Feature Article - July 2004
by Do-While Jones

The Elder Statesmen of Evolution

This essay was originally planned to commemorate the 100th birthday of Ernst Mayr, the oldest living evolutionist, and examine his most recent book. The passing of John Maynard Smith on April 19, 2004, cannot go unnoticed, so we have broadened this essay.

There are, perhaps, as many different theories of evolution as there are evolutionists. That’s why it is important to look at specific beliefs of individuals.

John Maynard Smith

When John Maynard Smith died on 19 April at the age of 84, one of the last grand evolution­ary theorists of the 20th century passed. 1

Maynard Smith's initial scientific work, developed before Haldane's departure for India in 1957, largely involved experimental work on inbreeding and ageing [British spelling] of the fruitfly Drosophila. His most important theoretical insight into ageing was that natural selection would be expected to synchronize the ageing processes of the various subsystems of an organism. To get a feel for this insight, suppose for a moment that there was no such synchrony and that a “lead mechanism” of ageing existed instead. Investment in the higher durability of the other subsystems would then be superfluous because they would last longer than needed. Natural selection would counteract such a waste of resources. A similar consideration must have guided Henry Ford to the junk yard of old automobiles, to decide which parts to produce in lower quality in the future, so as to synchronize the expected time at which different parts would wear out. 2

In simple terms, Smith learned that all the various organs in a fruitfly tend to wear out at roughly the same time. Sadly, we know from experience that when people get old, eyesight tends to go, the sense of hearing decreases, teeth fall out, and organs start to fail, all at roughly the same time . We have no reason to doubt that Smith found the same thing true of fruitflies.

This observation is sometimes called, “the economy of evolution.” In other words, there is no evolutionary advantage to a fruitfly whose eyes could function for 10,000 years if its wings only lasted three weeks. Natural selection would not favor eyes that last many times longer than wings. Therefore, natural selection would tend to produce creatures in which all the parts would wear out at the same time. Evolutionists see the synchronized aging process as evidence of evolution.

Ironically, the authors of Smith’s obituary realized that Henry Ford employed a similar economy of design. Manufactured products are intentionally designed so that all the parts wear out at the same time (just after the warrantee expires ). Smith’s observation argues just as strongly for intentional design as it does for unguided evolution.

In 1971, he formulated a basic problem in evolutionary biology known as the “twofold cost of sex”. It goes as follows: other things being equal, a population of parthenogenic females--females that reproduce without fertilization--should grow at a rate twice that of sexually reproducing females, because half of the offspring of the latter are males. With admirable frankness, he later called attention to the fact that the problem was seen in much the same way by the German biologist August Weismann--whom, after distancing himself from his previous prejudices against the man, he considered to have been second only to Charles Darwin as a nineteenth-century thinker about evolution. The characteristically lucid posing of the problem has stimulated much research on the evolutionary maintenance of sex-research in which both theoreticians and empiricists have asked what advantages could compensate for the twofold cost. 3

As we have written in the past, sex is hard for evolutionists to explain. Smith didn’t solve the problem. He just stated one part of the problem clearly 33 years ago. For 33 years scientists have been stumped by it.

It is fair to wonder about the common thread behind Maynard Smith's various lines of investigation. From discussions with him, we think that it was the application of rigorous evolutionary reasoning to phenomena that at first sight seem to contradict darwinian theory. For example, if organisms should maximize their 'fitness', then why do they age? Dead organisms do not reproduce; hence their fitness does not increase any more. The cost of sex obviously poses a similar problem, and in the same vein it is a puzzle why so many antagonistic interactions between animals of the same species seem to be ritualized encounters rather than serious fights. Competing animals should try to attack and kill one another, shouldn't they? There are two proposed answers to this question. The first is that it is good for the species to avoid harmful encounters by finding ritualized ways of resolving conflict. Maynard Smith, however, argued convincingly that a second type of answer is the correct one. The idea, which he worked out together with George Price, is that ritualized contests can be advantageous to the individual by allowing an assessment of the probable outcome of fighting. This way, the weaker individual can escape or surrender before the opponent escalates the contest; the stronger individual avoids possible injury. Overly aggressive animals foregoing a ritual display would too often be harmed by opponents who fought back. 4

The problem evolutionists have is that the theory of evolution doesn’t make sense. Aging doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary point of view. Sex doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary point of view. Ritual fighting doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary point of view.

