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Evolution

What the experts say …

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Published: 2 August 2018 (GMT+10)

Welsh geneticist, author and TV presenter Professor Steve Jones was recently commissioned to write the ‘Ladybird book of evolution’, published in 2017.1 The publishers of this book series write:

evolution-steve-jones
This is a Ladybird Expert Book, one of a series of titles for an adult readership. Written by some of the leading lights and outstanding communicators of their fields …”2

It is a very short book—just 24 pages of text plus the trademark Ladybird illustrations on facing pages. But, in spite of its extreme brevity, Jones told a Daily Telegraph (UK) journalist that he intended to use it as “the course textbook” to teach his first-year evolution course at University College London.3

Many people claim that a belief in, and an understanding of, evolution is vital to educational progress these days and they welcome this book. For example, British-Iraqi PhD nuclear physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili read Ladybird books as a child growing up in Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein. Currently he holds a chair at the University of Surrey in ‘The Public Engagement of Science’. Interviewed about this Ladybird book series, he said:

I am not on a moral crusade. But I would say quantum mechanics is on a par with evolution. We wouldn’t have health and medicine and agriculture without understanding Darwin’s theory of evolution. Similarly I wouldn’t be talking to you on my mobile phone without quantum mechanics.

However, Dr Khalili is seriously mistaken in making such claims. Agriculture flourished for thousands of years before Darwinian evolution came along. And evolution plays virtually no part in medical advances or in human health, including the discovery of antibiotics.4

Steve-Jones
Steve Jones

Nevertheless, considering the high-profile coverage given to Steve Jones’ Ladybird book on Evolution, let us give it closer scrutiny. How does our expert professor square up to the challenge in this university “course textbook”? In what follows, I quote excerpts from the book, followed by links to articles on creation.com which address and critique the point in question. However, it is instructive to read the sort of claims which currently are being made. Many of the subtitles which follow are marked with an asterisk, indicating that they are taken straight from the single-page ‘chapters’ of the book in which the quotations appear.

A sketch of a sketch*

Compared to Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (which he called a ‘sketch’ of his theory), Jones acknowledges that his book “is sketchier at a mere 6,000 [words]”, hence the title of this chapter. Indeed, when asked about this Ladybird book, Jones replied that it was a pared-down version of Darwin’s famous book.5 He writes:

[Darwin’s] ideas led to a revolution in science and in humankind’s view of itself. Although creationists still believed that life had sprung into being around 6,000 years ago, and although some biologists had speculated that living organisms could change, they had no real idea how or why, and few facts to back up their ideas. Darwin’s theory, by comparison, was almost brutal in its simplicity. It turns on ‘descent with modification’: the accumulation of errors over generations.

A hippo in the Himalayas*

Genesis says that ‘God created great whales’, but Darwin dared to criticize that idea. Science has now demolished it …

Millions deny the power of natural selection to generate eyes or whales, but they are wrong.

Fossil whales are in the Himalayas not because they moved there, but because the Earth did. Long ago those mountains were beneath the ocean, but as continents collided they were thrust into the skies. The fossils show a seamless transition …

… Divine assistance was not needed.

… the message written in whale DNA is more similar to that of modern hippos than to that of elephants or even seals.

Evolution makes sense*

Speaking of mutations (random errors) in the DNA alphabet:

Natural selection got the boar on to the farm in a few thousand generations, and from the ancient mammal in a few million.

Eat your greens*

If cabbages and the rest [kale, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts] descended from the same ancestor through human preference over a few hundred or a few dozen generations, then could not Nature do much more to form new plants and animals with so many years, and so many individuals, in her armoury?

Barking at the moon*

Referring to Russian biologist Dmitry Belyaev’s breeding programme (beginning in 1959), to obtain tame pets from wild silver foxes:

The machinery that makes the black pigment melanin [involved in the coat colour] is related to that involved in the mood-stabilizing hormone serotonin, so that the colour shift and behavioural change are symptoms of the same response to evolutionary pressure.

Accounting for taste*

Inherited differences affect our appearance, our behaviour, our health and our evolution and, most of all, give each of us a unique set of strategies when playing biological poker against the ever-changing world outside in a struggle for existence in which a losing hand means oblivion.

A mixture of self-evident truths—our appearance, behaviour and health partly depend on heredity—with a meaningless and empty assertion: that what we are (which we inherited from our biological parents) influences human evolution.

A fresh start*

Sticklebacks living in the ocean have more protective spines and thicker body ‘armour’ than their fresh-water counterparts. The less formidable appearance of the latter results from the selection of mutations that prevent the spines and armour growing:

In one Alaskan lake, the marine form invaded just a decade ago, and already has begun to shed its armour. As global warming makes the ice fall back, evolution is still hard at work.

