent the truth to keep themselves in power’ (p 242). Is this really about science or politics?” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 36)

But if “tax dollars pay for most of the research done by Darwinists in America,” then science and politics are already linked. Indeed, as a biologist myself, I periodically receive newsletters from scientific organizations boasting about their Capitol Hill lobbying efforts, which generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year. [29]

Now, I’m not opposed to public funding for scientific research. I wrote in my book: “Research — even research on evolution — is not a bad thing. But as we saw in several of the icons of evolution, data are frequently claimed to support evolutionary theory even when they contradict it.” Research is good, but misrepresenting the evidence to prop up Darwinian theory — or any other theory — is bad, and the public should not be forced to pay for it. I concluded, in accordance with ethical standards already used in the scientific community: “Scientists who deliberately distort the evidence should be disqualified from receiving public funds.” (pp. 241, 243)

In addition to supporting Darwinian research, taxpayers also support state universities and public school systems where their children are being fed misinformation about the evidence for evolution. Indeed, four of my reviewers (Martin, Pigliucci, Raff, and Padian) are professors at state universities, where salaries and benefits are derived from tax revenues. As a taxpayer myself, I think it is legitimate for citizens to inquire how their money is being used.

So, am I wicked? If it is harmful to oppose censorship in science education, and to correct misrepresentations in biology textbooks, then I am a wicked man. If it is harmful to demand truthfulness in publicly supported research and teaching, then I am a wicked man.

Let the jury decide.

(c) Moral corruption?

All my critics season their reviews to varying degrees with attacks on my character. At the high end of the ad hominem scale is Martin, who despite our disagreements treats me with relative decency. At the bottom of the scale are Padian and Gishlick.

The title of Padian and Gishlick’s review (“The Talented Mr. Wells”) is taken from a 1999 film. The review begins: “When we first meet the protagonist of the film The Talented Mr. Ripley, he is playing piano at a rooftop party in New York City. As the song finishes, an older man approaches and, observing Ripley’s Princeton blazer, remarks that Ripley must have been at school with his son, Dickie. Sensing an opportunity, Ripley does not mention that the blazer is borrowed from another guest, nor that he did not attend Princeton, but only worked there. He merely asks, ‘how is Dickie?’ This kind of distortion, misleading by the omission of important information, is the basis of Icons of Evolution. Its author, Jonathan Wells, appears to come from an unusually strong academic background, but the truth is more complex.” (Padian & Gishlick, pp. 33-34)

Throughout their review, Padian and Gishlick repeatedly compare me to Ripley. But Ripley isn’t just a social climber who tells little white lies to get ahead. In the course of the film he commits all kinds of evil, including murder. In other words, he is a sociopath.

A sociopath. Now that’s moral corruption! Wells “appears” to have earned Ph.D.s from Yale and Berkeley, but the “more complex” truth is that he is no better than a lying, murderous sociopath. If Padian and Gishlick are right, I shouldn’t just be stripped of my academic credentials — I should be arrested.

But wait. On what grounds do they justify comparing me to a sociopath? First they quote my 1994 statement about devoting my life to destroying Darwinism (discussed above), and then they write that after obtaining a Berkeley Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology Wells “followed this with a 5-year postdoctoral position sponsored by a retired professor in the same department at Berkeley, during which time he seems to have performed no experiments…. No peer-reviewed publications resulted from Wells’s 5-year stint.” (Padian & Gishlick, p. 34)

These statements are false. To correct them, one of the Berkeley biologists with whom I allegedly “performed no experiments” and with whom I allegedly produced “no peer-reviewed publications” sent the following letter to The Quarterly Review of Biology:

May 2, 2002

The Editors
The Quarterly Review of Biology
110 Life Sciences Library
State University of New York
Stony Brook, NY 11794-5275

Dear Editors:

A book review published in your March, 2002, issue contains some factual errors that should be corrected.

In “The Talented Mr. Wells,” Kevin Padian and Alan Gishlick compared Dr. Jonathan Wells to a movie character who impersonates a Princeton graduate, implying that Dr. Wells misrepresents his academic qualifications. Padian and Gishlick go on to claim that while Dr. Wells was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California at Berkeley “he seems to have performed no experiments” and that “no peer-reviewed publications resulted from Wells’s 5-year stint.”