Smith was wise enough to realize this. Unfortunately, his evolutionary prejudice prevented him from drawing the logical conclusion. Instead, he spent his life trying to find logical explanations for an incorrect theory. To do this,

Maynard Smith and [George] Price laid the foundation for the new field of evolutionary game theory. …

Evolutionary game theory considers genes and individuals as units among which there may be conflict. But it was also clear to Maynard Smith that there can be a problem with overemphasizing these units and their competition. In evolution, higher-level units (such as a plant or animal cell) repeatedly formed from lower-level ones (such as bacteria). If competitive evolution at the lower level had not been suppressed somehow, the higher-level units would have been disrupted. How is this possible? A thorough investigation of major transitions in evolution revealed some common themes: multi-level selection, origin of novel inheritance systems, combination of function and division of labour [British spelling], and so on. We have yet to reach a full understanding of any of the major transitions, but many scientists have been stimulated to enter this field. 5

Maynard Smith saw that a major remaining problem in evolutionary theory was to explain the evolution of characteristics whose reproductive advantage or disadvantage to an individual depended on the response of other individuals. 6

It takes a great evolutionist to be able to recognize the failings of the theory of evolution, present the failing to the scientific community, get general agreement that it is a major unsolved problem (from an evolutionary perspective), and still be a hero. Maynard Smith was a great evolutionist. The tragedy is that he stimulated many scientists to waste their time trying to solve these problems.

Ernst Mayr

Ernst Mayr is the elder statesman of the theory of evolution. For a short list of his achievements, we suggest http://library.mcz.harvard.edu/ernstmayr.html. {Addendum: Ernst Mayr later died on February 3, 2005.}

In anticipation of his 100th birthday on July 5th, 2004, we read his book, What Evolution is, which was published when he was a mere 97 years old in 2001. Mayr says,

Evolution is the most important concept in biology. … The thinking of modern humans, whether we realize it or not, is profoundly affected--one is almost tempted to say determined--by evolutionary thinking. 7

If evolutionary thinking is wrong, consider how profoundly that affects--one is almost tempted to say determines--biology and the thinking of modern humans. We better examine the theory of evolution carefully to determine if it is correct or not!

In the preface Mayr says,

There are splendid defenses of evolution against attacks by creationists … But none of them quite fills the niche I have in mind. … The existing volumes … have some of the following shortcomings. All of them are rather poorly organized and fail to present a precise, reader-friendly account. … [Some technical criticisms of these “splendid defenses” he lists are omitted here.] … Nor should space be wasted on arguing for or against obsolete claims. 8

So, we are to expect a well-organized, reader-friendly, presentation of the modern evidence for evolution, without any space wasted on obsolete claims (such as Archaeopteryx, or Haeckel’s drawings, or horse evolution, or any other claims modern evolutionists have abandoned for years).

The Creationists’ Position

Before he presents any evidence for evolution, he grossly misrepresents the creationists’ position. He says,

The belief that the world was created by an Almighty God is called creationism. Most of those who hold this belief also believe that God designed his creation so wisely that all animals and plants are perfectly adapted to each other and to their environment. Everything in the world today is still as it was when it was created. 9

First of all, he has confused creationism with Biblical creationism, but that is a nit that isn't worth picking.

Biblical creationists don’t believe that “everything in the world today is still as it was when it was created.” Biblical creationists believe that God designed his creation so wisely that all animals and plants were perfectly adapted to each other and to their environment when they were created, but are not perfect any more, and have not been perfect for thousands of years.

Furthermore, creationists believe that living creatures were designed to possess remarkable variation, which allows them to adapt to many (but not all) environmental changes. This explains why some creatures have survived difficult changes in conditions in some cases, but other creatures have gone extinct in other cases.

Perhaps he thinks the “splendid defenses” he cites have refuted creationism because he has totally misunderstood the creationist belief. Neither variation nor extinction disproves creationism. Both are embraced by creationism.

