Answers to "10 Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution"

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Answers to "10 Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution"

Hominid Evolution Through Time. Getty/DEA PICTURE LIBRARY

Creationist and Intelligent Design proponent Jonathan Wells created a list of ten questions that he felt challenged the validity of the Theory of Evolution.  His aim was to make sure students everywhere were given a copy of this list of questions to ask their biology teachers when they are teaching about evolution in the classroom.  While many of these are actually misconceptions about how evolution works, it's important for teachers to be well versed in the answers to dispel any sort of misinformation that is being believed by this misguided list.

Here are the ten questions with answers that can be given when they are asked.  The original questions, as posed by Jonathan Wells, are in italics and can be read before each proposed answer.

 

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Origin of Life

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Hydrothermal vent panorama, 2600m deep off Mazatlan. Getty/Kenneth L. Smith, Jr.

 Why do textbooks claim that the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment shows how life's building blocks may have formed on the early Earth — when conditions on the early Earth were probably nothing like those used in the experiment, and the origin of life remains a mystery?

It is important to point out that evolutionary biologists do not use the "Primordial Soup" hypothesis of the origin of life as a definite answer as to how life started on Earth.  In fact, most, if not all, current textbooks do point out that the way they simulated the atmosphere of early Earth was probably incorrect.

However, it is still an important experiment because it shows that the building blocks of life can spontaneously form from inorganic and common chemicals.  There have been numerous other experiments using various reactants that may have been part of the early Earth landscape and all of these published experiments showed the same result -- organic molecules can be made spontaneously through a combination of different inorganic reactants and an input of energy (like lightning strikes).

Of course, the Theory of Evolution does not explain origins of life.  It explains how life, once created, changes over time.  Although origins of life are related to evolution, it is an accessory topic and area of study.

 

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Tree of Life

The Phylogenetic Tree of Life. Ivica Letunic

Why don't textbooks discuss the "Cambrian explosion," in which all major animal groups appear together in the fossil record fully formed instead of branching from a common ancestor — thus contradicting the evolutionary tree of life?

First of all, I don't think I've ever read or taught from a textbook that doesn't discuss the Cambrian Explosion, so I'm not sure where the first part of the question is coming from.  However, I do know that Mr. Wells' subsequent explanation of the Cambrian Explosion, sometimes called Darwin's Dilemma, happens to be severely flawed.

Yes, there was an abundance of new and novel species that seem to appear during this relatively short time period as evidenced in the fossil record.  The most likely explanation for this is the ideal conditions these individuals lived in that could create fossils.  These were aquatic animals, so when they died, they were easily buried in sediments and over time could become fossils.  The fossil record has a plethora of aquatic life compared to the life that would have lived on land simply because of the ideal conditions in the water to make a fossil.

Another counterpoint to this anti-evolution statement is he is reaching when he claims "all major animal groups appear together" during the Cambrian Explosion.  What does he consider a "major animal group"?  Would mammals, birds, and reptiles not be considered major animal groups?  Since the majority of these are land animals and life had not yet moved to land, they certainly did not appear during the Cambrian Explosion.

 

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Homology

Homologous limbs of various species. Wilhelm Leche

Why do textbooks define homology as similarity due to common ancestry, then claim that it is evidence for common ancestry — a circular argument masquerading as scientific evidence?

Homology is actually used to infer that two species are related.  Therefore, it is evidence evolution has occurred to make the other, non-similar traits, less similar over a period of time.  The definition of homology, as stated in the question, is just the inverse of this logic stated in a concise way as a definition.  

Circular arguments can be made for anything.  One way to show a religious person how this is so (and probably anger them, so beware if you decide to go this route) is to point out that they know there is a God because the Bible says there is one and the Bible is right because it is the word of God.

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Vertebrate Embryos

Chicken embryo at later stage of development. Graeme Campbell

Why do textbooks use drawings of similarities in vertebrate embryos as evidence for their common ancestry — even though biologists have known for over a century that vertebrate embryos are not most similar in their early stages, and the drawings are faked?

The faked drawings the author of this question is referring to are those done byErnst Haeckel.  There are no modern textbooks that will use these drawings as evidence for common ancestry or evolution.  However, since Haeckel's time, there have been many published articles and repeated research within the field of evo-devo that back up the original claims of embryology.  Embryos of closer related species look more similar to each other than embryos of more distantly related species.

