You can’t parody this: Jonathan Wells on “Darwinism Top 10”

Anti-science and anti-evolution groups’ desperation erupts in odd ways. When scientists get together and discussion turns to the political movement known as intelligent design (ID), they express frustration at the sheer volume of supercilious ideas and claims that surge out of ID advocates. At its heart, this frustration has an almost-humorous puzzle: Scientists cannot tell what is a real claim from ID advocates, or what is a parody of those claims.

Neither can anyone else.

I stumbled into a mackerel-in-the-moonlight* example to show the problem: Jonathan Wells, a minister in the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, wrote a slap-dash screed against evolution published by right-wing cudgel publishing house Regnery, called The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. invites authors to set up blogs, and Jonathan Wells has one. The only post there is reproduced in full below the fold — a list of . . . um, well . . . a top ten list of something (Wells just calls it a “top ten list”). It consists of amazing flights of fancy surrounding the issue of teaching science in public schools. I promise, I am not making any of this up — when I quote Wells, it will be his words entirely, completely, in context, uncut and unedited. If I didn’t tell you this was not parody, and if you have half your wits, you’d think either I was making it up, or somebody at Amazon was.

Point by point criticism, in brief, below the fold. I promise, I am not making this up.


* John Randolph is reputed to have said of Henry Clay: “Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.”

Dr. Wells wrote:

Top Ten Highlights of The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to Darwinism and Intelligent Design

2:25 PM PDT, June 27, 2007

A top ten list from my book, The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to Darwinism and Intelligent Design

1. The root of the controversy is not evolution, but Darwinism. Evolution can mean simply change within existing species, a fact that people have known for centuries. But Darwinism claims that all living things are descended from a common ancestor by unguided natural processes such as random mutations and survival of the fittest – and that what appears to be design in living things is just an illusion.

See what I mean? Is Wells saying he endorses evolution? No. After claiming evolution is not the controversy, he then denies the chief tenets of evolution theory that are so amply documented by observation of nature and research. He denies a central pillar of the theory, that evolution is a theory of common descent, and that the appearance of design in natural things is actually produced by a trial and error system of mutations, with the owners of beneficial mutations being selected by natural conditions to survive, and therefore to pass those mutations on to subsequent generations.

So, are you clear? Wells says evolution isn’t the problem: Evolution is the problem.

2. Intelligent design is not religion, but science. Intelligent design maintains that we can infer from evidence in nature that some features of the universe and living things are better explained by an intelligent cause than by unguided processes. It is not biblical creationism, but empirical science. Darwinists claim it is not scientific because it is untestable – but they also claim they have tested it and proven it wrong.

First, note that on the date I write this, August 30, 2007, this book is #2 in Amazon’s “Religion and Spirituality” section. Intelligent design is almost never pitched at meetings of scientists, who tend to hoot down stupid ideas, but is instead almost always pitched at churches and religious groups, who often claim that their religion is being suppressed when scientists refuse to teach the garbage.

This is a claim Dr. Wells makes often. I heard him make it at a luncheon of Dallas Christian Leadership, and at a God versus science rally at a Dallas church, where the chief exponents of intelligent design from the Discovery Institute told a couple thousand church goers that they needed to take the word of intelligent design to their congregations to agitate for action, or religion in America would be endangered.

Wells’ claim is voodoo history, too. Darwin set out on his voyage around the world secure in his learning from William Paley’s Natural Theology that animals and plants were perfectly suited for their environments by God, with adaptations that made them perfect fits. Darwin’s assigned task was to track down and publish the scientific confirmation of one of the stories in Genesis. What Darwin discovered over the next 20 years was that natural processes sculpted a species for its niche over many generations — perfectly natural processes. There was no sign of direct, contemporary intervention from God.

There is still no sign of any contemorary intervention from God. ID’s chief claim is that we can “infer” design, and therefore, a designer. Notice that is what William Paley said in 1802, and what Darwin assumed, but found to be false (what appears to be design instead appears from natural selection). When pushed to the wall at a seminar at the University of Texas at Arlington, the test for what is designed was claimed by Michael Behe to be, “I can tell it when I see it.” In other words, if it looks clever or cool, ID advocates pronounce it “designed,” until someone shows them the evidence. This is the principal untestable claim of ID — not even serious ID advocates like Wells, with his two Ph.D.s, can suggest any way to test it. On the other hand, when they claim to have found something that could not evolve, tests have shown in each case that there are clear evolutionary paths. Wells is right: ID is both untestable in its major claim that God did it, and disproven on everything that can be tested.

