The Good News: Dr. Wells, you have been following the evolution vs. intelligent design debate for quite some time. What is your opinion on how it’s been faring and who is winning?
Jonathan Wells: Before I answer, it’s important to clarify the issues. “Evolution” can mean many things—such as change over time, or minor changes within existing species, neither of which any sane person doubts. The problem is Darwinism—the theory that all living things are descended from a common ancestor by unguided processes such as natural selection acting on minor variations. Darwinists often confuse the issue by starting with the noncontroversial meanings of “evolution” and then slipping in their more controversial claims.
According to intelligent design, it is possible to infer from evidence in nature that some features of the world—such as some features of living things—are explained better by an intelligent cause than by unguided natural processes. Intelligent design does not claim that everything is designed, nor does it claim that anything is perfectly designed. Nor does intelligent design tell us the nature of the designer—though many, including me, believe it was the God of the Bible.
Since Darwinism claims that all features of living things can be explained by unguided natural processes, and intelligent design claims that some features are better explained by an intelligent cause, there is an irreconcilable conflict between the two.
Currently, Darwinism is winning on the political, legal and media fronts in the United States. Most universities and public schools teach Darwinism as though it were unquestioned fact, though the truth is that a growing number of scientists are questioning it on evidential grounds.
Data from the genome projects are revealing major inconsistencies in the Darwinian claim that all organisms share a common ancestor, and no one has ever observed the origin of a new species—much less the origin of new organs and body plans—by variation and selection. On the other hand, the evidence for intelligent design is increasing. Sooner or later, the evidence will win.
GN: Some time back, you mentioned that if the “junk DNA” turns out to have viable functions, it would support the case for intelligent design. What does the recent data say on this subject?
JW: According to modern neo-Darwinism, genes that are passed from generation to generation carry a program that directs embryo development, mutations occasionally alter this genetic program to produce new variations, and natural selection then sorts those mutations—the “raw materials of evolution”—to produce new species, organs, and body plans. In the 1950s, molecular biologists discovered that proteins, the microscopic building blocks of bodily structures, are formed according to information encoded in different segments of DNA. They then equated “gene” with “protein-coding sequence” and “mutations” with molecular accidents in such sequences.
By the 1970s, however, it was clear that most of the DNA in human beings and many other animals does not code for proteins. In 1980, Francis Crick [codiscoverer of the structure of DNA] and Leslie Orgel argued in Nature that this noncoding DNA is merely “junk” that has accumulated in the course of evolution. For the next 25 years, many biologists continued to regard noncoding DNA as junk.
In his 2009 book Why Evolution Is True, neo-Darwinist Jerry Coyne compared predictions based on intelligent design with those based on Darwinian evolution. “If organisms were built from scratch by a designer,” he argued, they would not have imperfections. “Perfect design would truly be the sign of a skilled and intelligent designer. Imperfect design is the mark of evolution; in fact, it’s precisely what we expect from evolution” [p. 81].
According to Coyne, “when a trait is no longer used, or becomes reduced, the genes that make it don’t instantly disappear from the genome: evolution stops their action by inactivating them, not snipping them out of the DNA. From this we can make a prediction. We expect to find, in the genomes of many species, silenced, or ‘dead,’ genes: genes that once were useful but are no longer intact or expressed” [pp. 66-67].
In contrast, Coyne said that creation by design predicts that no such genes would exist. “And the evolutionary prediction that we’ll find pseudogenes has been fulfilled,” he wrote. “Our genome—and that of other species—are truly well populated graveyards of dead genes” [p. 67].
But Coyne was dead wrong. A growing mountain of data from genome-sequencing projects shows that most DNA performs essential functions. The Darwinists’ claim that a large percentage of DNA is evolutionary junk is totally false. This reflects badly not only on them, but also on neo-Darwinism itself. By Coyne’s logic, the genome-sequencing data refute neo-Darwinism and support intelligent design.
GN: This year is Darwin’s bicentennial. What would you say is a good summary today about his writings on evolution?
JW: Why didn’t we celebrate Mendel’s centennial in the 1920s, or Newton’s tricentennial in the 1940s? Both were great scientists.
Darwin is celebrated not because of his scientific contributions, but because his theory has become the creation myth of atheism. Darwin Day in the United States is a project of the Institute for Humanist Studies, which is dedicated to promoting “a nonreligious philosophy.” Some atheists have even said they want to establish Darwin Day as a secular alternative to Christmas.