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Archaeopteryx

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Archaeopteryx fossil. Getty/Kevin Schafer

Why do textbooks portray this fossil as the missing link between dinosaurs and modern birds — even though modern birds are probably not descended from it, and its supposed ancestors do not appear until millions of years after it?

The first issue with this question is the use of "missing link".  First of all, if it has been discovered, how could it be "missing"?  Archaeopteryx shows how reptiles began accumulating adaptations like wings and feathers that eventually branched off into our modern birds.  

Also, the "supposed ancestors" of the Archaeopteryx mentioned in the question were on a different branch and were not directly descended from one another.  It would be more like a cousin or an aunt on a family tree and just like in humans, it is possible for a "cousin" or an "aunt" to be younger than the Archaeopteryx.

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Peppered Moths

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Peppered Moth on a Wall in London. Getty/Oxford Scientific

Why do textbooks use pictures of peppered moths camouflaged on tree trunks as evidence for natural selection — when biologists have known since the 1980s that the moths don't normally rest on tree trunks, and all the pictures have been staged?

These pictures are to illustrate a point about camouflage and natural selection.  Blending in with the surroundings is advantageous when there are predators looking for a tasty treat.  Those individuals with coloring that helps them blend in will live long enough to reproduce.  Prey that sticks out in their surroundings will be eaten and not reproduce to pass down the genes for that coloring.  Whether or not moths actually land on tree trunks is not the point.

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Darwin's Finches

Darwin's Finches. John Gould

Why do textbooks claim that beak changes in Galapagos finches during a severe drought can explain the origin of species by natural selection — even though the changes were reversed after the drought ended, and no net evolution occurred?

Natural selection is the main mechanism which drives evolution. Natural selection chooses individuals with adaptations that are beneficial for changes in the environment.  That is exactly what happened in the example in this question.  When there was a drought, natural selection chose finches with beaks that were suitable to the changing environment.  When the drought ended and the environment changed again, then natural selection chose a different adaptation.  "No net evolution" is a moot point.

 

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Mutant Fruit Flies

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Fruit Flies with Vestigial Wings. Getty/Owen Newman

 Why do textbooks use fruit flies with an extra pair of wings as evidence that DNA mutations can supply raw materials for evolution — even though the extra wings have no muscles and these disabled mutants cannot survive outside the laboratory?

I have yet to use a textbook with this example, so it is a stretch on Jonathan Wells' part to use this to try and debunk evolution, but it's still a grossly misunderstood point anyway.  There are many DNA mutations that are not beneficial in species that happen all the time.  Much like these four winged fruit flies, not every mutation leads to a viable evolutionary pathway.  However, it does illustrate that mutations can lead to new structures or behaviors that could ultimately contribute to evolution.  Just because this one example does not lead to a viable new trait doesn't mean that other mutations will not.  This example does show that mutations lead to new traits and that is definitely "raw materials" for evolution.

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Human Origins

A reconstruction of Homo neanderthalensis. Hermann Schaaffhausen

 Why are artists' drawings of ape-like humans used to justify materialistic claims that we are just animals and our existence is a mere accident — when fossil experts cannot even agree on who our supposed ancestors were or what they looked like?

Drawings or illustrations are just an artist's idea of how early human ancestors would look.  Just as in paintings of Jesus or God, the look of them varies from artist to artist and scholars do not agree on their exact look.  Scientists have yet to find a wholly complete fossilized skeleton of a human ancestor (which is not uncommon since it is particularly hard to make a fossil and have it survive for tens of thousands, if not millions, of years).  Illustrators and paleontologists can recreate likenesses based on what is known and then infer the rest.  New discoveries are made all the time and that will also change ideas on how the human ancestors looked and acted.

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Evolution a Fact?

Human evolution drawn on chalkboard
Human evolution drawn on chalkboard. Martin Wimmer/E+/Getty Images

 Why are we told that Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific fact — even though many of its claims are based on misrepresentations of the facts?

While most of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, at its base, still holds true, the actual Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary Theory is the one that scientists follow in today's world.  This argument reeks of a "but evolution is just a theory" position.  A scientific theory is pretty much considered a fact.  This does not mean it cannot change, but it has been extensively tested and can be used to predict outcomes without being unequivocally contradicted.  If Wells believes his ten questions somehow proves that evolution is "based on misrepresentations of the facts" then he is not correct as evidenced by the explanations of the other nine questions.