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Should Students Be Taught the Truth about Evolution?

Response to Larry Martin Original Article

To the Editor:
In his review of my recent book, Icons of Evolution, in the February issue of The World & I, University of Kansas paleontologist Larry Martin concludes that although the book is full of sound and fury, it doesn’t signify much. But Professor Martin has ignored or distorted my main points.

Icons of Evolution relies on published scientific reports to show that biology textbooks systematically misrepresent the evidence for Darwinian evolution, substituting “icons” for facts. It also points out that many biology textbooks use Darwinism to promote an antireligious philosophy and argues that this has no legitimate place in publicly funded science education.

Some dogmatic Darwinists have attacked me personally for bringing these textbook misrepresentations to public attention–accusing me of being a dishonest scholar or a religious fundamentalist. I am happy to say that Martin does not descend to this level; he even graciously acknowledges that I have gotten my biological facts straight.

But Martin’s criticisms do follow a pattern typical of many other Darwinists. First, he defends the superficial outlines of the textbook icons but ignores their profound distortions of the truth. Second, although my book does not criticize evolution from a theological perspective, Martin relies on theological arguments to defend it. Third, he falsely accuses me of wanting to “take the teaching of evolution out of schools” and to “suppress philosophical viewpoints” that disagree with my own.

On the first point: Most biology textbooks ignore the Cambrian explosion, in which the fossil record shows the major types of animals (technically called phyla) appearing together, fully formed, rather than diverging gradually from a common ancestor as Darwin’s theory requires. Martin changes the topic to extinction, then glosses over the conflict between evolutionary theory (in which major differences are supposed to appear after minor ones) and the fossil evidence (which shows the opposite).

Martin briefly notes that I “attack . . . the embryological support for evolution.” But he completely ignores the substance of my chapter on embryology. Charles Darwin believed that the “strongest single class of facts” supporting his theory was the supposed similarity of vertebrate embryos in their earliest stages, which (he thought) demonstrated their descent from a common ancestor. In making his claim, Darwin relied on drawings made by his German contemporary, Ernst Haeckel. But Haeckel faked his drawings and was accused of fraud by his colleagues.

Yet Haeckel’s drawings (or some form of them) are still used in most modern biology textbooks as evidence for evolution. “We do, I think, have the right,” Stephen Jay Gould wrote in 2000, “to be both astonished and ashamed by the century of mindless recycling that has led to the persistence of these drawings in a large number, if not a majority, of modern textbooks.”

Then there’s the story of peppered moths. Most current biology textbooks carry photos of these moths on tree trunks, claiming that experiments performed in the 1950s showed that natural selection (stemming from camouflage differences and predatory birds) made dark- colored moths more common during the Industrial Revolution. But Martin omits the fact that this textbook story is now very much in doubt, because biologists discovered in the 1980s that peppered moths don’t normally rest on tree trunks. All the textbook photos have been staged–some by gluing or pinning dead moths in place.

On the second point: Instead of dealing seriously with these and other misrepresentations, Martin turns repeatedly to theological arguments to justify his belief in evolution. For example, he writes: “Either there is a Creator who operates according to the old motto ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try again’ or there is some mechanism, like evolution, to replace lost diversity.” Again: “Our alternatives seem to consist of Plato, Aristotle, and the mind of God. As the latter is unknowable, it might encompass anything.”

This mode of reasoning was also used by Darwin. The Origin of Species is full of arguments of the following form: God wouldn’t have done it that way, so it must have been caused by evolution. But this is philosophy, not science.

Now, philosophy is fascinating. I think students should study it. But I do not think it should be propped up with distorted evidence and then presented as though it were science.

On the third point: Martin completely misconstrues my position when he accuses me of “crusading to take the teaching of evolution out of schools.” I do not advocate the removal of evolution from biology classes. But I insist that it be taught truthfully. Students deserve to know about the faked illustrations in their textbooks. They deserve to be given the real evidence, and they are entitled to make their own judgments about it. Let’s educate them, not indoctrinate them.

Martin also misconstrues my position when he claims that I am attempting “to suppress philosophical viewpoints” that disagree with my own. I am not advocating anything of the sort. I affirm the right of all people to hold and defend whatever philosophy they choose. But I object when any particular philosophy becomes a government-supported orthodoxy.

Ironically, if anyone is suppressing contrary viewpoints in the present situation, it is the Darwinists. Dogmatic defenders of Darwinian evolution rely on distorted evidence and theological arguments to promote an antireligious philosophy, yet they claim that theirs is the only viewpoint that can legitimately be taught–at taxpayer expense–in science classrooms. Criticism of Darwinian orthodoxy is discouraged or even prohibited in the public schools. This sure looks like suppression to me. If we want to resolve the growing controversy over Darwinism, we must acknowledge the difference between materialistic philosophy and empirical science and rid biology textbooks of their falsehoods. Let’s teach students the truth about evolution.

Jonathan Wells


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.