Jonathan Wells’s new book attacking evolution

April 24, 2017 • 2:20 pm

Sixteen years ago, Jonathan Wells, now a senior fellow at the creationist Discovery Institute, published an intelligent-design creationist book Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Of course they were a myth to him, but the book was dreadful and a totally misguided attack on evolution. I reviewed it for Nature (free link here), and said this:

Wells’s book rests entirely on a flawed syllogism: textbooks illustrate evolution with examples; these examples are sometimes presented in incorrect or misleading ways; therefore evolution is a fiction. The second premise is not generally true, and even if it were, the conclusion would not follow. To compound the absurdity, Wells concludes that a cabal of evil scientists, “the Darwinian establishment”, uses fraud and distortion to buttress the crumbling edifice of evolution. Wells’s final chapter urges his readers to lobby the US government to eliminate research funding for evolutionary biology.

Wells also got a Ph.D. in biology from Berkeley, but to judge his objectivity about the evidence for evolution, I also added one of his publicly available statements in my review, and put it right at the beginning:

Opposition to evolution is found in many corners of the American religious landscape, including the Unification Church. Church founder Sun Myung Moon has frequently condemned darwinism for giving God no role in the history of life. In 1976, Jonathan Wells, a student in Moon’s seminary, answered his leader’s call. He writes, “Father’s [Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a PhD program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.” The University of California supplied Wells with his weapon, a PhD in biology and, with Icons of Evolution, Wells has fired the latest salvo in the eternal religious assault on Charles Darwin.

Wells has also questioned the connections between HIV and AIDS.

In 2006 Wells, continuing his battle against truth, published his second book. It was no better than the first, and on the same topic: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, issued, like the first, by conservative outlet Regnery Publishing.

In 2011 came his The Myth of Junk DNA, and by this time Wells had to go to the Discovery Institute Press, the equivalent of a vanity press for creationists. Sadly, the ID argument that nearly all junk DNA really does stuff—thus supporting an Intelligent Designer who put it in the genome for Reasons—has been largely quashed: there really is useless DNA, and its presence, nature, and location attest to evolution.

And now, ten years later, we have a new book, Zombie Science, also issued by the Discovery Institute Press.

The Amazon link (you can find it yourself) says this about it:

In 2000, biologist Jonathan Wells took the science world by storm with Icons of Evolution, a book showing how biology textbooks routinely promote Darwinism using bogus evidence—icons of evolution like Ernst Haeckel’s faked embryo drawings and peppered moths glued to tree trunks. Critics of the book complained that Wells had merely gathered up a handful of innocent textbook errors and blown them out of proportion. Now, in Zombie Science, Wells asks a simple question: If the icons of evolution were just innocent textbook errors, why do so many of them still persist? Science has enriched our lives and led to countless discoveries. But now, Wells argues, it’s being corrupted. Empirical science is devolving into zombie science, shuffling along unfazed by opposing evidence. Discredited icons of evolution rise from the dead while more icons—equally bogus—join their ranks. Like a B horror movie, they just keep coming! Zombies are make believe, but zombie science is real—and it threatens not just science, but our whole culture. Is there a solution? Wells is sure of it, and points the way.

Who writes these blurbs? Does anybody check them for accuracy?

And my point in the Nature review, which was that even if some textbook examples were out of date or incorrect, evolution is still true, remains. After all, ID books are wrong about every claim they make supporting Intelligent Design (ID). Further, the evidence for ID that its advocates promised was “right around the corner”, simply hasn’t emerged over a decade later. Established science has rejected Intelligent Design because there’s simply no evidence supporting it. Period.

I will be accused of having “reviewed” Wells’s book here without having read it, but this isn’t a review: it’s a notice that a scientifically rejected charlatan has published another book, and has even issued a “teaser trailer” for it. Here it is below. There’s no intellectual content there, but of course the buyers of the book aren’t looking for truth and reason; they’re looking to confirm their own religiously-based biases.

Will I read it? I don’t know, but I’m not going to pay for it. ID books are like theology books: if you haven’t read every single one, their proponents will claim that you haven’t addressed their best arguments. But I’ve read a much higher proportion of all ID books than IDers have for evolution books.  I’m sure they’re missing the best arguments! 🙂

It’s kind of pathetic that these people, whose efforts are motivated solely by religion, waste their brainpower attacking a paradigm that’s so well supported by evidence. I wonder if on some level they’ve realized they’re wasting their lives and will have no effect on science; and that that realization simply makes them redouble their efforts.

h/t: Michael

46 thoughts on “Jonathan Wells’s new book attacking evolution

  1. The Santayana riposte! Touché, Professor. They are fanatics, not scientists.

    And a Moonie to boot? Wow.

