Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Wells’ Silly Rhetoric

Over at the DI blog, Jonathan Wells has a profoundly ridiculous essay comparing evolution to alchemy and marxism. It’s chock full of that shallow rhetoric for which he has become famous. Like this:

I recently found myself in a conversation with two college undergraduates, both of them seniors in the natural sciences (physics and biochemistry, respectively). At one point we were discussing alchemy, which they knew as a pre-modern attempt to transmute lead into gold. I asked them whether they could name any famous alchemists. They could not, though one of them dimly recalled hearing of “someone whose name began with A.”

I then predicted that Darwinian evolution would eventually fade into the same obscurity that now shrouds alchemy. Although I knew from previous conversations that my young friends were skeptical of Darwinian theory, they expressed considerable surprise at my prediction, if only because Darwinism is presently held in such high esteem by their professors.

Hey Glenn Morton, what do you think of that prediction? I’m sure my friend Glenn would just add it to the long list of such predictions about the imminent demise of evolution that have been issued over the last 150 years. This prediction has been made so consistently by creationists that even the Boy Who Cried Wolf can’t believe they still say such things with a straight face. It is an article of faith among creationists that “Darwinism” is going to collapse any moment now, and this is yet another article of faith that is entirely impervious to reality. A few examples of previous predictions, in chronological order. From a professor in 1903:

“It must be stated that the supremacy of this philosophy has not been such as was predicted by its
defenders at the outset. A mere glance at the history of the theory during the four decades that it has been before the public shows that the beginning of the end is at hand.”

From a 1904 book called At the Deathbed of Darwinism:

“Today, at the dawn of the new century, nothing is more certain than that Darwinism has lost its prestige among men of science. It has seen its day and will soon be reckoned a thing of the past. A few decades hence when people will look back upon the history of the doctrine of Descent, they will confess that the years between 1860 and 1880 were in many respects a time of carnival; and the enthusiasm which at that time took possession of the devotees of natural science will appear to them as the excitement attending some mad revel.”

George McCready Price in 1922:

“The science of twenty or thirty years ago was in high glee at the thought of having almost proved the theory of biological evolution. Today, for every careful, candid inquirer, these hopes are crushed; and with weary, reluctant sadness does modern biology now confess that the Church has probably been right all the time”

Harold Clark in 1929:

The world has had enough of evolution … In the future, evolution will be remembered only as the crowning deception which the arch-enemy of human souls foisted upon the race in his attempt to lead man away from the Savior. The Science of the future will be creationism. As the ages roll by, the mysteries of creation week will be cleared up, and as we have learned to read the secrets of creative power in the lives of animals and plants about us, we shall understand much that our dim senses cannot now fathom. If we hope to continue scientific study in the laboratories and fields of the earth restored, we must begin to get the lessons of truth now. The time is ripe for a rebellion against the dominion of evolution, and for a return to the fundamentals of true science.”

I could go on, but I think the point has been made. Evolution must be a pretty robust idea; it is forever on the verge of collapse yet never collapses. Perhaps the anti-evolution crowd has been engaged in the mass self-deception of wishful thinking all this time? It would appear so. Now Wells begins to explain why he thinks evolution is just like alchemy:

First, Darwinism is similar to alchemy in purporting to hold the key to transmutation. Alchemists sought the secret of turning lead into gold; Darwinists think they already possess the secret of turning bacteria into baboons.

So believing that one thing in nature can change into another thing makes one an alchemist? Someone better tell all those geologists who seem to think that they know how strontium turns into rubidium and how potassium turns into argon; silly geologists, don’t you know you’re believing in alchemy? I guess nuclear physics must be on the verge of collapse too. No doubt we’ll be hearing about “Intelligent Decay” soon, informing us that it’s impossible for uranium to turn into lead by “purely random processes.”

Of course, there are also significant differences between alchemy and Darwinism. One is that alchemists were self-consciously searching for The Answer; Darwinists think they already have It. Another is that alchemy contributed many insights, materials and tools to the development of modern chemistry; Darwinism has almost nothing to contribute to the development of biology.

Wow. Seriously, how freaking delusional does one have to be to utter that phrase? In public, no less.

The only things Darwinism can call its own are speculations about common ancestry and the transmutation of species that look increasingly implausible with each new piece of evidence.

