A listened wrote recently to inform me that 980 KKMS, a Minneapolis-St. Paul based Christian radio station, brought on Dr. Jonathan Wells from the Discovery Institute, the nation’s leading proponent of Biblical Young Earth fundamentalism. They played several segments of my 2007 Skeptoid podcast How to Argue with a Creationist for Dr. Wells, and had him respond to it point by point. The web page is here and the free MP3 file is here.
I would like to rebut a few of the things Dr. Wells said. But first, I think it’s important to understand who Dr. Wells is and what he’s about. Now, there’s no way to do this without the appearance of an ad hominem attack, so all I can do is state that I’ve got nothing negative to say about him personally (I don’t know him personally) and nothing I say about him or his background should be construed to say anything about the accuracy of his scientific claims. We’ll take those on separately, on their own merit. Dr. Wells, if you read this, I honestly do not intend to offend or insult you personally, as that serves no constructive purpose. But a discussion of certain elements of your background is essential for our readers to understand where you’re coming from.
Dr. Wells strikes me as a very odd choice for a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, which is dedicated to pretty hardcore Christian conservatism — whether they would admit that or not, it’s clearly what they’re about. For one thing, he did time in Leavenworth as a conscientious objector. A lot of people would shake his hand and congratulate him for that. I might well myself. But how many Discovery Institute supporters would?
For another, he’s a member of the Unification Church, a follower of Korean Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Moonies, as they are popularly known, believe that the Reverend himself is the second coming of Christ; and again, I wonder how many of the Discovery Institute supporters approve of this belief. The Moonies paid for Wells’ first Ph.D. at Yale, which is in religious studies. They then paid for his second Ph.D. at Berkeley, in molecular and cell biology; which was, in his words, “To prepare myself for battle.” By his own statement, he went for a Ph.D. in biology specifically to better prepare himself to argue against it for religious reasons. And make no mistake, he did go through all the motions; even publishing a few legitimate papers (as required) in the course of his Ph.D. He now cites this background to defend his credibility as a scientist, which was, of course, the real reason the Moonies sent him to get it.
Without question, to any reasonable observer, his version of “doing science” is specifically and exclusively in support of promoting a religious agenda.
Finally, and perhaps most bizarre, is the testimony he gave at the 2005 hearings at the Kansas Board of Education about replacing science education with Creation stories. When asked how old he thought the Earth was, Wells answered:
I think the earth is probably four-and-a-half billion or so years old. But I’ll tell you this, I used to– I would have said, a few years ago, I’m convinced it’s four-and-a-half billion years old. But the truth is I have not looked at the evidence. And I have become increasingly suspicious of the evidence that is presented to me and that’s why at this point I would say probably it’s four-and-a-half billion years old, but I haven’t looked at the evidence.
This is from a man who has devoted his whole professional life to proving a Biblical Young Earth story by claiming that evolution doesn’t happen, and thus we are left only with a magical divine Creation as the only option. And the Discovery Institute’s senior fellow “hasn’t looked at the evidence.”
My assessment of Dr. Wells is that he is disingenuous about the way he makes his point. Because the facts are that:
- He never says the Earth is young.
- He never says that a magical divine Creation is the only option.
- He never says the Bible is literally true.
- He simply says evolution is not supported by scientific evidence.
To any person of reasonable intelligence, the only reason anyone would devote their entire professional life to a church-funded battle to disprove evolution is to bolster the church’s claims that the Bible is literally true. I don’t know, but I would bet, that Wells would answer “Hey, those are your words, not mine; I’m only saying there’s scientific doubt over evolution.”
And that’s why I assess him as disingenuous. If he wants my respect (which I’m sure he doesn’t care about) he would be a stand-up guy and come straight out and admit his beliefs and his agenda. They are obvious anyway, so the only thing he gains by distancing himself from them is the appearance of intellectual dishonesty.
OK, so enough of my statements about Dr. Wells, his background, and why I think he brings an obvious agenda to the table. Let’s get to his radio interview.
