Zombie Science: Undead Darwinian Icons

Jonathan Wells’ 2000 bestseller, Icons of Evolution, discussed examples of Darwinian evolution that have been falsified by subsequent research, but nevertheless keep showing up in high school-level biology textbooks. He called these recurring examples “icons of evolution.” But it seems that “science educators” (many of whom are really Darwinian propagandists) do not want to give up on these common Darwinian memes, even though it is known that they are invalid.

Now Wells has a follow up book, “Zombie Science,” which he discusses in the video below. First he reviews some of the icons, showing why they are not the great examples of evolution in action they have been represented to be to America’s high school students. Some of these icons include:

The Miller-Urey Experiment

The mock atmosphere for the 1952 Miller-Urey experiment included water vapor, ammonia, hydrogen and methane. Electrical sparks were applied to this environment to simulate lightning strikes, and the various nucleic acids produced were then collected. The validity of the experiment depends upon the “atmosphere” in Miller’s flask accurately reflecting the atmosphere of the Earth before life appeared.

But by the 1980s, most scientists believed that atmosphere at the time would largely reflect the gases emitted by volcanic eruptions. Given this constraint, the Earth’s atmosphere 4.5 billion years ago would have contained: water vapor, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide—very different from what Miller assumed and used in his experiment.

In the 1980s, scientists re-did Miller’s experiment using a more realistic atmosphere; the only amino acid they were able to synthesize was glycine, the simplest of some 20 amino acids necessary for life. To get glycine, they were forced to inject hydrogen, an element not thought to reflect the historical earth’s atmosphere. And to get anything more complex than glycine, they had to add back methane, as well.

“Miller’s experiment was supposed to be a true simulation of pre-biotic chemistry on the primitive Earth. But now nobody believes this anymore.” — Freeman Dyson, “Origins of Life” 1999: Cambridge University Press.

So the Miller-Urey experiment was not really very helpful on the topic of pre-biotic or chemical evolution. And yet the undead still roam the earth. The Miller-Urey experiment is still featured prominently in high school textbooks today: Miller, Levine, Biology (2014); Scott Freeman, Biological Science (2014); Mader, Windelspecht, Biology (2015). This is zombie science.

Haeckel’s Embryo Drawings

Ernst Haeckel, a nineteenth-century German Darwinist, concocted the theory that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” meaning that while developing as an embryo, an animal goes through stages reflecting its supposed evolutionary ancestry. “During its own rapid development,” wrote Haeckel, “ . . . an individual repeats the most important changes in form evolved by its ancestors during their long and slow paleontological development.” Haeckel drew various vertebrate embryos to illustrate his idea of recapitulation, most famously, a fish, frog, turtle, chicken, and a human being.

Haeckel’s drawings were faked. Haeckel distorted every aspect of his drawings, from the embryos he chose to draw, to the stages of development he chose to depict, to the way he depicted the embryos. Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionist himself, wrote that Haeckel “exaggerated the similarities by idealizations and omissions. He also—in a procedure that can only be called fraudulent—simply copied the same figure over and over again.”

Haeckel’s drawings never fooled experts in embryology, who immediately noticed that he was taking artistic license to support his pet theory.

In the early 1980s, Gould came across Louis Agassiz’s personal copy of Haeckel’s 1868 work, Naturliche Schopfungsgeshichte (Natural History of Creation) in the open stacks of a Harvard library. Agassiz—who was not a Darwinist and famously said of Darwinism “I trust to outlive this mania”—had some experience in embryology. While reading Haeckel’s work, Agassiz had freely annotated the margins. Beside Haeckel’s embryo drawings, Agassiz had written such comments as “Where were these copied from? Artistically crafted similarities mixed with inaccuracies.” One of Haeckel’s illustrations shows the embryos of a dog, a chicken, and a tortoise. Haeckel had written, “If you take the young embryos of a dog, a chicken and a tortoise, you cannot discover a single difference among them.” “Naturally” retorted Agassiz in the margin, “because these figures were not drawn from nature, but rather copied one from the other! Abscheulich (Atrocious).” Gould, Stephen Jay, I Have Landed, (New York: Harmony Books, 2002), pp. 305-320.

Haeckel’s idea that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” had by 1910 been “conclusively disproved and abandoned.” Yet, despite the fact that it has long been known that Haeckel faked his drawings, and science has long since repudiated his theory, variations of Haeckel’s drawings still appear in recent textbooks including: Prothero, Bringing Fossils to Life (2013) and Mader, Windelspecht, Biology (2015).

More zombie science.

The Peppered Moths

The peppered moths of southern England might be the most famous, and yet the most fraudulent “icon of evolution.” The story has been ubiquitous.

Peppered moths come in light and dark shades. In the early nineteenth century, most of the moths were of the lighter shade, but over the course of the century, as industrial pollution worsened, the moth population became predominantly dark colored. In the 1950s, a researcher named Bernard Kettlewell conducted a famous study of the peppered moths in which he released moths onto tree trunks and observed predatory birds picking them off. Kettlewell noticed that pollution had killed the light-colored lichens on tree trunks; he concluded that the lighter moths were too conspicuous against the darker tree trunks. As a result of their camouflage advantage on the darker tree trunks, the dark moths flourished and came to predominate.

