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15 Answers to John Rennie and Scientific American’s Nonsense--Argument #05

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

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Conclusion & References

5. [Creationists suggest that] the disagreements among even evolutionary biologists show how little solid science supports evolution.

Rennie’s straw man is of little value here, because we recognize that in all fields of science there will be differences of opinion and different theories. Until Stephen Jay Gould’s death in May 2002, he and Richard Dawkins of Oxford were engaged in a running dispute over matters related to evolution. However, they still both held to many of the same fundamental evolutionary principles. Even among creationists there are matters on which not everyone agrees. So this is a moot point.

However, there is something else that needs to be pointed out here. Jonathan Sarfati noted regarding Rennie’s complaint:

This is double talk, and merely closing ranks against creationists. This is the old trick of claiming “there is no doubt that evolution occurred; the only disagreement is about the mechanism.”

But modern evolutionary theory is all about providing a plausible mechanism for explaining life’s complexity without God. If the disputes undermine favored mechanisms, then the materialist apologetic crumbles. The supporters of various evolutionary camps score mortal blows against the mechanisms proposed by rival camps, so it’s perfectly reasonable for creationists to point this out.

For example, with the origin of birds, there are two main theories: that birds evolved “ground up” from running dinosaurs (the cursorial theory), and that they evolved “trees-down” from small reptiles (the arboreal theory). Both sides produce devastating arguments against the other side. The evidence indicates that the critics are both right—birds did not evolve either from running dinos or from tree-living mini-crocodiles. In fact, birds did not evolve from non-birds at all!

Similarly, supporters of “jerky” evolution (saltationism and its relative, punctuated equilibria) point out that the fossil record does not show gradualism, and that the hypothetical transitional forms would be disadvantageous. But supporters of gradual evolution point out that large, information-increasing change is so improbable that one would need to invoke a secular miracle. Creationists agree with both: punctuational evolution can’t happen, and gradual evolution can’t happen—in fact, particles-to-people evolution can’t happen at all! (2002a, emp. in orig.).

Scientific American’s Rennie went on to complain, however:

Unfortunately, dishonest creationists have shown a willingness to take scientists’ comments out of context to exaggerate and distort the disagreements. Anyone acquainted with the works of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University knows that in addition to co-authoring the punctuated-equilibrium model, Gould was one of the most eloquent defenders and articulators of evolution. (Punctuated equilibrium explains patterns in the fossil record by suggesting that most evolutionary changes occur within geologically brief intervals—which may nonetheless amount to hundreds of generations.) Yet creationists delight in dissecting out phrases from Gould’s voluminous prose to make him sound as though he had doubted evolution, and they present punctuated equilibrium as though it allows new species to materialize overnight or birds to be born from reptile eggs (2002, 287[1]:81).

If we may kindly say so, this is pure rubbish. First, Mr. Rennie has judged the motives of people he does not even know. And where is his proof? His statement is nothing but a mere assertion—pulled “out of the blue” without a shard of evidence to support it. Is it true that on occasion a creationist may inadvertently mis-use a quotation? Yes, just as an evolutionist can mis-use a quotation. While it certainly is not our prerogative to speak for “all creationists,” there are two things we can say. First, we, personally, go to great lengths to check each and every quotation we use, and to document it as completely and fully as possible. We strive diligently to “do our homework,” because we want our readers to know that we are taking every necessary precaution to ensure that what we say is true and documentable, and that we will not knowingly misrepresent our opponents. While we may make unintentional errors from time to time, we do our best not to. Second, the same can be said of most of the creationist community. As we check (and double-check) quotations that we obtain from others, almost without fail, we find them to be accurate and fully documented. It is a rare instance indeed when we find otherwise—and in practically every one of those it is obvious that the mistake was both minor and unintentional.

Third, however, we would like to point out that “the sauce that is good for the goose likewise is good for the gander.” The same charge—quoting out of context—on occasion may be leveled against evolutionists. Consider the following, for example. In the November 21, 1980 issue of Science, evolutionist Roger Lewin wrote an article (“Evolution Theory Under Fire”) about a conference attended by a number of prominent evolutionists, one of whom was renowned geneticist Francisco J. Ayala. In reporting on the conference in general, and one of Dr. Ayala’s remarks specifically, Dr. Lewin wrote:

Thus went the verbal jostling, with the mood swinging perceptibly in favor of recognizing stasis as being a real phenomenon. Gabriel Dover, a geneticist from Cambridge University, England, felt atrongly enough to call species stasis “The single most important feature of macroevolution.” In a generous admission Francisco Ayala, a major figure in propounding the Modern Synthesis in the United States, said: “We would not have predicted stasis from population genetics, but I am now convinced from what the paleontologists say that small changes do not accumulate” (210:884, emp. added).