Both of these claims are false. Dr. Wells and I performed numerous experiments together in my laboratory at Berkeley while he was a post-doc. That research resulted in two peer-reviewed papers to which we contributed as co-authors. [A] Some of our work has even appeared in a textbook on developmental biology. [B]

I am surprised that The Quarterly Review of Biology would publish something with so little regard for truthfulness and professional decorum. The false claims of Padian and Gishlick unjustly damage not only the reputation of Dr. Wells, but also — indirectly — the reputations of those who worked with him. It seems to me that a retraction is in order.


Carolyn A. Larabell, Ph.D.

Associate Professor
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory
Berkeley, CA 94720


Associate Professor
University of California, San Francisco
San Francisco, CA 94143

cc: Professor Kevin Padian
Mr. Alan D. Gishlick

[A] “Confocal Microscopy Analysis of Living Xenopus Eggs and the Mechanism of Cortical Rotation,” Development 122 (April, 1996): 1281-1289; “Microtubule-mediated organelle transport and localization of beta-catenin to the future dorsal side of Xenopus eggs,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 94 (February, 1997): 1224-1229.

[B] Klaus Kalthoff, Analysis of Biological Development, Second Edition (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2001), pp. 208-209. [30]

Since Padian is a Berkeley biology professor, he could easily have checked the facts about my Berkeley post-doc before publishing his false and defamatory statements. Maybe he did not bother to check carefully, or maybe he chose to lie. Maybe he was negligent, or maybe he was malicious.

Personal attacks on me, however, merely expose the scientific and moral bankruptcy of Darwinism. If Darwinists could show that my criticisms of the icons of evolution were unwarranted, or if they would stop trying lamely to defend the icons and simply replace them with better evidence, I would drop my case. But Darwinists cannot defend the icons, and they cannot afford to abandon them, so they resort to insults and smears. Is this how science is supposed to work?


I believe in Darwinian evolution as the natural counterpart of domestic breeding — that is, as an explanation for limited changes within existing species. I confess, however, that I do not believe in Darwinian evolution as a general explanation for the origin and diversification of all living things.

If my disbelief is due to ignorance, it’s only because I did not learn an “investigative tradition” that manipulates statistics to prove something that is clearly false. And if my disbelief is due to stupidity, it’s only because I do not grasp the “evidential value” of using evolutionary theory to explain away evidence that doesn’t support it.

So, am I wicked? If Darwinian evolution (as a general explanation for the origin and diversification of all living things) were true, then maybe it would be wicked of me to reject it. But how can we know whether Darwinian evolution is true? In science, the truth or falsity of a theory is ultimately determined by comparing it with the evidence — not by affirming the theory in spite of the evidence, and not by attacking people who dare to doubt it.

The case is now before the jury. The jury includes honest, hard-working scientists who imbibed evolution from their textbooks but who haven’t thought much about it since, because it’s irrelevant to their research. The jury includes the roughly 90% of Americans who don’t believe in Darwinism but who are forced to pay for its domination of our educational system anyway. And — most importantly — the jury includes students, the vast majority of whom (according to the polls) want to hear both sides of the growing controversy over Darwin’s theory. The jury may be swayed for a while by prejudiced reviews published in prestigious science journals, or by increasingly ugly attempts at character assassination. Ultimately, however, the jury will decide the case based on the scientific evidence.

After all, nothing in biology — not even evolution! — makes sense except in the light of evidence.


[1] Richard Dawkins, “Put Your Money on Evolution,” The New York Times (April 9, 1989), section VII, p. 35.

[2] On the probable composition of the Earth’s early atmosphere, see Heinrich D. Holland, “Model for the Evolution of the Earth’s Atmosphere,” pp. 447-477 in A. E. J. Engel, Harold L. James & B. F. Leonard (editors), Petrologic Studies: A Volume in Honor of A. F. Buddington (Geological Society of America, 1962); Philip H. Abelson, “Chemical Events on the Primitive Earth,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 55 (1966): 1365-1372; Marcel Florkin, “Ideas and Experiments in the Field of Prebiological Chemical Evolution,” Comprehensive Biochemistry 29B (1975): 231-260; Sidney W. Fox & Klaus Dose, Molecular Evolution and the Origin of Life, Revised Edition (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1977).