Most people never read The Origin of Species, but if they do they will find that it is a work of theology as much as science. Darwin’s main argument was that certain features of living things “are inexplicable on the theory of creation,” but make sense only on his theory of unguided descent with modification. Indeed, there are so many discussions of creation in The Origin of Species that U.S. courts might well consider it unconstitutional to use in public schools.
In my opinion, the best way to summarize Darwin’s writings on evolution would be as a revival of ancient materialistic philosophy, such as that taught by the Greek Empedocles and the Roman Lucretius, illustrated with examples drawn from 19th-century natural science.
GN: What would you say was Darwin’s greatest mistake regarding his theory of evolution?
JW: Darwin was mistaken about a lot of things. He was mistaken about heredity, which he attributed to characteristics—some of them probably acquired during an organism’s lifetime—that were blended together from every cell in the body.
He was mistaken about vertebrate embryos, the earliest stages of which he believed showed us our fishlike ancestor in its adult state.
He was mistaken about the geographic distribution of species, which he thought could be explained entirely by migration or by geological separation.
He was mistaken in claiming that all organisms were part of one great “tree of life” with a common ancestor at the root.
And he was mistaken about the power of natural selection, which he argued—by analogy with artificial selection, which had never produced anything more than changes within existing species—produced new species, organs and body plans.
But Darwin’s greatest mistake was to deny design in living things. The unguided processes he invoked have never been able to produce the major innovations needed for evolution. And the more we learn about living things, the more designed they look.
GN: Some scientists claim the chimpanzee genome is about 99 percent similar to the human genome, but others claim it is closer to 75 percent. What is the truth about this, and how significant are the findings?
JW: Comparing chimpanzee and human genomes is tricky, not the least because the sequences do not line up exactly and one has to decide where to start the comparison. The 99 percent figure involves only a part of each genome; and depending on the technique and the researcher, the estimates can vary significantly.
But whatever the estimate, the deeper question is, what does it mean? According to evolutionist Jonathan Marks, who published a book in 2002 titled What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee, it means very little. Marks argues that since there are only four [molecular compound] subunits in DNA, any two living things are bound to be at least 25 percent similar. Someone who claims that humans are 99 percent similar to chimps might as well add that humans are 35 percent similar to daffodils.
In fact, the similarity between chimp and human DNA—whatever the figure may be—poses a problem for neo-Darwinism. According to neo-Darwinism, organisms are what they are because of their DNA—which is why DNA mutations can supposedly provide the raw materials for evolution. Then why are chimps and humans so different from each other not only in their anatomy and physiology but also in their intelligence and behavior? Basing an estimate of their similarity on DNA comparisons alone is a byproduct of neo-Darwinian dogma, not biological science.
There is actually abundant evidence that embryo development is not entirely controlled by DNA. More information is necessary, and this information is located in cellular structures that the embryo inherits apart from its DNA. But neo-Darwinian dogma tends to blind people to this evidence and thereby hinders scientific progress.
GN: You are a prolific writer about intelligent design. What are you currently working on in this regard?
JW: In the past year I have written two book reviews: “Darwin of the Gaps,” a review of Francis Collins’ The Language of God and “Why Darwinism Is False,” a review of Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True.
Mostly, however, I have been doing empirical and theoretical research in my own field, cell and developmental biology. The empirical research involves testing an intelligent design-guided hypothesis about a possible cause of cancer, which I published in 2005. The theoretical research involves formulating testable hypotheses about the nature and location of non-DNA information in the embryo, by analyzing the embryo as though it were a designed whole instead of an accidental byproduct of DNA mutations and natural selection.
GN: You mentioned some while ago that by the year 2025, the theory of evolution would have lost most of its appeal. Do you still think this date is feasible for that?
JW: Yes, I do. Of course, it’s risky to put a date on such a prediction, but scientific discoveries are rapidly making Darwinism less and less plausible, and this is becoming more and more obvious to new students and to others not already committed to the old way of thinking.
I compare Darwinism to a frozen pond in the springtime. As winter passes and the days grow longer, the ice may look thick, but it becomes honeycombed with melt water. In the next thaw it may disappear overnight. GN