But what does creationism have to do with “what evolution is” anyway? We didn’t buy this book to find out what he thinks about religion. We want to know what (if any) scientific evidence there is for evolution. In chapter 2 he says,

This chapter will be devoted to a presentation of the evidences that led to the adoption of the “evolution is a fact” conviction among scientists. 10

So, let’s look at chapter 2 in detail.

Fossil Evidence

The most convincing evidence for the occurrence of evolution is the discovery of extinct organisms in older geologic strata. 11

That was a surprise to us! One doesn’t need fossils to prove that extinction happens. Environmental groups are more than happy to provide long lists of species that have gone extinct in the 20th century alone. Extinction is evidence of evolution only if one believes that (1) extinction is incompatible with creationism, which Mayr apparently mistakenly believes, and (2) the only alternative to creationism is evolution.

Maybe that wasn’t really what Mayr meant. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that he meant to say, “The most convincing evidence for the occurrence of evolution is the discovery of a series of evolving fossils in the geologic strata.” But he must not have meant to say that, because on the very next page he says,

Given the fact of evolution, one would expect the fossils to document a gradual steady change from one ancestral form to the descendants. But this is not what the paleontologist finds. Instead, he or she finds gaps in just about every phyletic series. New types often appear quite suddenly, and their immediate ancestors are absent in the geological strata. The discovery of unbroken series of species changing gradually into descending species is very rare. Indeed the fossil record is one of discontinuities, seemingly documenting jumps (saltations) from one type of organism to a different type. This raises a puzzling question: Why does the fossil record fail to reflect the gradual change one would expect from evolution? 12 [italics his]

Well, it also raises another puzzling question: If the fossil record doesn’t show what it should if evolution were true, why does Mayr say the fossil record is the “most convincing evidence for the occurrence of evolution?”

Since that puzzling question apparently didn’t occur to Mayr, he didn’t answer it. He, naturally, tried to answer the puzzling question that did occur to him. Mayr, attributing the answer to Darwin, says that “this is simply due to the unimaginable incompleteness of the fossil record.” 13 However, he goes on to say,

The discovery of Archaeopteryx in 1861 was particularly gratifying because anatomists had already concluded that birds must have descended from reptilian ancestors. Archaeopteryx confirmed their prediction. 14

What he says is quite true. Evolutionists already believed, by faith, and without proof, that birds evolved from reptiles. In 1861, Archaeopteryx did seem to be a missing link between reptiles and birds. And, it is one of the historic reasons why evolution came to be accepted as fact. But this is one of those “obsolete claims” that we should not be wasting our time arguing for or against. Most modern evolutionists don’t believe Archaeopteryx to be a transitional form any more. (It appears later in the fossil record than other, more modern-looking birds, so it could not have been their ancestor.) So, other than pointing out that 19th century scientists were led to accept the theory of evolution on the basis of incorrect data, it does little more than reinforce the idea that human thought is determined by evolutionary thinking.

He goes on to say,

A few fossil lineages are remarkably complete. This is true, for instance, for the lineage that leads from the therapsid reptiles to the mammals (Fig. 2.1). Some of these fossils appear to be so intermediate between reptiles and mammals that it is almost arbitrary whether to call them reptiles or mammals. A remarkably complete set of transitions was also found between the land-living ancestors of the whales and their aquatic descendants. These fossils document that whales are derived from ungulates (mesonychid condylarthara) that increasingly became adapted to water (Fig. 2.2). The australopithecine ancestors of man also form a rather impressive transition from a chimpanzeelike anthropoid stage to that of modern man. The most complete transition between an early primitive type and its modern descendant that has been described is between Eohippus, the ancestral horse, and Equus, the modern horse (Fig. 2.3). 15

Did he really say that? The most complete transitional series is the horse? We don’t want to beat a dead horse, but the strongly anti-creationist Encyclopedia of Evolution says,

… paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson reexamined horse evolution and concluded that generations of students had been misled [by Othniel Marsh’s 1874 horse evolution paper]. In his book Horses (1951), he showed that there was no simple, gradual unilateral development at all. … Marsh arranged his fossils to “lead up” to the one surviving species, blithely ignoring many inconsistencies and any contradictory evidence. Ironically, his famous reconstruction of horse evolution was copied by anthropologists. They, too, thought they saw a straight-line lineage “leading up” to the soul surviving species of a once-varied group: Homo sapiens. 16

In the December, 2001, newsletter, we printed pictures of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History’s display which said, “We once told the horse story wrong.” That display admitted that they had erroneously displayed Marsh’s horse series. We have shown in past newsletters how fragmentary the hominid fossils are, and how much disagreement there is as to their interpretation. We have also dealt with the problems of whale evolution in previous newsletters.

Admittedly we haven’t written anything about the “mammal-like (therapsid) reptiles.” There are reptiles which have bones in their jaw that resemble the bones in mammalian ears. Some evolutionists believe that the bones in the reptile jaw migrated into the mammalian ear and improved the mammal’s sense of hearing. This newsletter is already six pages over its nominal length, so we will have to deal with that some other time. [That "other time" turned out to be the April 2012 spoof, I Heard it Through My Jaw Bones]

We take issue with the statements that the whale fossils show a “remarkably complete set of transitions”, and that the hominid fossils show “a rather impressive transition.” To call the discredited horse evolution “the most complete transition” is simply amazing.

Arbitrary Classification

We mostly agree that “it is almost arbitrary whether to call them [therapsids] reptiles or mammals.” We would say all classification of species into groups is arbitrary. A whale is arbitrarily classified as a mammal rather than a fish because it has been arbitrarily decided that having mammary glands is a more important classification criterion than where a creature lives.

Species are arbitrarily collected into larger groups called genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom that are generally logical because of their similarity. The similarity isn’t necessarily due to blood relationships. But, Mayr believes, as an article of faith,

The theory of common descent provided the answer to this puzzling observation. When certain organisms share a series of joint characteristics, in spite of numerous other differences, it is due to the fact that they had descended from the same common ancestor. Their similarities were due to the heritage they had received from this ancestor, and the differences had been acquired since the ancestral lines had split. 17

Despite the way it is so positively stated, there is no factual basis for this claim. To an evolutionist, similarity is evidence of evolution, and difference is evidence of evolution, so everything is evidence of evolution.

Classification of species into groups is not evidence of evolution. In fact, the classification scheme used today was invented by Linnaeus, who did not believe in evolution. He didn’t organize living things by heritage. He simply organized them logically.

Evolutionists tend to look at the classification system as representing lines of descent simply because, as Mayr said before, “The thinking of modern humans, whether we realize it or not, is profoundly affected--one is almost tempted to say determined--by evolutionary thinking.”


We were shocked that Mayr included embryology in his chapter on evidence for evolution.

An early human embryo, for instance, is very similar not only to embryos of other mammals (dog, cow, mouse), but in its early stages even to those of reptiles, amphibians, and fishes (Fig 2.8). 18

Figure 2.8 is Haeckel’s infamous, fraudulent figure of 1870! The caption says,

… Haeckel had fraudulently substituted dog embryos for human ones, but they were so similar to humans that these (if available) would have made the same point. … 19

Most modern evolutionists admit that Haeckel used fake drawings because real pictures would not have made the same point. He goes on to say,

“Ontogeny is the recapitulation of phylogeny,” obviously went too far, because at no stage of its development does a mammalian embryo look like an adult fish. Yet, in certain features, as in the gill pouches, the mammalian embryo does indeed recapitulate the ancestral condition. … These gill-like structures are never used for breathing, but instead are drastically restructured during the later ontogeny and give rise to many structures in the neck region of reptiles, birds, and mammals. The evident explanation is that the genetic developmental program has no way of eliminating ancestral stages of development and is forced to modify them during the subsequent steps of development in order to make them suitable for the new life-form of the organism. …

These three phenomena--embryonic similarities, recapitulation, and vestigial structures--raise insurmountable difficulties for creationist explanation, but are fully compatible with an evolutionary explanation based on common descent, variation, and selection. 20

It is hard to believe that this book was published in 2001. These are the old claims that embarrass modern evolutionists. When we bring them up, evolutionists cry foul, claiming that we are taking cheap shots at long-rejected theories.

(Just for the record, the “gill pouches” are folds in the membrane of a developing embryo, which bear a superficial resemblance to gills. They have nothing to do with respiration. They are created by genes on different parts of the DNA than the part of DNA where gills are produced. Nothing “is forced to modify them during the subsequent steps of development in order to make them suitable for the new life-form of the organism.” They are just wrinkled membranes growing into something that has nothing whatsoever to do with gills.)

Creationists don’t try to explain embryonic similarities, recapitulation, and vestigial structures because all embryos generally don’t look similar, embryos don’t recapitulate evolution, and most of the so-called “vestigial structures” really do have uses that were unknown to 19th century scientists. There isn’t anything to explain. Besides, modern evolutionists don’t generally make these obsolete claims any more, so there is no point wasting space on them.

Molecular Evidence

Mayr says,

On the whole, the more closely related two organisms are, the more similar are their respective molecules. 21

What is gratifying is the fact that when a phylogeny [classification] based on morphological [physical appearance] or behavioral characteristics is established, it is usually found to be essentially the same as a phylogeny based exclusively on molecular characteristics. 22

Is Mayr really oblivious to the bitter controversy between molecular biologists and those scientists who hold to the traditional classification based on appearance and behavior? The DNA Dilemma is a serious problem for evolutionists that incites fierce controversy among them.

Even if DNA did in every case confirm morphological classification, it would not prove evolution. If all creatures were made by a common designer, the designer could very well use the same DNA sequence to build bones in fish as in mammals.

What makes DNA analysis so troublesome to evolutionists is that a designer might, on a whim, use very different DNA sequences to make similar structures, but it would be very unlikely that similar structures would evolve from radically different DNA sequences. So, the discovery of unexpected differences in DNA is very disturbing to evolutionists. Mayr explains how they get around this problem.

When one particular gene leads to ambiguous results, one can in principle shift to any of thousands of other genes to test a suspected connection. 23

Of course, that’s what evolutionists do. If one gene gives the wrong result, then they just pick another gene, until they find one that tells them what they want to hear. There are thousands to choose from.

For example, he says,

Well-dated fossils with modern descendants provide us with a yardstick for calibrating a given molecular clock. It was by the molecular clock method that the branching point between chimpanzee and man was shown to be as recent as 5-8 million years ago, rather than 14-16 million years, as had previously been accepted.

However, the molecular clock method must be applied with caution because molecular clocks are not nearly as constant as often believed. Not only do different molecules have different rates of change, but a particular molecule may vary its rate over time. These repre­sent cases of mosaic evolution. [italics his] In cases of discrepancy it is always advisable to determine the rate of change of a different molecule and try to find another suitable fossil. 24

Thank you Dr. Mayr! He tells us that the molecular clock is “calibrated” using “well-dated fossils.” This begs the question that well-dated fossils even exist. Which fossils are well-dated, and how do we know their dates are correct?

Then he tells us that not only do different molecules evolve at different rates, particular molecules evolve at variable rates. How does he know that? A better question is, “What makes him think that?” We can answer the second question. He thinks that because molecular analysis gives conflicting results. Therefore, the only way evolution can be true is if molecules evolve sporadically.

Finally, he tells us, when the molecules and the fossils don’t tell you what you want to hear, just pick different molecules and fossils.

Nothing New

The ironic thing is that chapter 2 ends without presenting any new evidence for evolution. It consists simply of the obsolete claims that Mayr said he wasn’t going to waste his time on.

Subsequent chapters explore these claims in greater detail, often admitting the serious problems with the theory of evolution.

So, perhaps the most significant thing about the book is what isn’t in the book. There is no smoking gun. There is no modern proof of evolution. There is just the old, crumbling foundation that is collapsing under the weight of new scientific information.

Ian Newton

We admit that Ian Newton may not belong in the company of Smith and Mayr, but a review of his book, The Speciation and Biogeography of Birds, appeared in Science two weeks after Smith’s obituary. Since this essay has evolved into one about what individual evolutionists believe, it is appropriate to mention briefly what A. Townsend Peterson (of the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, University of Kansas) said about Newton’s book.