[3] On the inability of a Miller-Urey-type experiment to produce amino acids under realistic early Earth conditions, see Sidney W. Fox & Klaus Dose, Molecular Evolution and the Origin of Life, pp. 43, 74-76; Heinrich D. Holland, The Chemical Evolution of the Atmosphere and Oceans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 99-100; Gordon Schlesinger & Stanley L. Miller, “Prebiotic Synthesis in Atmospheres Containing CH4, CO, and CO2: I. Amino Acids,” Journal of Molecular Evolution 19 (1983): 376-382, p. 376. See also John Horgan, “In the Beginning…,” Scientific American (February, 1991): 116-126, p. 121.

[4] Similarly, Mader’s Biology, Starr and Taggart’s Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life, Schraer and Stoltze’s Biology: The Study of Life, Guttman’s Biology, Audesirk, Audesirk and Byers’s Life On Earth, and Purves, Sadava, Orians and Heller’s Life: The Science of Biology all feature the Miller-Urey experiment in their sections dealing with evolution. Alberts, Bray, Lewis, Raff, Roberts and Watson’s upper-division textbook for biology majors, Molecular Biology of the Cell, discusses it in a chapter titled “Evolution of the Cell.” The relevant page numbers in the cited textbooks are: Campbell, Reece and Mitchell’s Biology (5th Edition, 1999), p. 494; Mader’s Biology (6th Edition, 1998), p. 325; Starr and Taggart’s Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life (8th Edition, 1998), p. 335; Schraer and Stoltze’s Biology: The Study of Life (7th Edition, 1999), pp. 590-591; Guttman’s Biology (1999), p. 603; Audesirk, Audesirk and Byers’s Life On Earth (2nd Edition, 2000), p. 271; Purves, Sadava, Orians and Heller’s Life: The Science of Biology (6th Edition, 2001), p. 451; Alberts, Bray, Lewis, Raff, Roberts and Watson’s Molecular Biology of the Cell (3rd Edition, 1994), p. 4; Futuyma’s Evolutionary Biology (3rd Edition, 1998), p. 167; Freeman and Herron’s Evolutionary Analysis (2nd Edition, 2001), p. 481.

[5] The controversy over oxygen levels on the early Earth continues. See Nicolas J. Beukes, Herman Dorland, Jens Gutzmer, Munetomo Nedachi, & Hiroshi Ohmoto, “Tropical laterites, life on land, and the history of atmospheric oxygen in the Paleoproterozoic.” Geology 30 (2002): 491-494.

[6] The article cited by Padian and Gishlick that contains a secondhand reference to work on the effect of oxygen in Miller-Urey-type syntheses is B. M. Rode, “Peptides and the Origin of Life,” Peptides 20 (1999): 773-786. The secondhand reference in Rode’s article is to F. Hanic & M. Morvova, Eleventh symposium on elementary processes and chemical reactions in low temperature plasmas. Low Tatras, Slovakia, 1998.

[7] On the reality and abruptness of the Cambrian explosion, see James W. Valentine, Stanley M. Awramik, Philip W. Signor and Peter M. Sadler, “The Biological Explosion at the Precambrian-Cambrian Boundary,” Evolutionary Biology 25 (1991): 279-356; Jeffrey S. Levinton, “The Big Bang of Animal Evolution,” Scientific American 267 (November, 1992): 84-91. See also Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989); Simon Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); J. Madeleine Nash, “When Life Exploded,” Time (December 4, 1995): 66-74. Charles Darwin acknowledged the difficulty this posed for his theory in The Origin of Species, Chapter X.

[8] On the “lawn” analogy for the Cambrian explosion, see Jeffrey S. Levinton, “The Big Bang of Animal Evolution,” Scientific American 267 (November 1992): 88; Simon Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 176.

[9] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Chapter XIV; The Descent of Man, Chapter I. The quotation calling embryology “by far the strongest” evidence is from a September 10, 1860, letter to Asa Gray, in Francis Darwin (editor), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1896), Vol. II, p. 131; the letter is cited in Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 470, and in Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 70.

[10] Adam Sedwick, “On the Law of Development commonly known as von Baer’s Law; and on the Significance of Ancestral Rudiments in Embryonic Development,” Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science 36 (1894): 35-52.

