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Textbooks of the living dead

Disproven foundations of evolutionary theory continue to live on in biology class

Discovery Institute

Textbooks of the living dead

If you’ve fallen for tree-of-life charts or lectures on how eyes slowly evolved and how “god” (if there were one) botched the job, you’ve fallen for zombie science. The same goes if you applauded science illuminati who waxed on about “junk DNA” and thought “vestigial organs” had no purpose.

I remember in junior high school science class seeing Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings that supposedly prove common descent, and hearing that the Miller-Urey experiment showed how life could emerge from non-life. In Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution, Jonathan Wells shows in this excerpt, courtesy of the Discovery Institute Press, that such propaganda worked on children for a while but proves nothing.

Zombie Science made WORLD’s short list for 2017 Book of the Year in the Origins category. —Marvin Olasky

The Miller-Urey Experiment

After the first edition of The Origin of Species appeared in 1859, Darwin concluded later editions with the statement that life had been “originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.” A few years later, Darwin wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker, “I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion” by using the biblical term, when what he really meant was “appeared by some wholly unknown process.”1

In 1871, Darwin wrote to Hooker again and outlined his true thinking about the origin of life: “If (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,— light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes.”2

Maybe the first cells actually did live in a warm little pond, but Darwin clearly believed that they were not created there. Instead, he believed they formed by some material process involving the spontaneous self-assembly of various chemicals.

In the 1920s, Russian scientist A. I. Oparin and British scientist J. B. S. Haldane suggested that the Earth’s primitive atmosphere consisted mainly of methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water vapor.3,4 The first three are what chemists call “reducing” gases, as opposed to neutral gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen, or oxidizing gases such as oxygen. In a reducing atmosphere, according to Oparin and Haldane, natural energy sources such as lightning could have produced the chemical building blocks of life, which could have then dissolved in the ocean to form a primordial “soup” from which the first living cells emerged.

An interesting idea, but could it be tested?

An intelligent agent had to orchestrate matters to make the residue hospitable to life.

In 1953, University of Chicago graduate student Stanley Miller announced that he had shown experimentally (in the laboratory of his Ph.D. adviser, Harold Urey) that lightning in the Earth’s primitive atmosphere could have produced amino acids, the chemical building blocks of proteins.5 Miller used a closed glass apparatus in which he boiled water, circulated the steam with a mixture of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen past a spark discharge, and then collected the products in a container at the bottom. After a week he analyzed the result (a brown tarry mixture) and detected some of the amino acids that occur in living cells. The experiment was widely advertised as evidence that scientists had demonstrated the first step in the origin of life.

By 1980, however, most geochemists had concluded that the Earth’s early atmosphere probably wasn’t a reducing atmosphere, as Oparin and Haldane had supposed, and as Miller had assumed when constructing his experiment. Instead, the early atmosphere likely consisted of neutral gases like those emitted from modern volcanoes—mostly water vapor, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen (though some carbon monoxide, a reducing gas, is also emitted). Since hydrogen is the lightest element, if there had been any in the early atmosphere it would probably have escaped into space.

In 1983, Miller reported that he and a colleague had sparked an atmosphere containing carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide instead of methane and ammonia, and they were able to produce a small amount of the simplest amino acid—but only if the atmosphere contained more hydrogen than carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. In order to produce other amino acids they needed not only an excess of free hydrogen but also methane.6 Harvard geochemist Heinrich Holland came to a similar conclusion.7

So the Miller-Urey experiment could not produce amino acids from a realistic mixture of gases. Furthermore, the brown tarry mixture that it produced contained not only amino acids, but also substances that would have interfered with the origin of life. For example, the mixture contained cyanide and formaldehyde, which a skilled chemist can use to synthesize biologically useful molecules, but which by themselves are extremely toxic to living cells. In 2015, an international team of scientists reported that bacteria could survive in the residue from a Miller-Urey experiment, but only after the residue had first been purified to remove these toxic substances.8 In other words, an intelligent agent had to orchestrate matters to make the residue hospitable to life.

