September 26, 2005

Closing comments - Jonathan Wells' charges of anti-theism bias in textbooks

Well, it’s been three months now with nary a peep from Jonathan Wells. Since I’m no more interested in drawing this thing out than anyone else is to follow it, it’s time to wrap up the issue for good with one last post.

First, a chronology of events,

May 12th (2005): Jonathan Wells, on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight program makes the following claim,
“I have a dozen biology textbooks at home that explicitly use evolution, misuse evolution, as an argument against theism, belief in god, Christianity, and so on.”

May 25th: Suspecting that Well’s charges are egregiously overdrawn, I email him asking for clarification. I receive an answer from an intermediary saying that he has forwarded my message to Wells. He also encourages me to “check out” (a sales pitch?) Wells’ books, related video, and study materials available at ARN. (Must admit I never got around to that). Later the same day I receive, again through the intermediary (who assures me that Dr. Wells is quite good about responding to critiques) a short note from Wells containing a list of seven texts - with cited offending pages - that he feels substantiate his charges.

June 23rd: After gathering the appropriate transcripts for most of Well’s list of texts and evaluating them in the light of his charges I post my review - Do Biology Textbooks Pit Evolution Against Theism? - A response to Jonathan Wells here on this blog, and copy Wells both by email attachment and inclusion of the url (thanks for help in the collection of materials go to Tom Scharle, Chris Thompson, and Glenn Branch of the NCSE). My conclusions – Wells charges are false and a retraction is owed to CNN’s audience, the ID community (for inappropriately representing their public positions) and bio textbook authors.

June 24th: I receive email from the intermediary telling me my review has been forwarded to Wells. This is the last I hear from either him or Wells.

July 8th: I email intermediary in order to let him know that I have now been able to acquire transcripts from all of the texts and the review has been suitably updated, though none of my conclusions have changed.

July 28th: I email Jonathan Witt, Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski, Guillermo Gonzalez, Jay Richards, Stephen Meyer, and Paul Nelson asking them to urge Jonathan Wells to clarify or retract his charges. Here is an excerpt from that message,
“It has been over five weeks since I sent Dr. Wells my comments and I have received no word from him. I have decided to contact his colleagues in the hope that some of you might be willing to persuade him to address this issue.

Here is why I believe it would be in your interests to do so;

It is only on the most unyieldingly fundamentalist of bases that a reader could find anything in any of these textbooks that could be interpreted as supporting Dr. Wells’ statement. In other words, this is a statement that I might have expected to come from John Morris, a young-earth-creationist panelist on the program. But if ID is a more mature, science-literate approach to origins then the kind of hyperbole we find in Dr. Wells’ claim regarding biology textbooks certainly does not support that perception.
From your perspective, then, this charge would seem to be a gross misrepresentation of the “intelligent design” position. Since Dr. Wells was representing ID on this broadcast, as I assume he does in all of his appearances, I think he has done ID, as well as biological education, a disservice.”
I receive responses from two of the above ID proponents. One says – “I'll try to remember to ask him about this next time I see him. He's been swamped recently, and is far behind on his e-mail.” – and the other - “This doesn't concern me, and I have no desire to become involved.” This last statement, considering the prominence of the individual in question, is particularly myopic.

August 23rd: The two month mark. I make a last ditch attempt to get someone from the ID side to show some integrity and address the issue. I post here and in, an Open Letter to the Discovery Institute. I also email the letter to two separate DI addresses. An excerpt from the letter,
“This incident represents an opportunity for the Discovery Institute (and by extension the “intelligent design” movement) to distance itself from those forms of anti-evolutionism with which it does not like to be lumped. Repudiating the erroneous claim of a prominent Fellow and/or encouraging him to retract it would demonstrate the integrity required of a group that wishes to be seen as more than merely the marketing arm for an evangelical crusade. It will show that your protests against the “creationist” label are not simply spin.

But waiting for this issue to fade away will stand as evidence of duplicity. Refusing to take action will confirm the worst suspicions of many defenders of biology, that the Discovery Institute is little more than an operational front for a loosely organized, deceptively theorized, big-tent movement that is primarily concerned with pushing a particular religious philosophy at the expense of scientific utility.
I hope you will do the right thing and act to effect a public retraction of Dr. Wells’ false charges.”

