THE CASE FOR GOD #3
Doubts about Darwinism
No educated person any longer questions the validity of the so-called theory of evolution, which we now know to be a simple fact.
Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr 1
Scientists who utterly reject evolution may be one of our fastest-growing controversial minorities.... Many of the scientists supporting this position hold impressive credentials in science.
Larry Hatfield in Science Digest 2
There were one hundred of them—biologists, chemists, zoologists, physicists, anthropologists, molecular and cell biologists, bioengineers, organic chemists, geologists, astrophysicists, and other scientists. Their doctorates came from such prestigious universities as Cambridge, Stanford, Cornell, Yale, Rutgers, Chicago, Princeton, Purdue, Duke, Michigan, Syracuse, Temple, and Berkeley. They included professors from Yale Graduate School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tulane, Rice, Emory, George Mason, Lehigh, and the Universities of California, Washington, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Georgia, New Mexico, Utah, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
Among them was the director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry and scientists at the Plasma Physics Lab at Princeton, the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institute, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories.
And they wanted the world to know one thing: they are skeptical.
After spokespersons for the Public Broadcasting Systems seven-part television series Evolution asserted that "all known scientific evidence supports [Darwinian] evolution" as does "virtually every reputable scientist in the world," these professors, laboratory researchers, and other scientists published a two-page advertisement in a national magazine under the banner: "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism."
Their statement was direct and defiant. "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life," they said. "Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." 3
These were not narrow-minded fundamentalists, backwoods West Virginia protesters, or rabid-religious fanatics—-just respected, world-class scientists like Nobel nominee Henry F. Schaefer, the third most-cited chemist in the world; James Tour of Rice University's Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology; and Fred Figworth, professor of cellular and molecular physiology at Yale Graduate School.
Together, despite the specter of professional persecution, they broached the politically incorrect opinion that the emperor of evolution has no clothes.
As a high school and university student studying evolution, I was never told that there were credible scientists who harbored significant skepticism toward Darwinian theory. I had been under the impression that it was only know-nothing pastors who objected to evolution on the grounds that it contradicted the Bibles claims. I wasn't aware that, according to historian Peter Bowler, substantive scientific critiques of natural selection started so early that by 1900 "its opponents were convinced it would never recover." 4
Viewers of the popular 2001 PBS series weren't told that, either. In fact, its one-sided depiction of evolution spurred a backlash from many scientists. A detailed, 151-page critique claimed it "failed to present accurately and fairly the scientific problems with the evidence for Darwinian evolution" and even systematically ignored "disagreements among evolutionary biologists themselves." 5
In my quest to determine if contemporary science points toward or away from God, I knew I had to first examine the claims of evolution in order to conclude once and for all whether Darwinism creates a reasonable foundation for atheism. That's because if the materialism of Darwinian evolution is a fact, then the atheistic conclusions I reached as a student might still be valid. Only after resolving this issue could I move ahead to assessing whether there is persuasive affirmative evidence for a Creator.
So I decided to return, in effect, to my days as a student by reexamining those images of evolution—-the Miller experiment, Darwin's tree of life, Haeckel's embryos, and the archaeopteryx missing link—which had convinced me that undirected and purposeless evolutionary processes accounted for the origin and complexity of life. Those symbols are hardly outdated. In fact, to this day those very same icons are still featured in many biology textbooks and are being seared into the minds of students around the country. But are they accurate in what they convey? "What do they really tell us about the trustworthiness of Darwinism?
I was thinking about this late one night while I was hunched over my computer keyboard, surfing the Internet for airline tickets. Leslie strolled into my office and peered over my shoulder.
"Where are you headed?" she asked.
"Seattle," I replied. I swiveled in my chair to face her. "There's a scientist up there who can make sense of those images of evolution that influenced me. I think I can relate to him."
"What do you mean?"
"Well," I said, "he studied evolution as a college student—and guess what happened?"
Leslie looked puzzled. "What?" she asked.
"He became an atheist."
INTERVIEW #1: Jonathan Wells, PhD, PhD
Science classes weren't heavily steeped in Darwinism when Jonathan Wells was a high school student in the late 1950s, but when he began studying geology at Princeton University, he found that everything was viewed through evolutionary lenses. Though he had grown up in the Presbyterian church, by the time Wells was halfway through college he considered himself to be an atheist.