The Textbooks Respond

So how did the biology textbooks respond to these discoveries showing that Stanley Miller’s experiment missed the mark? Many of them in 2000 persisted in using images of the Miller-Urey apparatus to convince students that scientists had demonstrated the first step in the origin of life. And many biology textbooks are still doing this. For example, Kenneth Mason, Jonathan Losos and Susan Singer’s 2014 edition of Raven and Johnson’s widely used Biology acknowledges that there is a controversy over the composition of the Earth’s early atmosphere, but it proceeds to tell the standard story anyway. It concludes that Stanley Miller demonstrated that “the key molecules of life could have formed in the reducing atmosphere of the early Earth.”9

Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine’s 2014 Biology includes a drawing of the Miller-Urey apparatus with the following caption: “Miller and Urey produced amino acids, which are needed to make proteins, by passing sparks through a mixture of hydrogen, methane, ammonia, and water vapor. Evidence now suggests that the composition of Earth’s early atmosphere was different from their 1953 experiment. However, more recent experiments with different mixtures of gases have produced similar results.”10

This last statement is profoundly misleading, if not downright false. As we saw above, Stanley Miller himself showed that his experiment needed excess hydrogen to produce even the simplest amino acid, and methane was necessary to produce more complex amino acids. So the “different mixtures of gases” that Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine claim “produced similar results” must have been very different from the probable atmosphere of the early Earth.

According to the 2014 edition of Campbell Biology and the 2014 edition of Scott Freeman’s Biological Science (both of which feature drawings of Miller’s apparatus), Miller-Urey-type experiments using realistic mixtures of volcanic gases have produced organic molecules such as formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide.11,12 Yes, but as we saw above, these chemicals are very toxic to living cells. Life could not have emerged spontaneously from a primordial soup containing significant amounts of them.

A “Volcanic” Experiment to the Rescue?

The 2016 edition of Mader and Windelspecht’s Biology accompanies its drawing of the Miller-Urey apparatus with this: “In 2008, a group of scientists examined 11 vials of compounds produced from variations of the Miller-Urey experiment and found a greater variety of organic molecules than Miller reported, including all 22 amino acids.”13 True, but the additional amino acids all came from experiments that used a mixture of reducing gases, so the experiments suffered from the same flaw as the original one.

The 2014 edition of Campbell Biology mentions the same 2008 study: “Perhaps the first organic compounds formed near volcanoes. In a 2008 test of this hypothesis, researchers used modern equipment to reanalyze molecules that Miller had saved from one of his experiments. The 2008 study found that numerous amino acids had formed under conditions that simulated a volcanic eruption.”14

That sounds pretty convincing, except that it’s dead wrong.

That sounds pretty convincing, except that it’s dead wrong.

In all fairness, the authors of Campbell Biology may have made an honest mistake in this case, misled by a 2008 article in Science titled “The Miller Volcanic Spark Discharge Experiment.” Jeffrey Bada (who completed his Ph.D. under Stanley Miller) and five other scientists examined samples saved from a 1955 experiment in which Miller modified his apparatus by using a narrow nozzle to inject steam from the boiling water into the circulating gases. Based on a 2000 report suggesting that small water droplets in volcanic eruptions can attract lightning,15 Bada and his colleagues claimed that this modification “possibly simulates the spark discharge synthesis by lightning in a steam-rich volcanic eruption,” and they called this “the volcanic experiment.”16

But Miller himself did not call it “volcanic,” and for good reason. The only thing “volcanic” about it was that instead of passing the gases over boiling water, Miller injected steam into them. But the gases he used in 1955 were the same he had used in 1953: methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water vapor.17 Calling the experiment “volcanic” gave the false impression that criticisms of the 1953 experiment had been overcome in the new experiment, but they had not. Nevertheless, Bada and his colleagues are continuing to promote the Miller-Urey experiment, including what they call its “volcanic” version.18 They have even posted online instructions on how to re-enact the experiment in a science classroom.19 So despite its irrelevance to the origin of life on Earth, the Miller-Urey experiment just keeps coming back. Why?

The Grand Materialistic Story

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is a materialistic story about how life diversified after it originated, but Darwin realized that his evolutionary story is incomplete without a materialistic explanation for the origin of life. He hoped that such an origin could be shown to have been possible in some “warm little pond” on the ancient Earth, but what if the origin of life cannot be explained materialistically? What if it required the origin of new information, which is immaterial? And what if that information required an intelligence?

In his 2009 book Signature in the Cell, philosopher of science Stephen Meyer argues that the complex information in biological molecules cannot result from unguided natural processes such as the spontaneous aggregation of chemicals. The only known source of large amounts of complex information is intelligence. Therefore, Meyer concludes, the origin of life required intelligent design.20

But Science Says No, life must have originated materialistically.