Really? When paleontologists found yet another transitional fossil in Tiktaalik roseae, confirming their predictions of the creature’s anatomy, environment and age, did that make common descent “look increasingly implausible”? With the advent of genome sequencing providing volumes of data and the ability to compare the genomes of different species gene by gene, has that made common descent more plausible or less plausible?

You might want to ask Francis Collins. In his recent book he offered multiple lines of evidence for common descent based on genome sequencing, including the fact that one finds damaged and non-functional gene sequences at precisely the same place in the genomes of radically different species:

Finding a precisely truncated ARE [damaged copy] in the same place in both human and mouse genomes is compelling evidence that this insertion event must have occurred in an ancestor that was common to both the human and the mouse…

Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs (1) in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable. This kind of recent genome data thus presents an overwhelming challenge to those who hold to the idea that all species were created ex nihilo.

Oh heck, what does Collins know? He’s only the director of the Human Genome Project. As such, he’s just another member of the atheistic Darwinian conspiracy, so we don’t have to listen to him. Oh, he’s an evangelical Christian? Well that’s not good. How will we impeach his argument now? It’s not as though we can give a substantive answer to them and now our ad hominems are useless. Ah well, they’ll just have to make due with this kind of silly rhetoric from Jonathan Wells.

Update: I mistakenly attributed the post on the DI blog to Jonathan Witt when it was actually written by Jonathan Wells. My apologies.


  1. #1 G Barnett
    February 28, 2007

    Hm. I suppose this all means Evolution is the Apple Computer (err, I mean Apple, Inc) of the sciences — in a perpetual state of “going out of business” (according to their respective detractors), yet somehow each year growing and improving and producing more and more cool stuff.

    Sooo, would that make Dembski the Ballmer analogue? “Creationists, creationists, creationists!!!!”

    I apologize for the mental image that conjures up….

  2. #2 Dan S.
    February 28, 2007

    I do consider the DI folks and other creationist leaders modern-day alchemists, in a way. After all, they’ve discovered how to turn crap into gold – or at least cash . . .

  3. #3 blf
    February 28, 2007


  4. #4 cleek
    February 28, 2007

    Over at the DI blog, Jonathan Witt has a profoundly ridiculous essay…

    nitpick: name at the bottom of the post says “Jonathan Wells“.

  5. #5 Chuck
    February 28, 2007

    Actually, alchemy is to chemistry what creationism is to biology: the premodern attempt to explain through magic that which has not been explained through natural processes.

  6. #6 sparc
    February 28, 2007

    From Witt’s essay

    Darwinism might, like Marxism, persist for a while (after passing into oblivion everywhere else in the world) – on American college campuses.

    Here (somewhere else in the world) evolution theory is still going strong.

  7. #7 AnneS
    February 28, 2007

    Alchemy has an edge on creationism – it actually tried to identify a mechanism for transmutation and other chemical reactions. Modern chemistry owes much to the alchemists (someone already mentioned Newton). I don’t doubt that many of today’s most prominent evolutionary biologists will one day be obscure. Not because evolution will be relegated to the dustbin of pseudoscience but because science will move on, standing on the shoulders of these scientists, and our current state of knowledge will look primitive by comparison.

    All to support the notion that Witt knows as little about history and progress as he does about evolution.

  8. #8 NonyNony
    February 28, 2007

    Unfortunately for Witt, evolutionary biology, unlike alchemy, actually produces predictions that are testable and falsifiable. Meaning that it is a useful explanation for research. Alchemy is much more like Intelligent Design theory, which expounds on lots of things without backing them up with anything actually testable. In fact, ID/creationism parallels alchemy in another way — as alchemical ideas were proven false, folks practicing alchemy started changing the definition of what alchemy was. Glance through a New Age section at a bookstore sometime and pick through the books on alchemy — all of the formulae and ideas for real, material transformations that old alchemists were trying to produce have become “metaphors for spiritual awakening”. This movement is very similar to the ID/creationist “God of the Gaps” mentality that moves the material target further and further away from anything tangible and more and more into the spiritual realm.

    And the quote that sparc posted from Witt’s essay is particularly stupid. Economists use Marxist ideas all of the time. His predictions about where the world was going to go proved wrong (though not entirely – we certainly live in a more worker friendly “social welfare” state now than in the late 19th century, and this is partially due to governments seeing what could happen if they didn’t take action by pre-emptively implementing social reforms), but his ideas on capital and economics are a foundation that is still used by modern economists. We wouldn’t even be able to really talk of “capitalism” without Marx.