"Was your atheism influenced by the Darwinian paradigm?" I asked.
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "The evolutionary story simply replaced the religious imagery I had grown up with. I didn't need the spiritual anymore-— except this vague, Gandhian, search-for-truth feeling I had." I was sitting with Wells in an office at the Discovery Institute, located on the fourth floor of an obscure office building in downtown Seattle. Wells serves as a senior fellow with the Institutes Center for Science and Culture, an organization that neatly blends his dual passions for both hard science and the issue of science's influence on the broader society. His undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley was in geology and physics, with a minor in biology. At Yale Graduate School, where he earned a doctorate in religious studies, "Wells specialized in the nineteenth-century controversies surrounding Darwin. His book, Charles Hodges Critique of Darwinism, was published in 1988 6.
In 1994, Wells received a doctorate in molecular and cell biology from Berkeley, where he focused primarily on vertebrate embryology and evolution. He later worked at Berkeley as a post-doctorate research biologist. Wells has written on the scientific and cultural aspects of evolution in such journals as Origins and Design, The Scientist, Touchstone, The American Biology Teacher, and Rhetoric and Public Affairs, while his technical articles—-with such scintillating titles as "Microtubule-mediated transport of organelles and localization of beta-catenin to the future dorsal side of Xenopus eggs"-—-have appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Development, and BioSystems.
An inveterate iconoclast, Wells doesn't shy away from controversy. After a two-year stint in the Army, he became an antiwar activist at Berkeley and ended up doing jail time for refusing to go to Vietnam as a reservist. While later living a Thoreau-like existence in a remote California cabin, he became enthralled by the grandeur of creation and gained new confidence that God was behind it. His spiritual interest rejuvenated, Wells explored numerous religious alternatives, visiting gurus, preachers, and swamis. 7
I hadn't come to Seattle, however, to seek spiritual wisdom from Wells. Instead, I sought him out because of his scientific expertise— and because he authored a book whose title intrigued me the moment I first saw it... Icons of Evolution, which was published in 2000, takes a clearheaded, scientific look at the very same visual images that had convinced me of the truth of Darwinian evolution. The Miller experiment, Darwin's tree of life, Haeckel's embryos, the archaeopteryx' missing link —they were all there, along with several other symbols of evolution. The book's subtitle especially piqued my curiosity: Why Much of What We Teach about Evolution Is Wrong 8
Here was my chance to put these images-—and the broader question of Darwinisms overall reliability—to the test. I eased into a comfortable chair that squarely faced the bearded and bespectacled Wells, who was sitting behind a wooden desk. He was casually dressed in a striped, short-sleeve shirt. While soft-spoken and mild-mannered as we chatted informally before our interview, he would quickly become animated as we began delving into his hot-button topic of evolutionary theory.
I flipped through my yellow legal pad to find a fresh page and took a pen in hand. More than thirty-five years after these icons of evolution led me on a journey into naturalism and atheism, I was anxious to get the real story. 9
Investigating the Icons
Starting at the beginning, I briefly recounted for Wells how the four images of evolution had influenced my slide into atheism. In a subtle expression of empathy, he would nod almost imperceptibly as I talked, as if to reassure me that he understood what I had gone through. At the conclusion of my story, I gestured toward a copy of his book that was on the desk.
"You included all four of those symbols in your book, along with several others," I said, "and you called them 'icons of evolution.' Why did you use that term?"
Wells leaned forward, putting his elbows on the desk. "Because if you ask almost any scientist to describe the evidence for Darwinism, time after time they give these same examples," he said. "They're in our textbooks. They're what we teach our students. For many scientists, they are the evidence for evolution."
"What are the other icons?"
"In addition to the four that influenced you, there is the similarity of bone structures in a bat's wing, a porpoise's flipper, a horse's leg, and a human hand. This is touted as evidence of their origin in a common ancestor. Then there are the pictures in textbooks of peppered moths on tree trunks, showing how camouflage and predatory birds result in natural selection. Of course, there are Darwin's finches—the Galapagos Island birds that are also used to support natural selection. Probably the most famous icon, though, is the drawing we see parodied in so many cartoons—the march of ape-like creatures as they slowly evolve into human beings, which suggests that we're merely animals that evolved by purposeless natural causes."