That last sentence was included in a number of creationist publications and Web sites, due to Dr. Ayala’s apparent admission that evolutionists “would not have predicted stasis from population genetics,” and that “small changes do not accumulate.” As it turns out, however, it was evolutionist Lewin who “got it wrong.” Another evolutionist, Richard Arrowsmith, sent an e-mail to Dr. Ayala, inquiring about this seemingly incongruent statement. Here is Dr. Ayala’s reply (reproduced from Arrowsmith’s Web site at: another_creationist_out_of_context_quote.htm):

Dear Dr. Arrowsmith:

I don’t know how Roger Lewin could have gotten in his notes the quotation he attributes to me. I presented a paper/lecture and spoke at various times from the floor, but I could not possibly have said (at least as a complete sentence) what Lewin attributes to me. In fact, I don’t know what it means. How could small changes not accumulate! In any case, virtually all my evolutionary research papers evidence that small (genetic) changes do accumulate.

The paper that I presented at the conference reported by Lewin is virtually the same that I presented in 1982 in Cambridge, at a conference commemorating the 200 [sic] anniversary of Darwin’s death. It deals with the claims of “punctuated equilibrium” and how microevolutionary change relates to macroevolution. (I provide experimental results showing how one can obtain in the laboratory, as a result of the accumulation of small genetic changes, morphological changes of the magnitude observed by paleontologists and presented as evidence of punctuated equilibrium.) The paper was published as part of the conference proceedings: Ayala, F.J. 1983. Microevolution and macroevolution, In: D.S. Bendall, ed., Evolution from Molecules to Men (Cambridge University Press), pp. 387-402.

Interestingly, Arrowsmith’s Web site is titled: “Another Creationist Misquote,” as if it were the creationists who somehow were responsible for the erroneous information. Now who’s being “dishonest,” Mr. Rennie?

Lastly, Mr. Rennie accused creationists of frequently misquoting Stephen Jay Gould by “dissecting out phrases from Gould’s voluminous prose to make him sound as though he had doubted evolution.” This is an unconscionable accusation. Everyone—creationists and evolutionists alike—knows that the late Stephen Jay Gould was one of the foremost evolutionists of the twentieth century. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the creation/evolution controversy understands that. At the same time, however, people who have read Gould’s “voluminous prose” also are aware of the fact that, at times, Gould was his own worst enemy. In an effort to defend at all costs his beloved concept of “punctuated equilibrium” (invented with the assistance of Niles Eldredge), Gould frequently made comments such as these:

(1) The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life’s history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection, we view our data as so bad that we never see the very process we profess to study (1977a, 86[5]:14).

(2) All paleontologists know that the fossil record contains precious little in the way of intermediate forms; transitions between major groups are characteristically abrupt (1977b, 86[6]:24).

(3) Contrary to popular myths, Darwin and Lyell were not the heroes of true science.... Paleontologists have paid an exorbitant price for Darwin’s argument. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life’s history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection, we view our data as so bad that we never see the very process we profess to study (1977a, 86[5]:12,14).

(4) The history of most fossil species includes to features particularly inconsistent with gradualism:

1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless.

2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and “fully formed” (1980, p. 182).

(5) Indeed, if we do not invoke discontinuous change by small alteration in rates of development, I do not see how most major evolutionary transitions can be accomplished at all. Few systems are more resistant to basic change than the strongly differentiated adults of “higher” animal groups. How could we ever convert a rhinoceros or a mosquito into something fundamentally different? Yet transitions between major groups must have occurred in the history of life (1977b, 86[6]:30, emp. in orig.).

Regardless of whether Gould’s admirers (such as Rennie) like it or not, the simple fact is that Gould’s statements frequently confirmed exactly what creationists always have believed. Gould became (inadvertently, to be sure) one of the best “hostile witnesses” that creationists could have hoped to call to the stand. As he strove to show the weaknesses of Neo-Darwinian gradualism, he simultaneously showed the weaknesses of evolution as a whole. And that is the very point creationist writers have made via his quotations.

Most creationists have presented Gould’s ideas in a clear and correct fashion—ideas, by the way, that are not the exclusive property of evolutionists. Additionally, even some evolutionists believe that Gould has no one but himself to blame because of his all-too-frequent, and seemingly incredible (from an evolutionary viewpoint), statements. For example, geneticist Richard Goldschmidt became famous via his 1940 book—The Material Basis for Evolution—for promoting the ridiculous concept of “hopeful monsters,” which did indeed suggest something very much like a bird hatching from a reptile egg. Thirty-seven years later, in 1977, Dr. Gould authored an article in the June/July issue of Natural History titled “The Return of Hopeful Monsters,” in which he wrote: “As a Darwinian, I wish to defend Goldschmidt’s postulate that macroevolution is not simply microevolution extrapolated and that major structural transitions can occur rapidly without a smooth series of intermediate stages.... I do, however, predict that during the next decade Goldschmidt will be largely vindicated in the world of evolutionary biology” (1977b, 86[6]:24,22). Exactly what were creationists to think when Gould himself then set out to “vindicate” Goldschmidt (albeit not under the name of “hopeful monsters,” but instead under the much more impressive—and much more scientifically scintillating—name of “punctuated equilibrium”)? Pardon us for pointing out the obvious!

Mr. Rennie—it’s one thing to make the accusation of “out-of-context quotations.” It’s another thing to prove it. To accuse is not to convict. You’ll have to do better.

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