The “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense
Except in the Light of Evolution” Myth:
An Empirical Study and Evaluation
Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.

Jerry Bergman has seven degrees, including in biology, psychology, and evaluation and research, from Wayne State University, in Detroit, Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and Medical College of Ohio in Toledo. He has taught at Bowling Green State University, the University of Toledo, Medical College of Ohio and at other colleges and universities. He currently teaches biology, microbiology, biochemistry, and human anatomy at the college level and is a research associate involved in research in the area of cancer genetics.

It is commonly claimed that Darwinism is the cornerstone of the life sciences and that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” To evaluate this claim I reviewed both textbooks used to teach life science class at the college where I teach and those I used in my university course work. I concluded from my survey that Darwinism was rarely mentioned. I also reviewed my course work and that of another researcher and came to the same conclusion. From this survey I concluded that the claim “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” is not true.

he dean of American biology, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975), claimed that “evolution” is the cornerstone of biology and is central to understanding both living and extinct organisms (1973). His statement that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” has been repeated in thousands of articles in order to argue that Darwinism must have a central place in all areas of science education, including medicine, agriculture and biotechnology (for example, see Antolin and Herbers, 2001, p. 2379). A recent search revealed over 50,000 hits for this single quote. Consequently, Darwinists argue, evolution must be a central part of all public school and college life science classes. In the words of the National Academy of Science, evolution is “the most important concept in modern biology, a concept essential to understanding key aspects of living things” (1998, p. viii, emphasis mine). Prosser concludes that this claim is made because
The Origin of Species has had more influence on Western culture than any other book of modern times. It was not only a great biological treatise, closely reasoned and revolutionary, but it carried significant implications for philosophy, religion, sociology, and history. Evolution is the greatest single unifying principle in all biology (1959. p. 539).

Dawkins opines that, without Darwinism, “biology is a collection of miscellaneous facts” and before children “learn to think in an evolutionary way” the information that students learn
will just be facts, with no binding thread to hold them together, nothing to make them memorable or coherent. With evolution, a great light breaks through into the deepest recesses, into every corner, of the science of life. You understand not only what is, but why. How can you possibly teach biology unless you begin with evolution? How, indeed, can you call yourself an educated person, if you know nothing of the Darwinian reason for your own existence? (2002, p. 58).

The argument that evolution is central to biology has been around for a few years. For example the Scopes Trial decision quoted the following words penned by Dr. E. N. Reinke, professor of biology at Vanderbilt University: “The theory of evolution is altogether essential to the teaching of biology and its kindred sciences. To deny the teacher of biology the use of this most fundamental generalization of his science would make his teaching as chaotic as an attempt to teach ... physics without assuming the existence of the ether” (Scopes v. State of Tennessee. Opinion filed January 17, 1927 page 8). The ether idea has now been fully refuted, a fact that illustrates the fallibility of the biology claim.
Although Darwinists often talk about the central importance of “evolution” in gaining a basic understanding of the natural world, my research reveals that in the daily work of both scientific education and scientific research, evolution is rarely mentioned (or even a concern). This has been my experience as a research associate involved in cancer research in the department of experimental pathology at the Medical University of Ohio and as a college professor in the life and behavioral sciences for over 30 years. As Conrad E. Johanson, Ph.D. (Professor of Clinical Neurosciences and Physiology and Director of Neurosurgery Research at Brown Medical School in Rhode Island) noted, in the world of science research on a day-to-day basis, scientists
rarely deal directly with macroevolutionary theory, be it biological or physical. For example, in my 25 years of neuroscience teaching and research I have only VERY rarely had to deal with natural selection, origins, macroevolution, etc. My professional work in science stems from rigorous training in biology, chemistry, physics, and math, not from world views about evolution. I suspect that such is the case for most scientists in academia, industry, and elsewhere (2003, p. 1).

