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True Darwin, but False Comfort

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
True Darwin, but False Comfort
Author(s): 
Eugenie C Scott
Volume: 
30
Issue: 
1–2
Year: 
2010
Date: 
January–April
Page(s): 
16–17
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Ray Comfort and I agree that "science is a wonderful discipline, to which we are deeply indebted." We agree that it would be nice for students to get a free copy of Darwin's best-known book, On the Origin of Species. I'll even go further than he might: The Origin — like Shakespeare and the Bible — should be on every educated person's bookshelf. If you do not understand evolution, you cannot be considered scientifically literate. And we agree that students should read the Origin thoroughly.

Unfortunately, thoroughly reading the version that Comfort will be distributing on college campuses in November will be difficult. The copy his publisher sent me is missing no fewer than four crucial chapters, as well as Darwin's introduction. Two of the omitted chapters, chapters 11 and 12, showcase biogeography, some of Darwin's strongest evidence for evolution. Which is a better explanation for the distribution of plants and animals around the planet: common ancestry or special creation? Which better explains why island species are more similar to species on the mainland closest to them, rather than to more distant species that share a similar environment? The answer clearly is common ancestry. Today, scientists continue to develop the science of biogeography, confirming, refining, and extending Darwin's conclusions.

Likewise missing from Comfort's bowdlerized version of the Origin is chapter 13, where Darwin explained how evolution makes sense of classification, morphology, and embryology. To take a simple example, why do all land vertebrates (amphibians, mammals, and reptiles and birds) have four limbs? Not because four limbs are necessarily a superior design for land locomotion: insects have six, arachnids have eight, and millipedes have, well, lots. It is because all land vertebrates descended with modification from a four-legged ("tetrapod") ancestor. Since Darwin's era, scientists have repeatedly confirmed that the more recently two species have shared a common ancestor, the more similar are their anatomy, their biochemistry, their embryology, and their genetics.

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," as a famous geneticist said. That is why evolution is taught matter-of-factly in the biology and geology departments of every respected university in the country, secular or sectarian, from Berkeley to Brigham Young. That is why the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science wholeheartedly endorse the teaching of evolution in the public schools. That's why thousands of papers applying, extending, or refining evolution are published in the scientific research literature every year.

But there is no reason for students to refuse Comfort's free — albeit suspiciously abridged — copy of the Origin. Read the first eight pages of the introduction, which is a reasonably accurate, if derivative, sketch of Darwin's life. The last ten pages or so are devoted to some rather heavy-handed evangelism, which doesn't really have anything to do with the history or content of the evolutionary sciences; read it or not as you please. But do not waste your time with the middle section of the introduction, a hopeless mess of long-ago-refuted creationist arguments, teeming with misinformation about the science of evolution, populated by legions of strawmen, and exhibiting what can be charitably described as muddled thinking.

For example, Comfort's treatment of the human fossil record is painfully superficial, out of date, and erroneous. Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man — one a forgery, the other a misidentification, and both rejected by science more than 50 years ago — are trotted out for scorn, as if they somehow negate the remaining huge volume of human fossils. There are more specimens of "Ardi" (the newly described Ardipithecus ramidus) than there are of Tyrannosaurus — and any eight-year-old aspiring paleontologist will be delighted to tell you how much we know about the T rex!

But you would not learn any of this from reading Comfort's introduction. He says, "Java Man [a Homo erectus], found in the early 20th century, was nothing more than a piece of skull, a fragment of a thigh bone, and three molar teeth." Well, that was from a single site — excavated in the 1890s. What about the dozens of other sites where fossils of H erectus are found, from China to Kenya to the Republic of Georgia? Another whopper: "Java Man is now regarded as fully human." Trust me, if one sat down next to you on the bus, you would know the difference.

In fact, the fossil record for the human lineage is impressive, providing the evidence on which our understanding of the big events of human evolution is based. We and modern chimpanzees shared a common ancestor millions of years ago; the main feature separating us from our chimpanzee cousins is bipedalism, followed by toolmaking, and then brain expansion, and then the substantial elaboration of behavior we call human culture. More fossils will provide more details, but this outline of human evolution is not in serious doubt among scientists.

It is not just human evolution that Comfort misrepresents. His main gripe is the old creationist standby, the supposed lack of transitional forms in the fossil record. (Darwin addressed the objection in chapter 9 of the Origin, interestingly one of the chapters not included in Comfort's version.) Comfort sneers at the fossil evidence for the terrestrial ancestry of whales and the dinosaurian ancestry of birds. Too bad for him that he has a knack for picking bad examples: There are splendid fossils of dinosaurs that have feathers and of whales that have legs — and even feet. Faced with ignorance like this, I am reminded of a jeremiad: "Oh foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not."

But if you are willing to use your ears to listen to what paleontologists say about transitional features and use your eyes to look at the evidence described in the scientific literature (as well as displayed in many museums and science centers around the country), you will find transitional fossils galore. There are clear transitional series from aquatic vertebrates to land vertebrates, from primitive land vertebrates to mammals, from dinosaurs to birds, from land vertebrates to whales, and of course a wonderful series of fossils leading to Homo sapiens. A good place to begin is a marvelous website dismissively mentioned (and erroneously described) in Comfort's introduction, the University of California Museum of Paleontology's Understanding Evolution (http://www.evolution.berkeley.edu).

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, both occasions worth celebrating by anyone who cares about our understanding of the natural world. So it is no surprise that creationists are trying to piggyback on the festivities with cynical publicity stunts like Comfort's. But I have faith that college students are sharp enough to realize that Comfort's take on Darwin and evolution is simply bananas.

[Originally posted under the title "How creationist 'Origin' distorts Darwin" at US News & World Report's God and Country blog on October 30, 2009, and republished by permission]

About the Author(s): 

Eugenie C Scott
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
scott@ncse.com

Eugenie C Scott is the executive director of NCSE.