Translate

Monday, 10 June 2013

Examples of Christadelphian quote mining

How not to attack evolution:  Quote Mining


Quote mining is a logical fallacy in which a passage of text is selectively quoted in order to alter its meaning and provide an apparently authoritative quote to support a position advanced by the person making the quote, Special creationists are notorious for this practice, and have justly earned the contempt of mainstream scientists for engaging in this intellectually dishonest behaviour. [1]

One classic quote mined by special creationists is Darwin's comment on the evolution of the eye. One often sees this quote from the Origin of Species:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
What special creationists often fail to do is finish the quote, which when given in context gives a completely different meaning to Darwin's words:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.
Quote mining is intellectually and morally dishonest behaviour, and it reflects poorly on us as Christians. Stephen Gould without doubt reflected the anger of mainstream scientists at this practice when he said:

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. [2]
Not every special creationist who uses a selective misquotation is doing so deliberately, as there is a habit of quoting other special creationists without verifying the reference. While this is not dishonest, it is sloppy scholarship. Either way, the special creationist using a mined quote loses credibility in the eyes of informed readers.Unfortunately, mined quoted appear in Christadelphian anti-evolution preaching and apologetic material. If one is going to attack evolution, quote mining is one of the quickest ways to trash your reputation. One example of Christadelphian quote mining came from the Shrewsbury Christadelphians, who released a leaflet advertising an anti-evolution public address delivered in 2009 [3] which had the following quote attributed to Darwin:





As written, this is misleading, since Darwin never wrote a book by this title. Darwin's son Francis, with the assistance of A.C. Seward, edited his father's correspondence, publishing The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, and More Letters of Charles Darwin them in  1887 and 1902 respectively.

Mark VandeWettering notes [4] that the best match to the quote comes from an 1863 letter to a G. Bentham:


Down, May 22 [1863].  
My dear Bentham,  
I am much obliged for your kind and interesting letter. I have no fear of anything that a man like you will say annoying me in the very least degree. On the other hand, any approval from one whose judgment and knowledge I have for many years so sincerely respected, will gratify me much. The objection which you well put, of certain forms remaining unaltered through long time and space, is no doubt formidable in appearance, and to a certain extent in reality according to my judgment. But does not the difficulty rest much on our silently assuming that we know more than we do? I have literally found nothing so difficult as to try and always remember our ignorance. I am never weary, when walking in any new adjoining district or country, of reflecting how absolutely ignorant we are why certain old plants are not there present, and other new ones are, and others in different proportions. If we once fully feel this, then in judging the theory of Natural Selection, which implies that a form will remain unaltered unless some alteration be to its benefit, is it so very wonderful that some forms should change much slower and much less, and some few should have changed not at all under conditions which to us (who really know nothing what are the important conditions) seem very different. Certainly a priori we might have anticipated that all the plants anciently introduced into Australia would have undergone some modification; but the fact that they have not been modified does not seem to me a difficulty of weight enough to shake a belief grounded on other arguments. I have expressed myself miserably, but I am far from well to-day.  
I am very glad that you are going to allude to Pasteur; I was struck with infinite admiration at his work. 
With cordial thanks, believe me, dear Bentham,
Yours very sincerely, CH. DARWIN.  
P.S.--In fact, the belief in Natural Selection must at present be grounded entirely on general considerations. (1) On its being a vera causa, from the struggle for existence; and the certain geological fact that species do somehow change. (2) From the analogy of change under domestication by man's selection. (3) And chiefly from this view connecting under an intelligible point of view a host of facts. When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed [i.e. WE CANNOT PROVE THAT A SINGLE SPECIES HAS CHANGED]; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory. Nor can we explain why some species have changed and others have not. The latter case seems to me hardly more difficult to understand precisely and in detail than the former case of supposed change. Bronn may ask in vain, the old creationist school and the new school, why one mouse has longer ears than another mouse, and one plant more pointed leaves than another plant.
Far from a devastating admission that evolution had never happened, Darwin simply states that as of 1863, he had no documented evidence of speciation. That was 150 years ago, and if the Shrewsbury ecclesia had done some elementary research, they would have found plenty of evidence of documented speciation events [5-9]. In addition, while Gould's remark above that transitional forms tend to be lacking at the species level, we do have examples of transitional forms at such a fine scale. Vertebtrate palaeontologist Donald Prothero states:
Let us look at just one more classic example, probably the most extreme change in morphology ever documented in the fossil record. If you look at samples of microfossils from the middle Eocene (50 million years ago), you will find distinctive spongy ball-shaped radiolarians known as Lithocyclia ocellus. As you trace the spongy balls up through the sediments spanning millions of years, you see them gradually lose their spongy outer layers and develop into a small nucleus with four spongy arms (Lithocyclia aristotelis), then three arms (Lithocyclia angusta), and finally reduced to two arms forming a spindle-like shape (Cannartus tubarius). The Cannartus lineage then gradually develops a “waist” on the central sphere, then the arms get shorter and thicker, and finally, they split into two lineages:Cannartus peterssoni-Ommatartus hughesi, which evolves into a form with two arms with multiple spongy layers, and Ommatartus, which develops shorter arms and a fatter central sphere. If you look at the two extremes (a spongy sphere turning into a spindle-shaped shell with multiple caps), you could never imagine that they are closely related—yet I have looked at the slides from those cores and seen the gradual transition from one extreme to the other with my own eyes. [10]