I paused for a moment while I took some notes. "Before we go any further," I said, "let's get our definitions straight. "When some people say 'evolution,' they mean merely that there has been change over time. But that's not an accurate description, is it?"
"Absolutely not," "Wells replied. "If that's all there was to Darwinism, then there wouldn't be any controversy, because we all agree there has been biological change over time. Others define evolution as just being 'descent with modification.' But again, everyone agrees that all organisms within a single species are related through descent with modification. This occurs in the ordinary course of biological reproduction.
"Darwinism claims much more than that—-it's the theory that all living creatures are modified descendents of a common ancestor that lived long ago. You and I, for example, are descendants of apelike ancestors—-in fact, we share a common ancestor with fruit flies. Darwinism claims that every new species that has ever appeared can be explained by descent with modification. Neo-Darwinism claims these modifications are the result of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations."10
"If these icons are the illustrations most cited as evidence of evolution, then I can see why they're important," I said. "What did you find as you examined them one by one?"
Wells didn't hesitate. "That they're either false or misleading," he replied.
"False or misleading?" I echoed. "Wait a second—are you saying my science teacher was lying to me? That's a pretty outrageous charge!"
Wells shook his head. "No, I'm not saying that. He probably believed in the icons too. I'm sure he wasn't even aware of the way they misrepresent the evidence. But the end result is the same—much of what science teachers have been telling students is simply wrong. A lot of what you personally were told about the icons, for instance, is probably false." I considered the implications for a moment. "Okay, let me follow your logic," I said. "If these icons are cited by scientists so often because they're among the best evidence for Darwinism-—"
"—And if they're either false or misleading," he said, picking up my thought, "then what does that tell us about evolutionary theory? That's the point. The question I'm raising is whether all of this is really science — or is it actually a kind of mythology?"
That's the very question I wanted to pursue. I decided that my approach would be to ask Wells for the straight story on each of the icons that especially influenced me. I started with the one that had the biggest impact: the picture of the tubes, flasks, and electrodes of Stanley Miller's 1953 experiment in which he shot electricity through an atmosphere like the one on the primitive earth, creating amino acids—-the building blocks of life. The clear implication—that life could be created naturalistically, without the intervention of a Creator—had been largely responsible for untethering me from my need for God.
IMAGE #1: The Miller Experiment
Obviously, the significance of Miller's experiment—which to this day is still featured in many biology textbooks—hinges on whether he used an atmosphere that accurately simulated the environment of the early earth. At the time, Miller was relying heavily on the atmospheric theories of his doctoral advisor, Nobel laureate Harold Urey.
"What's the best scientific assessment today?" I asked Wells. "Did Miller use the correct atmosphere or not?"
Wells leaned back in his chair. "Well, nobody knows for sure what the early atmosphere was like, but the consensus is that the atmosphere was not at all like the one Miller used," he began.
"Miller chose a hydrogen-rich mixture of methane, ammonia, and water vapor, which was consistent with what many scientists thought back then. But scientists don't believe that anymore. As a geophysicist with the Carnegie Institution said in the 1960s, 'What is the evidence for a primitive methane-ammonia atmosphere on earth? The answer is that there is no evidence for it, but much against it.'11
"By the mid-1970s, Belgian biochemist Marcel Florkin was declaring that the concept behind Miller's theory of the early atmosphere 'has been abandoned.' 12 Two of the leading origin-of-life researchers, Klaus Dose and Sidney Fox, confirmed that Miller had used the wrong gas mixture. 13 And Science magazine said in 1995 that experts now dismiss Millers experiment because 'the early atmosphere looked nothing like the Miller-Urey simulation.,'" 14
I asked, "What's the current thinking of scientists concerning the gas content of the early earth?"
"The best hypothesis now is that there was very little hydrogen in the atmosphere because it would have escaped into space. Instead, the atmosphere probably consisted of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor," Wells said. "So my gripe is that textbooks still present the Miller experiment as though it reflected the earth's early environment, when most geochemists since the 1960s would say it was totally unlike Miller's."
I asked the next logical question: "What happens if you replay the experiment using an accurate atmosphere?"