Why isn’t that one of his “top ten?”

3. The evidence does not support Darwinism. First, the fossil record turns Darwin’s theory upside down. Second, no matter what we do to a fruit fly embryo, the only possible outcomes are a normal fruit fly, a defective fruit fly, or a dead fruit fly; no Darwinian evolution. Third, comparisons of molecules such as DNA do not provide support for Darwinian theory, but lead to conflicting conclusions. Finally, no one has ever observed the origin of even one species by Darwin’s process of variation and selection.

All I can assume is that Wells has never, never visited the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History, the University of Utah’s Natural History Museum, the Field Museum in Chicago, Ashfall Beds State Park in Nebraska, Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado, or read any of the Golden Books of dinosaurs, or ever read any serious paleontology text. (How could a guy of Well’s age get through childhood without having at least carromed off an obsession with dinosaurs?)

Interesting that Wells thinks a new species is either dead or defective, when they seem to be well suited to doing what they do. If Wells’ fruit fly example were accurate, DDT would still be effective against every mosquito in the world.

As to new species, Wells here is denying that broccoli exists (a plant for which we know the evolutionary history — it’s a speciation from mustard) or radishes, or the Canola oil whose use we hope will prevent heart disease, or Brussells sprouts (all of which are from mustard, come to think of it). Wells denies the existence of grapefruit, a species that did not exist in Jesus’s or Caesar’s time, and he denies the existence of red grapefruit, all of which result from a sport mutation which leaves grapefruit neither a “normal” white grapefruit, nor dead or defective.

And ask him what happened to the last aurochs, and from where modern beef come from. Wells has to deny the history of animal husbandry, and poaching, to make such a claim (the last aurochs was killed by a poacher) .

4. Darwinism has made no valuable contributions to biology. Darwinists boast that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” but the major disciplines of biology – including anatomy, botany, embryology, genetics, microbiology, paleontology, physiology and zoology – were founded either before Darwin or by scientists who rejected his theory. Agriculture and medicine – the two disciplines that have provided us with the most practical benefits – owe nothing to Darwinism.

Agriculture and medicine owe the most to evolutionary theory applied. Evolution in agriculture got Norman Borlaug his Nobel (for Green Revolution grains), gave us wheat, corn (whose evolution from teosinte is well documented), beef, modern chickens, modern tomatoes, modern apples, and apple maggots. Evolution theory provided the means by which the mechanisms of diabetes were determined, and evolution provides the foundation for the use of bovine and porcine insulin to treat human diabetes. Genentech, a pharmaceutical company whose every discovery is based on applied evolution theory, used evolution theory and tools derived from it to develop e. coli bacteria that produce human insulin, the modern treatment for diabetes. It’s entertaining and funny to say medicine doesn’t owe anything to evolution, but were that true, doctors wouldn’t be curing diseases today, and every diabetic on Earth would be in a rather quick spiral towards death.

Not to mention the fact that every current cancer cure, including surgery, derives from applied evolution theory. Evolution theory provides the understanding of cancer, its formation and growth, that undergirds every modern treatment, cure, and the search for new treatments and cures. Wells is playing fast and loose with the facts. He does so rather cruelly, if you ask me.

5. Biology and cosmology both provide evidence for intelligent design. The computer-like code in DNA, and the complex molecular machines inside living cells, cannot be produced by unguided processes but point to a designing intelligence. So does that fact that Earth is unusually well suited not only for life, but also for scientific discovery.

Science doesn’t work by analogy. Sometimes we use analogies to explain what goes on in living things, but analogies are not science. Cells do not use computer code in DNA. It’s not binary code, for one thing, nor can computers reproduce themselves, yet What we call molecular machines are not machines. Wells, who claims to hold graduate degrees, is either very ignorant of cell mechanisms, or lying, when he claims that features of cells are machines. Osmotic membranes, even membranes that filter on the basis of chemical keys, are not machines.

The fact that we are so suited for scientific discovery could be a result of design by aliens, but so far, everywhere we look in the universe we find discoverable stuff, and always the same substances and processes we have here on Earth. He can make no meaningful distinction between design and coincidence here, since the entire universe appears to be ideally suited for discovery.

