Dr. Ray Bohlin reviews Jonathan Wells’ book Icons of Evolution, which exposes the lies and distortions that constitute evolution’s best textbook “evidence.”

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Lies and Distortions Masquerading as Truth in the Halls of Science

Icons of Evolution Most everyone was required to take biology in high school, and many who went on to college likely took an introductory biology course as an elective, if not as a beginning course for a biology major. Required in most of these courses, mainly because of its inclusion in the textbook, was a section on evolution. Therefore, most people with a secondary education or above are familiar with the more popular evidences and examples of evolution nearly all textbooks have been using for decades. These include the peppered moth story of natural selection, Darwin’s finches as an example of adaptive speciation, and the ubiquitous tree of life with its implied common ancestor to all life forms.

These familiar evidences of the creation story of our early 21st century culture are what Jonathan Wells (Ph.D., UC Berkeley, molecular and cell biology; Ph.D., Yale University, religious studies) refers to as the Icons of Evolution in his book by the same name (Regnery Publishing, 2000). Wells focuses on ten of these icons and meticulously exposes them to be false, fraudulent or at best, misleading. Many of these difficulties have been pointed out before and are known to a few, but Wells adds a level of sophistication and packages them in a form certain to get the attention of everyone in the educational establishment. This book is not a plea for creation in the schools or a selective and picky rant against trivial details. It is a frontal assault against some of the most cherished and revered “proofs” of the evolution story. There will be no shortage of controversy around this extensively researched and well-written exposé. If these “Icons” are the best evidence for evolution, or at least the easiest evidence to explain, then one is left wondering what the future of evolutionary instruction could be. Even further, what future might there be for evolution itself?

Wells begins with an icon that itself starts at the beginning, the Miller-Urey experiment. This purports to show that molecules necessary for life could have arisen by simple chemical reactions on an early earth. The Miller-Urey experiment uses an atmosphere of reduced gases: ammonia, methane, water vapor, and hydrogen. Then it adds some energy in the form of sparks, and produces as Carl Sagan said, “the stuff of life.” Dating back to 1953, this experiment has been around for nearly fifty years. The problem is that for at least the last twenty-five years origin of life researchers realized that this atmosphere does not reflect that of the early earth. Many textbooks will begrudgingly admit this, but include the experiment anyway. One can only guess the reason: no other simulated atmosphere works. I suppose that textbook writers would suggest that since we “know” some form of chemical evolution happened, they are justified in not representing the facts accurately!

Tree of Life, Homology, and Haeckel’s Embryos

The tree of life is ubiquitous in evolutionary literature. The notion that all of life is descended from a single common ancestor billions of years ago is how many would define evolution. But the actual evidence argues strongly against any such single common ancestor, and most animal life forms appear suddenly without ancestors in what is known as the Cambrian explosion of nearly 543 million years ago in evolutionary time. The Cambrian documents life forms so divergent that one would predict a fossil record covering hundreds of millions of years just to document the many transitions required from the first multicellular animal ancestor. Current estimates suggest this change took place in less than 5-10 million years. Yet the tree of life, documenting slow gradual changes, persists.

Another critical evidence for evolution over the years has been homologous structures. The forelimbs of all mammals, indeed all vertebrates, from bats to whales to horses to humans, possess the same basic bone structure. This is routinely held up as evidence of having descended from a common ancestor. The different forms simply tell of different adaptive stories, resulting in their unique functions relying on the same basic foundation. What becomes puzzling is, first, a confusion of definitions. Homology is defined as structures having arisen from a common ancestor.{1} But then homology cannot be used as an evidence of evolution. Something is very wrong, yet textbook orthodoxy concerning homology continues to perpetuate a myth that has been exposed for decades. Second, supposed homologous structures do not necessarily arise through common developmental pathways or similar genes.

Next, Wells turns his attention to perhaps the most inexcusable icon of all: similarities in vertebrate embryos originally pointed out by Ernst Haeckel in the 19th century and used by Darwin in The Origin of Species as a powerful evidence for common descent. Haeckel’s vertebrate embryos are shown passing through a remarkably similar stage early in development and only later diverging to the specific form. This passage through a common form early in development was seen as obvious evidence for a “community of descent.” Yet, once again, the evidence gets in the way.