So origin-of-life researchers rely more on a grand materialistic story than they do on evidence. Biologist Jack Szostak tells the story this way: “Simple chemistry in diverse environments on the early Earth led to the emergence of ever more complex chemistry and ultimately to the synthesis of the critical biological building blocks. At some point, the assembly of these materials into primitive cells enabled the emergence of Darwinian evolutionary behavior, followed by the gradual evolution of more complex life forms leading to modern life.”21

But this story consists entirely of assumptions. If (“& oh what a big if ”) simple chemistry led to the synthesis of biological building blocks, and if these building blocks assembled themselves into primitive cells, etc., etc. None of these steps have been empirically demonstrated. In fact, origin-of-life research has been spectacularly unsuccessful. The Miller-Urey experiment is just one of its many dead ends.

The grand materialistic story lumbers on.

Rice University synthetic organic chemist James Tour points out that the prebiotic (i.e., prior to life) synthesis of complex organic molecules remains a mystery. A chemist who wants to synthesize such molecules from scratch must start with targets in mind, then think of possible routes to reach them. “Further refinement of various routes leads to a set of desired paths; these are the routes that can be attempted in the laboratory,” Tour wrote in 2016. But “finding a direct path to a target is far too complicated. Dead ends are everywhere”—even for a skilled chemist with a target in mind. But, Tour continued, “There are no targets in evolution.”22

“Those who think scientists understand the issues of prebiotic chemistry are wholly misinformed,” Tour concluded. “Nobody understands them. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. It would be far more helpful (and hopeful) to expose students to the massive gaps in our understanding.”23

And prebiotic synthesis would be just the first step. Even if we could explain how life’s chemical building blocks formed on the early Earth, we would still be a very long way from explaining how they assembled themselves into a living cell.

But the grand materialistic story lumbers on.

Haeckel’s Embryos

Darwin thought that embryology provided “by far the strongest single class of facts in favor” of his theory.24 In 1859 he wrote that we see “a close similarity in the embryos of widely different animals in the same class,” and that this similarity “reveals community of descent.”25 Ten years later he wrote that “it is highly probable that with many animals the embryonic or larval stages show us, more or less completely, the state of the progenitor of the whole group in its adult condition.”26 To support his point, Darwin cited some drawings of vertebrate embryos made by German biologist Ernst Haeckel.27

Haeckel’s contemporaries accused him of faking his drawings to make the embryos appear more alike than they really were. Nevertheless, the drawings continued to be widely used in textbooks as evidence of common descent.

Recently, the credibility of the drawings took another hit. In 1997, British embryologist Michael Richardson and an international team of biologists compared Haeckel’s drawings with photographs of actual vertebrate embryos and found many discrepancies.28 In an interview for the journal Science, Richardson said, “It looks like it’s turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology.”29

But the icon was just too good to abandon without a fight. Never mind the evidence. In 2008, University of Chicago historian Robert Richards published a book defending Haeckel against charges of fraud. According to Richards, Haeckel’s drawings were no less accurate than those of his contemporaries, including the people who criticized him.30 Cambridge historian Nick Hopwood also defended Haeckel against the fraud charge in a 2015 book that included several pages criticizing Icons of Evolution as a creationist “primer for textbook activism.”31

The real issue, however, is not whether Haeckel deliberately committed fraud. The real issue is that Haeckel’s drawings omitted half of the evidence—the half that doesn’t fit Darwin’s claim that embryos are most similar in their early stages. By the logic of Darwin’s argument, the earliest stages should be the most similar, but vertebrate embryos actually start out looking very different from each other, then they converge somewhat in appearance midway through development (Haeckel’s “first” stage) before diverging to their adult forms.32 Biologist Rudolf Raff has called this pattern the “developmental hourglass”33 Haeckel helped Darwin by simply omitting the top half of the hourglass.

When Jerry Coyne reviewed Icons of Evolution in 2001, he criticized the book for failing to recognize that “embryos of different vertebrates tend to resemble one another in early stages, but diverge as development proceeds, with more closely related species diverging less widely,” thus providing “copious evidence for evolution.” Yet Coyne knew that vertebrate embryos are not most similar in their early stages. Indeed, in the same review he acknowledged that “the earliest vertebrate embryos (mere balls of cells) are often less similar to one another than they are at subsequent stages.” But he brushed this aside. For Coyne, evolution must be true, whether early embryos are similar or not.34

Coyne followed this with a 2009 book titled Why Evolution Is True, which contained the following: “Each vertebrate undergoes development in a series of stages, and the sequence of those stages happens to follow the evolutionary sequence of its ancestors.” Thus “all vertebrates begin development looking like embryonic fish because we all descended from a fishlike ancestor.”35

So much for the evidence.