  2. Jerry I’m curious how it is that someone with such a flawed understanding of biology can make it through a good Ph.D program. I know the answer in a sense: do well enough in your classes, do experiments with kits and methods you don’t really think about, and I suppose don’t let others know what you actually think.

    It’s just amazing to me that people like Wells are allowed into places like Berkeley. A colleague of mine was at Harvard with someone who later went to the Discovery Institute or some such place and here at my top tier major research institution I’ve just learned there is a post-doc in molecular biology with a blog about how her Pentecostalist faith informs her science. A few years ago there was even a controversy over an applicant with an undergraduate degree from Liberty “University”, with some members of the admissions committee arguing that rejecting her in part because she went there amounted to religious discrimination(!).

    Having never sat on admissions myself I don’t know how common these instances are but my sense is that it is a worsening trend.

    1. I support the notion of people ‘like Wells being allowed into places like Berkeley.’ Neither science nor academia should be punishing people for mindcrimes. If a theist does their work, does good science, publishes worthy results why shouldn’t they get a Ph.D.?

      Now if he didn’t believe in the equations he was using, that poses a bit of an ethics problem for him. Ideally if thinks some equation or principle is wrong, he should be testing that and publishing the results rather than glossing over it and ignoring it. But that’s his ethics issue, not the school’s.

      I don’t think my religious beliefs ever came up in conversation with my Ph.D. advisor. The admissions folk certainly didn’t ask about them. And as far as I’m concerned, that non-interest was exactly the right attitude the institution should have had towards my religious beliefs.

      1. I agree with you that there should of course not be a religious test but someone who is a Biblical literalist, who because of their faith commitments cannot and will not believe that humans evolved, who demonstrate that they privilege religious ideology over the body of evidence supporting evolution, does not belong in a biology Ph.D program.

        If on the other hand you are like Francis Collins and the sight of a frozen waterfall convinced you that there is some kind of Creator, and your belief in this has almost no impact on your scientific work, fine. I have never heard any reasonable biologist say that people like this are constitutionally incapable of doing science because they are deists or theists.

        The point is, supernatural beliefs, and the degree of enthusiasm for them that an applicant possesses, are big red flags that generally predict their successful development and productivity as researchers. Wouldn’t you agree?

        1. I can agree that a person who rejects some of the central tenets of science like evolution or the age of the earth probably does not belong in a PhD program, but I don’t know how to prevent them from entering a graduate program without creating an ethical and possibly a legal problem for myself and for my department. I don’t like the idea, but we probably would just have to allow it if they are academically qualified. The Establishment Clause against separation of church and state cuts both ways.
          That said, I think it is still possible that they can do good research, so long as they do not apply their research directly into areas like evolution.

        2. Can we STOP using the word ‘Believe’ when we are dealing with (hopefully) factual matters!
          The word to use is ‘ACCEPT’ – you either accept the reality of AGM, or you don’t. You either accept the reality of evolution or you don’t. It is inappropriate to use the term ‘believe’ ( or,for that matter ‘belief’) in discussing scientific issues which are fairly settled. You can certainly say “I believe that all scientists are money grubbing wankers” – but, as the English would say – “That’s your belief, sir, where’s the proof?”.

        3. The point is, supernatural beliefs, and the degree of enthusiasm for them that an applicant possesses, are big red flags that generally predict their successful development and productivity as researchers.

          I somewhat agree with that, when you’re talking about the extreme creationist edge. Folk like Wells and Gonzalez don’t seem to publish as much as a productive research scientist. Then again, Behe and Dembksi might – its hard to say, I don’t know much about their publication lists. But we’re talking about a handful of people here. I would not prejudge a new grad student based on that.

          What’s more, by prejudging a highly theistic student like that, you’re cutting off one of the huge advantages science has – greater education correlates with less religiosity. Yes, some of that is probably self-selection. But some of it probably is changes in the student’s critical thinking process as they get more educated. Why would you cut out of a program exactly the sorts of students we ideally want to gain that sort of critical thinking experience?

