Reports of the National Center for Science Education

There You Go Again!

I am delighted that Ray Comfort has decided to provide a near-unabridged version in his next giveaway of On the Origin of Species. It is still missing a crucial diagram from chapter 4 as well as the epigraphs from Bacon and Whewell, which Darwin chose with care, but it is more complete than the first version, which was also missing four chapters and Darwin's original introduction.

In his response to my post (available on-line at, Comfort strangely failed to explain why he expurgated that material from the first version. Elsewhere he wrote that it was "abridged because it was too many pages (too expensive) for a giveaway." But now he is going to try to give away even more copies of this more complete version? I am glad that I am not his accountant.

Anyhow, now I am even more enthusiastic about encouraging students to accept a free copy of Darwin's valuable book. But I stick by my advice: Students who are interested in learning about science can skip Comfort's introduction, which, despite a few cosmetic revisions, remains a hopeless mess of long-ago-refuted creationist arguments.

Consider Comfort's view on the evolution of sex: "No one even goes near explaining how and why each species managed to reproduce (during the millions of years the female was supposedly evolving to maturity) without the right reproductive machinery." Of course not. That is because no biologist thinks males and females evolved separately!

Birds do it; bees do it; even educated fleas do it: but so do the majority of plants and even certain single-celled organisms. But they do it in radically different ways. A male bee has no father and cannot have sons, for example,while there are animals, even vertebrates — bonnethead sharks and Komodo dragons — in which virgin birth occurs. So it is not just for the obvious reason that sex is a fun topic for biologists.

The myriad ways in which organisms reproduce, sexually and asexually, have fascinated biologists for decades and have been examined, in a thoroughly evolutionary context, since Charles Darwin and August Weismann. But none of them has thought that lonely males waited patiently for millions of years for the first females. And anyone who, like Comfort, tells you otherwise is ignorant — or worse.

Comfort complains that I did not provide enough detail in my brief essay about those fossil whales. You want a list of fossil whales showing the transitional features marking the evolutionary transition from land animal to marine,such as changes in the ears, nostrils, and limbs? Indohyus, Icthyolestes, Pakicetus, Nalacetus, Remingtonocetus, Ambulocetus ... Never mind. Start with "From land to water: The origin of whales, dolphins, and porpoises" (Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009; 2 [2]: 272–88, available on-line at, for a nontechnical review by a team of whale paleontologists.

Comfort trots out the old creationist warhorse that because scientists revise their theories in the light of new information, science is untrustworthy. Far from it. The ability to revise explanations in the light of new information is a strength of science, not a weakness. It is why we have learned so much about the natural world over the last few hundred years and why we have longer life spans,more reliable food supplies, fewer women dying in childbirth, and many other advantages of modern life.

Because science is a practical endeavor,when a theory is revised, the change is usually to the periphery rather than to the core. For example, the early fossil Ardipithecus ("Ardi") changed our understanding of the details of human evolution, but it did not cause us to reject the common ancestry of humans and chimps. The common ancestor of two descendant species is not expected to be identical to either of them. With Ardipithecus and other fossils, we are closer to knowing what that common ancestor of humans and chimps looked like.

Darwin himself knew that scientists need to change their minds when presented with new evidence. When he mentioned his "cold shudder," he was not — as Comfort misleadingly suggests — expressing serious doubts about his research. Rather, he was praising his friend the great geologist Charles Lyell for his eventual acceptance of evolution:

I rejoice profoundly that you intend admitting the doctrine ' of modification in your new edition; nothing, I am convinced, could be more important for its success. I honour you most sincerely. To have maintained in the position of a master, one side of a question for thirty years, and then deliberately give it up, is a fact to which I much doubt whether the records of science offer a parallel. For myself, also, I rejoice profoundly; for, thinking of so many cases of men pursuing an illusion for years and often a cold shudder has run through me,and I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted my life to a phantasy. Now I look at it as morally impossible that investigators of truth, like you and [Joseph] Hooker, can be wholly wrong, and therefore I rest in peace.

Whenever a creationist quotes Darwin, check for yourself to see if the original context reflects the creationist's claim. It is easy to do so at The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online (

I close with another quote. Todd C Wood is a young-earth creationist — indeed, the Director of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College, founded in honor of the creationist hero William Jennings Bryan — who rejects evolution for biblical reasons, just like Comfort. Wood insists, "The Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution."

But unlike Comfort, Wood is a trained scientist. And as such, he recognizes that the scientific basis of evolution is strong:

Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution ... as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well. (, emphasis in original)

Anyone who honestly examines the data supporting evolution — even a young-earth creationist — concludes that the science is strong. If you reject evolution, you are doing it for religious reasons. You're entitled to your religious opinions — but not to your own scientific facts.

[Originally posted under the title "Scientist Genie Scott's last word to creationist Ray Comfort: There you go again" at US News & World Report's God and Country blog on November 3, 2009, and republished by permission.]

By Eugenie C Scott
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.