October 24, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Was Darwin Wrong?

One would think National Geographic wants to know, judging from the cover of the November 2004 issue: “Was Darwin Wrong?”  A reader might think the magazine editors, in light of the controversy about evolution sweeping the country, thought it would be timely to engage in a scientific debate about Darwin’s 19th-century theory.  The reader might anticipate seeing an article quoting experts from both sides.  Flip ahead to page 3, and a double-page photo of a fancy pigeon again frames the question, “Was Darwin Wrong?”  Now turn the page, and the debate is over.  The answer, in 250-point bold type, screams: NO.  The subtitle, in 72-point bold type, declares, “The evidence for Evolution [capitalized] is overwhelming.
    The remainder is mop-up work: photos of naked mole rats, Galápagos finches, skeletons of giraffes and whales and flightless birds and orang-utans, an orchid and its pollinating moth, a bulldog, salmon fry, a Cambrian fossil, a Venus flytrap, ants in amber, DNA, bacteria, a chest X-ray and 18 pages of text by David Quammen.  After rehashing a bit of Darwin-Wallace history, he highlights evolutionary evidences from biogeography, paleontology, embryology and morphology.  The story in a nutshell: “Evolutionary theory… is… such a dangerously wonderful and far-reaching view of life that some people find it unacceptable, despite the vast body of supporting evidence” (p. 6).
    And who would these people be?  Fundamentalist Christians, ultra-orthodox Jews, Islamic creationists, Hare Krishnas and “millions of adult Americans” suffering from “honest confusion and ignorance.”  To this group, 45% of whom think God created mankind sometime within the last 10,000 years, and another 37% who mix God and Darwin, this article appears targeted.  (Only 12% believe “humans evolved from other life-forms without any involvement of a god.”)  To these unenlightened 82%, many who “have never taken a biology course that dealt with evolution nor read a book in which the theory was lucidly explained,” Quammen writes to fill in the gaps in their knowledge and alleviate their fears.  Evolution is not dangerous, he explains.  On the contrary, “Evolution is a both a beautiful concept and an important one, more crucial nowadays to human welfare, to medical science, and to our understanding of the world than ever before” (p. 8).
  Perhaps this targeted message is best illustrated on the last page by a picture of a Russian ex-convict who “carries two enduring remnants from his prison time: a Crucifixion tattoo and drug-resistant TB.  He hopes God will help him, but evolution-based science is what guides the truth for an earthly cure.”
    The article refers to anti-evolutionists as “Creationist proselytizers and political activists, working hard to interfere with the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools” (p. 6), for example, an unnamed traveling lecturer “from something called the Origins Research Association,” whose dinosaur-illustrated flyer offered “free pizza following the evening service” at a local Baptist church.  Quammen smirks, “Dinosaurs, biblical truth, and pizza: something for everybody.”  Presumably, evolutionists will take the pizza.
    No mention was made of the intelligent design movement, nor any living scientist with a Ph.D. who might whisper “yes” to “Was Darwin wrong?”
Update  Jonathan Wells published a critique of the issue for the Discovery Institute, and Terry Mortenson issued another rebuttal on Answers in Genesis.

NG has provided a valuable article.  For historians, it will illustrate the desperation of the Darwin Party right before their buddha collapsed.  For logicians, it will provide a classic case study on how to promote a failed theory with logical fallacies, selective evidence, spin doctoring and propaganda.  Thank you, National Geographic, for providing this documentation for future researchers.
    This article has it all: fear-mongering, glittering generalities, analogy, straw man, bluffing, sidestepping, card stacking, big lie, half truth, non-sequitur, extrapolation, equivocation, visualization, personification, and everything else in the whole baloney arsenal.  It won’t work any more.  A new generation of discerning students and adults has arisen.  They are no longer intimidated by bluffing and evasion from the Darwin Party propagandists.  Many of them are readers of Creation-Evolution Headlines and follow the debate closely.  It doesn’t work any more to bluff about the “mountainous accumulation of peer-reviewed scientific studies,” because they are mountain climbers: they read the journals.  They know that evolution is only assumed when mentioned, and that the evolutionary storytelling is inversely proportional to the detail in the observations.  (As a result, they never get much of a workout from climbing said mountains.)  They know how to separate observation from interpretation.  This kind of quick lie in passing, for instance, won’t fool today’s informed readers:

Can we see evolution in action?  Can it be observed in the wild?  Can it be measured in the laboratory?
    The answer is yes.  Peter and Rosemary Grant, two British-born researchers who have spent decades where Charles Darwin spent weeks, have captured a glimpse of evolution with their long-term studies of beak size among Galápagos finches.

Sorry, NG, we examined the Grants’ original papers (see 04/26/2002 and 09/03/2004 headlines) and they showed no such thing.  The best they could do was to find a minor variation in beak size among interfertile finches that reversed when the weather changed, and showed no long-term trend; in fact, the Grants admitted that 30 years is far too short to demonstrate any evolutionary trend.  And your own article showed that no clear example of speciation has been observed (p. 30), and that 999 out of 1000 frames in the “film of evolution” are missing links (p. 25).  The only way to get the attention of today’s informed anti-evolutionists is to stop the propaganda tricks, which are ineffective because we filter them out on the front end, and talk real, objective evidence, addressing the best arguments on both sides.  Since you never do this, we assume you can’t.
    Every one of the other evidences in the National Geographic piece has been contradicted by other scientists, or is irrelevant because it fails to address the main issue Darwin claimed, that everything is related by common descent.  No example of natural selection creating new functional information by an undirected natural process was presented without merely assuming evolution did it – somehow, left unexplained.  Can you believe that they would still dredge up the old stuff about the horse series, vestigial organs and embryologic recapitulation as evidences for evolution?  Come on, you guys, this is 2004.  At least they didn’t showcase peppered moths and Haeckel’s embryos.
    The use of 250-point bold font to shout “No” to the question of whether Darwin was wrong can be interpreted either as (1) a patronizing disdain for the intelligence of the average reader of the magazine, as if they cannot judge the validity of evidence but have to be told the answer (“Evolution is a fact, do you hear?  It’s a fact; are you listening to me?”), or (2) positive self-talk to stave off depression, like a coach’s pep talk to a discouraged team facing formidable odds.  It exudes a flavor of, “Darwin was right, wasn’t he?  Wasn’t he?  We’re losing 82-12 in the polls, but ol’ Charlie boy was right, don’t you think so, Tom?”  “Sure, boss.  Charlie was right.  Don’t let those anti-evolutionist PhDs with all their evidence make you question your faith.  Just ignore them and stick to the playbook: finch beaks prove humans had bacteria ancestors.  Show a picture and maybe they’ll go away and stop bothering us.”
    The worst violation in this propaganda piece was a sin of omission: none of the best arguments against Darwinism were addressed or even mentioned, and intelligent design theory was completely ignored.  Poor Mr. Quammen; he probably wrote his piece before neo-Darwinism was falsified last week (see 10/19/2004 headline).  Should we pressure him for an Archaeoraptor-style retraction? (see 09/27/2000 headline).  Why not, if “a trait that’s valuable in a scientist” is “a willingness to admit when he’s wrong”? (p. 31).
    Read the critiques of this article by Jonathan Wells and Terry Mortensen.  Knowledgeable and articulate readers may wish to take National Geographic up on its offer: “…join our forum and share your thoughts on “Was Darwin Wrong?” at nationalgeographic.com/magazine/0411.  And never underestimate the power of a succinct, informed, articulate letter to the editor.

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