"Til tell you this: you do not get amino acids, that's for sure," he replied. "Some textbooks fudge by saying, well, even if you use a realistic atmosphere, you still get organic molecules, as if that solves the problem."
Actually, that sounded promising. "Organic molecules?" I said. "I'm not a biochemist, but couldn't those be precursors to life?"
Wells recoiled. "That's what they sound like, but do you know what they are? Formaldehyde! Cyanide!" he declared, his voice rising for emphasis. "They may be organic molecules, but in my lab at Berkeley you couldn't even have a capped bottle of formaldehyde in the room, because the stuff is so toxic. You open the bottle and it fries proteins all over the place, just from the fumes. It kills embryos. The idea that using a realistic atmosphere gets you the first step in the origin of life is just laughable.
"Now, it's true that a good organic chemist can turn formaldehyde and cyanide into biological molecules. But to suggest that formaldehyde and cyanide give you the right substrate for the origin of life," he said, breaking into a chuckle, "Well, it's just a joke."
He let the point sink in before delivering the clincher. "Do you know what you get?" he asked. "Embalming fluid!"
Putting Humpty-Dumpty Together
The march of science has clearly left Millers experiment in the dust, even if some textbooks haven't yet noticed. But I wanted to press on and test other scenarios.
"Let's say that a scientist someday actually manages to produce amino acids from a realistic atmosphere of the early earth," I began. I could see "Wells was ready to interrupt, so I preempted him: "Look, I understand it's not chemically possible, but let's say it was. Or let's say amino acids came to earth in a comet or some other way. My question is this: how far would that be from creating a living cell?"
"Oh," he said as he pounced on the question, "Very far. Incredibly far. That would be the first step in an extremely complicated process. You would have to get the right number of the right kinds of amino acids to link up to create a protein molecule—-and that would still be a long way from a living cell. Then you'd need dozens of protein molecules, again in the right sequence, to create a living cell. The odds against this are astonishing. The gap between nonliving chemicals and even the most primitive living organism is absolutely tremendous."
I needed a visual picture to help me understand this. "Can you give me an illustration?" I asked.
"Let me describe it this way," he said. "Put a sterile, balanced salt solution in a test tube. Then put in a single living cell and poke a hole in it so that its contents leak into the solution. Now the test tube has all the molecules you would need to create a living cell, right? You would already have accomplished far more than what the Miller experiment ever could—you've got all the components you need for life."
I nodded. "That's right."
"The problem is you can't make a living cell," he said. "There's not even any point in trying. It would be like a physicist doing an experiment to see if he can get a rock to fall upwards all the way to the moon. No biologist in his right mind would think you can take a test tube with those molecules and turn them into a living cell."
"In other words" I said, "if you want to create life, on top of the challenge of somehow generating the cellular components out of nonliving chemicals, you would have an even bigger problem in trying to put the ingredients together in the right way."
"Exactly! In my illustration, the cell is dead, and you can't put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. So even if you could accomplish the thousands of steps between the amino acids in the Miller jar —-which probably didn't exist in the real world anyway— and the components you need for a living cell-—all the enzymes, the DNA, and so forth—you're still immeasurably far from life."
"But," I protested, "the first cell was probably a lot more primitive than even the simplest single-cell organism today."
"Granted," he said. "But my point remains the same—-the problem of assembling the right parts in the right way at the right time and at the right place, while keeping out the wrong material, is simply insurmountable. Frankly, the idea that we're on the verge of explaining the origin of life naturalistically is just silly to me."
"There's no theory, then, that can account for how life could have naturally come together by itself without any direction or guidance?"
Wells stroked his salt-and-pepper beard. "The word 'theory' is very slippery," he replied. "I can make up a story, but it would be unsupported at every crucial step by any experimental evidence worth counting. I'm an experimentalist at heart. I'd want to see some evidence —and it's just not there.
"For instance, one popular theory was that RNA, a close relative of DNA, could have been a molecular cradle from which early cells developed. This 'RNA world' hypothesis was heralded as a great possibility for a while. But nobody could demonstrate how RNA could have formed before living cells were around to make it, or how it could have survived under the conditions on the early earth.
"Gerald Joyce, a biochemist at the Scripps Research Institute, ruled out the RNA-first theory very colorfully by saying, 'You have to build straw man upon straw man to get to the point where RNA is a viable first biomolecule."15
"In short," declared Wells, "it was a dead end-—as all other theories have been."
