Icons of Evolution is a controversial book by the intelligent design advocate and fellow of the Discovery Institute, Jonathan Wells, and a 2002 video about the book. The icons were summarized in his December 2000/January 2001 of the American Spectator article.. In the book, Wells criticized the paradigm of evolution by attacking how it is taught.
Several of the scientists whose work is sourced in the book have written rebuttals to Wells, stating that they were quoted out of context, that their work has been misrepresented, or that it does not imply Wells' conclusions.
Many in the scientific community have strongly criticised the book and its claims that schoolchildren are deliberately misled and its conclusions as to the evidentiary status of the theory of evolution, which is considered by biologists to be the central unifying paradigm of biology. Kevin Padian and Alan D. Gishlick wrote a review in Quarterly Review of Biology of Wells' Icons comparing Wells to Tom Ripley, noting "In our view, regardless of Wells’s religious or philosophical background, his Icons of Evolution can scarcely be considered a work of scholarly integrity." Gishlick wrote a more detailed critique for the National Center for Science Education in his article "Icon of Evolution? Why much of what Jonathan Wells writes about evolution is wrong. Nick Matzke of talk.origins reviewed Wells' work in the article Icon of Obfuscation, and Wells responded with an A Response to Published Reviews (2002).
Nick Matzke reviewed the work in an article titled "Icon of Obfuscation," and critiqued the book chapter by chapter. Matzke concluded, "Icons of Evolution makes a travesty of the notion of honest scholarship", and that "Icons contains numerous instances of unfair distortions of scientific opinion, generated by the pseudoscientific tactics of selective citation of scientists and evidence, quote-mining, and 'argumentative sleight-of-hand', the last meaning Wells's tactic of padding his topical discussions with incessant, biased editorializing" .
Jerry Coyne wrote Icons "rests entirely on a flawed syllogism: ... textbooks illustrate evolution with examples; these examples are sometimes presented in incorrect or misleading ways; therefore evolution is a fiction.
Of the motive of Wells' book Alan D. Gishlick wrote: "It is clear from Wells's treatment of the "icons" and his grading scheme that his interest is not to improve the teaching of evolution, but rather to teach anti-evolutionism. Under Wells's scheme, teachers would be hostile to evolution as part of biology instruction. Wells and his allies hope that this would open the door to alternatives to evolution (such as "intelligent design") without actually having to support them with science", and "In conclusion, the scholarship of Icons is substandard and the conclusions of the book are unsupported. In fact, despite his touted scientific credentials, Wells doesn't produce a single piece of original research to support his position. Instead, Wells parasitizes on other scientists' legitimate work". Likewise Frederick C. Crews of The New York Review of Books wrote, "Wells mines the standard evolutionary textbooks for exaggerated claims and misleading examples, which he counts as marks against evolution itself. His goal, of course, is not to improve the next editions of those books but to get them replaced by ID counterparts."
In 2002 Massimo Pigliucci devoted section of his Denying Evolution work to refute each point presented in Wells' Icons of Evolution. Amongst the refutations Pigliucci noted several mistakes Wells made and outlined how Wells' oversimplified some issues to the detriment of the subject. Pigliucci also wrote an article-length review in BioScience and concludes, "Wells, as much as he desperately tries to debunk what to him is the most crucial component of evolutionary theory, the history of human descent, is backed against the wall by his own knowledge of biology. In 2005, Pigliucci debated Wells on Uncommon Knowledge on broader issues of evolution and intelligent design.
Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross discuss Wells' book in Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. One issue they highlighted was Wells' accusation that Haeckel forged images of embryos that are allegedly still in biology books. Forrest and Gross noted that Haeckel's, "a conservative Christian youth," work was "'fudged', as biologist Massimo Pigliucci says, not 'faked'. However, "we have excellent photographs, to which students can obtain easy access. Many or most colleges students of introductory biology actually see the embryos in the laboratory . . . Moreover, "vertebrate embryos, for most of the longest period of middevelopment, do look remarkably alike, pretty much, but not exactly, as Haeckel figured them in some of his drawings"(emphasis in original).
Richard Weisenberg, biologist at Temple University, wrote an open-letter to Wells in the Philadelphia Inquirer noting "Evolution by natural selection and the origin of life are entirely different subjects. ... The validity of any particular theory of biological origins (and there are several) has no relevancy to the well-established validity of evolution by natural selection." He continued, "I can only conclude that you have failed to master even a fraction of the massive body of evidence supporting the principle of evolution by natural selection."