A tale of tail fins

Whales and sharks each have a tail fin, but the mammal’s is horizontal and that of the fish vertical. … In each, selection picked up what mutation offered to rise to an environmental challenge.

Two unique kinds of animal, each equipped with a well-designed tail for powerful swimming, but there is no evidence that mutations led to gradual evolution of the tail in either case. And what mutation could create a (vertical) dorsal fin on an orca (whale), for example?

Designer dismissed?

Quite often, complex organs are cobbled together with bits and pieces of other structures. If life was designed by an engineer, he would soon lose his job.

Evolution by accident*

Hawaii has its own unique plants, snails, insects and birds, but most have almost no DNA variation, evidence that each descends from a few ancestors who arrived long ago. One Act of God (if not God himself) can have dramatic effects on evolution.

As for the second sentence (re: ‘Acts of God’ such as various natural disasters), this would not be survival of the fittest, rather survival of the ‘luckiest’—it has nothing to do with evolution at all:

The downy dinosaurs*

We have hairs, but dinosaurs had scales, made of the same stuff. Each can be modified; hair into spines and, Chinese fossils show, scales into feather.

Roots and branches*

Speaking of DNA in the widely differing types of living creatures:

… it is rather a shock to find that animals (ourselves included) are, in the great scheme of things, not very distinct from mushrooms. As Homo sapiens tried to find its place in the new taxonomic jungle, a certain humility is called for, although so far there has been little sign of it.

Regarding the need for humility, this is certainly called for on the part of human beings before the Maker and Creator of the wonderful variety of living things He has made (Isaiah 66:2). Unfortunately, there is little sign of it in the author of this book.

The future: feebler but smarter*

Referring to the contrasting physical features of humans versus chimps:

In physical terms, Homo sapiens is a diminished chimpanzee.

Conclusion: Question what the experts are saying!

For informed readers, simply to read the excerpts (in red text) from this Ladybird book on Evolution will likely raise some eyebrows and cause bemusement. Many of Steve Jones’ statements are so simplistic or misleading (or wrong), one suspects other evolutionary experts have been embarrassed into silence, rather than draw further attention to them by their commenting. For instance, arch-evolutionist Jerry Coyne announced its launch on his blog but has not mentioned it since.6

In fact, it calls to mind the ‘fake news’ which is so much talked about these days—journalistic propaganda that mixes truth with deliberate misinformation (even hoax claims) and which spreads like wildfire (‘goes viral’) on social media. Fake news is put out with the intention to mislead people. Biblical creationists are familiar with the tactics employed by evolution popularisers. Nevertheless, the very idea of Jones’ little book being used as a university course textbook is quite baffling.

If this is the best that a leading expert can do to make evolution understandable to adult undergraduates, why aren’t more people sceptical of evolution? Well, some are. Occasionally, there are some surprisingly candid reports in the secular press, such as this recent one in The Guardian (UK), titled, “Questioning evolution is neither science denial nor the preserve of creationists.”7 The author (a professed atheist) reports on her team’s research (with YouGov) in the UK and Canada. While they were pleased to find few professed creationists (9% in the UK, 15% in Canada), they confessed to being amazed that doubts about human origins and evolution were not confined to “religious or spiritual people”:

This was most noticeable when we asked about evolutionary explanations for the existence of human consciousness. Just over half of religious or spiritual people in both countries thought human consciousness could not be explained by evolutionary processes. Astonishingly, we also found that over 1 in 3 of Canadian atheists, and nearly 1 in 5 UK atheists felt the same.

When it comes to evolution, some of what the experts say is unconvincing, even to many atheists—all the more reason, then, for Christians to beware of swallowing their claims uncritically. Speaking of God’s revelation in Scripture, the apostle Peter writes, “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed (2 Peter 1:19; my emphasis). It comes with God’s own confirmation, so is fully reliable, unlike the claims of human beings, however intelligent and well-intentioned they may be. “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth” (Ephesians 6:14), the trustworthy Word of God.

References and notes

  1. Jones, S., Evolution, Ladybird Books Ltd, Penguin, Random House, UK, pp. 1–52, 2017. Return to text.
  2. Ref. 1, p. 2. Return to text.
  3. Williams, S., Exclusive preview of a new Ladybird book co-written by Prince Charles about a subject close to his heart…, telegraph.co.uk, 21 January 2017. Return to text.
  4. The exception would be the field known as ‘Darwinian medicine’ where health and disease are deliberately approached from an evolutionary perspective, but it is difficult to point to any medical advances that have come from this, and plenty of examples to the contrary, such as the vestigial organs blunder. Return to text.
  5. Ref. 3. Return to text.
  6. Coyne, J., A new general book on evolution by Steve Jones …, whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com, 15 January 2017. Return to text.
  7. Elsdon-Baker, F., theguardian.com, 5 September 2017. Return to text.

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