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Icons of Evolution
by Jonathan Wells
CRITICAL REVIEWS, LETTERS, AND ESSAYS

Unfortunately, this book has found its way into the hands and minds of a growing number of students, parents, and teachers who are raising its issues as very critical of the science of evolution. Even though the author has a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, most people are not aware of his admitted underlying religious-based agenda, namely to do all he can to discredit evolution. This might be fine if he used legitimate means to reveal what he considers valid weaknesses in the process. However, his approach is riddled with errors, omissions, misrepresentations and selective quotations, and ignores anything (of which there is much) which counters his thesis.

If you, as a teacher, encounter challenges from students quoting Wells' book, and you don't happen to know much about the issue in question, say this, note the question, and say you will look into it and get back to the student. Then dig into the following resources to get a scientific perspective. If you have addressed the nature of science extensively early in your class (as recommended on this site), then you should have little difficulty pointing out how the claims by Wells have no scientific validity. In fact, you could (should?) use these claims as prime examples of how science (not to mention other fields) can be misused and misrepresented by using logical fallacies and other strategies intended to distort reality. Also, since the book is presented as a supposedly academic critique of evolution (rather than directly promoting a religious position), you can avoid any perception that you may be criticizing some religious viewpoint, something to be avoided in the classroom.

In the Quarterly Review of Biology, Review by Kevin Padian & Alan Gishlick
vol 77(1):33-37, March 2002 (PDF 5 pages; excellent overview and background):
http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/QRB/journal/issues/v77n1/770103/770103.web.pdf

Responses to Jonathan Wells' "Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher"
http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/7719_responses_to_jonathan_wells3_11_28_2001.asp

In TalkOrigins: "Icons of Obfuscation" by Nic Tamzek:
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/wells/

Icons of Anti-Evolution:
http://www.nmsr.org/iconanti.htm

Letter from Dr. Jerry Coyne: "Criticism of moth study no challenge to evolution"
see below

Letter from Dr. Bruce Grant: "Charges of fraud are misleading"
see below

"Fine Tuning the Peppered MOth Paradigm" Bruce Grant, in Evolution 53(3) 1999, pp.980-984 (10 pages pdf)
http://www.wm.edu/biology/melanism.pdf

Icons of Evolution - J. Wells - Critique of Peppered Moths segments, by working scientists....

Letters to the Pratt (KS) Tribune, from Dr. Jerry Coyne and Dr. Bruce Grant [More available in the Pratt archives]:

Letter from Jerry Coyne: December 06, 2000 Criticism of moth study no challenge to evolution, according to evolutionary biologist:

I have learned that the Pratt school board, apparently responding to creationist pressure, has recently revised its tenth-grade biology curriculum to include material that encourages students to question the theory of evolution. In reading the standards, I see that one of my articles - an article constantly misrepresented by creationists - is included as a supplementary reading used to cast doubt on evolution.

Except for a few creationist dissenters, the community of professional biologists has long accepted evolution as an essential theory supported by innumerable pieces of evidence. To make students think otherwise is as harmful as urging them to question the value of antibiotics because there are a few people who believe in spiritual healing.

My article appended to the Pratt standards is a re-evaluation of a classic evolutionary story in which rapid changes in the proportions of color forms of peppered moths occurred in only about 100 years. This evolutionary change is thought to be a response to air pollution, changes in the colors of trees, and increased bird predation. My only problem with the peppered-moth story is that I am not certain whether scientists have identified the precise agent causing the natural selection and evolutionary change. It may well be bird predators, but the experiments leave room for doubt.

Creationists such as Jonathan Wells claim that my criticism of these experiments casts strong doubt on Darwinism. But this characterization is false. All of us in the peppered moth debate agree that the moth story is a sound example of evolution produced by natural selection. My call for additional research on the moths has been wrongly characterized by creationists as revealing some fatal flaw in the theory of evolution.

In reality, the debate over what causes natural selection on moths is absolutely normal in our field. It is not uncommon for scientists to reexamine previous work and find it incomplete, or even wrong. This is the normal self-correcting mechanism of science. Textbook examples may be altered as additional data are found. Creationists, on the other hand, neither air their disagreements in public or admit that they were wrong. This is because their goal is not to achieve scientific truth, but to expel evolution from the public schools.

