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PBS: Pushing Bad Science

Jonathan Wells

As 2009 comes to an end, so does the delirium of “Darwin Year.” From “Darwin Day” on February 12 (Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday) to November 24 (the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species), Darwin’s disciples spared no expense (using mostly taxpayers’ money) in their exuberant celebrations, even though most of Darwin’s ideas were mistaken and his contributions to science were insignificant compared to those of hundreds of others–including (to name just a few) Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein in physics; Robert Boyle, Antoine Lavoisier and Willard Gibbs in chemistry; and Carolus Linnaeus, Georges Cuvier and Gregor Mendel in biology.
What Darwin promoted was not empirical science but materialistic philosophy. As historian Neal C. Gillespie wrote in 1979, “It is sometimes said that Darwin converted the scientific world to evolution by showing them the process by which it had occurred,” but “it was more Darwin’s insistence on totally natural explanations than on natural selection that won their adherence.” (Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, p.147) The Darwinian revolution was primarily philosophical, and Darwin’s philosophy limited science to “the discovery of laws which reflected the operation of purely natural or ‘secondary’ causes.” Furthermore, “there could be no out-of-bounds signs… When sufficient natural or physical causes were not known they must nonetheless be assumed to exist to the exclusion of other causes.”
But the assumption that everything can be explained by natural causes is characteristic of materialistic philosophy. This is why atheists want to establish Darwin Day as a secular alternative to Christmas.
The U. S. “Public” Broadcasting System (PBS) has a long history of promoting materialistic philosophy disguised as empirical science. In 1980, PBS brought us Carl Sagan’s thirteen-part Cosmos series, which featured Sagan–in the name of Science–assuring us that “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
In 2001, PBS broadcasted the seven-part series Evolution. The first episode featured atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett praising “Darwin’s dangerous idea,” which according to Dennett “eats through just about every traditional concept”–including the concept of God. (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 63) At the time, the Discovery Institute published a scene-by-scene viewer’s guide that documented the flawed science and anti-religious bias of the series, yet PBS’s Evolution is still being used to indoctrinate students in U. S. public schools. My son’s high school biology teacher used it; her favorite episode was the fifth, “Why Sex?”, in which an evolutionary psychologist confidently claimed that artistic achievements such as Handel’s Messiah are produced by “our sexual instincts for impressing the opposite sex.”
Now PBS is about to jump on the departing Darwin Year bandwagon with another special, “What Darwin Never Knew,” scheduled to air on December 29.

According to PBS, the special will offer “answers to riddles that Darwin couldn’t explain. Breakthroughs in a brand-new science–nicknamed ‘evo-devo’–are linking the enigmas of evolution to another of nature’s great mysteries, the development of the embryo. NOVA takes viewers on a journey from the Galapagos Islands to the Arctic, and from the explosion of animal forms half a billion years ago to the research labs of today. Scientists are finally beginning to crack nature’s biggest secrets at the genetic level. The results are confirming the brilliance of Darwin’s insights while revealing clues to life’s breathtaking diversity in ways the great naturalist could scarcely have imagined.”
“Confirming the brilliance of Darwin’s insights…” Oh, really? Darwin was completely wrong about the nature of inheritance; it took Gregor Mendel (who was unconvinced by Darwinism) to set things straight. Darwin was also wrong about the origin of variations; he (like Lamarck) thought that they came from use and disuse. When Darwinists finally embraced Mendelian genetics in the 1930s and molecular genetics in the 1950s, they assumed that embryo development is controlled by a genetic program encoded in DNA. Accidental mutations in DNA, they believed, could then alter the program and modify embryo development to produce the raw materials for evolution.
In the 1980s, however, biologists discovered that many of the genes involved in embryo development are similar in many different types of animals–from fruit flies to humans. Since differences in development were supposedly due to differences in genes, the similarities seemed paradoxical, but a new discipline called “evolutionary developmental biology,” or evo-devo (pronounced eevo-deevo) attributed them to inheritance from a common ancestor. Now evo-devo is all the rage among Darwinists.
Yet the paradox remains. If the developmental genes of insects and mammals are similar, then–as Italian geneticist Giuseppe Sermonti puts it–why is a fly not a horse?
The standard Darwinian answer still attributes differences to DNA mutations. But biologists have now generated all possible developmental mutations in fruit flies, and the evidence shows that there are only three possible outcomes: a normal fruit fly, a defective fruit fly, or a dead fruit fly. Not even a new species of fruit fly, much less a horse fly or a horse. Evo-devo has not come close to cracking “nature’s biggest secrets.” In fact, there is growing evidence that DNA contains only a small part of the program for embryo development.
No matter. PBS falls back on what Darwin himself thought was the best embryological evidence for his theory: similarities in the embryos of vertebrates (animals with backbones). “It seems to me,” Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “the leading facts in embryology, which are second to none in importance, are explained on the principle of variations in the many descendants from some one ancient progenitor.” And those leading facts, according to him, were that “the embryos of the most distinct species belonging to the same class are closely similar, but become, when fully developed, widely dissimilar.” Darwin even believed that early embryos “show us, more or less completely, the condition of the progenitor of the whole group in its adult state.”
On the website for its December 29 special, PBS offers an interactive “Guess the Embryo” exercise featuring four different vertebrate embryos: an 8 day-old mouse, a 5 day-old quail, a 17 day-old turtle, and a 40 day-old bat. The purpose of the exercise is to convince viewers that “embryos of different species can appear startlingly similar to one another.” A discerning viewer, however, will notice that the turtle embryo already has a rudimentary shell on its back–thus distinguishing it clearly from the others. A discerning viewer might also notice that the bat embryo bears little resemblance to the mouse embryo, even though both are mammals.
What viewers may not know–and PBS does not tell them–is that the interactive exercise shows embryos midway through development. The earliest stages are systematically omitted. Perhaps this is because in their earliest stages vertebrate embryos are striking different from each other. They follow a pattern that embryologists call the “developmental hourglass”–wide at the top, narrow in the middle, and wide at the bottom. In other words, vertebrate embryos start out very different from each other, become superficially similar midway through development, then diverge again as they mature. Like Darwin’s German disciple Ernst Haeckel, PBS distorts vertebrate development to make it seem to provide evidence for Darwin’s theory.
The American people deserve better from their “Public” Broadcasting System.

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.