National Academy of Science Member and renown carbene chemist, Professor emeritus Dr. Philip Skell of Pennsylvania State University (see Lewis, 1992), did a survey of his colleagues that were “engaged in non-historical biology research, related to their ongoing research projects.” He found that the “Darwinist researchers” he interviewed, in answer to the question, “Would you have done the work any differently if you believed Darwin's theory was wrong?” that “for the large number” of persons he questioned, “differing only in the amount of hemming and hawing” was “in my work it would have made no difference.” Some added they thought it would for others (2003. p. 1). Of interest is Molecular, Cell and Development Biology majors at Yale University graduate school will no longer be required to take courses on evolution (Hartman, 1997). I have noted from my own research that many of the subscriptions to journals focusing on evolution at both the Medical University of Ohio and Bowling Green State University have been dropped (to both my frustration and over my objections).
I also interview several biology professors. Typical is Tony Jelsma, who obtained his Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 1989 and did postdoctoral research for almost eight years before landing a position teaching at the Dept. of Biology, Dordt College (Sioux Center, IA. 51250). His B.Sc. (1983) and Ph.D. (1989) were both completed at McMaster University, just down the road from University of Guelph. He stated that he did not encounter Darwinism in his work or studies except in one undergraduate biochemistry class where he studied the abiotic synthesis of adenine. If his degrees were in biology instead of biochemistry, he would likely have been exposed to much more Darwinism material.
A Survey of Textbooks

Having taught biology, psychology and related courses at the college level for the past 30 years, I evaluated this claim by examining the content of the major textbooks that we have used to teach science courses. Most of the biochemistry/molecular biology, genetics, and cell biology texts we have used never, or hardly ever, mentioned Darwinism (see Appendix I). The only courses that covered it in any detail was Biology 101, Zoology and Anthropology (and even in these classes, in my experience, many instructors skip this section).
Even those chapters labeled “evolution” often spend much time on non-evolution topics, such as basic genetics, human development, population genetics, and similar areas. None of the anatomy and physiology textbooks we have used ever mentioned evolution. The only reference to it in the microbiology texts we have used is the development of bacterial resistance (which is not a problem for intelligent design or even creationists. See Bergman, 2003).

Judging by these textbooks, Darwinism is often totally ignored in most science classes. Based on my review of new textbooks, the evolution content, especially of introductory textbooks, is increasing, likely in response to the intelligent design and creationist movements. Because I have much interest in the subject, I usually cover it in more depth than, in my experience, is usual. Many of the instructors at the colleges where I have taught largely ignore the sections on evolution, partly because there is a great deal of other material that must be covered and something has to be cut—and many teachers elect to skip evolution because it is one of the least-important subjects in most majors. How many health care workers need to understand Darwinian theories? (No concern exists over the development of antibody resistance, something I stress in my microbiology class.) In short, at least judging by the major textbooks used, the often repeated claim about Darwinism being central to natural science is false.
If, as Dobzhansky stated, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (1973 emphasis added), why is it rarely, if ever, mentioned in most natural science books? We usually use the leading college texts in each area (for example, the A&P text we use is the 10th edition of Hole, a standard text). And why is it a minor topic even in most introductory biology books that cover the subject in more depth than most all other courses except formal classes on evolution?
While developing a college-level course on evolution, I surveyed most 4-year colleges and universities in Ohio and many in Michigan. Biology majors at the schools surveyed were required to take only one class in evolution (and all schools surveyed used the same text, that by Freeman and Herron, a fairly good text that I also considered for my own evolution class, which is now being developed).
My experience also conforms to the results of the research in this area. Several studies have found that most future science teachers do not complete courses that focus on evolution as part of their training (Rutledge and Mitchell 2002; and Rutledge and Warden, 2000). Moore found that “many of todays high school teachers don’t recall hearing the word evolution in their college biology courses, apparently because many biology professors do not teach evolution (Moore, 2004. p. 864). I am now surveying college biology students and have found that most schools either skip the chapters on evolution, or cover them in only a class or two. About 30 percent cover both creation and evolution and 20 percent in the students words, “try to jam evolution down our throats” and succeed primarily in turning off students to biology (and often science as well).
Another problem is many who teach Darwinism objectively are accused of not teaching it at all when in fact they cover it in much more depth then most teachers (see Moore, 2004a).
Coverage of Darwinism in My College Science Course Work

