This book purports to present for teachers "reliable information on plausible alternatives to balance their curriculum." What it presents instead is the same old dichotomy of evolution vs. sudden creation that allows no accommodation for intermediate views, for religious scientists or laymen who think that it is possible to approach the ways of God through science, or for scientists who carry out science without a preconceived idea of "intelligent design." The theme of "intelligent design" consists mostly of denying any possibility of evolution, and explaining all the evidence adduced for it as "specially created." Thus, homology cannot result from descent, biochemical similarity must be functional in some way because it is not inherited, and the fossil record is a grand illusion.
Particularly illuminating in this regard is the authors' discussion of punctuated equilibrium as a manifestation of "intelligent design." So species don't change gradually in many or most cases through their brief durations in the fossil record. So they are quickly replaced by very similar (daughter) species, which in turn are replaced through time. Evolutionists recognize this pattern (not mechanism, contrary to the authors) as the groundplan of phylogenetic divergence, regardless of how little or how much change occurs in a single species. Not so with these proponents of "intelligent design." They would have you believe that a Creator plucked up each individual species when its time on Earth was over, and replaced it with a similar, apparently as well adapted, but not descendant species.
How could this claim possibly be scientific? How can we investigate it? The authors admit that this is a difficult matter. A lot remains to be done, they conclude, by "design proponents." They say, "... scenarios (about the past) ... win our allegiance by being reasonable in light of the total evidence, not because they are proven. Without observation or testing, as could be done for a theory of planetary motion, there is no 'proof' or 'disproof'." This is a complete distortion. All scientific theories strive to be reasonable in light of the evidence. Observation and testing are constantly being carried out on the evidence from the fossil record. And no theories in science are ever "proven."
The fallacies in this catalog of errors are as predictable and shopworn as a Henny Youngman monologue. The text suggests that life appeared at the beginning of the Cambrian, when in in fact it is only the hard shells of metazoans that are first found with any abundance during the Cambrian. These particular phyla appear in the record through the whole extent of the Cambrian, probably due more to geochemical than biological processes; and moreover, the first life is nearly 3 billion years more ancient, though the authors neglect to mention this or separate the Cambrian explosion from the origin of life. Gaps in the fossil record are magnified and worried over, and Darwin's "gravest objection to my theory" is once again twisted to mean the absence of biological evidence, instead of the incompleteness of the geological record, which is what Darwin meant. Archaeopteryx is hopelessly misinterpreted; the authors have neglected to study the copious work on the origin of birds that has made the last two decades the most exciting for the solution to this question. Several hundred shared derived evolutionary features show that birds are descended from small carnivorous dinosaurs, yet this book tells students that the putative ancestor was a "thecodont," a term that is not even used any more by vertebrate paleontologists. Active scientists in this field no longer consider that fishes gave rise to amphibians, which gave rise to reptiles, which gave rise to mammals. It is manifestly clear, instead, that the first tetrapod emerged from lobe-finned marine forms, that both the true amphibians and the first amniotes diversified from the former, and that amniotes quickly split into lineages leading to the mammals (synapsids) and the true reptiles (including birds). However, the past two decades of research are completely omitted from this text.
Equally shameful is the authors' treatment of homology. They pretend that the Tasmanian wolf, a marsupial, would be placed with the placental wolf if evolutionists weren't so hung up on the single character of their reproductive mode by which marsupials and placentals are traditionally separated. This is a complete falsehood, as anyone with access to the evidence knows. It is not a matter of a single reproductive character, but dozens of characters in the skull, teeth, post-cranial bones (including the marsupial pelvic bones), soft anatomy, and biochemistry, to say nothing of their respective fossil records, that separate the two mammals. About the closest similarity they have going for them is that they are both called "wolf" in English. The same criticism can be applied seriatim to the authors' mystifying discussion of the red and giant "pandas."
Finally, there is a warped chapter of biochemistry taken wholesale from that compendium of misinformation, Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. The authors pretend that there is a "ladder of life," and organisms that have apparently diverged early on from this sequence are somehow frozen in time, retaining "primitive" as opposed to "advanced" features. Hence, in their view of evolution, because "fish" are supposed to have evolved into "amphibians," fishes should have cytochromes most similar to those of amphibians. Instead, all the tetrapod are equally distant from the fish. Of course, this is exactly what is to be expected from evolution, because the ancestors of the living fish tested diverged from those of the tetrapod, and their cytochrome evolved as those of the tetrapod were evolving along separate pathways. This is why the fish is equidistant from the tetrapod. This is also why the bacterium Rhodospirillum is equidistant from all the vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and yeast tested. Not to present the standard, internally and independently consistent evolutionary explanation of these results is inexcusable and incompetent. The following page presents the same misinformation, pretending that the consistent number of differences between the cytochrome c of the carp and of the bullfrog (13), turtle (13), chicken (14), rabbit (13), and horse (13) implies that they all might have equally well diverged independently from the carp, rather than the carp having diverged independently from the tetrapod 500 million years ago.
Of Pandas and People is a tract on hard-shell fundamentalist creationism in disguise. This underlying theme never speaks its name in this tract, but it is there nonetheless. It is hard to say what is worst in this book: the misconceptions of its sub-text, the intolerance for honest science, or the incompetence with which science is presented. In any case, teachers should be warned against using this book.
Kevin Padian (as of 2004):
Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley
Curator of Paleontology, University of California Museum of Paleontology
Kevin Padian is a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley. He is one of the authors of the new California Science Framework.
This review was originally published in Bookwatch Reviews 2(11) in 1989, and republished in Reviews of Creationist Books, second edition, edited by Liz Rank Hughes (Berkeley: NCSE, 1993). Transcribed for the web by Glenn Branch and Nick Matzke.