Textbooks Still Haunted By Haeckel’s Embryos

Haeckel’s drawings had been discredited before I ever wrote about them, and yet the drawings (or re-drawn versions of them) continued to find their way into many biology textbooks as evidence for evolution. In 2000, Stephen Jay Gould wrote that we should all be “astonished and ashamed by the century of mindless recycling that has led to the persistence of these drawings in a large number, if not a majority, of modern textbooks.”36 Haeckel’s embryos, it seemed, were not just dead; they deserved to be buried face down.

Yet many textbooks published after 2000 continue to use versions of Haeckel’s drawings as evidence for evolution. Donald Prothero’s 2013 textbook Bringing Fossils to Life actually features Haeckel’s original drawings, with the caption: “Embryos of different vertebrates at comparable stages of development (top row) are strikingly similar in every group.”37 Mader and Windelspecht’s 2016 Biology uses a re-drawn version of Haeckel’s embryos, accompanied by the statement, “All vertebrates inherit the same developmental pattern from their common ancestor, but each vertebrate group now has a specific set of modifications to this original ancestral pattern.”38

“Like a zombie that just won’t die, these bogus drawings keep coming back.” —Casey Luskin

Some recent textbooks don’t use drawings but make essentially the same claim. The 2014 edition of Raven and Johnson’s Biology tells students, “Some of the strongest anatomical evidence supporting evolution comes from comparisons of how organisms develop. Embryos of different types of vertebrates, for example, often are similar early on, but become more different as they develop.”39 Miller and Levine’s 2014 Biology informs its readers that “the early developmental stages of many animals with backbones (called vertebrates) look very similar,” and these similarities provide “evidence that organisms have descended from a common ancestor.”40

So despite the evidence, Haeckel’s embryos continue to stalk the halls of science education. When materials containing Haeckel-like illustrations were submitted in 2011 to the Texas State Board of Education for adoption into the science curriculum, Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin wrote, “Like a zombie that just won’t die, these bogus drawings keep coming back.”41

From Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells. Copyright © 2017 by Discovery Institute. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


1. Charles R. Darwin, Letter to J. D. Hooker, March 29, 1863, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, 1887), III:18. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?pageseq=30&itemID=F1452.3&viewtype=side.

2. Charles R. Darwin, Letter to J. D. Hooker, February 1, 1871. http://evolutionatbyu.com/20130104Darwin-and-spontaneous-generationV03.pdf.

3. Alexander I. Oparin, The Origin of Life (Moscow: Moscow Worker, 1924).

4. J. B. S. Haldane, “The origin of life,” Rationalist Annual 148 (1928): 3–10.

5. Stanley L. Miller, “A production of amino acids under possible primitive Earth conditions,” Science 117 (1953): 528–529. doi:10.1126/science.117.3046.528. PMID:13056598.

6. Gordon Schlesinger and Stanley L. Miller, “Prebiotic synthesis in atmospheres containing CH4, CO, and CO2. I. Amino acids,” Journal of Molecular Evolution 19 (1983): 376–382. doi:10.1007/BF02101642. PMID:6417344.

7. Heinrich D. Holland, The Chemical Evolution of the Atmosphere and Oceans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 99–100.

8. Xueshu Xie, Daniel Backman, Albert T. Lebedev, Viatcheslav B. Artaev, Liying Jiang, Leopold L. Ilag, and Roman A. Zubarev, “Primordial soup was edible: Abiotically produced Miller-Urey mixture supports bacterial growth,” Scientific Reports 5 (2015): 14338. doi:10.1038/srep14338. PMID:26412575.

9. Kenneth A. Mason, Jonathan B. Losos, and Susan R. Singer, Raven and Johnson’s Biology, 10th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014), 511–512.

10. Kenneth R. Miller and Joseph S. Levine, Biology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2014), 554.

11. Jane B. Reece, Lisa A. Urry, Michael L. Cain, Steven A. Wasserman, Peter V. Minorsky, and Robert B. Jackson, Campbell Biology, 10th ed. (San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2014), 57.