  9. #9 dogmeatIB
    February 28, 2007

    This sounds like a recycled “conversation” I read about 5 or 6 years ago. “Distinguished [authority figure]” discusses with upper level college students how evolution is nearly extinct (pun intended). It sounds very familiar, sometimes the students are in the biological sciences, other times they’re in other fields and are discussing how evolutionary theory (or Darwinism) is flawed and the “genius” comes forward and describes to them the “perfect” details to disprove evolution and “prove” how it will be gone soon.

    The more I think about this, the more this seems like a “conversation” I’ve read about before.

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    February 28, 2007

    Cleek is right – this is about Jonathan Wells‘s silly rhetoric.

    You owe poor innocent Witt (har har) a profound apology…

  11. #11 Steve Reuland
    February 28, 2007

    Needs to be posted on PT!


  12. #12 richCares
    February 28, 2007

    you may refer to author as:
    Jonathan Wittless
    Jonathan Wells
    either would be correct

    otherwise loved Ed’s article

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    February 28, 2007

    Oops, it is indeed Jonathan Wells, not Jonathan Witt, who wrote that post. That makes it even worse. It also means I missed out on an obvious answer to his comparison between evolution and marxism by pointing out that his hero and savior, Rev. Moon, claims to be anti-Marxist yet has given tens of millions of dollars in hard currency to both Kim Jung Il and Kim Il Sung in North Korea.

  14. #14 mark
    February 28, 2007

    Goodbye, and welcome to my Bizarro world!

  15. #15 Raging Bee
    February 28, 2007

    Actually, alchemy is to chemistry what creationism is to biology…

    This is an insult to alchemy. Alchemy was not a fake science cobbled up for dishonest political-religious purposes; it was where science was at the time, which is why (IIRC) Newton practised it at some point in his life. Of course, a lot of fraudsters surely called themselves “alchemists” for various purposes; and of course, alchemy has since been replaced by the more effective science we call “chemistry;” but none of this makes alchemy even half as bogus as creationism.

  16. #16 Stuart Coleman
    February 28, 2007

    Newton spent a good deal of time on alchemy, although I believe he spent even more time on theology than any of his scientific works.

  17. #17 Sastra
    February 28, 2007

    My understanding is that the very foundations of alchemy were mystical and human-centered, and changing lead into gold was thought possible because man could change from flesh to spirit. All things in the world were presumed to be symbols or allegories of another reality, interconnected by an underlying supernatural realm of meaning. Elements could be lifted from “lower” levels to “higher” levels by manipulating magical sympathies and antipathies. Transform nature in order to learn how to transform man. Alchemy wasn’t an attempt to understand chemistry: it was a search for mystical correspondances between the material and immaterial world. Any chemical knowledge which came out of it was an unintended byproduct.

    Comparing the theory of evolution to the theory of alchemy by pointing out that they’re both about *change* is rich. The “theory” behind alchemy was pure magic, and with a theological motivation.

  18. #18 AnneS
    February 28, 2007

    Lay off the alchemists already! Seriously, the philosophical and mystical activities of some of its branches and practitioners aside, alchemy also had a more material component of testing, experimenting with, and exploring the natural world. The quest to turn lead into gold was only one of those inquiries.

    Alchemy led to the development of the modern disciplines of chemistry and metallurgy and alchemists were responsible for the early development of the scientific method. Creationism, by contrast, has lead to the development of nothing, unless you count the crap that spews from the mouths of such luminaries as Witt and Wells.

    One day, most of our brightest stars in biology, etc. will be as obscure as most alchemists, not because evolution or any other theory will have been disproven per se, but because science will continue to push forward and our current state of knowledge will look primitive by comparison. Creationism, on the other hand, will still be stuck shouting “God done it” and pointing to this PROGRESS as evidence that all scientific theories are unreliable and untrustworthy (after all, the creation story never changes). In this respect, alchemy is very much like modern evolutionary science – the discipline adapts and changes (even dies out) in light of advances, instead of clinging stupidly to an outdated idea.

  19. #19 MattXIV
    February 28, 2007

    “Unfortunately for Witt, evolutionary biology, unlike alchemy, actually produces predictions that are testable and falsifiable.”

    Sorry to nitpick, but alchemy, unlike intelligent design, did produce falsifiable predictions and sometimes even did a half-decent job of testing them. And a lot of them were falsified as expermental design and techniques improved. The stuff that held up (like distillation and preparations for many acids) served as the foundation for chemistry and the stuff that didn’t (like the impact of astrological events and numerology on chemical processes) eventually got tossed. I don’t see anything as useful as techinques for the preparation of sulfuric acid coming out of the DI.

