Paying the Price

What is the price of publicly correcting the mistakes and distortions of the Reverend Jonathan Wells, Senior Fellow of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute? As I have just found out, it is to be the recipient of page after page of personal attacks on one's honesty and integrity.

For more details of the various distortions and misrepresentations that appear in Jonathan Wells' writings, check these sources:

A Comprehensive response to each of Wells' points is found in Nic Tanzek's excellent review on Talk Origins.
A hard-hitting analysis of "Icons" from the Quarterly Review of Biology.
Dave Ussery's review of Icons.
A rebuttal of Wells' major points by a variety of authors.
Massimo Pigliucci's devastating review of Icons.
Bruce Grant's scathing response to Wells on the peppered moth issue.

Is Jonathan Wells making a personal point out of attacking me? (Maybe. Click Here for just such an example)

Wells and I met in a March 11th debate (along with Discovery Institute Fellow Stephen Meyer and Case Western Professor Lawrence Krauss) in front of the Ohio Board of Education. At the debate, Wells and Meyer were clearly embarrassed at being caught in a number of factual mistakes, a performance from which they have been trying to recover ever since. One of the most remarkable of these was their insistence that the new Education Law, which President Bush signed in January of 2002, contains language (known as the "Santorum amendment") that mandates the teaching of alternate theories like "intelligent design."

Unfortunately for Meyer and Wells, their claims on this score were demonstrably wrong. The language they referred to was actually removed from the bill by Congress, it was not in the final version sent to the President, and is not part of the Education Law. All one has to do to reveal their misrepresentations is to look at copies of the Bill and the Law, which are freely available over the web:

Having failed to convince the folks in Ohio that the Law contains language which it clearly does not, Wells is now trying to smear me in a different way. Clearly disturbed by the way in which I highlighted a few of the many errors in his anti-evolution book, "The Icons of Evolution," he's fired off a personal broadside based on remarks I made at the March 11th debate.

As he did in "Icons," Wells gets it wrong again. Let's look at the three points of contention he raises:

1) Peppered Moths. For years, Wells has argued that the peppered moth story repeated in many textbooks is a "fraud," and that the moths do not provide an example of natural selection in action. What did I do at the debate? I made it clear that the moths are, as scientists like Bruce Grant (William & Mary) and Michael Majerus (University of Cambridge) agree, a perfectly sound example of natural selection in action. And I also pointed out that Wells is just plain wrong when he claims that the moths don't rest on tree trunks. The latter claim is particularly important, since this is why Wells feels justified in claiming that a photo of the moths on a tree trunk in one of my textbooks is a "fraud."

Wells presents a series of quotes from the literature to support his contention, made in "Icons," that peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks, a claim I rebutted in the debate. Like many opponents of evolution, he argues from quotation rather than from data. At the debate, I presented actual data on the positions in which moths have been observed in the wild, and guess what? Although the literature is clear that adequate studies have not yet been done to pinpoint the places where these moths generally rest in the wild, observations done to date show that most moths have, indeed, been found on tree trunks.

Here are the data I presented (from Majerus, 1998, Industrial Melanism: Evolution in Action, page 123):

Resting positions of moths found in the wild in studies between 1964 and 1996
Exposed trunk:
Unexposed trunk
Trunk/branch joint:
Summary: 32 of 47 moths (68%) were found on tree trunks


Resting positions of moths found in the vicinity of traps between 1965 and 1996
Exposed trunk:
Unexposed trunk
Trunk/branch joint:
Man-made surfaces:
Summary: 136 of 203 moths (67%) were found on tree trunks

What these uncontested data mean, of course, is that Wells' flat statement that the moths don't rest on tree trunks is wrong, no matter how many quotations he musters in support of his view. Quotations are not data. The data show that moths are indeed found on tree trunks, and that's what I said at the debate. As I pointed out at the debate, Wells had claimed that the photos in my book were "faked." In fact, they were not faked at all . . . as he now admits in his latest salvo, like many wildlife photos, they were "staged" by placing the moths on a tree trunk. The very same place where they have been repeatedly observed in the wild. That's not misleading at all — in fact, it's a fair representation of the published data.