6. Darwinists do not want students to learn critical thinking. The U. S. Congress has officially endorsed teaching students “the full range of scientific views” about Darwinian evolution. Yet some public school districts that have asked their students to approach the subject with an open mind have been sued by the ACLU for unconstitutionally teaching religion – and federal judges have sided with the ACLU.

Scientists (no one calls anyone “Darwinist” except creationists who wish to denigrate science) are happy when students learn critical thinking. Any teacher will tell you that it is bad practice to teach false things to kids, even to learn how to think critically. It is Wells who advocates teaching falsehoods to children, in the disproven hypothesis that when they determine the facts for themselves, they’ll be critical thinkers. Wells proposes that we try an experiment on our children already proven to fail.

Why does Wells hate children so? (I hope that’s a parody question, but it may not be — like I said, one cannot tell that Wells is joking.) We should love children, not experiment upon them.

7. Darwinism corrodes traditional moral values. Some Darwinists argue that conservatives should embrace their doctrine because it provides a scientific basis for traditional morality, but Darwinism has been used historically to justify social evils such as eugenics and racism.

Complete, total, pernicious balderdash. Darwin himself was a much more pious man than Jonathan Wells or any other advocate against evolution — loving husband, doting father, active in civic and church affairs, polite to a fault. Eugenics is based no more on evolution than it is on the sort of animal husbandry advocated in the Old Testament, and Darwin noted that evolution provides the key scientific arguments against racism — which is one of the key reasons that evolution was distasteful to southern American Christians, who claimed Biblical authority for their discrimination against people of color.

Religion has also been used historically to justify social evils such as eugenics and racism. Wells forgot to mention that, nor did he mention that, in the U.S., most eugenics laws of the early 20th century passed in states that were largely rural and which had overwhelmingly Christian majorities in state legislatures and on state courts.

8. Darwinism is anti-Christian. Like Marxism, Darwinism is a materialistic philosophy that is routinely used to attack religion. Indeed, some Darwinist professors at publicly supported universities have stated that Christianity should be confined to cultural zoos and that the pope is “a corpse in a funny hat wearing a dress.” U. S. taxpayers’ money is now used to promote religious denominations that favor Darwinism.


Science isn’t philosophy. Traditional moral values includes these things that Wells refuses to endorse: Provide the best education possible to all children, and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Evolution is compatible with those values, and science both endorses them and provides evidence that they contribute to the physical, mental and moral progress of humans.

Contrary to creationist propaganda, Darwin himself was a devout Christian when he discovered evolution, and he never made any break with the church. For the first century after Wallace and Darwin’s discovery was announced, almost all the key theorists in evolution were Christian, people like Asa Gray and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Their scientific opposition was also largely Christian, but not basing opposition on religious grounds. Louis Agassiz did not accept evolution theory in biology, despite his being the chief disprover of a massive worldwide flood as described in the story of Noah.

In fact, most of the early opposition to Darwin’s theories was science-based. Physicist Michael Thomson, Lord Kelvin, didn’t accept evolution because he didn’t think the Earth had been around long enough to allow for the present diversity of species. Of course, Lord Kelvin’s own theory dated the Earth and Sun at about 200 million years, so he was no young Earth creationist — but in his calculations, Lord Kelvin assumed both the Earth and Sun to be made chiefly of iron, simply cooling from a white hot state. The discovery of nuclear heating of the Earth’s core, and the discovery that the Sun is chiefly hydrogen, and not iron, only corroborated Darwin’s figures showing an older Earth.

9. Darwinists are now behaving like their counterparts in the former Soviet Union. When Stalin’s government sided with Darwinists against their critics eighty years ago the result was Lysenkoism, which obstructed scientific progress for decades. Lysenkoism is now rearing its ugly head again in the U.S., as Darwinists use their government positions to destroy the careers of scientists who criticize their doctrine.

