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Donald Prothero’s Imaginary Evidence for Evolution

Donald Prothero

Need evidence for Darwinian evolution? Just make it up.

That’s the lesson of Donald Prothero’s book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Prothero is a professor of geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. On November 30, he teamed up with atheist Michael Shermer (founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine) to debate Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg of Discovery Institute.

Shermer wrote the foreword to Prothero’s book, calling it “the best book ever written on the subject.” In fact, “Don’s visual presentation of the fossil and genetic evidence for evolution is so unmistakably powerful that I venture to say that no one could read this book and still deny the reality of evolution.”

Of course, “evolution” can mean many things, most of which nobody would deny even without Prothero’s book. For example, evolution can mean simply change over time, or minor changes in existing species (“microevolution”), neither of which any sane person doubts. Both Shermer and Prothero, however, make it clear that by “evolution” they mean Darwin’s theory that all living things are descended from a common ancestor, modified principally by natural selection acting on unguided variations (“macroevolution”).

The modern version of the theory asserts that new variations originate in genetic mutations. Some of the most dramatic mutations occur in “Hox genes,” which can determine which appendages develop in various parts of the body. On page 101 of his book, Prothero shows pictures of two Hox gene mutations: “antennapedia,” which causes a fruit fly to sprout legs instead of antennae from its head, and “ultrabithorax,” which causes a fruit fly to develop a second pair of wings from it midsection. But both of these are harmful: A fruit fly with legs sticking out of its head is at an obvious disadvantage, and a four-winged fruit fly has no flight muscles in its extra pair of wings, so it has trouble flying and mating. Both mutants can survive only in the laboratory; in the wild they would quickly be eliminated by natural selection.

Some Darwinists have suggested that ancestral four-winged fruit flies could have evolved by mutation into modern two-winged fruit flies. But this explanation doesn’t work, because a two-winged fly hasn’t simply lost a pair of wings; it has acquired a large and complex gene (ultrabithorax) that enables it to develop “halteres,” or balancers. The halteres are located behind the fly’s normal pair of wings and vibrate rapidly to stabilize the insect in flight. So the two-winged fly represents the gain — not loss — of an important structure. (See Chapter 9 of my book Icons of Evolution.)

Prothero ignores the evidence and suggests that ancestral four-winged flies simply mutated into modern two-winged flies. Modern four-winged mutants, he writes on page 101, “have apparently changed their regulatory genes so that ancestral wings appeared instead of halteres.”

Not only does Prothero ignore the evidence from developmental genetics, but he also invents an imaginary animal to complete the story he wants us to believe. Page 195 of his book carries an illustration of an eighteen-winged dragonfly next to a normal four-winged dragonfly, with the following caption: “The evolutionary mechanism by which Hox genes allow arthropods to make drastic changes in their number and arrangement of segments and appendages, producing macroevolutionary changes with a few simple mutations.”

Yet there is no evidence that eighteen-winged dragonflies ever existed. There are lots of dragonflies in the fossil record, but none of them remotely resemble this fictitious creature.

No matter. In what Michael Shermer calls “the best book ever written on the subject,” Donald Prothero simply makes up whatever evidence he wants.