Jonathan Wells’ second doctorate (and quote-mining)

There’s a post over at Uncommon Descent in which Jonathan Wells laments quote-mining as applied to his career history (Here’s Jonathan Wells on destroying Darwinism – and responding to attacks on his character and motives*). Wells has had an eventful life, as judged by his account at Uncommon Descent (and his page at Wikpedia) – he sounds like a guy it would be fun to talk to. Apart from the gulf that lies between us over science, that is.

Wells has not one, but two doctorates. The first is in Religious Studies (Yale, 1985), the second in Molecular and Cell Biology (UC Berkeley). What’s interesting is the reason why someone with such a commitment to the Unification Church (and with such strong opposition to evolutionary explanations of life’s diversity) would embark upon a PhD in a subject related to one he has such difficulty in accepting. Incidentally, the Unification Church was founded by Sun Myung Moon (known in the media as the Moonies), and was the subject of much alarm in the UK during the 1970s due to its perception by the media as a destructive cult.

At any rate, Dr Dr Wells claims to have been selectively misquoted as to his motives in undertaking his second PhD. Personally, I find this quite amusing, given the typical quote-mining strategies often employed by creationists to discredit Darwin and evolutionary biology.   The quotation that’s doing the rounds on the internet, and which Dr Dr Wells believes is being improperly taken out of context reads as follows:

“Father’s [Sun Myung Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism.”

Dr Dr Wells paints a scenario that differs from this account in some respects, mostly because there is rather more detail:

I still felt called to devote myself to toppling Darwinism, however, so in 1988 I resigned from my position to return to graduate school—this time in biology. I applied to several schools in California and moved there with my family, only to learn that I had not been admitted anywhere. I took a job as a medical laboratory technologist (the Army had taught me a trade!) and sometime afterwards went back to New York to attend a meeting between Unification Church leaders and Reverend Moon. When he learned that I was planning to go back to graduate school he admonished me not to do it, saying that I was too old (I was 45 at the time). After the meeting, however, I prayed for a long time and decided that I had to continue on my course.

I returned to California and applied again to various graduate schools. In 1989 I was granted interviews at Cal Tech, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and U.C. Davis. I chose Berkeley, where I completed a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology in 1994. By then—having been exposed to the actual evidence—I was skeptical of Darwin’s claim that all living things share a common ancestor. [my emphasis]

The essence of the disputed internet quote is that Dr Dr Wells undertook his second doctorate with the specific aim of trying to undermine ‘Darwinism’ (Wells conveniently elaborates on what he means by Darwinism) – but judging from the emphasised words in the quoted section, this would seem to be the case, though without Moon’s blessing.

But over at this site (which appears to be run by the Unification Church), we see this account, penned by Wells (Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.):

Father’s words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.

Presumably this refers to Wells’ first PhD, in Religious Studies. Wells continues…

I eventually decided to join the fray by returning to graduate school in biology. I was convinced that embryology is the Achilles’ heel of Darwinism; one cannot understand how organisms evolve unless one understands how they develop. In 1989, I entered a second Ph.D. program, this time in biology, at the University of California at Berkeley. While there, I studied embryology and evolution.

It’s true that an understanding of developmental biology is one of the approaches to understanding evolution (but not the only approach**), but this quotation contains the widely quoted statement (emboldened). Essentially, he embarked upon a PhD, and a postdoc position with a clear preconceived goal, namely that ‘Darwinism’ was wrong, and that he would work to topple it.  And this in the face of mountains of evidence sufficient to convince the vast majority of active research scientists of the reality of evolution.  That is not science.

I see that Wells says he wrote that document for private consumption within the Unification Church, and that its wide publication was made without his wishes:

A senior Unification Church leader then asked me to write something for other church members explaining why I went for a second Ph.D. even after Reverend Moon had admonished me against doing so. I wrote an essay that I thought would be for in-house use only, but it was subsequently posted on the Internet without my knowledge or permission.

I first learned that my essay was available online in 2001, when Jerry Coyne made it the alpha and omega of his review in Nature of my book Icons of Evolution.

But why should he tell one version to the Unification Church while seeking to send a different message to the world?  Could it be that confession of his motivation would significantly dent his work towards ‘destroying Darwinism’?

* I don’t often read Uncommon Descent because I find reading stupidity rather irritating.  But I note Larry Moran (who has taken the time to plough through Dr Dr Wells book on junk DNA, and written a lengthy series of articles detailing his criticisms chapter by chapter) has engaged with a bunch of commenters who largely spout vast amounts of pure stupidity and ignorance.  I envy Larry his patience.

** I have to observe that the vast published enterprise of biology contains a huge body of literature supportive of evolution. The distinction between the scientific approach to biology and that of the ID creationist is that where poorly understood cases are uncovered, the scientist seeks to find an explanation, whereas the ID creationist merely invokes a supernatural agency as a designer.  More on this in a later blog post.

Leave a Reply