12. Scott Freeman, Lizabeth Allison, Michael Black, Greg Podgorski, Kim Quillin, Jon Monroe, and Emily Taylor, Biological Science, 5th ed. (San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2014), 33–34.

13. Sylvia Mader and Michael Windelspecht, Biology, 12th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2016), 319.

14. Reece, Urry, Cain, Wasserman, Minorsky, and Jackson, Campbell Biology (2014), 520. 198 Chapter 3 (Pages 49–79)

15. Stephen R. McNutt and C. M. Davis, “Lightning associated with the 1992 eruptions of Crater Peak Mount Spurr Volcano, Alaska,” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 102 (2000): 45. doi:10.1016/S0377-0273(00)00181-5.

16. Adam P. Johnson, H. James Cleaves, Jason P. Dworkin, Daniel P. Glavin, Antonio Lazcano, and Jeffrey L. Bada, “The Miller volcanic spark discharge experiment,” Science 322 (2008): 404. doi:10.1126/science.1161527. PMID:18927386.

17. Stanley L. Miller, “Production of some organic compounds under possible primitive Earth conditions,” Journal of the American Chemical Society 77 (1955): 2351–2361. doi:10.1021/ja01614a001.

18. Eric T. Parker, Manshui Zhou, Aaron S. Burton, Daniel P. Glavin, Jason P. Dworkin, Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, Facundo M. Fernandez, and Jeffrey L. Bada, “A plausible simultaneous synthesis of amino acids and simple peptides on the primordial Earth,” Angewandte Chemie 53 (2014): 8132-8136. doi:10.1002/anie.201403683. PMID:24966137.

19. Eric T. Parker, H. James Cleaves, Aaron S. Burton, Daniel P. Glavin, Jason P. Dworkin, M. Zhou, Jeffrey L. Bada, and Facundo M. Fernandez, “Conducting Miller-Urey experiments,” Journal of Visualized Experiments 83 (2014): e51039. doi:10.3791/51039. PMID:24473135.

20. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

21. Jack W. Szostak, “Attempts to define life do not help to understand the origin of life,” Journal of Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics 29 (2012): 599–600. doi:10.1080/073911012010524998. PMID:22208251.

22. James Tour, “Animadversions of a synthetic chemist,” Inference 2:2 (May 19, 2016). http://inference-review.com/article/animadversions-of-a-synthetic-chemist.

23. Ibid.

24. Charles R. Darwin, Letter to Asa Gray, September 10, 1860, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, 1887), II:338. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?pageseq=354&itemID=F1452.2&viewtype=side.

25. Charles R. Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1st ed. (London: John Murray, 1859), 442, 449.

26. Charles R. Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 5th ed. (London: John Murray, 1869), 533.

27. Ibid., 515.

28. Michael K. Richardson, James Hanken, Mayoni L. Gooneratne, Claude Pieau, Albert Raynaud, Lynne Selwood, and Glenda M. Wright, “There is no highly conserved embryonic stage in the vertebrates: Implications for current theories of evolution and development,” Anatomy and Embryology 196 (1997): 91–106. doi:10.1007/s004290050082. PMID:9278154.

29. Quoted in Elizabeth Pennisi, “Haeckel’s embryos: Fraud rediscovered,” Science 277 (1997): 1435. doi:10.1126/science.277.5331.1435a.

30. Robert J. Richards, The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). Chapter 3 (Pages 49–79) 199

31. Nick Hopwood, Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

32. Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2000), 94–101.

33. Rudolf A. Raff, The Shape of Life: Genes, Development, and the Evolution of Animal Form (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 197.

34. Coyne, “Creationism by stealth,” 745.

35. Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), 77–79.

36. Stephen Jay Gould, “Abscheulich! (Atrocious!),” Natural History (March, 2000): 42–49.

37. Donald R. Prothero, Bringing Fossils to Life, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 29.

38. Mader and Windelspecht, Biology, 274.

39. Mason, Losos and Singer, Raven and Johnson’s Biology, 428.

40. Miller and Levine, Biology, 469.

41. Casey Luskin, “Haeckel’s embryo drawings make cameos in proposed Texas instructional materials,” Evolution News & Views (June 17, 2011). http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/06/haeckels_embryos_make_multiple047321.html.

Jonathan Wells Discovery Institute/Photo by Laszlo Bencze

Discovery Institute


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