  20. #20 Thony C.
    February 28, 2007

    “I asked them whether they could name any famous alchemists.”

    His student friends are incredibly badly educated. Newton, Robert Boyle and John Locke were all practicing alchemists, maybe they weren’t famous!

  21. #21 Charlie B.
    February 28, 2007

    It’s a tactic used by cranks everywhere. Check this out from a “climate-change skeptic” this week in Canberra, Australia.


    “The science from the anthropology point of view has collapsed. The carbon-dioxide link is increasingly recognised as irrelevant,” Mr Evans said.


    In an amusing coincidence, there have been a load of extreme weather events around the south-east of Australia in the last couple of days, including a supercell storm flooding parts of Sydney and snow (!!!) in Canberra in late summer.

  22. #22 Kristine
    February 28, 2007

    Yay! Another prediction! I love predictions!

    Just like you, Ed.

  23. #23 Pseudonym
    February 28, 2007

    To be fair, some of those historic quotes about the imminent death of evolution weren’t entirely stupid. When it was posed, after all, the theory of evolution had some serious holes in it.

    One example: Darwin’s explanation required the Earth to be older than it was thought to be. If it was really billions of years old, instead of a few hundred million, then why hadn’t the core cooled down, for instance?

    As I seem to recall, it took a lot of research into the heating effects of radiation to solve that one, and radiometric dating wasn’t generally accepted as accurate until 60 odd years after Origin of Species was published.

    The point being that until the mid-1920s or so, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to be somewhat reserved about Darwin’s theory. The point where it was completely vindicated, I suspect, was the discovery of DNA. That was really the last major piece of the puzzle; the rest is just detail.

  24. #24 doctorgoo
    February 28, 2007

    What you just pointed out is that the so-called Gaps in the theory of evolution were much larger back then. Therefore they had many more excuses to say that the Bible (read literally) is right and evolution was wrong.

    But that’s what Wells and the others are still doing. Pointing to any potential gap and shout “A-Ha! Goddidit!!”

  25. #25 Pseudonym
    March 1, 2007

    No, I’m not saying that “gaps” were larger. I’m saying there were serious problems which flatly contradicted science as it was known at the time. We now know that it wasn’t evolution that was the problem, but rather that other sciences needed to discover more stuff. In the late 19th century, that wasn’t obvious.

  26. #26 Brian
    March 1, 2007

    Well, actually, I don’t think that there were ‘serious problems’ with evolutionary theory in Kelvin’s time, because we simply did not know enough about microbial life to realize how much time life has spent at the single cell stage. I think that the statement that all organisms were ‘protists’ for 3 billion years would have been equally as laughable as the statement that the world was 4.5 billion years old.

  27. #27 guthrie
    March 1, 2007

    I wonder how many famous Alchemists Wells knows the name of?

    As previous posters have said, Alchemy was very complex, but as far as I can see, a lot of the early practitioners, i.e. 2,000 years ago and into the early medieval period, were looking at things in a more materialistic fashion than a lot of the later Alchemists.

    However, especially later on, it was not about making falsifiable predictions, it was about changing one material into another, by operating upon it in a way to change it, whether by latering the proportions of the four elements, or else infusing the spirit of “goldness” into it.

    What also happened very clearly is that Alchemy was a very material pursuit, although with definite spiritual overtones, up until the 17th century or so, during and after which the pursuit of personal transformation really took over, a bit like a new age craze. IIRC, it was assumed in the medieval period that you had to be good and sober and industrious and pious to be able to make the red stone etc. Much later on in the 17th/18th centuries onwards, making the red stone was the process which turned you into the ideal man.

  28. #28 Coin
    March 1, 2007

    “I asked them whether they could name any famous alchemists.”

    His student friends are incredibly badly educated. Newton, Robert Boyle and John Locke were all practicing alchemists, maybe they weren’t famous!

    Funny, isn’t it? Isaac Newton was the William Dembski of Alchemy, yet nobody’s heard of him.

  29. #29 guthrie
    March 2, 2007

    Thats exactly right Coin.
    Funny how Boyle, Locke and Newton are not famous for their alchemical pursuits. Obviously these pursuits were central to their successful scientific careers?

New comments have been disabled.