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Celebrating Ten Years of Icons of Evolution

In the ten years since the book first appeared, Jonathan Wells's Icons of Evolution (2000) has itself achieved iconic status among the primary texts in the literature of scientific Darwin-doubting. ENV will celebrate the anniversary all this month with a series of videos and interviews -- Dr. Wells updating the "icons," colleagues reflecting on the impact the book had on them, an enhanced website for the book, and more. For anyone interested in educating himself about the facts behind the slogans and propaganda that pass for much of the argumentation on behalf of Darwinism, Jonathan Wells's sweetly reasoned, scientifically impeccable presentation gives the goods on peppered moths, Darwin's finches, four-winged fruit flies, the tree of life, and other crusted barnacles that hang on and on and on.

A Berkeley PhD in molecular and cell biology, Wells is among the most lucid and accessible scientist-writers devoted to the modern project of critiquing Darwin. When I say the book is sweetly reasoned, I don't only mean that it's well reasoned but that there's an appealing geniality, a sweetness, to the man's writing that stands out in contrast to the donkey-like braying of a Darwinian biologist Jerry Coyne, the sinister coilings of a Richard Dawkins, the ugly "humor" of a P.Z. Myers. Yes, you can get a sense of a person's character, and perhaps too his credibility, from the words he uses.

Performing the service of crushing ten venerable chestnuts of evolutionary apologetics, familiar to generations from high school and college textbooks, Icons caused no little consternation among Darwin advocates. That was evident from the reaction of critics -- who, however, hardly succeeded in laying a glove on Wells -- but also from the fact that textbook publishers have to a limited extent taken his criticisms to heart. Haeckel's phony embryo drawings, for example, are harder to find in brand new textbooks now than they were before, representing a telling strategic retreat.

Yet regarding those critics -- in venues such as Nature, Science, BioScience, and The Quarterly Review of Biology -- Wells has noted in a detailed response (unanswered, of course, by the critics) that their defense of the icons itself proved how necessary this book was and is. Thus one tactic was to say something along the lines, "Oh, things such as Haeckel's embryos in textbooks are just isolated goofs, artifacts of copyright laws and the like. They reflect nothing about the underlying strength of the case for Darwinism." (This was the view offered by Eugenie Scott.)

However, as Wells points out:

When my critics defend the icons (as we saw them do above), they refute their own argument that the icons are simply textbook errors. And when my critics defend the icons by denying the reality of the Cambrian explosion, distorting the facts of vertebrate embryology, misrepresenting the normal resting-places of peppered moths, ignoring the harmful effects of anatomical mutations, and pretending that fossils alone can establish ancestor-descendant relationships, they further substantiate my argument that the icons of evolution are part of a systematic effort to exaggerate, distort, or even fake the evidence to prop up Darwinian theory.
That was true when Dr. Wells wrote it and it remains so. Read this important book, whose importance has only been confirmed by the passage of a decade. And stay tuned for more in this space.