Dispatches from the Creation Wars

PZ Rips Wells

As a follow up on that absurd video of Casey Luskin and the DI making a big deal out of Haeckel’s embryos in the movie Flock of Dodos, PZ Myers has been doing a terrific job of ripping their arguments apart and showing how the DI is not only lying about what the movie says, but still lying about the Haeckel drawings in modern textbooks (see here, here and here). Now here’s the funny part: Wells’ response, such as it is. I’ll post the full text of Wells’ response to PZ below the fold:

One more thing. Olson’s comments the day after showing his film in Seattle were posted on a blog maintained by University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers, who declared in 2005 that it’s time “for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer” on those who criticize Darwinism. Just before Olson posted his comment, Myers wrote on his blog that the point of Haeckel’s embryo drawings “is still valid; there is an interesting phenomenon going on in development, in which there is a period during which the body plan of vertebrates is roughly laid out.”

Is that really what biology textbooks are saying with Haeckel’s fraudulent drawings? Of course not. In fact, if Olson objects to trivia, it’s hard to imagine a more trivial statement than “there is a period during which the body plan of vertebrates is roughly laid out.” Since animals aren’t born as fully formed adults, but develop from single egg cells, this statement is about as meaningful as “the sky is above us” or “the future lies ahead.”

Myers’s statement reminds me of a bait-and-switch advocated by National Center for Science Education Director Eugenie Scott (whom Olson in his blog post praises along with Myers). Scott recommends peddling Darwinian evolution to unsuspecting students by telling them that evolution is “the way we try to understand change through time. The present is different from the past.” After she gets them nodding in agreement to something so trivially obvious that no sane person would deny it, she gradually introduces them to “The Big Idea” – Darwinism.

This is not science, but a con game, and “Flock of Dodos” is part of it.

Notice something important? Like the fact that he didn’t actually respond to any of PZ’s substantive arguments about why his claims about the Haeckel drawings in modern textbooks are false? Flock of Dodos and Myers both point out a very important fact, that even in those few textbooks that reproduce his famous drawings they are presented not as evidence for recapitulation, an idea that has been discredited for over a century, but only as a matter of historical interest to show the historical development of modern theories of developmental biology as it relates to evolutionary history.

The DI wants you to believe that the mere mention of Haeckel or his drawings in a textbook is evidence of fraud. They further want you to believe that because Haeckel’s recapitulation idea isn’t true then embryology has nothing to tell us about evolutionary history at all. Both of those are absolutely false. That’s why they only tell you that a given textbook mentions the drawings, without telling you what they say about them. And that’s why they ignore all of the findings in developmental biology for the last century.

Notice also that Wells engages in not one but two ad hominen arguments. Not insults; ad hominems are not necessarily insults at all, contrary to popular belief. An ad hominem is an argument that says someone else’s argument is false because of an irrelevant personal trait of the person making the argument. Wells uses two such arguments here. The first is his quote of Myers from 2005 about breaking out the steel-toed boots and the brass knuckles.

Now, I think that was a dumb thing to say and it has certainly given the IDers lots of ammunition, not only against Myers but against our side in general. But it has nothing at all to do with any of the substantive claims in his posts on this subject. He might say intemperate things, but he’s dead right on this issue. Wells is using this for one reason and one reason only: it makes his followers tune him out. This fallacy also goes by the name of poisoning the well. It’s a way of making one’s followers disregard the arguments being made without having to actually engage them on the substance of those arguments.

And he attempts to poison the well with a second ad hominem by bringing in Eugenie Scott and an alleged “bait and switch” that completely distorts what she said. And he then invokes the infamous term “Darwinism”, a completely meaningless buzzword that they use for “the bad guys.” None of this does anything at all to answer Myers’ arguments, and that is exactly the point; he can’t answer them, so he is forced to wave his hands and distract attention from them.

This is what I mean when I say that some ignorance actually must be acquired. This type of ignorance is not merely the lack of knowledge, it is the systematic and deliberate inculcation of falsehoods and myths in the minds of their followers, who simply do not have the base of knowledge from which to evaluate their claims.