It is a classic creationist tactic (as exemplified in Wells' book, "Icons of Evolution") to assert that healthy scientific debate is really a sign that evolutionists are either committing fraud or buttressing a crumbling theory. In reality, evolution and natural selection are alive and well, with new supporting evidence arriving daily.

I strongly object to the use of my article by the Pratt school board to cast doubt on Darwinism. And I feel sorry for the students who are being misled by creationists into doubting one of the most vigorous and well-supported theories in biology.

Jerry A. Coyne
Professor of Ecology & Evolution
The University of Chicago


Letter from Dr. Bruce Grant: December 13, 2000 LETTER: Charges of fraud misleading, according to moth specialist:

In recent weeks your newspaper has printed letters debating revisions in high school biology curricula. Some of the correspondents have leveled charges of fraud directed at evolutionists for attributing changes in the colors of peppered moths to natural selection. As I am one of the evolutionary biologists who study peppered moths, I feel obliged to comment. Charges of fraud cannot be left unchallenged.

Some background about peppered moths is necessary. The common form of this moth species is pale gray. About 150 years ago, a black specimen was discovered near an industrial city in England. Over the years, the black (melanic) form became ever more common as the pale form became rare. By 1900 the black form exceeded 90 percent in peppered moth populations throughout the industrialized regions of England. The phenomenon was dubbed industrial melanism.

Because people knew that birds eat insects, scientists as early as 1896 suspected that birds were eating the different color forms of peppered moths selectively based on their degree of conspicuousness in habitats variously blackened by industrial soot. Extensive experimental work supports this view, although questions remain. Other scientists proposed that moths responded to the presence of pollutants by developing darker body colors. We now know from genetic analysis that the colors of adult peppered moths are determined by genes; thus, the changes in the percentages of pale to black moths over generations reflect changes in the genetic makeup of moth populations.

As industrial practices have changed in many regions, we have observed black moths plummet from 90 percent to 10 percent in the just the past few decades. Once again, we have observed significant genetic changes occur in moth populations. Evolution is defined at the operational level as genetic change over time, so this is evolution. Of the several factors known to produce evolutionary change, only natural selection is consistent with the patterns of the changes we see occurring in moth populations. Evolution examined at this level is as well established as any fact in science.

We still have work to do. We do not all agree about the relative roles of contributing factors, such as the flow of genes between moth populations in different regions, the importance of lichens on trees, where on trees moths might hide from predators, how important is differential predation, and so on. As in any branch of science, participants endlessly debate interpretations. Such wrangling is the norm, and it stimulates additional research. That is how we make progress.

Our debates have never been secret. For recent overviews of the controversies, please see http://www.wm.edu/biology/melanism.pdf or www.els.net/elsonline/html/A0001788.html . Yet, unwarranted charges of fraud, fakery and cover-ups repeatedly appear in letters printed in newspapers.

In your paper, Ms. Katrina Rider "asserts" the peppered moth story is a hoax. She conveys the impression that dead moths were glued to trees as part of a conspiracy of deception. She seems unaware that moths were glued to trees in an experiment to assess the effect of the density (numbers) of moths on the foraging practices of birds. Taken out of the context of the purpose of the experiment, the procedure does sound ludicrous.

But, should we blame Ms. Rider for her outrage upon learning that moths were glued to trees? No. Instead, I blame Dr. Jonathan Wells, who wrote the article she cites as her source of information. While he has done no work on industrial melanism, he has written opinion about the work. To one outside the field, he passes as a scholar, complete with Ph.D. Unfortunately, Dr. Wells is intellectually dishonest. When I first encountered his attempts at journalism, I thought he might be a woefully deficient scholar because his critiques about peppered moth research were full of errors, but soon it became clear that he was intentionally distorting the literature in my field. He lavishly dresses his essays in quotations from experts (including some from me) which are generally taken out of context, and he systematically omits relevant details to make our conclusions seem ill founded, flawed, or fraudulent. Why does he do this? Is his goal to correct science through constructive criticism, or does he a have a different agenda? He never mentions creationism in any form. To be sure, he sticks to the scientific literature, but he misrepresents it. Perhaps it might be kinder to suggest that Wells is simply incompetent, but I think his errors are by intelligent design.

Bruce Grant
Professor of Biology
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia