Review of Chapter Sixteen
Mark Perakh reviews Chapter 16, wherein Jonathan Wells engages in a massive fit of projection to try to smear evolutionary biologists with the heritage of Trofim D. Lysenko.
Posted by Mark Perakh on August 29, 2006 12:00 AM
Jonathan Wells (2006) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC.Amazon
I’ll address in this article chapter sixteen, “American Lysenkoism”, in Jonathan Wells’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. As Wells (1994) explained, he went to study biology at the behest of his spiritual “father” the Reverend Sun-Myung Moon, with an explicit goal to devote his life to “destroying Darwinism”. Since he set out to destroy “Darwinism” before having sufficiently familiarized himself with it, this immediately points to his lack of impartiality when dealing with “Darwinism.” Wells’s goal was not to evaluate “Darwinism” on its merits but to search for any arguments, regardless of their merits, which would serve his goal set in advance. This alone is a strong warning to the consumers of Wells’s literary output: take Wells’s arguments with a good dose of salt; he is not an unbiased judge of evidence, but a partisan of an anti-evolution effort whose goal is not to find the truth but to prove his viewpoint regardless of means.
In a box in the margin of chapter sixteen Wells writes: “Lysenkoism is now rearing its ugly head in the US, as Darwinists use their government positions to destroy the careers of their critics.”
Really? Thousands of biologists in the USSR at the time of Lysenko’s reign were arrested, exiled to Siberia, and many of them shot in the basements of the notorious Lubyanka prison, while intelligent design advocates in the US thrive on lavish donations from ultra-religious sources, have their own publishing outlets, lecture all over the country without any interference from genuine scientists, endlessly appear on TV and radio shows, and enjoy support from the extreme right-wing pundits and commentators?
Readers having even a minimal knowledge of the actual situation immediately see that no reasonable discourse can be expected from a writer so brazenly misrepresenting the reality. Which “government positions” does Wells have in mind? Are “Darwinists” holding all (or most) positions in the present Republican administration? Are they in command of the Congress?
Perhaps Wells wanted to really say that “Darwinists” occupy many positions of authority in universities. This is certainly true. By the same token the “Newtonists”, and “Einsteinists”, and “Maxwellists”, and “Boltzmannists” occupy positions of authority in universities as well, while Wells would perhaps like to see “Moonists” in such positions instead.
If indeed “Darwinists” (Wells’s term for modern biologists) are predominant in biological science, it is for good reason. Evolutionary biology is a robust science whose fruits are proven to be of great use in technology, medicine, agriculture, and many other fields. On the other hand Wells’s co-travelers, the “intelligent design” activists, have yet to show any, even very modest, contribution to science. Why should they get any position of authority anywhere besides their own outlets such as the infamous Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute of Seattle? Despite the abject lack of any positive contribution to the society from the CSC, which “Darwinists” have ever “destroyed careers” of its fellows, such as Wells?
Wells and his colleagues in the anti-evolution enterprise thrive despite their destructive activity aimed at “destroying” biological science. They receive good salaries and grants, travel all over the globe assaulting biological science, and often also occupy positions in legitimate universities despite the egregious lack of substance in their favorite “intelligent design” “theory”. This is still a free country, and there is no alleged nefarious activity by scientists aimed at muzzling “intelligent design” activists, who are free to spread their nonsense as suggested by Wells, along with the proponents of a flat earth or of astrology, or of geomancy, palm reading, “creation science”, and all other fads and fallacies which usually are much more popular than genuine science.
There is indeed an “ugly head rearing in the US”, and it is that of “intelligent design” activism.
I shall discuss now specific notions in Wells’s screed used by Wells to mislead his readers. The chapter in question deals with the alleged manifestations of “Lysenkoism” in the US. This term stems from the sad story of the destruction of the thriving biological science in the USSR under the guidance of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (Трофим Денисович Лысенко), which started in the late twenties of the 20th century and ended in the seventies. Lysenko was a poorly educated but politically savvy agrobiologist, who for decades managed to get an unconditional support from the tyrannical ruler of the USSR, first Joseph Stalin and later Nikita Khrushchev.