Now, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to have to do extensive paraphrasing here. If anyone feels that my paraphrasing of Dr. Wells is inaccurate, I’ll happily update this post, so let me know.
CREATIONIST ARGUMENT: Evolution is just a theory, not a fact.
SKEPTOID: An attempt to discredit theories by suggesting that they are merely guesses or assumptions. The FACT of evolution is that species change over time, and the THEORY of evolution is our best explanation of how and why that happens. Fact and theory are different; you don’t graduate from one to the other.
DR. WELLS: “I don’t make this argument”, because it’s based on the assumption that species change over time, and this does not happen. We’ve never observed it. There are small changes within species, but one species has never evolved into another. Evolution is, in fact, merely a speculation.
Any professional biologist — and by that, I mean one who got his degree with the intention of actually learning something and becoming a contributor to the field — will be baffled by this claim. Many, many such cases have been directly observed. Someone in Dr. Wells’ position obviously has to have been exposed to this research, so you have to judge for yourself his honesty in answering this question. The literature is saturated with examples that are conclusively documented. In fact, you don’t even have to look any further than Talk Origins – the most obvious index of research that proves evolutionary theory – that Dr. Wells must be familiar with.
It’s very easy to make a blanket statement like “No species has ever evolved into another” when you’re on a friendly radio interview and there is no requirement to defend your statements (I know, because I enjoy the same freedom on my podcast; the difference is I report what the science supports). I would like to hear Dr. Wells discuss some of the specific examples with the researchers who were actually involved.
CREATIONIST ARGUMENT: Evolution is controversial; scientists disagree on its validity.
SKEPTOID: Creationists grossly mischaracterize the ongoing study over numerous minor points as disagreement over the validity of the theory as a whole. They love to publish lists of “scientists who disagree with evolution” — like their “Dissent from Darwin” list, 700 names out of 3.2 million Ph.D.s worldwide, or about 2 percent of 1 percent — and refer to this as widespread controversy.
DR. WELLS: Scientific consensus has often been wrong in history (cites a few Middle Ages examples). A growing number of scientists dispute common descent. Evidence is what counts; not popular opinion. “Darwinists” play word games: They get you to agree to evolution by describing micro-evolution, which nobody disagrees with; and then they twist the meaning to refer to macro-evolution, which does not happen.
Of course science has been wrong throughout history. He neglects to mention that its self-correcting nature is its greatest strength. Does he expect us to throw the scientific method out the window because people used to believe in necromancy? No? Then why bring this up? If we’re going to accept that the scientific method is the best way to learn things, then we need to go where it takes us. And all the evidence we have supports modern evolutionary synthesis. That’s the science, it’s not “popular opinion” as polls of the American public clearly show.
Micro-evolution and macro-evolution are terms that Young Earthers invented to explain examples of evolution that they’ve found otherwise incontrovertible. “Evolution does not take place.” “Here’s an example of evolution taking place.” “Oh, that’s just MICRO-evolution.” The only word game being played here is yours, Dr. Wells.
CREATIONIST ARGUMENT: Evolution is itself a religion.
SKEPTOID: I don’t recall seeing any references to divine superbeings in the evolutionary literature, and I’ve never met someone who considers himself a member of any Darwin Church.
DR. WELLS: “Darwinists” mistakenly call anyone with a scientific point that disputes the Official Consensus a “Creationist”. Darwin’s theory is actually a materialistic philosophy, and so is actually a denial of religion. Darwin’s original writings were a religious argument (or anti-religious, which is the same thing).
I’ve met extremely religious people to whom everything is black and white. You can’t walk down the street without it being, to them, either in praise of Jesus or an act of Satanism. To Dr. Wells, you can’t even practice scientific research without it being a religious act. Note that one of his favorite words is “Darwinist”, which he uses almost exclusively in place of “scientist” or “biologist”. If you’re not a Young Earther, you’re a “Darwinist”.