Since before the dawn of the 20th century, embryologists have known that Haeckel misrepresented the evidence. Vertebrate embryos never pass through a similar stage. What’s more, Haeckel left out the fact that the earlier stages of embryonic development between classes of vertebrates pass through remarkably different pathways to arrive at this supposedly similar intermediate stage. The fraud was recently “rediscovered,” though most embryologists have been aware of the inaccuracy all along. This shows the longevity of even falsified evidence, due to its persuasive appeal even in the hallowed halls of science. Perhaps scientists are human after all, seduced by a fraud simply because it makes such a good case for a treasured theory.

The Peppered Moth

Probably the granddaddy of all the icons of evolution is the peppered moth story. In pre-industrial England, the peppered moth was common in entomologists’ collections. By the 1840s a dark or melanic form was increasing in frequency in populations across England. By 1900 the melanic form comprised as much as ninety percent of some populations. In the 1950s experiments by Bernard Kettlewell clearly established that this change in frequency from a peppered variety to a dark variety was due to two factors.

First, the surface of tree trunks had changed from splotchy, lichen-covered patchwork, to a uniform, dark complexion, due to increased levels of pollution. The pollution killed the lichens and covered the tree trunks with soot. Second, the peppered variety was camouflaged from predation by birds on the lichen-covered tree trunks, and the melanic variety was camouflaged on the dark tree trunk. Therefore, the switch from peppered variety to melanic variety was due to natural selection, acting through selective bird predation as the trees changed from lichen-covered bark to soot-covered bark. Then with stricter air quality standards, the lichens are returning and the peppered variety is predictably coming back strong.

The peppered moth story became legendary as a classic example of Darwinian natural selection. But within 20 years of Kettlewell’s work, cracks began to appear. It was soon noted that the characteristic switch from the peppered form to the dark form happened in areas where the lichens still grew on tree trunks. In other areas, the dark form began to decrease before the lichens began returning on trees. A similar pattern of a switch from a light form to a dark form was observed in ladybird beetles. Birds don’t like ladybird beetles. Therefore, predation is ruled out as the selector. It all began to unravel when it was observed that peppered moths of both varieties never rest on tree trunks!

Essentially all photographs of moths on the trunks of trees were staged using dead or sluggish moths. They are not active during daylight. If that were the case, how could birds find them on tree trunks at all? Kettlewell released his moths in his mark-recapture-predation experiments in daylight hours, when the moths are naturally inactive. They simply found the nearest resting place (tree trunks in their sluggish state), and the birds gobbled up the non-camouflaged moths. We still don’t know exactly where moths rest or whether lichens play any significant role in the story. Yet many biologists insist that the traditional story makes a good example of evolution in action. “To communicate the complexities would only confuse students,” they say. Once again, flawed, yet cherished, examples persist because they are just too good not to be true!

Birds, Dinosaurs, Fruit Flies, and Human Evolution

The reptile-like bird, Archaeopteryx, has long been heralded as a classic example of a true ancestral transitional form. The improbable change from reptile to bird has been preserved in snapshot form in this remarkable fossil from Germany. Possessing a beautifully preserved reptilian skeleton with wings and feathers, Archaeopteryx was a paleontologist’s dream. This would certainly explain why Archaeopteryx has found its way into just about every textbook. But Archaeopteryx has fallen on hard times. As happens with so many perceived transitions, it is universally viewed now as just an extinct bird, an early offshoot of the real ancestor.

Surprisingly, bird-like dinosaurs from much later geologic periods are hailed as the real ancestors. This is based on structural similarities despite their existence after Archaeopteryx. Never mind that the child exists before the parent. So enamored are some, that birds are just today’s feathered dinosaurs. National Geographic was recently caught red-faced by perpetrating a fraudulent dinosaur/bird fossil as the real thing in its pages. Scientists have even accepted molecular evidence indicating an identical match between turkey DNA and Triceratops DNA. Never mind that the identical DNA match is more likely the result of contamination from a turkey sandwich in the lab and that Triceratops is in the wrong dinosaur family for bird evolution. Such is the power of wanting to believe your theory is true.