I also reviewed all of my graduate and undergraduate college course work in science to determine the time spent on Darwinism in each class. The review includes course work taken at Wayne State University, Medical University of Ohio, Bowling Green State University, University of Wisconsin, Miami University (Oxford, OH), University of Toledo, University of California, Berkeley, and several other colleges. All hours were converted to quarter hours, and some classes are in process.
The review of my own course work (over 1,000 quarter hours) completed at seven universities and five colleges conforms to my teaching experience. Except in courses devoted to evolution, the subject was rarely covered in science classes although it did come up occasionally in other classes (see Appendix II). I found that during my biology/natural science education, which entailed over eight years of full-time college, Darwinism was rarely mentioned. For my graduate degree in biomedical science, it never came up either in class or in the textbooks except to note that a gene was “evolutionary conserved” (meaning only that the gene sequence is very similar in most life forms, both advanced and primitive).
Because this is a topic in which I was very interested when in college, whenever it was discussed, I listened attentively (and would have remembered if it was discussed in the class). Based on detailed notes that I have retained, even the course that I took on evolution covered mostly the history of the creation-evolution conflict, genetics, animal breeding, and related topics. Darwinism actually was probably more often discussed in behavioral science classes and texts compared to natural science classes—and in these cases it was often assumed to be true. The evolutionary world view dominated, and Darwinism, including naturalism, was rarely questioned.
Dr. Scott Hanson also reviewed his course work at a major Canadian University, the results of which are found in Appendix III. The results of his survey were very similar to those found for my study.
The message that Darwinists convey to the public is often very different than what they recognize as true among themselves. Although they state to the public that, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” most scientists can “conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas” (Witham, 2002, p. 43). One “notable aspect of natural scientists in assembly is how little they focus on evolution. It’s day-to-day irrelevance is a great ‘paradox’ in biology” (Witham, 2002, p. 43).
Darwinists “are loath to display publicly their internal divisions.” An exception is a challenge by mathematicians at Philadelphia's Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology that “drew evolutionists of some note.” The result of the conference was “the mathematicians and the biologist agreed to disagree” (Witham, 2002, p. 37). In short, the mathematicians believed that, in contrast to the evolutionists, it “seemed improbable that the mere shuffling of genes could yield such combinations as a DNA molecule of the human brain, or move through populations and produce dramatically new species” (Witham, 2002, p. 37).
The fact that presenting both sides may convince many students to reject the Darwinist side is a major motivation for the almost fanatic efforts by Darwinists to ensure that only one side of the controversy is taught. Eugenie Scott, in contrast to the empirical literature (and the experience of most teachers), argues that only pure unadulterated evolution should be taught (and should be taught as fact) because “using creation and evolution topics for critical-thinking exercises in primary and secondary schools is virtually guaranteed to confuse students about evolution.” Her real concern is that teaching both sides “may lead them to reject one of the major themes of science” i.e. Darwinism (Witham, 2002, p. 23). In this she is probably correct.

My review agrees with Adam S. Wilkins’ conclusions published in the journal BioEssays. Wilkins’ flips Dobzhansky’s quote upside down, concluding that
evolution occupies a special, and paradoxical, place within biology as a whole. While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s dictum that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’, most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas. ‘Evolution’ would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one (2000, p. 1051, emphasis mine).
O’Leary adds that the reason why
evolution is “highly superfluous” is that, in reality, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of biochemistry, which is what gives biology its place in the linked chain of sciences. Evolution is a form of history, a history that may or may not have happened as described in any current work on the subject (2004, p. 100).
Many scientists are aware of the fact that Darwinism is largely ignored in science instruction. One good example provided by Dawkins involved an after lunch discussion with the teachers. He concluded that almost every teacher
confided that, much as they would like to, they didn’t dare to do justice to evolution in their classes. This was not because of intimidation by fundamentalist parents (which would have been the reason in parts of America). It was simply because of the A-level syllabus. Evolution gets only a tiny mention, and then only at the end of the A-level course. This is preposterous, for, as one of the teachers said to me, quoting the great Russian American biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky ..., Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ (2003, p. 58).
This statement is ideologically not factual. Biology makes perfect sense without ever mentioning Darwinism. Likewise Shanks’ (2004 p. 228) claim that “evolutionary biology is the veritable glue that holds all the disparate branches of biological inquiry together and gives common focus to their collective endeavors” could hardly be true if it is not even covered in most science course work. Shanks argument that if you take away evolution “the biological sciences would degenerate into an incoherent collection of rudderless ships” is irresponsible because evolution is often not in either course work or textbooks. The problem is, as recounted in The Harvard Crimson:
Although the postmodern era questions everything else—the possibility of knowledge, basic morality and reality itself—critical discussion of Darwin is taboo. While evolutionary biologists test Darwin’s hypothesis in every experiment they conduct, the basic premise of evolution remains a scientific Holy of Holies, despite our absurd skepticism in other areas. Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins writes: “It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who does not believe in evolution, that person is either ignorant, stupid, or insane.” Biologists continue to recite the worn credo, “the central, unifying principle of biology is the theory of evolution.” But where would physics be if Einstein had been forced to chant, “the central unifying principle of physics is Newtonian theory,” until he could not see beyond its limitations? (Halvorson, 2003, p. 4).
My conclusion also agrees with Wells, who also concluded the claim
that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” is demonstrably false. A person can be a first-rate biologist without being a Darwinist. In fact, a person who rejects Dobzhansky’s claim can be a better biologist than one who accepts it uncritically. The distinctive feature and greatest virtue of natural science, we are told, is its reliance on evidence. Someone who starts with a preconceived idea and distorts the evidence to fit it is doing the exact opposite of science. Yet this is precisely what Dobzhansky’s maxim encourages people to do (Wells, 2000, p. 247).