He indeed used his power to “destroy the careers” of many scientists, who either held views differing from those of Lysenko or just earned his hostility for arbitrary reasons. “Destroying” careers often extended to arrests and exiles of Lysenko’s victims, who were sometimes even killed. At a minimum they were deprived of their jobs and of any means to conduct their research. Wells wants his readers to believe that the “Darwinists” allegedly occupying “government positions” in the USA treat the critics of “Darwinism” the same way Lysenko treated the biologists in the USSR. Of course, Wells cannot support such an assertion by any factual evidence, therefore he resorts to a rather transparent shenanigans to somehow “prove” his point. He uses several means to achieve his goals, including misquotations and sometimes bold lies.
Here is an example. Wells refers to my essay (Perakh 2004a) wherein I described my personal experience regarding the “Lysenkoism” in the USSR.
The essay in question is a part of an article co-authored by Wesley R. Elsberry and myself. The article consists of two separate parts: a part written by Elsberry and a part written by myself. While I do not wish to appear to be promoting my own essay, readers who really want to know what was written there instead of relying on Wells’s misrepresentation can easily verify my words by looking up my essay. It can be accessed either in an HTML version (Perakh 2004a) or in a PDF version (Perakh 2004b).
Wells provides a quotation from my essay and gives it in a rather peculiar form, amounting to a deliberate distortion of my thesis.
Here is how Wells quotes from my essay:
Retired physicist Mark Perakh, who grew up in the former Soviet Union, writes: “The anti-Lysenkoist stand of the ID advocates is … ludicrous given the similarity of their denial of Darwinian biology to the denial of the neo-Darwinian synthesis by the Lysenkoists.” Perakh continues :” From my experience both with Marxism and with the realities of the Soviet system, I can assert that … it is ID advocates whose behavior is reminiscent of the oppressive Soviet regime” since they subject Darwinists to “continuous denunciations, verbal assaults, derision, and ultimately to dismissal from their positions.”
A brief look at the actual text of my essay immediately reveals that the alleged quotation has been constructed by Wells by means of some tricks.
- He transposed various sentences from my essay, placing those that occur somewhere later in the text, ahead of some other that in fact occur earlier in the text.
- He used ellipsis in several cases, apparently to hide from readers the exact wording of my essay.
- He combined partial quotes taken from different parts of my essay in an allegedly single sentence thus fraudulently attributing to me something I did not say.
Here are some details.
The sentence in the above quotation, starting with the words “The anti-Lysenkoist stand” and ending with the words “synthesis by Lysenkoists” occurs in my text several pages later than the sentence starting with the words “From my experience both” and ending with the words “oppressive Soviet regime.” Wells has transposed these two sentences, placing a sentence that occurs much later in the text, ahead of a sentence, which in fact precedes it by several pages. He inserts the words “Perakh continues” thus exacerbating his distortion by falsely asserting the order in which my sentences appear, opposite to their actual order of appearance. This way he creates a false impression that the latter sentence is a continuation of the former, which it is not. The insertion by Wells of his own words “Perakh continues” is a testimony to Wells’s intentionally contrived misleading of readers.
Since both sentences are nevertheless indeed present in my text (but in an opposite order), some readers may try to justify Well’s “creative quoting” by pointing out that this is a minor infraction that does not affect the gist of his argument. Perhaps this is indeed a minor point, but being contrary to the common rules or proper quotations, it is indicative of the overall doubtful reliability of Wells’s quotation habits, where the strict adherence to facts is not of paramount importance.
I will not discuss here the parts of my actual text replaced by Wells with ellipsis, but will rather point out now to a really egregious example of quote mining by Wells, which amounts to a direct fraud. Here is how Wells quotes from my text:
From my experience both with Marxism and with the realities of the Soviet system, I can assert that … it is ID advocates whose behavior is reminiscent of the oppressive Soviet regime” since they subject Darwinists to “continuous denunciations, verbal assaults, derision, and ultimately to dismissal from their positions.”
And here is the actual text in my essay:
From my experience both with Marxism and with the realities of the Soviet system, I can assert that in the dispute between the Intelligent Design advocates and their opponents, including pro-evolution scientists, it is ID advocates whose behavior is reminiscent of the oppressive Soviet regime.