2) Haeckel's Embryos. As I pointed out in the debate, like most of the scientific community, I became aware of the errors in Haeckel's famous embryo drawings late in 1997, when Michael Richardson published an article pointing this out in the journal SCIENCE. In December of 1997 I placed a photographic correction of the mistake on my book's web site, and by April of 1998 new, accurate drawings were ready and were placed in my textbooks. He refers to our new figure as "a slightly improved version of Haeckel’s drawings," which is a remarkably coy way of pretending there is something still wrong with them. There isn't, of course, because they were made from photomicrographs, and are absolutely accurate:

Our latest textbook (the "Dragonfly" Book) contains photographs of embryos, and one would think that the camera doesn't lie, so the issue of misrepresentation would be settled. Wells, of course, still finds something wrong with the images, claiming that these photos "still show embryos at the midpoint of development." Wells is simply splitting hairs. He's trying to argue that a photo must not describe anything as an "early" stage in development unless it shows the earliest stage. Why? Because he wants us to show only the very earliest stages of development, where differences between some of the embryos are apparent due to differences in the size of the egg. The fact that egg size affects early cleavage is well known, and is something that I pointed out in a public letter to Wells' colleague Phillip Johnson more than 6 years ago:

"The chicken embryo develops on top of a huge store of nutritional yolk, which it gradually surrounds with an egg sac. The human embryo has no such store, and must implant in the uterine wall to obtain nourishment. Once both embryos surmount these early challenges, the rest of their development is remarkably similar, and that's precisely the point."

Wells' real concern, I am sure, is that our textbook continues to point out something that he would rather students not know. Namely, that vertebrate embryos display striking developmental similarities that cannot be explained by his pet theory ("intelligent design"), but are easily explained by the evolutionary hypothesis of common descent.

3) The Cambrian Explosion. The irony of Wells' charges on the Cambrian explosion is that he contradicts one of his own "Icons" in the process. In his well-known "Ten Questions to Ask your Biology Teacher About Evolution," he asks "Why don't textbooks discuss the Cambrian explosion," in which all major animal groups appear together in the fossil record ..." Despite that assertion, in his recent broadside against me, he acknowledges that our textbook includes a whole section on the Cambrian explosion, and even quotes from it. So much for the charge that textbooks don't "discuss the Cambrian explosion!"

Wells' tape recording of my remarks (which were not prepared, but made in response to a question) goes like this:
" . . . By saying the major animal groups, they often convey a false impression. Do you consider insects to be a major animal group? I consider them to be the major animal group. They don’t appear in the Cambrian. Neither do mammals, reptiles, amphibians, or anything that resembles a modern fish. . . . So therefore it’s phony to pretend that all major animal body plans appeared at this point."
I made those remarks to point out that "design" advocates, like Wells, routinely refer to the "major animal groups" appearing in the Cambrian, rather than using the biologically-accurate term "phyla." It is clear that they do this in order to minimize the value of the evolutionary record that has accumulated since the Cambrian. In the ordinary meaning of the term "group" as understood by most people, insects, reptiles, mammals, and birds are indeed "major groups," and yet none of them appeared in the Cambrian. That was the point I sought to make, and that point is absolutely correct. I also pointed out that the plant equivalents of the phyla, which botanists call "divisions," nearly all appear after the Cambrian, and that point is correct as well.

No doubt I could have stated these points more clearly in my spontaneous remarks, but Wells' is most incensed about the word "phony" that I dropped into my remarks, especially when my textbook co-author, Joe Levine, has written that during the Cambrian “The ancestors of almost all major living animal groups appeared in the fossil record for the first time.” He's right to object to it, and I do indeed apologize. I should simply have stuck by my initial point that ID advocates use the language they do about the Cambrian in order to "convey a false impression," which I certainly believe to be the case.

What's Really Going On Here?

Wells concludes with the usual ID plea to "teach the controversy," conveniently glossing over the fact that there is no scientific controversy with respect to his theories of "design." Although his Institute has worked hard to convey an illusion of support for their position within the scientific community, in order to find scientists who will speak on behalf of "intelligent design," one would be hard-pressed to name anyone other than the 13 Senior Fellows in Wells' own Institute.

Wells himself tried to make a case for a "controversy" at the Ohio debate by claiming that he had a bibliography of scientific publications that challenge evolution. An article by Fred Hutchinson at the Discovery Institute's web site described the bibliography as a "list of forty papers written by intelligent design scientists which had been published in peer reviewed journals."

But was it really? The Discovery Institute itself admits that: "The publications are not presented either as support for the theory of intelligent design, or as indicating that the authors cited doubt evolution." I appreciate their candor on this point, but Hutchinson's article accurately conveys the impression made by Wells at the debate. An impression that the Discovery Institute itself realizes is not correct.

In the aftermath of this and other scientific embarrassments, Wells and his colleagues have now, apparently, taken up the tactic of personal attack against those who defend the scientific integrity of evolution. Wells, for example, is now deliberately involved in making the knowingly false charge that I wrote a 1996 LIFE Magazine article on human development (Click Here).

What's next? I suppose that it would please Wells if people like Lawrence Krauss and me who have had the nerve to stand up to his charges simply retired from the public discourse on evolution. Sorry, Reverend Wells, but that's just not going to happen.

Kenneth R. Miller
Professor of Biology
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912