"... and Hence a Miracle"
In hindsight, my materialistic philosophy had been built on a foundation that history has subsequently dismantled piece by piece. Millers experiment, once a great ally to my atheism, has been reduced to a mere scientific curiosity.
"What is the significance of his experiment today?" I asked Wells.
"To me, it has virtually no scientific significance," he replied. "It's historically interesting, because it convinced a lot of people through the years—-yourself included—that life could have arisen spontaneously, a point which I believe is false. Does it have a place in a science textbook? Maybe as a footnote."
"But it's more than a footnote in most texts, right?"
"Unfortunately, yes," he said. "It's prominently featured in current textbooks, often with pictures. The most generous thing I can say is that it's misleading. It's wrong to even give the impression that science has empirically shown how life could have originated. Now, they may have a disclaimer buried in the text, saying the earth's atmosphere may not have been what Miller thought it was. But then they say that if a realistic environment is used, you still get organic molecules. To me, that's just as misleading."
I thought about a student who encounters the Miller experiment today. Would he gloss over in his mind the complexities of creating life? Would he understand the nuances of the Miller story, or would he hear the term "organic molecules" and conclude that scientists are on the verge of resolving the problem of how nonliving chemicals somehow became living cells? Would a young person looking for an excuse to escape the accountability of God cling to the false conclusion that the origin-of-life problem is only a minor obstacle in the relentless march of evolutionary theory?
"Why do you think the Miller experiment is still published in textbooks?" I asked.
"Wells shrugged. "It's becoming clearer and clearer to me that this is materialistic philosophy, masquerading as empirical science. The attitude is that life had to have developed this way because there's no other materialistic explanation. And if you try to invoke another explanation —for instance, intelligent design-—then the evolutionists claim you're not a scientist."
Wells's explanation was consistent with another interview I had conducted with origin-of-life expert Walter Bradley, a former professor at Texas A&M University, who co-authored the landmark 1984 book The Mystery of Life's Origin.16
I questioned Bradley about the various theories advanced by scientists for how the first living cell could have been naturalistically generated-—-including random chance, chemical affinity, self-ordering tendencies, seeding from space, deep-sea ocean vents, and using clay to encourage prebiotic chemicals to assemble-—and he demonstrated that not one of them can withstand scientific scrutiny. 17
Many other scientists have reached that same conclusion. "Science doesn't have the slightest idea how life began," journalist Gregg Easterbrook wrote about the origin-of-life field. "No generally accepted theory exists, and the steps leading from a barren primordial world to the fragile chemistry of life seem imponderable."18
Bradley not only shares that view, but he said that the mind-boggling difficulties in bridging the yawning gap between non-life and life mean that there may very well be no potential of ever finding a theory for how life could have arisen spontaneously. That's why he's convinced that the "absolutely overwhelming evidence" points toward an intelligence behind life's creation.
In fact, he said: "I think people who believe that life emerged naturalistically need to have a great deal more faith than people who reasonably infer that there's an Intelligent Designer."19
Even those who look askance at religious faith have been forced to conclude that the odds against the spontaneous creation of life are so absurdly high that there must be more to the creation story than mere materialistic processes. They can't help but invoke the only word that seems to realistically account for it all: miracle. It's a label many scientists are loathe to use but which the circumstances seem to demand.
For instance, one of the country's leading science journalists, John Horgan, who identifies himself as a "lapsed Catholic," conceded in 2002 that scientists have no idea how the universe was created or "how inanimate matter on our little planet coalesced into living creatures." Then came that word: "Science, you might say, has discovered that our existence is infinitely improbable, and hence a miracle." 20
Even biochemist and spiritual skeptic Francis Crick, who shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the molecular structure of DNA, cautiously invoked the word a few years ago. "An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going," he said. 21
Others are more adamant. "If there isn't a natural explanation and there doesn't seem to be the potential of finding one, then I believe it's appropriate to look at a supernatural explanation," said Bradley. "I think that's the most reasonable inference based on the evidence." 22
IMAGE #2: Darwin's Tree of Life
It was time to advance to the next image of evolution. One of the most recognizable icons is the drawing Darwin sketched for The Origin of Species to illustrate his theory that all living creatures had a common ancestor and that natural selection drove the eventual development of the countless organisms we see in the modern world. To me, his sketch of the evolutionary tree encapsulated why Darwinian evolution was so compelling: it seemed to explain everything in natural history. The question, though, is whether the tree represents reality.
