PBS Evolution A Critical Review

National Center for Science Education’s Shrill Campaign in Defense of “Evolution”


SEATTLE — The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a lobbying group whose self-described mission is to “defend evolution,” has responded to scholarly criticism of the recent public television series Evolution with a series of shrill web postings that rely largely on mudslinging rather than science.

“Scholars have raised significant objections to the scientific accuracy of the one-sided ‘Evolution’ series,” says philosopher of science Stephen Meyer, director of Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. “These objections have been amply documented from the relevant scientific literature. Unfortunately, instead of engaging in a discussion of the merits of the criticisms raised, the NCSE has for the most part responded with red herrings and ad hominems.”

“The negative tactics of the NCSE seem more like a political campaign than a science discussion,” adds Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman. “Far from alleviating fears about the credibility of Evolution, the NCSE’s approach merely reinforces our concerns that the Evolution series is aimed more at championing a pre-determined agenda than impartially exploring evolutionary biology.”

On its website the NCSE repeatedly claims that Discovery Institute and its scholars have misquoted or misrepresented various evolutionary biologists in their effort to critique the Evolution series.

“The NCSE’s ‘misquotation’ claim is a strategy often used to protect Darwinian orthodoxy from scientific criticism,” responds biologist Jonathan Wells, a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow who holds a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from the University of California at Berkeley. “All scientific theories — including Darwin’s theory of evolution — must be compared with the evidence. Darwinian biologists themselves frequently acknowledge that there are problems with the evidence for various aspects of evolutionary theory. Dogmatic Darwinists, however, believe in the theory so fervently that they don’t like critics to quote their candid assessments of the evidence. So they claim that they have been misquoted, when in fact they have been quoted correctly.”

“Apparently,” Wells says, “the NCSE thinks that if the charge of misquotation is repeated often enough, people will eventually believe it. But anyone who looks at the original context of the quotations will see that it is the NCSE — not Discovery Institute — that has been engaging in a pattern of misrepresentation. It is true that the evolutionary biologists we quoted believe in Darwin’s theory, but we never claimed otherwise. On the contrary, we were highlighting the fact that even Darwinian biologists often disagree sharply about what the evidence shows. The utter failure to cover these disagreements constitutes one of the ‘Evolution’ series’ greatest flaws, since it is ultimately the evidence that determines whether Darwin’s theory is true or not.”

The NCSE’s alleged “misquotations” by Discovery Institute include:

Quotations from science writer Henry Gee pointing out the serious problems that exist for anyone trying to reconstruct the story of human ancestry from fossil evidence.

Writing in his recent book In Search of Deep Time (Free Press, 1999), Gee argues that conventional theories of the origin and development of human beings are “a completely human invention created after the fact, shaped to accord with human prejudices.” Indeed, such theories carry “the same validity as a bedtime story—amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”

In an NCSE web posting, Gee reiterates his skepticism of attempts to trace ancestor/descendant lineages from the fossil record. “That it is impossible to trace direct lineages of ancestry and descent from the fossil record should be self-evident,” he says, adding that “unfortunately, many paleontologists believe that ancestor/descendent [sic] lineages can be traced from the fossil record, and my book is intended to debunk this view.” Gee goes on to say that his book was intended to show “that old-style, traditional evolutionary biology—the type that feels it must tell a story, and is therefore more appealing to news reporters and makers of documentaries—is unscientific.”

“That is precisely the point we were trying to make about the Evolution series,” says biologist Jonathan Wells. “When it comes to human evolution, the Evolution series was so intent on telling a pre-determined story that it neglected to include evolutionists like Gee who point out the difficulties in trying to reconstruct evolutionary history from the fossil record. This isn’t good science education.”

While confirming the essential accuracy of Discovery’s quotations by his new statements, Gee inexplicably lashes out at those affiliated with Discovery Institute as “religious fundamentalists….who live by dictatorial fiat” and who “fail to understand that scientific disagreement is a mark of health rather than decay.” He goes on to label Discovery Institute’s “opinions” as “regressive, repressive, divisive, [and] sectarian…,” but he provides no evidence for these assertions, and he fails to identify the alleged opinions to which he refers.