Comparing Wells’s quotation with the actual text of my essay, we immediately notice that my actual text ends with the words “Soviet regime” and a period, whereas Wells quotation contains additionally the words:
“since they subject Darwinists to ‘continuous denunciations, verbal assaults, derision, and ultimately to dismissal from their positions.’”
While readers may be confused by this discrepancy, I’ll clarify now how Wells’s shenanigan works.
First, the words “since they subject Darwinists to” are inserted by Wells; they are not part of my text. As to the rest of the added words, they are indeed found in my text but are taken by Wells from a page in my text which is many pages further in the text than the preceding phrase ending with “Soviet regime.” Where these words occur, they relate to a different topic, having nothing to do with “intelligent design” advocates. By fraudulently combining in one sentence two unrelated quotations, plus inserting several words of his own, Wells misleads readers, apparently aiming to create a false impression that I accuse “intelligent design” advocates of subjecting “Darwinists” to “dismissal from their positions.” In fact the second quoted phrase describes not the behavior of “intelligent design” advocates but rather the behavior of the Soviet authorities at the time of Lysenko’s reign.
Of course “intelligent design” activists do not “subject evolutionary biologists to dismissal from their position”. They certainly would be happy to do so (see the proof of that statement in my essay, Perakh 2004a), but their hands fortunately are too short for that. They must limit themselves to verbal assaults. Misquotation is a device used when no arguments of substance are available, as is the case of Wells fighting modern biology.
While Wells’s “creative quoting” is in itself a telltale testimony to the dismal level of his unscrupulous discourse, it is just a secondary component of his narration which is substandard all over.
One of Wells’s theses is his asseverations that, first, “Darwinism” includes elements of Lamarckism, and, second, that Lysenko’s pseudo-biology, officially approved in the USSR, was “Darwinist” throughout.
With a sufficient desire, it is always possible to find signs of similarity between any, even drastically opposite, systems of views. Wells provides a quote from Darwin which, in his view, is in harmony with Lamarckism.
First of all, although Lamarck’s main ideas have been largely abandoned by biological science, it does not mean that everything Lamarck believed was necessarily wrong. In fact Lamarck was a serious scientist, unlike Wells and his friends at the Discovery Institute. There were positive elements in Lamarck’s views, so it is no wonder Darwin, who worked in the pre-genetics age, could find some elements of Lamarckism to be in tune with his own views. However, to assert that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is in any way analogous to Lamarckism is absurd. While Well’s interpretation is his privilege, he seems to be not aware of the most principal difference between the views of Lamarck and Darwin.
The inheritance of acquired characteristics was considered “common knowledge” in Darwin’s time, when there was yet no knowledge of genetics, of Mendel’s work and of any other elements of the “modern synthesis”, which is an important part of biological science in our time. Darwin did in fact believe that the transmission of acquired traits could occur, as explicated in his “pangenesis” theory. I am not sure if he thought it was a significant component of heredity, but he indeed postulated that the environment could affect changes both at the “germinal” level and at the “somatic” level, the latter of which would have been “lamarckian” sensu latu. It was a secondary point in Darwin’s system of views, which was discarded many years later with the advent of the modern synthesis.
In fact, Darwinian theory differed from Lamarck’s in a very principal way, and no cherry-picked quotations by Wells can prove otherwise.
What differentiated Lamarck’s theory of evolution from Darwin’s was that
- Lamarck believed all species arose and evolved separately and sequentially, i.e. with no (or very limited) common descent, and
- there was a “vital force” that pushed organisms to evolve along certain lines (very much teleologically). Darwin certainly disagreed with both, and adhered to the view that evolution is given “direction” by the action of selection, and not by intrinsic mechanisms.
Regarding the allegedly Darwinian essence of the Soviet Lysenkoist pseudo-biology, here Wells displays the same level of ignorance as he demonstrated in his infamous utterance (Wells 2002) wherein he compared evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller to Heinrich Himmler (the notorious Chief of SS in the Nazi Germany), who, in Wells’s uninformed mind, was the chief of the Nazi propaganda machine (thus confusing Himmler with Goebbels).
Wells seems to be unaware of the simple facts of history. In the Soviet system, words rarely were used to denote what their direct meaning implied. Given the expertise of Wells’s colleagues in an Orwellian “newspeak”, he should appreciate the virtuosity achieved by the Soviet doubletalk, in particular in its ostensible adherence to Darwinism. Yes, Darwinism was acclaimed in the USSR as the officially adopted doctrine, allegedly the only one compatible with Marxism-Leninism. There was an important nuance, however. The term “Darwinism” in the USSR was used with a qualifier, “creative Darwinism”, which was in line with the more general but equally ubiquitous term of “Creative Marxism”. The latter term simply meant the most recent decisions of the Communist Party’s leadership, which in Stalin’s time was just Stalin’s personal view. Most often it had nothing to do with the legacy of Marx, or even of Lenin, but whenever Stalin announced his opinion, it was automatically referred to as the great achievement of the “creative Marxism-Leninism”. The succinct expression asserted that “Marxism is not a dogma but a manual for action”. Likewise, whatever Lysenko announced as the new achievement was automatically praised as the further development of “creative Darwinism” for which an alternative term was “Michurinian biology” (Perakh 2004a). More often than not, it had nothing in common with the real Darwinism.
Wells seems to be blissfully unaware of all those facts of history. His assertions that Lysenko was a Darwinist are either naively uninformed or deliberately misleading.
Wells mentions Lysenko’s notorious experiments with “yarovizatsiya” (i.e. vernalization) of winter crops, without explaining its relation to “Darwinism”. (There was none.) He seems to be unaware of other theories by Lysenko. For example, the omnipotent academician fervently propagated his pet theory asserting that there is no competition for resources within individual species. This idea was radically incompatible with Darwin’s natural selection, although spin experts from the Discovery Institute probably can apply their acrobatic abilities to “prove” that Lysenko’s theory also was Darwinian. (Indeed, they likewise “prove” that Hitler’s racist ideas were based on “Darwinism.” Of course, this assertion has little to do with facts—see, for example Flank 2006 or Walker undated). On the basis of his theory, Lysenko recommended to plant fruit trees and other cultured plants in packs, so that several plants were planted at the same spot in the soil. Since, as Lysenko claimed, the plants, being members of the same species, will not compete for food and light, they will actually help each other to grow and thrive. Khrushchev fell for Lysenko’s bait and ordered to follow Lysenko’s recommendation, based on “Marxism-Leninism”, according to which members of the same class in the human society are never antagonistic to each other but are united by common interests in the struggle of classes, only the latter being antagonistic. The result was of course disastrous, as the plants stubbornly refused to convert to Marxism and competed for resources despite belonging to the same species and despite the decisions of the “Politburo”.
Perhaps Wells simply is not cognizant of these features of Lysenkoism, in which case he should have abstained from proclaiming a judgment on Lysenkoism’s alleged Darwinian roots.
Lysenkoism in the US?
Isn’t this story reminiscent of the attitude of the “intelligent design” activists like Wells and his colleagues in the “intelligent design” enterprise. Like Lysenko, they stubbornly adhere to their views regardless of facts and evidence. Recall Wells’s admission that his life is devoted to destroying “Darwinism”, whereas the possibility of evidence being in favor of modern biology is never mentioned. The word of the Reverend Moon obviously takes precedence for Wells against all the huge accumulation of empirical material testifying for evolutionary theory.
Of course, Wells’s main thesis is not that the “ugly head” of Lysenkoism “is rearing in the US” because evolutionary scientists in any way share Lysenko’s views. Such an assertion would apparently be too much even for Wells. On the other hand there is indeed a lot of similarity between Lysenko’s pseudo-science and “intelligent design”. Lysenkoists rejected the modern synthesis, like “intelligent design” activists. In fact, apart from Lysenko’s atheism and “intelligent design” activists’s religious affiliations, “intelligent design” activists and Lysenkoists are ideological twins, as both have been fighting science and defending their blind beliefs. Lysenkoism is, luckily, already in the dustbin of history, while “intelligent design” is still waiting for its turn to join Lysenkoism in the only place they both belong in.
Wells’s main thesis is that “Darwinists” persecute “intelligent design” activists and creationists of other variations, like Lysenko persecuted “Morganists-Mendelists-Weissmanists” in the USSR. Indeed? Who among the “intelligent design” activists have been arrested by “Darwinists” or exiled to Siberia or executed in basements of the KGB? Which “Darwinist authority” in the US has ever ordered to the entire mass media to collectively denounce “intelligent design” activists as “enemies of the people,” as the media in the USSR did day in and day out?
Whether Wells is living in a world of fantasy or consciously spreading lies about “persecution” of opponents of “Darwinism” makes little difference. The entire chapter 16 of Wells’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design is full of unsubstantiated assertions aimed at scaring readers with the imaginary power of “Darwinists” ruthlessly persecuting honest searchers for truth who dare to doubt “Darwinism”. In reviews of some other chapters of Well’s book, the alleged examples of the “persecution” of “intelligent design” activists or of their co-travelers, such as von Sternberg, are shown to be exaggerated and distorted.
There is little choice but to assert that the contents of the chapter in question can be properly referred to as lies.
Who Needs a Shower?
In another part of chapter 16, Wells refers to the exposure (Perakh 2004a) of his rude and tasteless remarks wherein he said that after meeting biologists Kenneth Miller and Lawrence Krauss, he felt a need to take shower. Of course, for every reasonable reader it is obvious that such utterances cannot be justified by any excuses. However, instead of apologizing for his ugly words, Wells attempts to exonerate himself by asserting that his words were in response to a verbal attack by some “Darwinist”:
What Perakh neglected to mention was that I made the comment only after one of the Darwinists in the debate had begun with a series of personal attacks on me.
In fact there was indeed somebody in this case, who “neglected” to mention a relevant fact, and this somebody was Wells himself. What Wells neglected to mention was that he never provided any actual quotations demonstrating the alleged personal attacks by “one of the Darwinists”, whose name he “neglected” to mention. Wells “neglected” to explain, how I could have not “neglected” to mention something which was not reported anywhere in sufficient detail enabling one to judge what did in fact happen. In his post Wells (2002) writes about alleged “personal attack” upon him by Lawrence Krauss, but “neglects” to specify what exactly this scientist has said. Moreover, if it was only Lawrence Krauss who allegedly wounded Well’s sensitive soul with some disparaging remarks, why does Wells insults not only Krauss but also Miller?
On the other hand, Wells’s own rude and tasteless attack on the two “Darwinists” is documented in Wells’s own words, which also testify to his ignorance of the recent history, i.e. confusing Himmler with Goebbels. Without the exact quotations from what Miller and Krauss said, which could be verified and either acknowledged or denied by these two scientists, we are invited to take Wells’s word, not supported by any citations. However, the experience with Wells’s statements, including those partially discussed in this review, shows that relying on Wells’s word poses a tangible danger of getting led far astray.
Of course, the good news is that, if we believe his words, Wells takes shower from time to time. This is a healthy practice.
It is hard to avoid pointing out that, by opening Wells’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, readers will be exposed to a real pigsty.
Come back tomorrow for another entry in our review of Jonathan’s Well’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design.
An earlier version of this review was posted at Talk Reason. The author would like to thank Andrea Bottaro for his helpful suggestions.
- Wells, Jonathan (1994) “Darwininism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.” See tparents.org; accessed August 20, 2006.
- Perakh, Mark, (2004) “Under the Party’s Thumb.” In Talk Reason, accessed on August 20, 2006.
- Perakh, Mark. (2004) “Under the Party’s Thumb”. In W. R Eslberry and M. Perakh, How the Intelligent Design Advocates Turn the Sordid Lessons From Soviet and Nazi History Upside Down. See antievolution.org.
Accessed on Aug. 20, 2006.
- Wells, Jonathan (2002) “Comments and report from Dr. Jonathan Wells (one of the four panelists) of the Discovery Institute concerning the Ohio State Board of Education Standards Committee Meeting on March 11, 2002 to discuss Intelligent Design” creationists.org; accessed August 20, 2006.
- Flank, Lenny, (2006) “Creationists, Hitler and Evolution.” In Talk Reason, accessed on August 20, 2006.
- Walker, Jim (undated) “Hitller’s Christianity.” See nobeliefs.com. Accessed on August 20, 2006.