[11] William W. Ballard, “Problems of gastrulation: real and verbal,” BioScience 26 (1976): 36-39, p. 38; Richard P. Elinson, “Change in developmental patterns: embryos of amphibians with large eggs,” pp. 1-21 in R. A. Raff & E. C. Raff (editors), Development as an Evolutionary Process, vol. 8 (New York: Alan R. Liss, 1987), p. 3. See also Jonathan Wells, “Haeckel’s Embryos and Evolution: Setting the Record Straight,” The American Biology Teacher 61 (1999): 345-349.

[12] Jerry Coyne, “Not black and white,” a review of Michael Majerus’s Melanism: Evolution in Action, Nature 396 (1998): 35-36. See also Jonathan Wells, “Second Thoughts about Peppered Moths,” The Scientist (May 24, 1999): 13.

[13] Kauri Mikkola, “On the selective forces acting in the industrial melanism of Biston and Oligia moths (Lepidoptera: Geometridae and Noctuidae),” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 21 (1984): 409-421, p. 416; Rory J. Howlett and Michael E. N. Majerus, “The understanding of industrial melanism in the peppered moth Biston betularia (Lepidoptera: Geometridae),” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 30 (1987): 31-44, p. 40. See also Tony G. Liebert and Paul M. Brakefield, “Behavioural studies on the peppered moth Biston betularia and a discussion of the role of pollution and lichens in industrial melanism,” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 31 (1987): 129-150, p. 145.

[14] M. E. N. Majerus, Melanism: Evolution in Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), Table 6.1, p. 123.

[15] R. C. Steward, “Industrial and non-industrial melanism in the peppered moth, Biston betularia,” Ecological Entomology 2 (1977): 231-243, p. 236; Majerus, Melanism: Evolution in Action, p. 121. For an excellent new book on this subject see Judith Hooper, Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy & the Peppered Moth (London: Fourth Estate, 2002).

[16] On what it takes to produce four-winged fruit flies, see E. B. Lewis, “A gene complex controlling segmentation in Drosophila,” Nature 276 (1978): 565-570; E. B. Lewis, “Control of Body Segment Differentation in Drosophila by the Bithorax Gene Complex,” pp. 269-288 in Max M. Burger & Rudolf Weber (editors), Embryonic Development, Part A: Genetic Aspects (New York, Alan R. Liss, 1982); E. B. Lewis, “Regulation of the Genes of the Bithorax Complex in Drosophila,” Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 50 (1985): 155-164. On the absence of flight muscles in the extra pair of wings, see J. Fernandes, S. E. Celniker, E. B. Lewis & K. VijayRaghavan, “Muscle development in the four-winged Drosophila and the role of the Ultrabithorax gene,” Current Biology 4 (1994): 957-964; Sudipto Roy, L. S. Shashidhara & K. VijayRaghavan, “Muscles in the Drosophila second thoracic segment are patterned independently of autonomous homeotic gene function,” Current Biology 7 (1997): 222-227.

[17] On saturation mutagenesis in fruit flies, see Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard & Eric Wieschaus, “Mutations affecting segment number and polarity in Drosophila,” Nature 287 (1980): 795-801; Daniel St. Johnston & Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, “The Origin of Pattern and Polarity in the Drosophila Embryo,” Cell 68 (1992): 201-219. Saturation mutagenesis has also been used in zebrafish; see Peter Aldhous, ” ‘Saturation screen’ lets zebrafish show their stripes,” Nature 404 (2000): 910; Gretchen Vogel, “Zebrafish Earns Its Stripes in Genetic Screens,” Science 288 (2000): 1160-1161.

[18] Henry Gee, In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life (New York: The Free Press, 1999), pp. 23, 116-117.

[19] Tim M. Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 117.