“We don’t know where Mr. Gee gets his information about Discovery Institute, but it is not a religious organization, nor is it run by ‘religious fundamentalists,'” says Discovery President Bruce Chapman. “In fact, scholars affiliated with our Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture come from a wide variety of religious — and non-religious — backgrounds, including Jewish, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Presbyterian, and agnostic. As for not understanding that scientific disagreements are healthy, Mr. Gee seems unaware that we agree wholeheartedly that such disagreements are healthy for science. That is why we were so disturbed when the Evolution series neglected to discuss the views of evolutionists like Mr. Gee who raise important criticisms of some claims made by paleontologists. We think it is important for the public to learn about such legitimate disagreements among evolutionary scientists. Unfortunately, Mr. Gee seems to be thoroughly misinformed about who we are.”

Quotations from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne that criticize the controversial field known as “evolutionary psychology.”

In a press release criticizing Evolution’s one-sided coverage of the field of evolutionary psychology, Discovery Institute quoted several biologists who are sharply critical of this field of research, including biologist Jerry Coyne. According to Coyne, evolutionary psychologists “deal in their own dogmas, and not in propositions of science” and “evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of megalomania.”

“The point of quoting Coyne and other critics of evolutionary psychology was to show just how one-sided the Evolution series is even in highly disputed areas of evolutionary biology,” says Discovery Institute Senior Fellow John West. “As we noted in our original press release, although the Evolution series glancingly admits that evolutionary psychology is ‘controversial’ it never bothers to supply air-time to any of the critics of evolutionary psychology. We find this omission indefensible.”

In an NCSE web posting, Coyne castigates Discovery Institute for trying to “sow doubt about the fact of evolution simply because scientists do not know every detail about how evolution occurred,” even while admitting that he has been “a strong critic” of evolutionary psychology “…because I feel that its practitioners often hold low standards of evidence and because it is difficult to test theories about behaviors that evolved millions of years ago.” Coyne goes on to suggest that he is satisfied by the coverage of evolutionary psychology in the Evolution series because some of his criticisms are quoted in the series’ companion book.

“That doesn’t change the fact that the documentary itself (which is what we criticized) is blatantly one-sided and gives no air-time to the critics of evolutionary psychology,” says West. “And despite the fact that Mr. Coyne attacks Discovery Institute, he has confirmed that we quoted him accurately by reiterating yet again his strong criticisms of the ‘low standards of evidence’ held by many evolutionary psychologists.”

Quotations from anthropologist Geoffrey Clark that criticize the field of paleoanthropology.

In a 1997 article Geoffrey Clark declared that “we select among alternative sets of research conclusions in accordance with our biases and preconceptionsa process that is, at once, both political and subjective,” and that paleoanthropology “has the form but not the substance of a science.”

“We quoted Clark to show how superficial the coverage of human evolution was in Evolution,” says biologist Jonathan Wells. “Viewers were given the impression that the evidence for human origins is straightforward and unambiguous. They were never told that experts in the field acknowledge that their often-conflicting interpretations of the evidence are strongly influenced by subjective biases and philosophical preconceptions.” Asked by the NCSE to comment on Discovery Institute’s citation of his statement, Clark alleged that his remarks had been “taken completely out of context.”

“Perhaps Clark no longer wishes to defend the views he held in 1997, but we certainly quoted the views he expressed in his original article accurately,” responds Wells. A more detailed description of Clark’s original article and its context can be found here.

“We encourage people to read Clark’s original article for themselves,” says Discovery Institute spokesman Mark Edwards. “We are confident that if they do so, they will see that we accurately described what Clark said, contrary to assertions by the NSCE.”

“If the NCSE expects to be taken seriously, it should stop making unfounded charges of ‘misquotation,'” adds Edwards. “If the NCSE wants to do something useful, it could explain why it continues to defend a documentary series that is so obviously one-sided.”

Founded in 1990, Discovery Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan public policy center for national and international affairs. Its programs deal with a range of issues, including science, technology, regional development, environment, and defense. More information about the Institute and its activities can be found at www.discovery.org/.

Discovery Institute

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