August 31st: In anticipation of wrapping up this matter I email twenty or so bio textbook authors and Wells’ opponent (Michael Ruse, who very kindly immediately posted my letter on the Philosophy of Biology blog) from the CNN program in order to let them know of, get their reactions to, Wells claims. Responses ranged from resigned disappointment to blistering indignation. Several had previous dealings with Wells, none favorable, and nearly all were loathe to dignify his statements by giving them direct public rebuttal. But a few allowed me to quote them,

Dr. Teresa Audesirk on Well’s textbook charges and implications of broad-based bias:
“Jonathan Wells's failure to respond is evidence that he is attempting to incite people who haven't read these texts to rebel against the "scientific conspiracy against religion", a conspiracy that he has invented. If he thinks scientist/authors are misusing evolution "as an argument against theism, belief in god, Christianity, and so on.", then he is equating belief in God with creationism. There are many religious scientists who have no quarrel with evolution. Thanks for your efforts is support of rationality.”
Dr. David Hillis on science/religion and decisions about whether to include ID in bio texts:
“I do feel strongly that science has nothing to say about the existence of God, one way or the other. It just isn’t a scientific question, since it can’t be tested. We considered explicitly addressing “intelligent design” in Life, and why it isn’t science, but why should we single it out, and where would it stop? Is it fair to single out one religious perspective and not others? There are many other religious points of view that are also not about science, and it gives “intelligent design” more credibility than it deserves to mention it in a science textbook.”

[Note: If you are a biology or science textbook author and wish to add your thoughts, please leave a comment at the end of this entry and I will incorporate it into the body of the post.]

► This brings us to the present day. September 26th: Three months after sending my critique to Wells for his response, no response has been forthcoming. Not the least bit of recognition that there is an intellectual and personal obligation to offer support for his statements. This is the conduct of one for whom means are justified by ends.

Closing comments – Although I hoped that I could get some direct action on the issue, I never had much in the way of expectations. While I’m certain Wells and the DI are aware of this business (I’ve emailed them individually and as a group enough times), from the beginning it has been to their advantage to ignore the issue and hope it goes away. As I’ve said previously, it is an example of their duplicity on the subject of accurate representation of the “intelligent design” position. When it suits their goals the ID movement (DI) could care less about the integrity of statements made ostensibly under their auspices. But of course when it might lead to unfavorable public relations, they fall all over themselves trying to excoriate the character of those presenting “mischaracterizations” or “misrepresentations” of ID.

This is all sadly unsurprising, but at the least it serves as further documentation of the questionable motives and tactics that guide the “intelligent design” movement.

[This summation will be posted in t.o and here – . As well, a link to this and other posts that chronicle these events will be sent to the producers of the Lou Dobbs Tonight program.]


Blogger Giordano Sagredo said...

Reading your quotes from the textbooks convinces me that Wells is not completely off his rocker in his claims that textbooks support atheism.

For instance, from Futuyma, "we need not invoke, nor can we find any evidence for, any design, goal, or purpose anywhere in the natural world, except in human behavior."

I agree that Futuyma is not endorsing atheism, but he is clearly undermining a certain type of theism, namely that brand of theism which the creationists tend to adhere to. For those theists, the claims in most of these textbooks can be taken as explicitly undermining their belief in god.

The question is, should we scientists expect them to revise their theology based on the evidence from evolutionary biology? After all, it is empirically possible that intelligent agents manipulated the genome of H. erectus to generate H. sapiens.

I think we should acknowledge that evolutionary biology is a different type of science than, say, neurophysiology, where the variables of interest are right there in front of you, observable and manipulable. Using the standards from physiology, evolutionary biology leaves us with a lot of speculation about the past (where speculation can be operationally defined as the inference:evidence ratio used in the formation of the conclusions).

(Note, Futyama's claim is just empirically false. We see goal-directed behavior in more than just humans: plant phototaxis, dogs begging for food, monkeys using tools,...I think it is a general feature of many biotic systems)

10:43 PM  
Anonymous gbusch said...

Lots of hard work I'm sure! Nice to see that there are still some who are willing to go the extra mile to address the contrived anti-evolution lies which mocks education and fleeces the faithful of truth.

9:15 AM  
Blogger RLC said...


You are correct that "scientific creationism" is, in part, refuted by biology texts. That was an important aspect of the conclusions I drew from this review. However, that observation, when viewed in the light of Well's representation of the "intelligent design" movement calls into question either his credentials as a DI fellow or his ability to read and comprehend plain text without willful misinterpretation. Read the Conclusions section for a more complete examination of this.

As to the Futuyma quote, he has obviously used "goal" in a sense other than "driven by organismal function." The context, even just the bit you quote, makes that very clear.

10:09 AM  

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