"We now have more than a century of fossil discoveries since Darwin drew his picture," I said to Wells. "Has this evolutionary tree held up?"
"Absolutely not," came his quick reply. "As an illustration of the fossil record, the Tree of Life is a dismal failure. But it is a good representation of Darwin's theory.
"You see, he believed that if a population was exposed to one set of conditions, and another part of the population experienced other conditions, then natural selection could modify the two populations in different ways. Over time, one species could produce several varieties, and if these varieties continued to diverge, they would eventually become separate species. That's why his drawing was in the pattern of a branching tree.
"A key aspect of his theory was that natural selection would act, in his own words, 'slowly by accumulating slight, successive, favorable variations' and that no great or 'sudden modifications' were possible."
I didn't want to miss the significance of what Wells was claiming. "You're saying that the tree of life illustrates Darwin's ideas but that his theory is not supported by the physical evidence scientists have found in fossils?"
"That's right," he continued. "In fact, Darwin knew the fossil record failed to support his tree. He acknowledged that major groups of animals —'he calls them divisions,' now they're called 'phyla'-—-appear suddenly in the fossil record. 23 That's not what his theory predicts. His theory predicts a long history of gradual divergence from a common ancestor, with the differences slowly becoming bigger and bigger until you get the major differences we have now. The fossil evidence, even in his day, showed the opposite: the rapid appearance of phylum-level differences in what's called the 'Cambrian explosion.' Darwin believed that future fossil discoveries would vindicate his theory—but that hasn't happened. Actually, fossil discoveries over the last hundred and fifty years have turned his tree upside down by showing the Cambrian explosion was even more abrupt and extensive than scientists once thought."
That begged for further explanation. "Elaborate on the Cambrian explosion," I said.
"The Cambrian was a geological period that we think began a little more than 540 million years ago. The Cambrian explosion has been called the 'Biological Big Bang' because it gave rise to the sudden appearance of most of the major animal phyla that are still alive today, as well as some that are now extinct," Wells said.
"Here's what the record shows: there were some jellyfish, sponges, and worms prior to the Cambrian, although there's no evidence to support Darwin's theory of a long history of gradual divergence. Then at the beginning of the Cambrian—boom!—all of a sudden, we see representatives of the arthropods, modern representatives of which are insects, crabs, and the like; echinoderms, which include modern starfish and sea urchins; chordates, which include modern vertebrates; and so forth. Mammals came later, but the chordates-—the major group to which they belong—were right there at the beginning of the Cambrian. This is absolutely contrary to Darwin's Tree of Life. These animals, which are so fundamentally different in their body plans, appear fully developed, all of a sudden, in what paleontologists have called the single most spectacular phenomenon of the fossil record."
Spectacular, indeed. It was staggering! But I was having trouble thinking in vast geological terms, where words like "sudden" and "abrupt" have meanings quite different from how we might use them in everyday conversation. I needed more clarity.
"How suddenly did these animals come onto the scene?" I asked Wells. "Put it into context for me."
"Okay," he said. His eyes swept the room, looking for a suitable illustration. Finding none, he turned to me and asked: "Are you a football fan?" I felt trapped. I didn't want to admit that I've followed the hapless Chicago Bears ever since I was a teenager. 24 After all, my credibility was at stake! So I kept my answer vague: "Uh, yeah, I like the game."
"Okay," he said, "imagine yourself on one goal line of a football field. That line represents the first fossil, a microscopic, single-celled organism. Now start marching down the field. You pass the twenty-yard line, the forty-yard line, you pass midfield, and you're approaching the other goal line. All you've seen this entire time are these microscopic, single-celled organisms. You come to the sixteen-yard line on the far end of the field, and now you see these sponges and maybe some jellyfish and worms. Then— boom!-—-in the space of a single stride, all these other forms of animals suddenly appear. As one evolutionary scientist said, 'the major animal groups appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus—full blown and raring to go.' 25
"Now, nobody can call that a branching tree! Some paleontologists, even though they may think Darwin's overall theory is correct, call it a lawn rather than a tree, because you have these separate blades of grass sprouting up. One paleontologist in China says it actually stands Darwin's tree on its head, because the major groups of animals—instead of coming last, at the top of the tree—come first, when animals make their first appearance. Either way, the result is the same: the Cambrian explosion has uprooted Darwin's tree."