          Lastly, IMO while the vast majority of thesis advisors do hope their students go on to continue their research legacy as lab scientists, deciding you want to get your Ph.D. but don’t want to be a lab scientist is not generally something that will get you fired from a Ph.D. program. Nor should it. Again, the issue is quality of the work you are able to do, not the sort of career you plan on doing after graduation. If you want to get your Ph.D. and then work at Chippendales as a dancer, well, you still earned and deserved your Ph.D. And there are loads of companies that want Ph.D. scientists precisely because of their demonstrated experience working on hard quantitative problems, yet have no intention of employing them to do scientific R&D.

  3. Desperation…

    Google puts two paid-for Ads at the top & two paid-for Ads at the bottom of each search results page, or it does for me, but right now I see no Ads at all…

    The sneaky ID lying b*****ds have a paid Ad that I’ve only recently noticed & it pops up at top [or bottom] of page quite a lot when certain evolution search terms are used

    So here are a few search results on that I saw this morning

    why evolution is true:
    1st result is a paid ad link
    “Why Evolution Is True – Why Evolution Is False –”

    why evolution true:
    1st result is paid ad link
    “Why Evolution Is – Why Evolution Is False –”

    darwinian evolution:
    1st result is paid ad link
    “Darwinian Evolution – Why Evolution Is False –‎”

    2nd result is paid ad link, the 1st being from
    “Zombie Science – Why Evolution Is False –‎” beaten by

    whale evolution:

    the selfish gene:

    jerry coyne:
    1st result is paid ad link
    “Zombie Science – Why Evolution Is False –‎”

    richard dawkins:
    1st result is paid ad link
    “Richard Dawkins – Why Evolution Is False –”

    No matter the evolution search terms the link [if there is one] is always to that crap “Zombie” book

    1. When I sit in a classroom at the tail end of proctoring an exam I will sometimes pass the time by booting up the computer to check out this site (hey, its’ been a couple hours. Probably something new). As I enter into Google ‘Why Evolution..’, I will see those kinds of links at or very near the top. I have never looked into them, but yes its interesting how they constantly blow smokescreens that are aimed at our host.

      1. Jerry needs to work much harder, or smarter, at truth baiting [my invented term] the Discotute if he’s to get a 2nd Censor of the Year award, but he missed it for 2017. On Darwin day David Klinghoffer awarded the honour to the German Natural History Museum.

        I think Jerry’s problem is poor timing – he needs to start ramping up the ridicule around Christmas so that he’s fresh in the ‘minds’ of the judges. Crossed fingers for 2018!

  4. Who writes these blurbs?

    My guess is the publisher wrote it. For use by various advertisers. Which is why it’s so positive on the book. Assuming your question wasn’t rhetorical. 🙂

    Given that ID was invented as a legal substitute for creationism, it will likely be dropped by creationists if/when a conservative SCOTUS allows regular, biblical creationism in schools. No more need for the dogwhistle then. To which I say: hang in there, Ginsberg!

    1. Just occasionally – usually on cheap paperback crime novels – one sees a blurb that suggest the blurb writer has just used the list of chapter headings and his imagination and it bears almost no relation to the contents at all.

      So yes, usually the publisher’s resident blurbwriter, I think.


  5. Such a waste of an education. How would you like to get your biology from this so-called teacher? About as productive as Trump’s first 100 days.

    1. Well, he did take an extraordinarily long time to ‘earn’ his degree (10+ years) and ended up with very little to show for it (I think 3 publications, first author on none). There were rumors floating about years ago that he had to threaten legal action because the program was looking to boot him for some reason, but I do not know if that is true. He is like Sarfati and many other YECs – they get their degrees not because they have an interest or anything, but to give their anti-evolution claims an air of authority.

      I consider that borderline fraud.

  6. You forgot to mention ID’ers were right, there are zombies and they are the ‘living’ proof. It took Darwin to show that this particular species of brain dead human is walking among us… the man just keeps on giving!

  7. Zombie science-fake news-religious truths. If these are just innocent errors, why do they keep coming up? Why? Because People Are Stupid. Does Wells need scientific proof of this? The evidence is in his mirror. (Too harsh? Sorry, Professor; please delete if so. And thanks again for this website!)

      1. Oh gosh yes Discovery Institute is alive and busy. They set up their own counter-“March” (not involving moving, just at a hall) with Steve Meyer & some others lecturing on the faulty materialist science of evolution and climate change.