[20] This problem has long been familiar to paleontologists concerned with the relationship between theory and evidence. In 1974, for instance, David Kitts observed that “the claim is made that paleontology provides a direct way to get at the major events of organic history and that, furthermore, it provides a means of testing evolutionary theories. This claim raises the critical question of how close we can get to evolution without presupposing some causal theory of descent. … [T]he paleontologist can provide knowledge that cannot be provided by biological principles alone. But he cannot provide us with evolution.” (D.B. Kitts, “Paleontology and Evolutionary Theory,” Evolution 28 [1974]: 458-472, p. 466) In 1982, Keith Thomson noted: “Although ‘finding ancestors’ is the traditional paleontologists’ ‘proof ,’ such ‘historical events’ cannot be tested by assembling nice series of fossils without discontinuities, because the evolutionary hypothesis is superficially so powerful that any reasonably graded series of forms can be thought to have legitimacy. In fact, there is circularity in the approach that first assumes some sort of evolutionary relatedness and then assembles a pattern of relations from which to argue that relatedness must be true.” (K. S. Thomson, “The meanings of evolution,” American Scientist 70 [1982]: 529-531, pp. 529-530) [I am indebted to Paul Nelson for providing these references. —JW]

[21] Many biology textbooks define homology as similarity due to common ancestry, yet claim that it is evidence for common ancestry. For example, Starr and Taggart’s Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life (8th Edition, 1998) states that the “pattern of macroevolution — that is, change from the form of a common ancestor — is called morphological divergence…. Homology [is] a similarity in one or more body parts in different organisms that share a common ancestor…. Homologous structures provide very strong evidence of morphological divergence.” (pp. 318-319) In a section on “The Evidence for Evolution” in the teacher’s edition of Johnson’s Biology: Visualizing Life (1998), students are told that “homologous structures are structures that share a common ancestor,” and an accompanying note tells the teacher that “such structures point to a common ancestry.” (p. 178) According to Campbell, Reece and Mitchell’s Biology (5th Edition, 1999), “similarity in characteristics resulting from common ancestry is known as homology, and such anatomical signs of evolution are called homologous structures. Comparative anatomy is consistent with all other evidence in testifying [to] evolution.” (p. 424) Raven and Johnson’s Biology (5th Edition, 1999), in a section titled “The evidence for macroevolution is extensive,” includes the following: “Homology: Many organisms exhibit organs that are similar in structure to those in a recent common ancestor. This is evidence of evolutionary relatedness.” A few pages later, the same textbook explicitly defines homologous structures as “structures with different appearances and functions that all derived from the same body part in a common ancestor.” (pp. 412, 416) Audesirk, Audesirk and Byers’s Life On Earth (2nd Edition, 2000) calls homology “evidence of relatedness” in a section titled “Comparative Anatomy Provides Structural Evidence of Evolution.” The textbook tells students: “Internally similar structures are called homologous structures, meaning that they have the same evolutionary origin despite possible differences in function. Studies of comparative anatomy have long been used to determine the relationships among organisms, on the grounds that the more similar the internal structures of two species, the more closely related the species must be, that is, the more recently they must have diverged from a common ancestor.” (p. 236)

[22] John L. Hubisz, “Review of Middle School Physical Science Texts,” Physical Sciences Resource Center (November 1, 2000), p. 55; available at

[23] Michael Lynch, “The Age and Relationships of the Major Animal Phyla,” Evolution 53 (1999): 319-325, p. 323.

[24] Alan H. Linton, emeritus professor of bacteriology, University of Bristol (U.K.), in The Times Higher Education Supplement (April 20, 2001), p. 29.

[25] The listed reviewers mention my 1994 statement on the following pages of their reviews: Coyne, p. 745; Pigliucci, p. 414; Ussery, p. 73; Raff, p. 374; Padian & Gishlick, p. 34. The statement can be found at

[26] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 6; Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 18, 63, 520-521.

[27] “Icons of Evolution,” (2002). Available from ColdWater Media (Monument, CO), 1-800-889-8670.

[28] The warning labels and various other materials are also available on my web site,

[29] The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology puts out a bimonthly “FASEB NEWS,” which focuses primarily on funding issues and lobbying efforts. The American Society for Cell Biology puts out a monthly “ASCB Newsletter,” which includes a public policy briefing that deals mainly with lobbying efforts. In August 1999 and March 2002, the ASCB sent letters to officials in Kansas and Ohio, respectively, urging that these states resist efforts to include alternatives to Darwinian evolution in their science teaching standards.

[30] Professor Larabell’s letter is included here with her permission. Lest Padian now unleash his fury on her, I hasten to point out that she is not responsible for my heretical views on Darwinism. On May 20, 2002, The Quarterly Review of Biology wrote to Professor Larabell telling her that it does not print retractions.

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.