Good heavens! That’s total invention! First, Stalin’s position was opposed to Darwin — he exiled proponents of Darwinian evolution, starved a few to death, and executed a few. Wells misreads history and gets it exactly the opposite of what happened. Lysenko’s views were, as creationism and intelligent design are, based on the a priori assumption that a philosophy opposed to science is the correct dogma. In the U.S., more than 100 times since 1925, anti-Darwin forces have asked to censor science and prohibit scientists and teachers from talking about it. Only once, and only briefly, has anyone (not a scientist) proposed to ban free discussion of creationism. Laws against teaching Darwin were passed in more than a dozen states, remaining on the books until 1967 when the Supreme Court ruled them contrary to the freedom principles in the Bill of Rights.

Wells is hallucinating on this point.

10. But the good news is that Darwinism will lose. First, Darwinists will lose because the scientific evidence is against them. Second, they will lose because they treat with contempt the very people on whom they depend the most: American taxpayers. Finally, Darwinists will lose because they are relying on a tactic always guaranteed to fail in America: censorship.

As Ben Franklin observed, truth wins in a fair fight. That’s why we have evidence rules in federal courts. So long as there is a fair discussion, evolution will continue to be the basis of cures for disease and advances in agriculture and animal husbandry. Scientists have been fighting to keep science free from interference for the benefit of American taxpayers, out of scientists’ noble sense that knowing the facts can allow us to select and work for an even better future.

Dr. Wells’ parting shot is interesting. Again, he claims that scientists censor his views opposing Darwin. It’s interesting to me because I think it demonstrates what the real problem is. It is a falsehood perpetrated by Dr. Wells and his fellow colleagues. The charge was made formally in the Arkansas trial of a bill to censor science, in 1981. To make a good ruling on the point, the judge allowed creationists to submit research write-us they had that had been censored or rejected by any science journal. Creationists were unable to find a single case in which any research they had done had been rejected for publication. Not one case.

The charge was made again in the Pennsylvania trial in 2005, when a school board had decided to try to censor science subtly by requiring a disclaimer of science be read before evolution was taught. This time the challenge occurred in full court, in full view of the world — and again, creationists were unable to produce a single example that checked out under the rules of evidence, under the fairness rules that require substantiation of charges before they are allowed in court. Wells is aware of the first case, and his earlier book, Icons of Evolution, was a cause of the second case. Can it be that he is ignorant of these facts? Or, is it more likely that he is the one who abuses American taxpayers by telling false tales to them, in order to carry forth his plan to censor science.

You decide.

Or, you can edify yourself, by reading some serious writing about nature and science policy, showing the full beauty of an informed essay about nature that sticks to the facts. See what Chris wrote at Creek Running North.

2 Responses to You can’t parody this: Jonathan Wells on “Darwinism Top 10”

  1. Mike O'Risal says:

    I would love to see what Wells thinks is the evidence from molecular biology that contradicts evolutionary theory. I’m in a molecular biology lab, and we haven’t found a thing yet that says what Wells is asserting. In fact, the whole reason we do molecular biology is because it is an excellent way to determine evolutionary relationships. In fact, the scientist in charge of our lab is on the steering committee of a project called Deep Hypha, a collaborative project under the auspices of NSF grants to elucidate the phylogeny, and thereby the evolution, of the entire fungi kingdom via molecular biology.

    We’re yet to find anything that contradicts the theory of evolution in the course of our work, nor have we found anything requiring supernatural intervention in order to be explained.


  2. jre says:

    As you may have guessed, I share your distaste for Wells. He is, somehow, more obnoxious than the typical apologist for creationism. I think it may have something to do with the way he starts off with a pretense of rational argument, then throws it all away after the first paragraph. I find myself wanting to say “Dude, seriously, WTF? I mean, now you’re not even trying.” As when he actually has the monumental chutzpah to claim that Stalin was embracing Darwin when he installed Lysenko. Huh?

    Or when he says something so wildly, crazily at odds with the entire body of observation made by sane biologists for the past 140 years:

    Darwin’s theory predicts a “branching tree” pattern in the fossil record, yet that pattern is nowhere to be found. The fossils provide no evidence that all creatures are descended from a common ancestor.

    A more brazen denial of reality will not be found outside the Dead Parrot Sketch. This is not a case of blind men and an elephant. This is more like the riddle so beloved by ten-year-olds:

    Why is an elephant large, gray and wrinkled?

    Because if it were small, white and smooth, it would be an aspirin.

    Jonathan Wells does not inhabit the same perceptual universe as you and I. He approaches an elephant and, hoping it will please Father, resolutely sees an aspirin.

    Come to think of it, I need an aspirin.


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