        I attended one of the college affairs last month at Seattle Pacific University, where Wells, Axe & Gauger opined on their talking points to a packed house of hundreds, where the college kids and home schoolers lapped up the tropes. (AiG conducts their own YEC counterparts of course, including one earlier this month at the University of Montana.)

        Although the science in their position is nonexistent, they are circulating in a Kulturkampf network that considers their version the true science, and have the ears & minds of many in the Trump administration, so do not discount their practical and pernicious effect in the big wide world.

  8. Wells’s book rests entirely on a flawed syllogism

    I disagree with this. The people at the DI are very smart, know a lot of science, and have spent decades honing their rhetoric. They wouldn’t make a mistake like this.

    Well’s basic claim is reasonable at face value. Hes saying that one would expect the best and most straightforward evidence for evolution in an introductory biology text. If that evidence can be shown to be fallacious or fraudulent that would cast serious doubt on whether there is any evidence at all for evolution.
    All of his arguments are willfully ignorant at best, but I suspect most people with a phd in biology would be at a loss to explain why.

    1. Hes saying that one would expect the best and most straightforward evidence for evolution in an introductory biology text.

      Assuming best = straightforward is a flaw in his argument. While that may be true for some bits of science, for a lot of modern science it simply isn’t.

      Another flaw is that he assumes scientists write textbooks unencumbered by political or administrative requirements. This is also, AIUI, untrue. While a textbook might start off that way, requests and requirements from various states are likely to cause modifications to the original, for better and for worse.

      A third flaw is to assume being knowledgeable enough in a subject to write a textbook about it makes you a great communicator to the uneducated. This is again untrue. Good (written) communication is a skill like any other. Confusion may creep in for the simple reason that the author doesn’t know how to communicate their expertise any better, or has a hard time truly putting themselves ‘in the shoes of’ someone who doesn’t know the subject. When something is intuitively obvious to you, it can be hard to understand how it might not be intuitively obvious to someone else.

      1. Fortunately, Wells & Company fall apart when the source data is examined, as Christine is aware of with how I pulverize Dembski & Wells (Design of Life) on the reptile-mammal transition case in “Evolution Slam Dunk.” Btw, many thanks, Christine, for your most favorable review of the book on Amazon, it brightened my day considerably.

        Wells is personally an affable and avuncular sort in person (as I discovered when I asked him about his role in the “Design of Life” reptile-mammal info in Seattle last month). Turns out that Wells played virtually no role in that writing, meaning it was Dembski who gets the credit for slavishly parasitizing the errors of “Of Pandas & People” and Johnson’s “Darwin on Trial.” I had suspected Dembski had deferred to Wells on it, and so was genuinely surprised that he had left it all to his coauthor (I’ll have to make note of that in any 2nd illustrated edition of ESD I may someday do).

  9. Found this gem in Conservepedia entry for Wells:

    “In the late 1970s, Wells decided through his studies, conversations with God, and prayer to devote his life to destroying Darwinism.”

  10. Perhaps getting a Ph.D. from a respected school is part of a strategy designed to confer “legitimacy” on the anti-evolutionist. These people have absolutely no scruples, no shame, yet they think they are doing the right thing for their God. Sad!

  11. “Wells’s final chapter urges his readers to lobby the US government to eliminate research funding for evolutionary biology.”

    So biologists are all wrong about evolution, therefore their research should be inhibited lest they discover and correct their errors.

    The man really is logically challenged, isn’t he?

  12. I’ve never been able to discern just what motivates these guys. Either they truly believe that theism is essential to cultural morality and must be buttressed by whatever lies are necessary, or they just realize that there’s a good market for this crap and they might as well get theirs.

    1. It sounds as if for them ‘the ends justify the means’ – which I have always thought a risky proposition. Lying for Jesus etc.

  13. An Amazon general search on Jonathan Wells yields as the 9th hit “The Gods of H.P. Lovecraft” by Jonathan Maberry and Martha Wells.
    Lovecraft wrote some zombie stories like “Re-Animator”, “The Outsider” and a few others.

  14. Were Gilbert and Sullivan in Nostradamus mode when they wrote this about another John Wells? What is a zombie, if not a “posthumous shade”? The prophecies in the song are sufficiently inaccurate to be so close to the truth that their veracity is confirmed!