I wish to thank Bert Thompson Ph.D., Jody Allen R.N. and Eric Blievernicht B.S. for their very helpful feedback on an earlier version of this article.


Antolin, Michael F. and Joan M. Herbers. 2001. “Perspective: Evolution’s Struggle for Existence in America’s Public Schools.” Evolution, 55(12):2379-2388.
Bergman, Jerry. 2003. “Does the Acquisition of Antibiotic Resistance Provide Evidence for Macroevolution?” T.J. Technical Journal 17(3):89-95.
Court Case. 2002. “Does a Science Teacher’s Right to Free Speech Entitle Him or Her to Teach “Evidence Against Evolution”?” LeVake v. Independent School District #656, 625 N.W. 2d 502 [MN Ct. of Appeal 2000], cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1081 [2002].
Dawkins, Richard. 2002. A Devils Chaplain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1973. “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” American Biology Teacher, 35:125-129.
Freeman, Scott and Jon C. Herron. 2001. Evolutionary Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ.: Prentice-Hall.
Halvorson, Richard. 2003. “Confessions of a Skeptic.” The Harvard Crimson, April. 7, p. 4.
Hartman, Noel. 1997. “MC&D Biology Eliminates Evolution Requirement.” Yale Daily News, Thursday, March 27.
Jelsma, Tony. Letter to author.
Johanson, Conrad. 2003. Personal communication to the author dated September 2, 2003.
Lewis, Ricki. 1992. “Metal Atom Vapor Chemistry: A Field Awaits Its Breakthrough.” The Scientist, 6(3):22, Feb. 03.
Moore, Randy 2004. “How Well do Biology Teachers Understand the Legal Issues Associated with the Teaching of Evolution” BioScience. 54(9):860-865.
__________. 2004a. “When a Biology Teacher Refuses to Teach Evolution: A Talk with Rod LeVake.” American Biology Teacher, 66:246-250.
O’Leary, Denyse. 2004. By Design or Chance. Kitchener, Ontario: Castle Quay Books
Prosser, C.L. 1959. “The ‘Origin’ after a Century: Prospects for the Future?” American Scientist, 47(4):536-550, Dec.
Rutledge, M.L. and W.A. Warden. 2000. “Evolutionary theory, the Nature of Science and High School Biology Teachers: Critical Relationships.” American Biology Teacher, 62:23-31.
Rutledge, M.L. and M.A. Mitchell. 2002. “High School Biology Teachers’ Knowledge Structure, Acceptance, and Teaching of Evolution.” American Biology Teacher, 64:21-28.
Shanks, Niall. 2004. God, the Devil. and Darwin. New York. Oxford University Press.
Skell, Philip. 2003. Personal communication to the author dated September 3, 2003.
National Academy of Science. 1998. Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Wells, Jonathan. 2000. Icons of Evolution. Washington, D.C.: Regnery.
Wilkins, Adam S. 2000. “Introduction (issue on Evolutionary Processes).” BioEssays, 22(12):1051-1052, December.

Source and appendages: