Doubting Darwinism through Creative License

by Skip Evans

In October and November 2001, the Discovery Institute (DI), a Seattle-based public policy institute, placed advertisements in at least three periodicals, including The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard. The advertisement in The New York Review of Books appeared under the headline "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism" followed by this text:

Public TV programs, educational policy statements, and science textbooks have asserted that Darwin's theory of evolution fully explains the complexity of living things. The public has been assured, most recently by spokespersons for PBS's Evolution series, that "all known scientific evidence supports [Darwinian] evolution" as does "virtually every reputable scientist in the world."
The following scientists dispute the first claim and stand as living testimony in contradiction to the second. There is scientific dissent to Darwinism. It deserves to be heard.

After this brief statement is a gray box taking up the majority of the page which contains in small print a list of names followed by the names of the institutions at which the signatories work, previously worked, or attained doctoral degrees. In a cleared space in the middle of this display is an area containing the statement to which the signatories attest:

We are skeptical of the claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

Under close examination, the text of both the leading paragraphs and the statement attested to appear to be very artfully phrased. The first paragraph tells readers that spokespersons for the PBS series Evolution have assured the public that "all known scientific evidence supports [Darwinian] evolution." But notice that "Darwinian" appears in brackets. That "all known scientific evidence supports evolution" is a different claim than "all known scientific evidence supports [Darwinian] evolution." Exactly who is equating Darwinian evolution and evolution? In the same vein, the signatories to the second declaration are described as dissenting from "Darwinism" — but do they reject evolution as well? NCSE decided to go to the source to ask the questions.

The Quote

On October 31, 2001, Mark Edwards of the DI responded to an e-mail request for the source of the quote. He stated that he did not know offhand the source of the quotation in the first paragraph but would make an effort to track it down. As of this writing, he has not supplied that information.

Personnel from public television station WGBH, the coproducer of the PBS Evolution series, were unable to find the exact quotation in any of their published literature. An internal memorandum providing background information on the Evolution series to PBS stations nationwide contains an almost identical sentence: "All known scientific evidence supports evolution." — without the word "Darwinian".

Let us assume that this internal memorandum (described on the DI web page) is the source of the quote used in the advertisement. If the word "Darwinian" does not occur in the original quote, why was it added here? In the rest of the paragraph from which the quote was evidently taken there is a discussion of "new discoveries over the past 150 years", including much of the fossil record, DNA, and the process of genetic replication. The paragraph goes on to state that any of these discoveries could have potentially discredited evolution, but they did not. In fact, they have provided even more evidence for descent with modification and common ancestry. The paragraph concludes by acknowledging that there certainly are things about evolution we do not yet know, just as with "all comprehensive scientific theories, from the theory of gravity to quantum mechanics."

We believe that the Discovery Institute intentionally modified the sentence and thereby changed its meaning. The original PBS sentence focused on evolution — the thesis that living things have common ancestors. It would not be equivalent to say that "all known scientific evidence supports Darwinian evolution"; by adding "Darwinian", the meaning of the quotation is changed. Is there healthy scientific debate about the role natural selection plays in evolution? Absolutely, and this is widely recognized. The discoveries of genetics have led to a better understanding of the sources for variation, and the latter half of the 20th century has witnessed a vigorous debate about the roles of proposed additional mechanisms — including genetic drift, gene flow, and developmental processes. These are some of the most interesting topics in modern evolutionary science. But arguments within the scientific community about how evolution occurs should not be confused with arguments — conspicuously absent from the scientific community — about whether evolution occurred.

The Statement

The signatories appear to attest to a statement about the ability of natural selection to "account for the complexity of life" — in other words, a statement about how evolution takes place. Given the anti-evolutionary tone of the introductory paragraphs, a layperson reading the advertisement might well assume that the signatories objected to evolution itself, rather than to the universality of natural selection as its mechanism. But did the scientists themselves object to evolution? Any of them? All of them? Or were some of them only questioning the importance of natural selection? Many scientists — including many associated with NCSE — could in good conscience sign a statement attesting to natural selection's not fully explaining the complexity of life!

The Signatories

The list consists of 41 biologists (over half of whom are biochemists), 16 chemists, 4 engineers, 2 geologists/geophysicists, 8 mathematicians, 10 medical professionals, 4 social scientists, 15 from physics or astronomy, and 3 whose specialties we were unable to determine. Few were from biological subfields associated with organismic and population-level biology — the divisions of biology most closely associated with the study of evolution. None was recognizable as a prominent contributor to the scientific literature debating the role of natural selection in evolution. (The list published on the review evolution web site, which we analyzed, originally contained 103 names. The ads published in the print media contained 105 names, with the addition of the Center for Renewal of Science and Culture, the creationist arm of the DI, President Stephen Meyer and Fellow Paul Nelson, both of whom hold PhDs in philosophy.)

NCSE contacted a sample of the signatories and asked them specific questions about their attitudes concerning evolution, namely whether or not they accepted "evidence for common ancestry, meaning that different species today shared common ancestors in the past," and whether or not they were convinced "that humans and chimps both share a common ancestor."

We anticipated that signatories working for Christian anti-evolution ministries — especially those who are young-earth creationists, such as David A Dewitt, PhD, an adjunct faculty member at the Institute for Creation Research — would answer in the negative, but responses from some of the other signatories were quite revealing. One signatory responded to each of the two questions with "I don't have a problem with this," then went on to elaborate that his "dissent mainly concerns the origin of life." But, of course, evolution is not a theory of the origin of life, nor was "Darwinism" in any of its forms; evolution concerns what happens after life appears.

Although another signatory responded that "the definition of species is very troublesome," he added that "I certainly do accept that SOME (perhaps most) modern species shared at least a recent common ancestor." On the question of whether chimps and humans share a common ancestor, he said, "I believe the genetic evidence is overwhelming for the morphology." Another signatory has elsewhere written, "I am not a creationist and have no reason to doubt common descent."

Therefore, although the signatories represent a diverse range of opinions about the role of natural selection in evolution, the list is nothing more than careful word play — what is known as "spin." Should one draw the conclusion from the advertisement that there is a growing movement of scientists who doubt evolution? Hardly; many of the names on the list are not new to anti-evolutionary activity. Ironically, if one were to conduct a survey of scientists who accepted evolution, the size of that list would swamp by tens of thousands this list assembled by the Discovery Institute!

It is regrettable that the public is likely to be confused by these advertisements and be misled into thinking that all of these scientists reject evolution, or that there is a groundswell of scientists rejecting evolution. Neither is true.