Dr. Wells is known as a “Moonie” because he worships Sun Myung Moon as the Messiah. By referring to biologists as “Darwinists”, Dr. Wells hopes to evoke the same worshipful relationship. A “Darwinist”, by all the rules of language, can only mean a person who worships Darwin. Young Earthers often imply, or even outright state, that biologists are a religious faithful who worship Darwin and consider his writings sacred.
Wells’ constant use of the Creationist-invented term “Darwinist” is highly deliberate. It’s not merely casual speech.
Calling a biologist a “Darwinist” is as absurd as calling an aerospace engineer a Wrightist. Sure, Darwin and the Wrights did some important early work in their scientific fields, and they deserve their due accolades; but I can’t think of any person knowledgeable in either field who believes that early work was infallible, inerrant, and sacred.
If Dr. Wells disagrees with any of this, then I challenge him to stop using the term. That’ll be the day. Poisoning the well through use of the term “Darwinism” is his favorite device, and one of his most effective weapons.
CREATIONIST ARGUMENT: Evolution has never been observed.
SKEPTOID: Evolution has indeed been exhaustively observed and documented. Open a textbook.
DR. WELLS: There is no evidence that any new species has ever appeared through natural processes.
If you believe that Noah’s flood created the Grand Canyon in just a few days 4,000 years ago, then it’s easy to accept that rabbit skeletons and Tyrannosaurus fossils are never found together because they were standing on opposite sides of the river at the time. [I guess... perhaps Dr. Wells would be good enough to enlighten us as to his own explanation for the geotemporal distribution of the fossil record, since no new species have appeared since Creation took place.]
CREATIONIST ARGUMENT: There is an absence of transitional fossils.
SKEPTOID: Examples of transitional fossils in the horse record given. Links given to numerous online sources of many hundreds of transitional fossils.
DR. WELLS: All these versions of fossils only prove that there were many types of animals. It does not prove that one changed into another — something we’ve never seen. (And by the way, nobody uses horses any more as examples of transitional fossils.)
If you have a different explanation for their geotemporal placement, I’m ready to hear it. When evidence is presented, it’s inadequate to simply say “No, I don’t believe it.” The scientific method provides a way to build a theory to explain the observation. So, develop and present your alternate theory.
Note: If you plan to say that the geotemporal placement is useless because all the rock strata on Earth were laid during the few days following Noah’s flood, fine, let me know and we’ll have some geologists on hand to hear your evidence of that. If you still “haven’t looked at the evidence” since Kansas 2005, that’s no problem, we’ll be happy to fill you in.
CREATIONIST ARGUMENT: It’s too unlikely that complex forms could evolve by chance.
SKEPTOID: Explained the basics of bottom-up design guided by selection: Improvement is not only likely, it’s virtually inevitable. Software simulations illustrate it well.
DR. WELLS: “Show me.” (Laughter.) “These are huge claims being made here, and I would like to see some evidence for it.” (And then the crown jewel:) “Who designed that software?” (Comedy rimshot sound effect.)
No, you wouldn’t like to see such evidence. Why do you even say that? YOU’VE BEEN SHOWN SUCH EVIDENCE A THOUSAND TIMES and you still deny that anyone has any. I’m not going to play your game and repeat it here for you, at the expense of hours of data collection and assimilation, which you would ignore the same as you’ve always ignored it. So you should react with eye rolling and condescending laughter, and say something like “Big surprise, he says he refuses to show me evidence — why do you think that is?”
The fact is I don’t really care what you think. Nobody interested in learning really cares. In fact, I don’t even join with those who blame the Young Earthers for the superstitious beliefs held by so many young students in the United States: I blame a failing science education system. So, while I certainly find the Discovery Institute’s efforts to replace science with superstition to be counterproductive, I don’t feel that a direct confrontation is the solution: There are a thousand other superstitions waiting to take its place. Better communication and dissemination of good information is the solution.
That’s why I produce Skeptoid and contribute to SkepticBlog. Entertain, enlighten, and educate.