Comments

  1. #1 Lettuce
    February 12, 2007

    Clearly the ignorance is a feature, not a bug and it is designed in.

  2. #2 mark
    February 12, 2007

    Indeed, Wells not only avoids addressing the contention that the textbooks that cite Haeckel’s diagram do so in a critical manner, he actually repeats his charge, implying that the diagrams are included to perpetuate a fraud:

    Is that really what biology textbooks are saying with Haeckel’s fraudulent drawings? Of course not.

    If development were so trivial, how does Wells explain why so many biologists find it so capable of providing insight into biological relationships? I wonder if Wells is even aware of the patterns of cleavage at earlier stages, that provide much additional insight. I’m surprised Wells didn’t counter with an argument supporting that alternative theory, the one about the homunculus.

  3. #3 Herb West
    February 12, 2007

    Ed, you’re incorrect. The 3rd edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell has Haeckel’s drawings. Although it doesn’t say the magic words “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” it does say: “[T]he embryos of different species so often resemble each other in their early stages, and as they develop, seem sometimes to replay the steps of evolution” (p. 33)

    Further, Haeckel’s conserved stage is not described as an interesting but flawed idea that is of historical interest only. The textbook cites Haeckel’s drawing as evidence of genetic similarity between species.

    The Cell (p 32): “Molecular studies, to be discussed later, reveal an astonishing number of developmental resemblances at a fundamental genetic level, even between species as remotely related as mammals and insects. In terms of anatomy, furthermore, early developmental stages of animals whose adult forms appear radically different are often surprisingly similar; it takes an expert eye for example, to distinguish to a young chick embryo from a young human embryo (Figure 1-36).” The Figure is Haeckel’s drawing.

    The Molecular Biology of the Cell was just plain wrong. Wells isn’t the only person to point this out. It was discussed in in Richardson et al (Anat Embryol, 1997) a comparative study of embryo anatomy. Richardson writes: “Another point to emerge from this study is the considerable inaccuracy of Haeckel’s famous figures. These drawings are still widely reproduced in textbooks and review articles, and continue to exert a significant influence on the ideas in this field.” Richardson cites the 3rd edition of The Molecular Biology of the Cell as such a textbook.

    Realize that Richardson’s paper is 1997. Gould as well wrote about the enduring effects of Haeckel’s drawings in 2000 (Natural History, 2000, 109, 2). It’s not surprising that Wells in 2002 could find recent textbooks that naively reproduce Haeckel’s drawings.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    February 12, 2007

    Herb, you just made my point for me. Richardson discussed this book in 1997, a decade ago. Do the editions of that book published since then still include the same errors? I doubt it. If they did, you would surely have cited the most recent edition. Until Richardson’s work, it was virtually unknown that the drawings were fakes; recapitulation, however, was long known to be false. That a cell biology book a decade ago might get a fact wrong in developmental biology isn’t a big shock; if it still contained the same mistake, that would be surprising. It would also be good reason to condemn the editor and publisher of the book for sloppiness. But Wells is flat out accusing scientists and book publishers of committing a fraud by widely reproducing the drawings even after they were shown to be incorrect. The fact that the only example you can come up with is a cell biology book written before that fact was exposed shows how absurd that charge is.

  5. #5 argystokes
    February 12, 2007

    Herb, you just made my point for me. Richardson discussed this book in 1997, a decade ago. Do the editions of that book published since then still include the same errors?

    I’ve got the fourth edition sitting right in front of me. It doesn’t have the images or text that Herb cites, and lacks anything Haeckel-ish entirely, so far as I can find.

  6. #6 Matt
    February 12, 2007

    It’s very likely that some schools are still using textbooks that are 10-20 years old. If there are books published in that time frame that include the Haeckel drawings without identifying them as fraudulent then it’s important that those specific texts be acknowledged as flawed and some attempt should be made to determine the extent to which these texts are still being used today.

    Wells’ audience is the public at large, not scientists or science enthusiasts. As long as he can point to a textbook matching his criteria that can reasonably be assumed to be in use *somewhere* he can continue his BS about deliberate fraud.

