Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong (Jonathan Wells, 2000)

It ain’t necessarily so, it ain’t
necessarily so,
The things that you’re liable to
read in the Bible,
They ain’t necessarily so…

George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” was the hit of the season in the fall of 1935. It soon had people all over the world singing of the dangers of naively believing what you read in a good book.

In Icons of Evolution Jonathan Wells sings the same song, but with an important twist: the good book we shouldn’t trust isn’t the Bible, but rather our biology text. It seems many of the examples they offer in support of the theory of evolution—the “icons” of the title—are false or misleading.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone with school-age children. Through the years my own kids have come home with a mix of confused ideas about evolution often garbled in the teaching of football-coaches-turned-biology-teachers. (In 1981 British paleontologist Colin Paterson asked a group of experts at the Evolutionary Morphology seminar at the University of Chicago a simple question: “Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing…that is true? After a long silence one person replied, “I do know one thing —it ought not to be taught in high school.”) So I’ve often ironically found myself in the odd position of clarifying the teaching of ideas I don’t endorse. “No, kids, evolutionists don’t present X that way anymore.” Here X includes the Miller-Urey origin of life experiments, Ernst Haeckel’s embryos, Archeaopteryx, peppered moths, Darwin’s finches, 4-winged fruit flies, fossil horses, and the apes-that-become-men, just to name a few.

In Icons Wells chronicles for a broad audience what I’ve been muddling through with my kids for years. For laymen his explanations will clarify how the case for evolution has often been misrepresented. At the same time his careful notes and detailed appendices will satisfy the student in search of more detail. This is a book almost everyone can and should read.

To be sure, informed students of biology won’t find much that’s new in Wells’ work—much of this stuff has been a matter of scientific record for years—but that’s what makes his critique so damning: if publishers and teachers have been aware of this stuff for so long, why does it keep showing up in textbooks?

Take Ernst Haeckel’s embryos for example. When I was an eighth grade biology student, I was taught his maxim “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” i.e., an organism will retrace its evolutionary heritage in the stages it goes through in its embryological development. As evidence of this our text included a picture of the “gill slits” on a human embryo. Now embryologists have long known (even when I was in school) that the pharyngeal folds on the human embryo are not gills at all and never develop into a part of the respiration system. Furthermore it has been more recently recognized that Haeckel not only selectively chose embryos that appeared to make his point, he also misrepresented them in his drawings. (Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould once called this “the academic equivalent of murder.”). Still, Wells notes, despite these problems, some popular biology texts published as recently as 1999 include not only Haeckel’s conclusions, but his faked drawings, too.

The Important Question, of course, is why? Wells’ answer:

Most biologists are honest, hard-working scientists who insist on accurate presentation of the evidence, but who rarely venture outside their own fields. The truth about the icons of evolution will surprise them as much as it surprises anyone else.

What about textbook writers who know they are distorting the truth? Here Well’s quotes Harvard biologist Louis Guenin:

The pivotal concept here is candor, the attribute on a given occasion of not uttering anything that one believes false or misleading. We describe breaches of candor as deception. An investigator induces and betrays a listener’s trust by signaling “I believe it” while believing a false utterance false or a misleading omission misleading.
I’m pleased to note that in Icons Wells isn’t preaching to the choir; he doesn’t couch his arguments in tones that will appeal chiefly to those who already agree with him. His goal here is to persuade his readers, not to antagonize them.

This makes the response to Icons in the secular press the more puzzling to me. Recent reviews by Massimo Pigliucci (professor of biology at the University of Tennessee and chair of its Skeptics Forum) and Eugenie C. Scott (director of the Center for Science Education) dismissed Icons as nothing less than an attack on science itself. Neither challenges Well’s presentation of the facts, but both charge him with seriously distorting them in order to undermine science and advance religion. In truth his goal is much more modest: changing the way science is taught, for the goals of science (no matter how lofty) are never advanced if tied to falsehood.

One last word here: the same thing is true (or should be) of the goals of true religion. A noble goal—the doctrine of creation—isn’t advanced if it is tied to error. Creationists should bear this in mind because we, too, have been guilty at times of perpetuating our own dubious icons. Some (a moon that isn’t dusty enough) we should bid farewell to; others (the ‘missing’ layers of rock in the Grand Canyon) we should be careful not to oversell. Books like Icons rightly insist upon integrity in science, but in embracing them, creationists should insist upon the same integrity in our own scientific efforts.

I recommend Icons of Evolution. Those who enjoy it might also take a look at Science Held Hostage: What’s Wrong with Creation Science and Evolutionism by Young, Men-ninga and Van Till (IVP, 1988).


Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong by Jonathan Wells (Regnery Publishing, 2000) 248 pp. plus 2 appendices, research notes, and index.