Wednesday, May 20, 2009


A Family Affair

A down and dirty bit of quote-mineontology:

A certain John Herbst, in a Letter to the Editor in the Glenwood Spings (Colorado) Post Independent offers the usual "evidence" for Intelligent Design Creationism, amounting to "Golly gee, the world sure looks designed to me!" capped by this:

All I can summarize with is, how much more evidence for intelligent design does one need? There is indeed more, for those honestly seeking truth. And here's one more quote to brood on for Darwinists:

"The theory of evolution by gradual mutation is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy."

— Steven J. Gould, evolutionist
Having some little experience with quote mining, particularly of Gould, I already knew that the "gradual mutation" in the purported quote signaled some discussion of "Punctuated Equilibria," the proposition by Gould and Niles Eldredge that evolution evinces a "jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change," as Gould himself put it. This in no way challenges the fact of evolution, the overwhelming evidence for common descent or even that natural selection is a major mechanism bringing about evolution (as discussed in response to another quote mine from the same article by Gould).

By searching on fragments of the quote, I quickly found a more complete version from Stephen E. Jones, a creationist, but one who generally provides more honestly complete quotes:

"I well remember how the synthetic theory beguiled me with its unifying power when I was a graduate student in the mid-1960's. Since then I have been watching it slowly unravel as a universal description of evolution. The molecular assault came first, followed quickly by renewed attention to unorthodox theories of speciation and by challenges at the level of macroevolution itself. I have been reluctant to admit it - since beguiling is often forever - but if Mayr's characterization of the synthetic theory is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy." (Gould, Stephen Jay [Professor of Zoology and Geology, Harvard University, USA], "Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?," Paleobiology, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1980, pp.119-130, p.120).
You can see why I had to search on fragments: someone has substituted that "theory of evolution by gradual mutation" for Gould's much more specific "Mayr's characterization of the synthetic theory ... as a general proposition." So Gould was not challenging evolution by mutation and natural selection, but a particular "received view" of it. This is, of course, the normal way that science proceeds. Theories are proposed and expounded on; other scientists propose modifications, large and small; and the theory changes over time to more closely reflect our knowledge as we learn more. Science is an ever changing field ... and that's a good thing! It's not even important whether Gould and Eldredge were right in this instance, it is only important that you understand the process.

So who made the substitution in the alleged quote? Well, here we can apply a little of the technique that has led scientists to so firmly accept evolution in the first place and see if we can find a characteristic of the quote mine that shows its descent from the original. Searching on the nearly complete quote mine ("gradual mutation is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy") discovers only one source on the web: a certain Nate Herbst, also from Colorado, who contributes to a site called "Sermon Central," "dedicated to equipping pastors worldwide in excellence in preaching," apparently by sharing things of (sometimes dubious) value for use in sermons. In turn, Nate Herbst, lays the likely blame on "Winkie Pratney, Ravi Zacharius, Josh McDowell and others."

That's all the dishonesty I have the time or stomach for at this point. But, John Herbst, assuming you are related to Nate, don't forget that "let the buyer beware" applies to family members too.


Hey John,
Just a note. The quote was from Paleobiology, Vol.6, 1980, p.120. I never claimed Gould was discrediting evolution in general just the predominant theory (Darwinian) in favor of his own PE. He was honest enough though, unlike many in the scientific world, to admit many shortcomings in the theory of evolution. See Natural History, Vol LXXXVI (6), June-July, 1977 and others. He's not alone, some of the best and the brightest in the evolutionary field have had similar honest moments. For example Richard Leakey's 1990 PBS documentary interview in which he stated, "“If pressed about man's ancestry, I would have to unequivocally say that all we have is a huge question mark. To date, there has been nothing found to truthfully purport as a transitional specie to man, including Lucy, since 1470 was as old and probably older. If further pressed, I would have to state that there is more evidence to suggest an abrupt arrival of man rather than a gradual process of evolving.” I do have a degree in Chemistry and was taught to apply the scientific method in a strict sense to all scientific endeavors. That rigor gets lost in many scientific pursuits as scientists attempt to prove a point rather than follow the evidence where it may lead. I believe in Genesis and that is my FAITH, I can't recreate it in a lab so it is not a science. I do believe it fits better with empirical data. I just wish someone would tell me what good there is in not sharing all that data with everyone and letting them make their own calls. After a long conversation about this with a chem professor a decade ago he reluctantly articulated it well, "evolution is the creation myth of science." So what is your background in science?
I never claimed Gould was discrediting evolution in general just the predominant theory (Darwinian) in favor of his own PE.

Of course you were attempting to discredit evolution, or else you would have explained the "distinction," instead of leaving it unsaid. That's just a bit more dishonesty. Nor do I believe for a second that you have any real understanding of the nature of the debate Gould was involved in within the scientific community. As to Gould's supposed admission of "shortcomings" in evolutionary theory, that's another misrepresentation, as Gould himself pointed out:

"[T]ransitions are often found in the fossil record. Preserved transitions are not common -- and should not be, according to our understanding of evolution (see next section) but they are not entirely wanting, as creationists often claim. [He then discusses two examples: therapsid intermediaries between reptiles and mammals, and the half-dozen human species - found as of 1981 - that appear in an unbroken temporal sequence of progressively more modern features.]

"Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim. If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am -- for I have become a major target of these practices.

"I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change. In 1972 my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record -- geologically "sudden" origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis) -- reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years. This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond . . .

"Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists -- whether through design or stupidity, I do not know -- as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups."

- Gould, Stephen Jay 1983. "Evolution as Fact and Theory" in Hens Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., p. 258-260.

Your other quote is just more of the same: a snippet of a discussion by somneone who assumed the listener has both a basic understanding of the underlying debate and a modicum of honesty in reporting on it ... requirements that people like you do not bring to the table.

As to my background in science, since you do not state that you ever worked as a scientist, much less a biologist, my knowledge of the subject is the same: academic study. I just have respect for the scientific method which your ridiculous "recreate it in a lab" standard shows you don't, since that would eliminate astronomy, cosmology, geology, plate tectonics, vulconology and a host of other diciplines from science.

And after quote mining well-known scientists, despite the obviousness of your disingenuousness once the original sources are examined, do you really think a quote from some anonymous professor is going to carry any weight? That's the problem with quote mining ... once you've shown a willingness is distort the truth, why should anyone believe you?
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