    Oh, my name is John Wellington Wells
    I’m a dealer in magic and spells
    In blessings and curses
    And ever-filled purses
    In prophecies, witches, and knells
    If you want a proud foe to “make tracks”
    If you’d melt a rich uncle in wax
    You’ve but to look in on our resident Djinn
    Number seventy, Simmery Axe

    We’ve a first-class assortment of magic
    And for raising a posthumous shade
    With effects that are comic or tragic
    There’s no cheaper house in the trade

  15. I really don’t get the whole “the best arguments are in another book” approach to anything. It’s just transferring the burden of proof to being an exercise to the sceptic. Granted knowledge transfer has to take place somehow, but the real case for evolution (for example) isn’t hidden in some arcane books that anti-evolutionists must read in order to truly discredit / discount the theory.

  16. Some new lefty in a previous thread is probably wondering why you attack an ID idiot but defend Milos’s right to say the stupidity he says.
    Over to you blondie.

  17. As a scientist and a Christian, I sometimes get asked by parents at church how they can protect their children when the go to college, with the primary concern being evolution. While I never give the the answer the expect, I sometimes use Wells as a positive example, telling them: If you really think evolution is wrong, then have your son/daughter study it as much as they can, including a Ph.D. at major university, so that they are better prepared to attack it scientifically. Of course, most Christians studying evolution will not turn out like Wells, but in theory his strategy was sound and laudable–until he chose to ignore what he learned. What will happen to most is obvious: they will accept evolution and either jettison their theism or they will reconcile it with evolution, a la Collins or Ken Miller (or myself, although I am not in their league. Plus I’m a physicist.) I know of no examples personally who took the dishonest route that Wells chose.

    1. in theory his strategy was sound and laudable…

      About as laudable as Aldrich Ames at the CIA. Far as I can see he went to Berkeley at the outset, only to get a piece of paper to confer the imprimatur of respectability to his further goals.

      1. I’m (this is dph) taking him at his word (expressed in his writings) that he went to Berkeley to learn enough science to disprove Darwinism. That motive is not inconsistent with science, which in fact doesn’t care about motives. It is, for example, perfectly fine to say you hate the concept of dark matter and you are going to study physics to prove it unnecessary. Science only cares that you do it right; it’s agnostic about everything else. At that stage, starting his PhD, Wells was, in principle, infinitely better than the AiG types who have no interest in real science. If this scenario is accurate Wells only went over to the dark side when he chose to ignore (even worse, distort) what he learned. At that point he was no longer a scientist and became a charlatan.

  18. Zombie ideas is right!

    Do biology programs ordinarily use “comprehensive exams”? I happened to wonder if being forced to study enough to pass those in allied fields would help create cognitive dissonance, etc. in the right way.

    I agree that one shouldn’t have some sort of ideological test of admission. But I’d be wary about giving a place in what is presumably a competive program to someone like Wells, if only because it excludes someone else, presumably more scientifically minded. But I think people have to have the benefit of the doubt, too. After all, there have been people who have changed their minds as they learned more on these matters. All very complicated.

  19. Why is creationism such a powerful force in america, why does America need a god?.
    It seem’s very similar to your gun law, why does everyone need a gun.
    Could it be that these ideals are so embedded in your culture it’s impossible to change.

  20. Some day creationists will realise that evolutionary theory is not confined to The Origin of Species or the highly imaginative drawings of Haeckel in the 19th century.
    When they do perhaps a few days of dedicated reading will reveal WHOLE libraries of evidence describing the intricate ways evolution effects this planet.
    Unless they find that one simplistic book of classical and medieval fantasy lacking any evidence is easier to understand?

  21. During decades I was in a integrist catholic sect (heralds of the gospel). There were special words to refer to all you here: plock-plocks (people biased by his out-of-floor-feet), library-rats (those spending the hole day reading big volumes instead of paying attention on reality) etc. That was the level, the public opinion.
    I teached them cognition-theory by the Aquinas, philosophy introduction, etc. I had to publish THE DAY BEFORE THE EXAMINATION the answers to the questions I will put for them…
    I dont know Berkeley, but be sure those people are interested in universitys only to find holes or arguments to defeat science. Is a characteristic of those kind of sects:
    “If our founder tell you that this floor is yellow –and you see is black– believe is yellow. Later on you will understand (here or in the other life).”
    If you don´t follow this rule, be sure you will be punish or/and put out of the sect.
    I´m in the street nowadays…

  22. Opinions are filtered through beliefs. Gullibility is a character flaw. The more flawed one’s beliefs, the less relevant his arguments and claims. Context matters and exceptions never represent the majority. Learning and progress are long and winding roads because cognitive thinking has always been and always will be a skill.

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