The response of the single publisher named by Wells as having revised textbooks on the basis of his work has been condemned by Steven Schafersman, President of Texas Citizens for Science, and PZ Myers. That Wells' doctorate in biology at University of California, Berkeley was funded by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and a statement describing those studies as learning how to "destroy Darwinism are viewed by the scientific community as evidence that Wells lacks proper scientific objectivity and mischaracterizes evolution by ignoring and misrepresenting the evidence supporting it while pursuing an agenda promoting notions supporting his religious beliefs in its stead. The Discovery Institute has stated in response that "Darwinists have resorted to attacks on Dr. Wells’s religion."
|2||Darwin's tree of life|
|3||Homology in vertebrate limbs|
|8||Four-winged fruit flies|
The last three "icons" - four-winged fruit flies, horse evolution, and human evolution - were discussed in the book, but Wells did not evaluate their coverage in textbooks. Although most textbooks cover the first seven "icons", they are not used as the "best evidence" of evolution in any of the textbooks.
Wells gave four textbooks a D grade, and the other six Fs. Gishlick contended that Wells criteria "stack the deck against [the textbooks], ensuring failure. Wells grading criteria give a C or worse to any textbook that has a picture of the Miller-Urey apparatus unless the figure caption "explicitly [said] that the experiment was irrelevant Thus, even the intelligent design textbook, Of Pandas and People, would only receive a C.
Wells gave two textbooks Ds and the other eight Fs. Gishlick pointed out that Wells did not use the grading system consistently, criticising books for failing to discuss the Cambrian Explosion if they do so without calling it an explosion
In 2003, Holt, Rinehart and Winston said it re-evaluated the use of the peppered moth and Haeckel’s drawing of embryos from its textbook prior to publication. The publisher said, ". . . in Holt Biology Texas of the Miller-Urey experiment carefully indicates the mistakes made in the assumptions about the early atomsphere. Throughout Holt Biology Texas, the theory of evolution is described as a true scientific theory that will be refined and improved in the light of new evidence.
To Wells' assertion in Icons that Haeckel's embryos and recapitulation theory appearing in biology textbooks is evidence of flaws in the teaching of evolution, Myers said "I'd say Jonathan Wells' claim is pretty much dead. Haeckel's work is not one of the pillars upon which evolution is built, and biologists have been saying so for at least 85 years (and more like over a century). Next time one of those clowns tries to haunt modern biology with the ghost of Ernst Haeckel, just look 'em in the eye and tell them they're full of crap. The documentary Flock of Dodos challenges Wells' assertion, widely repeated by design advocates, that Haeckel’s Embryos are widespread in evolution textbooks. One critic of Wells said "If one reads Wells' criterion for his bogus A-F grading scale for the textbooks in Icons, it quickly becomes apparent that even publishing illustrations that resemble Haeckel's to illustrate his folly will garner the book a D, the only difference between a D and an F in Wells' mind being a 'D' grade book selecting a few embryos rather than publishing the full swath Haeckel originally doctored. PZ Myers says of Wells's claim about the use of Haeckel drawings in modern textbooks "They repeat the claim that Haeckel's embryos and all that silly recapitulation theory are still endemic in biology textbooks. It's not true, no matter how much they whine about it. I've gone over a number of these textbooks, and what you typically find at worst is a figure of the Haeckel diagrams for historical interest with an explanation that rejects recapitulation theory; more often what you find are photos or independently redrawn illustrations of the embryos.
Concerning Darwin's Finches (Chapter 8), Dave Wisker wrote,
The book's title is a reference to the famous picture "March of Progress." This drawing, by Rudolph Zallinger, was published in the Time-Life book Early Man in 1970 and shows a sequence of primates walking from left to right, starting with an ape on the left, progressing through a series of hominids, and finishing with a modern Cro-Magnon male on the right. A version of the drawing is on the cover of the book, and Wells describes it as the "ultimate icon" of evolution.
In 2002, a video titled Icons Of Evolution and produced by Coldwater Media. In it, Wells discusses the ideas presented in the book. The video also covers the story of Roger DeHart, one of the Discovery Institute's media campaigns claiming discrimination. The Seattle Weekly recalled the DeHart issue saying the video did not tell "the whole truth."
The video was mentioned in testimony during Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District by plaintiff Bryan Rehm. Rehm testified that Alan Bonsell, then-chairman of the board's curriculum committee, asked them to watch "Icons of Evolution" after teachers expressed concern that Bonsell did not believe in evolution and wished to see classroom discussions of evolution balanced "fifty-fifty" with creationism.