The Hypothesis Fails
There seemed, however, to be an easy comeback. "Maybe," I said, "Darwin was right after all—the fossil record is still incomplete. "Who knows how natural history might be rewritten next week by a discovery that will be made in a fossil dig somewhere? Or perhaps," I speculated, "the organisms that existed prior to the Biological Big Bang were too small or their bodies were too soft to have left any trace in the fossil record."
Having raised those objections, I sat back in my chair. "Frankly, you can't prove otherwise," I said, my words almost a taunt.
Wells yielded a little. "As a scientist," he conceded, "I have to leave open the possibility that next year someone will discover a fossil bed in the Congo or somewhere that will suddenly fill in the gaps."
I nodded at his admission. However, he wasn't finished.
"But I sure don't think that's likely," he added. "It hasn't happened after all this time, and millions of fossils have already been dug up. There are certainly enough good sedimentary rocks from before the Cambrian era to have preserved ancestors if there were any. I have to agree with two experts in the field who said that the Cambrian explosion is 'too big to be masked by flaws in the fossil record.' As for the pre-Cambrian fossils being too tiny or soft to be preserved-—-well, we have microfossils of bacteria in rocks dating back more than three billion years. And there have been soft-bodied organisms from before the Cambrian that have been found in Australia. In fact, scientists have found soft-bodied animals in the Cambrian explosion itself. So I don't think that's a very good explanation, either. Today evolutionists are turning to molecular evidence to try to show there was a common ancestor prior to the Cambrian."
"How does that work?" I asked.
"Not very well," he quipped. "But here's the process: you can't get molecular evidence from the fossils themselves; all of it comes from living organisms. You take a molecule that's basic to life—say, ribo-somal RNA—and you examine it in a starfish, and then you study its equivalent in a snail, a worm, and a frog. You're looking for similarities. If you compare this one molecule across different categories of animal body plans and find similarities, and if you make the assumption that they came from a common ancestor, then you can construct a theoretical evolutionary tree. But there are too many problems with this. If you compare this molecular tree with a tree based on anatomy, you get a different tree. You can examine another molecule and come up with another tree altogether. In fact, if you give one molecule to two different laboratories, you can get two different trees. There's no consistency, including with the dating. It's all over the board. Based on all this, I think it's reasonable for me, as a scientist, to say that maybe we should question our assumption that this common ancestor exists."
Wells stopped for a moment. He apparently felt some elaboration was in order.
"Of course, descent from a common ancestor is true at some levels," he continued. "Nobody denies that. For example, we can trace generations of fruit flies to a common ancestor. Within a single species, common ancestry has been observed directly. And it's possible that all the cats-—-tigers, lions, and so on-—descended from a common ancestor. While that's not a fact, it might be a reasonable inference based on interbreeding. So as we go up these different levels in the taxonomic hierarchy —species, genus, family, order, class—common ancestry is certainly true at the species level, but is it true at higher levels? It becomes an increasingly uncertain inference the higher we go in the taxonomic hierarchy. When you get to the level of phyla, the major animal groups, it's a very, very shaky hypothesis. In fact, I would say its disconfirmed. The evidence just doesn't support it."
The facts were compelling. Nobody can claim that Darwin's tree is an accurate description of what the fossil record has produced. Protestations from Darwinists aside, the evidence has failed to substantiate the predictions that Darwin made. Yet when I encountered the drawing as a student, I walked away with the conclusion that it illustrated the success of his revolutionary ideas.
"Is the drawing still featured in textbooks today?" I asked.
"Not only is it included in the textbooks, but it's called a fact," Wells replied, sounding genuinely astonished. "I don't mind that it's shown; I think it's a good illustration of an interesting theory. What I mind is when textbooks call it a fact that all animals share a common ancestor. Well, it's not a fact!" he declared, his voice punctuating his point.
"If you consider all of the evidence, Darwin's tree is false as a description of the history of life. I'll even go further than that: it's not even a good hypothesis at this point."