    In addition to pointing out that newer additions do not contain this material, it would be nice to be able to answer his complaints with specific information on distribution. Complaints about the third edition of “Molecular Biology of the Cell” will become much less interesting if turns out that only one school district in Idaho still teaches from that book.

  7. #7 ERV
    February 12, 2007

    There are middle school and high school kids that get to take molecular biology?

    Boy was I gipped.

    And I flipped through my old college textbooks too– Haeckel in the historical sense only, only in intro book (not cell, genetics, ecology, molecular, etc). My intro book also contained info about Lamarckism. Wells going to write a book about how Evilutionists still believe in Lamarckian evolution?

  8. #8 Herb West
    February 12, 2007

    You’re right that it’s not in the 4th edition as it was promptly removed in the very next edition. Wells book, Icons of Evolution, was published 2002. At the time of Wells’ book the third edition was the most current; the fourth edition replaced it also in 2002.

    Wells gossly overexaggerates the importance of Haeckel to modern evolutionary theory but you have to admit that he didn’t make up out of whole cloth the claim that Haeckel was (maybe still is) in some textbooks.

  9. #9 Steve Reuland
    February 12, 2007

    Ed writes:

    Notice something important? Like the fact that he didn’t actually respond to any of PZ’s substantive arguments about why his claims about the Haeckel drawings in modern textbooks are false?

    Just more evidence that when the DI people respond to critics, the intended audience is not the critics, it’s their supporters. The purpose of the response is not to rebut the criticism, but to convince their supporters that the criticism was empty to begin with, so therefore there’s no need for anyone to bother reading it.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    February 12, 2007

    Herb West wrote:

    Wells gossly overexaggerates the importance of Haeckel to modern evolutionary theory but you have to admit that he didn’t make up out of whole cloth the claim that Haeckel was (maybe still is) in some textbooks.

    If that’s all he said, not a problem. But that’s not all he says. He grossly exaggerates in order to prop up the idiotic argument that the drawings are being kept in the textbooks to perpetrate a fraud. That’s a lie, one that he keeps repeating over and over and over again.

  11. #11 386sx
    February 12, 2007

    Wells: In fact, if Olson objects to trivia, it’s hard to imagine a more trivial statement than “there is a period during which the body plan of vertebrates is roughly laid out.”

    The whole “trivial” statement is really this: “The point is still valid; there is an interesting phenomenon going on in development, in which there is a period during which the body plan of vertebrates is roughly laid out, and biology has some explanations for it.” And, furthermore, Myers inserted a link to http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/wells_and_haeckels_embryos/ inside of that “trivial” statement. God what a goofy-head that Wells is. I’m sorry.

    Wells: Since animals aren’t born as fully formed adults, but develop from single egg cells, this statement is about as meaningful as “the sky is above us” or “the future lies ahead.”

    So what’s wrong with studying the sky above us or trying to predict what is in the future. Now you see what I mean when I say Wells is a goofy-head. :-) I’m sorry.

  12. #12 quork
    February 12, 2007

    you have to admit that he didn’t make up out of whole cloth

    You have to admit that Wells is a lying weasel, and it is wise not to believe anything he says without checking it out independently. For example:

    … In one scene, Olson hands Kansas attorney (and Darwin critic) John Calvert a recent biology textbook and challenges him to find Haeckel’s drawings in it. Taken by surprise, Calvert can’t do it. Afterwards, Olson displays a 1914 textbook containing the drawings but claims they haven’t been used since then…

    It sounds like Olson hand-picked a book and took it with him on his interview of Calvert, doesn’t it? And yet, if you actually watch Flock of Dodos, that is entirely not the case. The interview was underway, Calvert mentioned Haeckel, Olson noticed shelves full of books, and suggested they check them out. The books were Calvert’s, in Calvert’s office, and they checked through several books, not just one. This from someone who writes:

    Myers’s statement reminds me of a bait-and-switch

    Someone who twists the facts the way Wells does has no business accusing someone else of bait-and-switch.

  13. #13 quork
    February 12, 2007

    And how’s this for a chuckle; the footer at the bottom of Wells posting on Evolution News & Views:

    The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site. Unfortunately, much of the news coverage has been sloppy, inaccurate, and in some cases, overtly biased. Evolution News & Views presents analysis of that coverage, as well as original reporting that accurately delivers information about the current state of the debate over Darwinian evolution.