Peppered moths have been the favorite textbook example of natural selection for over forty years. Usually, the text is accompanied by pictures of moths on tree trunks, illustrating how the lighter colored moths are almost invisible against the lichen-covered trunk but dangerously exposed on the dark tree trunk devoid of lichens.

Great illustration of evolution in action . . . except that the photographs were staged. Dead moths were glued or pinned onto tree trunks before the pictures were snapped. Sometimes photographers placed live peppered moths, which are torpid in daylight, on the tree trunks. This would have been a legitimate illustrative technique if peppered moths typically lighted on tree trunks, but scientists now know that they usually do not.

First, a series of experiments showed that there was no correlation between lichens and the distribution of light and dark colored moths. Then, a series of experiments demonstrated that most of the time, peppered moths rest in the canopies of trees, usually on the underside of horizontal branches.

The later experiments seem to show a correlation between industrial pollution and moth melanism, but Kettlewell’s theory about lichens, camouflage, and selective predation by birds—the part of the story used to illustrate natural selection—has been debunked. Although scientists have known since the 1980s that peppered moths do not normally rest on tree trunks and that the photographs of moths on tree trunks did not reflect reality, the illustrations keep showing up in textbooks. Zombie science.


Archaeopteryx is a creature that has some characteristics of reptiles and some characteristics of birds. The great 19th Century naturalist Sir Richard Owen examined the first skeleton of Archaeopteryx, noting that it had several reptilian features, including a long bony tail, three-clawed fingers at the end of its forelimb or wing, and reptilian ribs and vertebrae. It also had some very bird-like features, including light, hollow bones and a wishbone. Its feathers were flight feathers, with shafts, vanes, hooks, barbs, and barbules.

Owen, well aware that the Darwinists—with whom he had no sympathy—would claim that it was a transitional form between reptiles and birds, declared Archaeopteryx a bird. And it is still classified as a bird today.

The head was missing from the fossil Owen examined, but a later-discovered specimen was to show that Archaeopteryx, while it had a pronounced bird-like beak, also had socketed, conical, reptilian teeth, unlike toothless modern birds. All the leading naturalists of the time recognized the significance of Archaeopteryx as a possible transitional form between reptiles and birds, and Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” often cited it as a proof of evolution.

So is Archaeopteryx a missing link, evidence of a purported transition from dinosaurs to modern birds?

No. Most scientists agree that Archaeopteryx itself does not connect any particular dinosaur to any surviving line of birds.

First, no one can guess what dinosaur, if any, Archaeopteryx evolved from. Thomas Huxley’s candidate was the small theropod dinosaur Compsognathus, and Yale paleontologist John Ostrom revived the dino-to-bird theory by pointing out similarities between the two species. But whereas Archaeopteryx had a wishbone, Compy lacked both a wishbone and collarbones. Moreover, Compy is found in the same Jurassic strata as Archaeopteryx, not below it, so Compy would have been a contemporary, not an ancestor, of Archaeopteryx. Compy is no longer seriously promoted as the ancestor to Archaeopteryx.

Second, Archaeopteryx is not an ancestor of modern birds. “Archaeopteryx is not ancestral to any group of modern birds,” writes paleontologist Larry Martin. Instead, it is “the earliest known member of a totally extinct group of birds.” A prominent pro-evolution website reports that “no one is claiming that [Archaeopteryx] is the transitional species between dinosaurs and birds . . .” Rather, it is “an echo of the actual event” that “represents a grade of organization which the proposed lineage went through to get from dinosaurs to birds.” So Archaeopteryx is a fascinating mosaic of reptilian and avian characteristics, but it is not a transitional form or “missing link.”

So that means that the flight feather evolved not once by twice, once leading up to Archaeopteryx, and again in the ancestor of modern birds. The flight feather is marvelously intricate. Each feather consists of a central shaft, called the rachis, from which a series of barbs branch off at sharp angles. Barbules project from the front and back of each barb to form the surface area of the feather. Hooks project downward from anterior barbules and interlock with the ridges on the posterior barbules. In the flight feather of a large bird, about one million barbules are integrated to form an impervious vane. Flight feathers are remarkably light, strong and self-reorganizing.

The dethroning of Archaeopteryx as a transitional form leading to modern birds means that flight feathers must have evolved more than once. Not likely. “Feathers are a very complicated structure,” noted one paleontologist. The odds of feathers evolving two separate times “would have been astronomically small.”

So what about high school textbooks that tout Archaeopteryx as proof of evolution? You guessed it . . . zombie science.

In his new book Zombie Science, biologist Jonathan Wells asks a simple question: If the icons of evolution were just innocent textbook errors, why do so many of them still persist? Wells gave a presentation about Zombie Science at the book's national launch party recently in Seattle.