In the next four chapters, Wells visits the familiar icons of Darwin’s finches, fossil horses, mutant four-winged fruit flies, and the ultimate icon, diagrams of the progressive change from ape-like creatures to full human beings. Like the others above, these icons turn out to be far less than what the textbooks suggest. In each case, as in the six discussed above, there are plenty of experts willing to expose the lack of evidence for each icon. But they remain staples in the arsenal of evidences of the evolutionary
process. Fossil horses and human evolution turn out also to be indicators of the difficulty evolution has in separating philosophical preferences from conclusions drawn from the evidence.

Textbook writers are either ignorant of current data, which prompts one to be skeptical of the accuracy of the rest of the textbook, or they are willfully misrepresenting the evidence in order to present a united front on the factualness of evolution. Unfortunately for our children, Wells is able to provide direct quotes indicating that at least some see no problem with including misleading or false data in order to make a point. After all, we know evolution is true, so just because we don’t have easy simple stories to tell, doesn’t mean they aren’t out there waiting to be discovered.

The Scientific Academia Reacts

The reasoning behind these Icons of Evolution exposes much of the standard story of evolutionary theory to be mythology rather than science. And if these ten icons have been viewed as the best evidence for evolution, the entire theory needs to be questioned and made accountable to the evidence. It will be interesting to watch the evolutionary community react to these revelations. Evolutionary propagandist Eugenie Scott has already reportedly predicted that the book will be a “royal pain in the fanny” for biology teachers. Will the scientific community be able to respond with an appropriate mea culpa, or will there be a battery of excuses and obfuscations? I predict the latter. In the last ten years, the evolutionary establishment has been exerting a great deal of effort to demonstrate that evolution is confirmed to such a degree as to be beyond rational dissent. Organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Association of Biology Teachers, and the National Center for Science Education have lobbied long and hard for the scientific integrity of the standard evolutionary story. They have held up most, if not all, of these ten icons as the principal pillars of the unassailable evidence for evolution.

Evolution is the principal foundation of the naturalistic world view, presented by many in academia as the only scientific, and therefore, objective, view of reality. Without evolution, metaphysical naturalism cannot stand. As Richard Dawkins has said, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.{2} Without evolution, the naturalistic worldview is in serious trouble. Therefore, the scientific community can be expected to rally fiercely behind the evolution story. Just how they do it will prove interesting indeed. Icons of Evolution will help draw the evolutionary establishment out from behind the protective bulwark of its authority and force it to defend its theory on the basis of the evidence. This is a fight I believe it must eventually lose in the court of scientific and public opinion.

There are two minor, yet unfortunate, problems with the text. The first, actually a book design problem, regards the difficulty finding the legends for some figures and distinguishing them from the regular text. The second involves an unnecessarily inflammatory discussion of the monetary support evolution receives from the U.S. tax-supported National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. While Wells’ discussion is accurate, it comes across as sour grapes and may provide a convenient target for evolutionary propagandists to dismiss the book without dealing with the evidence.

These problems aside, Icons of Evolution is a landmark work and deserves to be read and studied by all who have an interest in the controversy surrounding not only the teaching of evolution, but also the very theory of evolution itself.


1. “The term ‘explosion’ should not be taken too literally, but in terms of evolution it is still very dramatic. What it means is rapid diversification of animal life. ‘Rapid’ in this case means a few million years, rather than the tens or even hundreds of millions of years that are more typical. . .” Simon Conway Morris, Crucible of Creation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1998, p. 31.

2. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1986, p. 6.

© 2001 Probe Ministries International

Raymond G. Bohlin is Vice President at Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S., zoology), North Texas State University (M.S., population genetics), and the University of Texas at Dallas (M.S., Ph.D., molecular biology). He is the co-author of the book The Natural Limits to Biological Change, served as general editor of Creation, Evolution and Modern Science, co-author of Basic Questions on Genetics, Stem Cell Research and Cloning (The BioBasics Series), and has published numerous journal articles. Dr. Bohlin was named a Research Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in 1997, 2000 and 2012.

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