    Sloppy? Inaccurate? Biased? Yup, that sounds like Wells. Oops, the second sentence about “accurately delivers information” is what’s supposed to apply.

  14. #14 twincats
    February 12, 2007

    They just never give up.

    A bit off-topic, but I just saw a very interesting documentary by the BBC on the Dover trial. It explained a lot things that Ed has covered (some of which I must admit went over my head a bit) very well for those of us who are not well-versed in the legal and scientific minutiae pertinent to the trial. There’s also a lot of background, which I found interesting, too. It can be found at:

    http://exchristian.net/exchristian/2007/02/war-on-science.html

  15. #15 guthrie
    February 12, 2007

    On reading Wells screed at the DI, I was struck by his continual empty challenges. He claimed to have sent a list of textbooks with the haeckel drawings, to the Flock of dodos guy. I do not recall Wells actually listing these textbooks. I would be a whole lot more worried if Wells actually said “All these books still have it:” and proceeded to lay out the evidence.

  16. #16 gwangung
    February 12, 2007

    On reading Wells screed at the DI, I was struck by his continual empty challenges. He claimed to have sent a list of textbooks with the haeckel drawings, to the Flock of dodos guy. I do not recall Wells actually listing these textbooks.

    Surprise, surprise.

    This happened with Wells’ claim that textbooks were denigrating Christianity, and he rattled off titles and authors.

    Funny thing…when someone went and checked those books, what the text said was not the same as what Wells said. And when that was communicated to Wells, there has been a long, loud silence from him….

  17. #17 Keanus
    February 12, 2007

    Wells’ continued claims that biology texts cite Haeckel favorably is a rather broad brush. It’s important to know at what level the texts he cites are used. I don’t know the text mentioned by Herb West “Molecular Biology of the Cell” but with that title, I doubt one would find it being used in an introductory course. Users would therefore have already considerable exposure to the history of biology and be able to weigh Haeckel’s significance or insignificance. To me a more telling question is how high school or college introductory texts, especially college texts for non-majors, treat Haeckel, since those texts may be the only exposure that 90+% of the “educated” population gets to biology.

    I only have two that fill that niche in my library now (I’m a retired text book editor and have long since trashed most of my old books) and neither so much as mentions Haeckel or includes his, or any similar, drawings. One is “Biology: A Systems Approach” by Kormondy and Essenfeld (2nd Ed., 1988, Addison-Wesley) for high school. The other is “Invitations to Biology” by Curtis and Barnes (3rd Ed., 1981, Worth Publ.) a text written for college non-majors.

    Another factor is whether the texts cited, if Wells cites any at all by name, ever sold in any quantity. In other words, were they mere exercises in some author’s or publisher’s vanity or were they used widely enough to have an impact. I have no info on the sales of the Kormondy/Essenfeld text but from the copyright page the copy I have is the fourth printing of the second edition (1988), which given economic print quantities means that the second edition sold a minimum of at least 150,000 copies or at least 400,000+ through two editions. I know from some inside information that the Curtis/Barnes book sold in excess of 250,000 copies a year during its heyday. Although neither was a dominant text in its niche, each commanded a double digit percent of the total market and neither mentions Haeckel. I suspect Haeckel’s treatment in contemporary texts was similar. As applied to these two books, and probably the bulk of the market Wells’ claim in “Icons” is simply false.

  18. #18 kemibe
    February 13, 2007

    So by the reasoning of Wells and the DI, the nice little anthropology textbook I used in 8th grade that explained the story of “Piltdown Man” should be treated as a mass of lies? Never mind that it used the word “hoax” prominently, right?

    Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve used the words “cold fusion” and “Utah” in the same sentence before. So much for my physics degree, which I shall summarily shitcan.

  19. #19 James
    February 14, 2007

    gwangung:

    Funny thing…when someone went and checked those books, what the text said was not the same as what Wells said. And when that was communicated to Wells, there has been a long, loud silence from him….

    Sounds like the same tactic used by the Danish Mullahs to stir up anger over the Mohammed cartoons.

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