The sweeping reviews of speciation and biogeography produced by the architects of the “new synthesis” (or “modern synthesis”), particularly Ernst Mayr, in the mid-20th century provided detailed summaries of ecological, distributional, and historical phenomenon related to the evolution of biological diversity. The numerous recent advances in theory and technology, as well as the vastly improved information resources related to this subject, would seem to make possible fresh insights into this field. 25

Nevertheless, the book falls disappointingly short of achieving a new synthesis regarding the diversification of birds. 26

Newton places enormous confidence in mo­lecular clock-based measurements of divergence times, in spite of accumulating evidence that such approaches to dating are likely to be fraught with inaccuracies and biases. 27

There remains a great need for a comprehensive, up-to-date account of avian evolution. 28

Mayr explained the problem with molecular clocks, so we need not comment on it again.

Apparently Peterson believes the current explanation is so wrong that a “great need” exists for a new one, and Newton’s proposal isn’t satisfactory, either.

Disagreements Among Evolutionists

Newton and Peterson don’t agree about the evolution of birds. Mayr believes the fossil record is the strongest evidence for evolution, even though he says it isn’t what the theory of evolution predicts. Smith pointed out major unsolved problems with the theory of evolution which remained unsolved at the time of his death.

Evolutionists typically complain when we point out the many disagreements between evolutionists. They say that this is just evidence of scientific progress. We say that it is evidence that the theory isn’t supported by scientific facts.

In other branches of science (chemistry, physics, electronics, etc.) new discoveries are routinely made. But the new discoveries don’t contradict what was true before. For example, we now know how to use integrated circuits to make computers. That doesn’t mean that the old vacuum tube computers gave wrong answers.

In all branches of science, knowledge is gained through the scientific method, which involves verification by experimentation. The scientific method works for all the various fields of biological study except evolution. For example, you can apply different kinds of fertilizer to a particular crop to see if it promotes growth or not. The results will be the same, and do not depend upon the opinions or religious affiliation of the scientists conducting the experiment.

The theory of evolution is not based on the scientific method. The conclusions of the scientists often depend upon their religious convictions. The theory of evolution is simply an opinion held by some people who place their beliefs above scientific evidence.

Smith believed in evolution, despite the problems he saw with aging, sex, and ritual battles. Mayr believes in evolution despite the fact that the fossil record doesn’t support it. He believes in molecular clocks even though they give unreliable results. Peterson believes in the evolution of birds, despite the fact that he finds fault with the existing explanation, and doesn’t like Newton’s new explanation, either.

Belief in evolution isn’t based on scientific fact. The theory of evolution is a philosophical belief that is difficult to reconcile with scientific fact. Smith spent his whole life trying to do that.

When are we going to stop wasting the efforts of good scientists this way? Imagine what Smith could have achieved if he hadn’t been on a wild goose chase trying to prove evolution.

Why do we insist on teaching our children that “evolution is a fact”, and perpetuate this wasted effort? Why not tell the children the truth about evolution?

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1 Science, Vol. 304, 14 May 2004, “In Memory of John Maynard Smith (1920 - 2004), https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1099576 page 979 (Ev)
2 Nature, Vol. 429, 20 May 2004, “John Maynard Smith (1920-2004)” page 258 https://www.nature.com/articles/429258a (Ev)
3 ibid.
4 ibid. page 259
5 ibid.
6 Science, Vol. 304, 14 May 2004, “In Memory of John Maynard Smith (1920 - 2004), https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1099576 page 979 (Ev)
7 Mayr, What Evolution Is, 2001, Basic Books, page xiii (Ev+)
8 ibid., page xiv
9 ibid., page 4
10 ibid., page 12
11 ibid., page 13
12 ibid., page 14
13 ibid., page 14
14 ibid., page 14
15 ibid., pages 15 - 16
16 Milner, The Encyclopedia of Evolution, 1990, Henry Holt and Company, Inc., page 222 (Ev+)
17 Mayr, What Evolution Is, page 22
18 ibid., page 27
19 ibid., page 28
20 ibid., pages 29-31
21 ibid., page 35
22 ibid., page 36
23 ibid., page 37
24 ibid., page 37
25 Peterson, Science, Vol. 304 28 May 2004, “A New Synthesis or Just The New Synthesis?”, page 1249 https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1098543 (Ev)
26 ibid.
27 ibid.
28 ibid.