Icon of Delusion: Jonathan Wells

31 08 2007

If ever there were an unsavory, real-life creationist character that should be cryptically referred to as “You Know Who” as in the Harry Potter series, it would have to be Jonathan Wells. While I have not actually tested this as yet, the very mention of his name seems to make my blood pressure rise, and perhaps his goal is to be so annoying and deceitful that evolutionary scientists all die of stress-induced heart attacks because they can not even stand the mention of his name. If this is indeed the plan, then Wells has certainly taken another step towards its fruition. On the dubiously titled “Evolution News & Views” blog run by the Disco. Institute, Wells has issued a rather hateful screed about the terms “Darwinist” and “Darwinian.”

Starting out with a rather hateful attack on the quality of The Seattle Weekly, stating that “as [a source] of news [it’s] probably about as reliable as Minju Choson, the official organ of the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea. But homeless people make good use of [it],” Wells quotes a recent article in the paper in which Eugenie Scott of the NCSE as saying “a real follower of modern science would never call himself a ‘Darwinist’,” because “evolutionary biology has advanced way beyond Darwin’s 19th-century tracts.” This is rather strange, especially the quotation marks that Wells decided to “helpfully” insert as they do not appear in the original article. The original sentence reads as follows;

Scott isn’t buying it, not least because she says evolutionary biology has advanced way beyond Darwin’s 19th-century tracts, so that a real follower of modern science would never call himself a “Darwinist.”

Sounds more like the reporter, Nina Shapiro, tried to condense Scott’s argument down into a shorter sentence and was not quoting Scott directly, so once again Wells has shown us that he is either being deceitful or ignorant of how to properly use the copy-paste function on a computer. Still, he uses his doctored quote as a set-up to try and muddy the waters with cherrypicked examples from historical science, and Wells misses the entire point of the now outdated term “Darwinist.” Wells writes;

The reason that “Darwinism” and “Darwinian” – even “Darwinist” – are used by modern evolutionary biologists is that they are more precise than “evolution” and “evolutionist.” The latter have many meanings, most of them uncontroversial. For example, “evolution” can refer simply to change over time, something no sane person would deny. Or it can refer to minor changes within existing species, which breeders have known about for centuries.

Actually, the reason why “Darwinist” was the most popular term in years past is because Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection (and later sexual selection) proved to be the correct one. Prior to Darwin and even during his time “transmutation” of species was a hot topic, and there were various schools of thought as to how creatures evolved. Thus a more exact term for the school of evolutionary thought Darwin founded, “Darwinism,” was necessary to distinguish it from the competing hypotheses of Lamarck, Agassiz, the thoughts put forth in the popular book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers, and the later criticisms of Darwin put forth by the likes of St. George Mivart. In fact, especially in America, evolution by natural selection was not immediately and fully embraced, the famed scientist Louis Agassiz being a critical of Darwin so vociferous that even Wells would have been likely to get his admiration. Even the noted paleontologist E.D. Cope ascribed to Neo-Lamarckian ideas of evolution, a evolutionary framework that has been long known to be insufficient.

But if Darwin was right, why would Eugenie Scott say his “tracts are outdated”? Well, Darwin was right in terms of his big ideas of natural & sexual selection (as well as many other points), but he did get some things wrong. Heredity was vastly unknown during his time, and even Darwin threw in a pinch of Lamarckism into his writings. In the 2nd edition of The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote the following in the preface;

I may take this opportunity of remarking that my critics frequently assume that I attribute all changes of corporeal structure and mental power exclusively to the natural selection of such variations as are often called spontaneous; whereas, even in the first edition of the ‘Origin of Species,’ I distinctly stated that great weight must be attributed to the inherited effects of use and disuse, with respect both to the body and mind. I also attributed some amount of modification to the direct and prolonged action of changed conditions of life. Some allowance, too, must be made for occasional reversions of structure; nor must we forget what I have called “correlated” growth, meaning, thereby, that various parts of the organization are in some unknown manner so connected, that when one part varies, so do others; and if variations in the one are accumulated by selection, other parts will be modified. Again, it has been said by several critics, that when I found that many details of structure in man could not be explained through natural selection, I invented sexual selection; I gave, however, a tolerably clear sketch of this principle in the first edition of the ‘Origin of Species,’ and I there stated that it was applicable to man.

And so I still cringe when I heard scientists refer to themselves as “Darwinists” (or even worse, “orthodox Darwinists,” as I once heard Ken Miller opine). The term is no longer necessary or even accurate because in scientific understanding Darwin’s big ideas won the day ages ago while some of his subjects he did not fully understand have become better known, the science we now have being based on Darwin but not adhering only to the thoughts within his published works. If we’re going to start tagging schools of thoughts with names, we could very well have “Gouldists,” “Dawkinsists,” “Simpsonists,” “Mayrists,” “Morganists,” “Copeists,” “Agassizists,” etc. etc. etc. The distinction that the term “Darwinist” used to have is now largely lost because of our greater understanding, time proving Darwin to be the victor in the battle that took place in evolutionary through between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but I know of no scientists who holds On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection who holds the great work to be a holy book that may not be added to or contradicted in any fashion whatsoever. Just like paleontology requires a historical understanding and a long-view of the subject at hand, so does the topic of the evolution of how we think about biological evolution.

After some more jabs at Scott and confusion of the origins of the words he’s talking about, Wells concludes;

So rather than learn Scott’s word games, biology students should begin by learning to distinguish “evolution” from “Darwinism” and “evolutionist” from “Darwinist.” Or “Darwinian” – it’s one and the same.

I assume that he’s not suggesting that school boards should hire Neo-Lamarckian staff to “Teach the Controversy!” about evolution. I think a biology class would largely benefit from understanding the historical aspect of the evolution idea, starting with the Ionians like Thales and Anaximander and working through Darwin and the Modern Synthesis to today. That way it can be clearly seen that there indeed was a time when evolution did not necessarily mean “natural selection, common descent, etc.” in the minds of some notable scientists, and how eventually their ideas (often influenced by their adherence to religious doctrine) came crumbling down. “Teach the Controversy!” seems like it could have just as well been the battle cry of Louis Agassiz or St. George Mivart as that of current ID thinkers, but apparently they cannot be bothered to go back and try and uncover the history of the evolution idea.

To put it concisely, Darwin was a highly intelligent man who uncovered the beginnings of one of nature’s greatest mysteries, but we would be fools to think that he was somehow all-knowing or that no data would later be found that would clarify or possibly refute his ideas. Nearly 150 years after On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection was published, however, natural selection working on variations in organisms is still a major mechanism of evolution, exemplified by Stephen J. Gould in his coral-branch analogy in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Can we expect any scientist never to make a mistake or never have their ideas overturned? For every important idea that has been put forth by great minds, how many ideas ended up being stillborn or eventually refuted? Are we to remember scientists for their failures only, disregarding their successes? To do so would mark us imbeciles, and we would pay a heavy price for judging those who strove to bring enlightenment to the work by sharing their ideas. Darwin was one of those great minds, and even though “the long argument” will likely continue, I see no reason why we should exhume the corpses of long-dead competing hypotheses of evolution when Charles so eloquently put laid to rest.



One response

1 09 2007
Discovery Institute Fellow runs for school board as “Darwinist”? « Further thoughts

[…] fact that John Campbell seems to be trying to hide his DI affiliation.  Brian Switek of Laeleps effectively takes apart Well’s nonsense. Explore posts in the same categories: Anti-science, Science education, […]

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