IMAGE #3: Haeckel's Embryos
Like every young student of evolution, Wells had seen Ernst Haeckel's comparative drawings of embryos, often described as among the best evidence for Darwinism. But it wasn't until Wells was working on his doctorate in vertebrate embryology that he saw the sketches for what they really were.
Haeckel's most renowned images depict the embryos of a fish, salamander, tortoise, chicken, hog, calf, rabbit, and human side-by-side at three stages of development. The illustrations support Darwin's assertion that the striking similarities between early embryos is "by far the strongest single class of facts" in favor of his theory that all organisms share a universal ancestor.
I was mesmerized by the nineteenth-century drawings when I first encountered them as a student. As I carefully compared the embryos at their earliest stage, looking back and forth from one to the other, I could see they were virtually indistinguishable. I searched my mind, but I couldn't think of any logical explanation for this phenomenon other than a common ancestor. My verdict was swift: Darwin prevails.
The real explanation, as it turns out, would have been far too bizarre for me to have even considered at the time.
"When you saw these drawings," I said to "Wells, "did you have the same reaction that I did-—-that this was strong evidence for Darwinism?"
"Yes, I did, the first time I looked at them," Wells answered. "It wasn't until I was doing my graduate work that I began to compare actual photographs of embryos to what Haeckel had drawn."
"And what did you find?"
"I was stunned!" he said, his eyes widening. "They didn't fit. There was a big discrepancy. It was really hard to believe."
As he described what had happened, I slowly shook my head in amazement at the implications of what he was saying. "I sort of rationalized by saying, well, textbooks tend to oversimplify things," he continued. "But over time it bothered me more and more.
"I was hungry for details. "
"What was it specifically that bothered you?" I asked.
"There are three problems with these drawings," he said. "The first is that the similarities in the early stages were faked."
He leveled the accusation without emotion in his voice, but nevertheless it was a stunning charge. "Faked?" I repeated. "Are you sure?" It seemed inconceivable that the books I had relied upon as a student could have so blatantly misled me.
"You can call them fudged, distorted, misleading, but the bottom line is that they were faked," he replied. "Apparently in some cases Haeckel actually used the same woodcut to print embryos from different classes because he was so confident of his theory that he figured he didn't have to draw them separately. In other cases he doctored the drawings to make them look more similar than they really are. At any rate, his drawings misrepresent the embryos."
"That's amazing!" I said. "How long has this been known?"
"They were first exposed in the late 1860s, when his colleagues accused him of fraud."
I cocked my head. "Wait a minute-—I saw these drawings in books that I studied when I was a student in the 1960s and '70s-—more than a hundred years later. How is that possible?"
"It's worse than that!" he declared. "They're still being used, even in upper-division textbooks on evolutionary biology. In fact, I analyzed and graded ten recent textbooks on how accurately they dealt with this topic. I had to give eight of them an F. Two others did only slightly better; I gave them a D."
Anger was brewing inside of me. I had bought into Darwinism— and subsequendy atheism, partially on the basis of drawings that scientists had known for a century were doctored. "This is really hard to believe," I said. "Doesn't it make you mad?"
"Of course it does, because I was raised on this stuff too. I was misled," he said. "There was no excuse for it. When some biologists exposed this in an article a few years ago, the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard complained that this was nothing new. He had known about it for twenty years! It was no secret to the experts. But then why was it still in textbooks? Even Gould said textbook writers should be ashamed of the way the drawings had been mindlessly recycled for over a century. At least he was honest enough to call it what it was: 'the academic equivalent of murder.' " 27
The Sins of Haeckel
Wells's first disclosure about Haeckel's embryos was a stunner, but he had said there were a total of three problems with the drawings. I couldn't wait to hear him address the others. "What are the other two problems?" I asked.
"The minor problem is that Haeckel cherry-picked his examples," Wells explained. "He only shows a few of the seven vertebrate classes. For example, his most famous rendition has eight columns. Four are mammals, but they're all placental mammals. There are two other kinds of mammals that he didn't show, which are different. The remaining four classes he showed—reptiles, birds, amphibians, and fish-—happen to be more similar than the ones he omitted. He used a salamander to represent amphibians instead of a frog, which looks very different. So he
TO BE CONTINUED