Evolutionary transformation in the cannartid-ommatartid lineage of radiolaria over the past 50 million years, from spongy balls to four- and then three-armed and finally two-armed bipolar structures, with further variations in the spongy caps later in their evolution. Taxa are as follows: 26, Lithocyclia ocellus; 27,Lithocyclia aristotelis; 28, Lithocyclia angusta; 30, Cannartus tubarius; 31, Cannartus violina; 32, Cannartus mammiferus; 33, Cannartus laticonus; 34, Cannartus petterssoni; 35, Ommatartus hughesi; 36, Ommatartus antepenultimus; 37, Ommatartus penultimus; 38, Ommatartus avitus; 39, Ommatartus tetrathalamus. (Modified from Haq and Boersma 1978)

Furthermore, had those responsible for preparing this advertising material bothered to properly research Darwin's own views, they would have found that even when Darwin was alive, he was already weary of being misquoted on this very subject:
I am actually weary of telling people that I do not pretend to adduce direct evidence of one species changing into another, but that I believe that this view in the main is correct, because so many phenomena can be thus grouped together and explained. But it is generally of no use; I cannot make persons see this. I generally throw in their teeth the universally admitted theory of the undulation of light,--neither the undulation nor the very existence of ether being proved, yet admitted because the view explains so much. [11]
This is not the only example of quote mining in Christadelphian anti-evolutionary material. The Taree Christadelphians on their website [12] quote the 20th century zoologist D.M.S. Watson:



The quote comes from an article [13] in the journal Nature from 1929. To say that this is dated is an understatement, but this is sadly typical of special creationist attacks on evolution which will cite such old material as if it was still a problem for contemporary evolutionary biology. This was well before the modern synthetic theory of evolution (neo-Darwinism) was formulated. To cite this as if it were a problem for 21st century biology is laughable.A telling feature of the quote on the Taree website is the presence of an ellipse, indicating material has been left out. This raises the question of what has been left out. This is the quote as cited on the Taree website:
Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or is supported by logically coherent arguments, …… because no alternative explanation is credible.
and this is the complete quotation, with the section in the ellipse restored:
Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or is supported by logically coherent arguments, but because it does fit all the facts of taxonomy, of pal√¶ontology, and geographical distribution, and because no alternative explanation is credible.
The meaning has been completely changed when the omitted section is restored. Again, this is either incompetent scholarship (copying another creationist website without verifying the reference) or intellectually dishonest behaviour (omitting the critical section which showed why evolution was accepted). Either way, it destroys the credibility of the Taree website entirely.

If one reads the article by Watson in detail, then his views become clearer, and the completely misleading  nature of the mined quote becomes even more apparent:
Whilst the fact of evolution is accepted by every biologist, the mode in which it has occurred and the mechanism by which it has been brought about are still disputable….
Special creationists constantly forget to differentiate between the fact of large-scale evolutionary change and common descent  (the fact of evolution) - and the theoretical mechanism proposed to explain common descent (the theory of evolution). If they were really familiar with Darwin, they would be aware that Darwin had two goals in mind when he published his book. The first was to show the evidence for evolution, and the second was to propose a mechanism to explain how it had happened:
Whether the naturalist believes in the views given by Lamarck, or Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, by the author of the ‘Vestiges,’ by Mr. Wallace and myself, or in any other such view, signifies extremely little in comparison with the admission that species have descended from other species and have not been created immutable; for he who admits this as a great truth has a wide field opened to him for further inquiry. [14]
Some of those who admit the principle of evolution, but reject natural selection, seem to forget, when criticising my book, that I had the above two objects in view; hence if I have erred in giving to natural selection great power, which I am very far from admitting, or in having exaggerated its power, which is in itself probable, I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations. [15]
Special creationists constantly forget to differentiate between the fact of large-scale evolutionary change and common descent  (the fact of evolution) - and the theoretical mechanism proposed to explain common descent (the theory of evolution). If they were really familiar with Darwin, they would be aware that Darwin had two goals in mind when he published his book. The first was to show the evidence for evolution, and the second was to propose a mechanism to explain how it had happened.

History shows that while biologists readily accepted the fact of evolution, they were less enthused about Darwin's proposed mechanism of natural selection to explain how evolution had occurred. This was due in no small part to the lack of a robust theory of inheritance. In fact, from the late 19th century to the first quarter of the 20th century, natural selection was largely disregarded as a viable explanation for evolution, with alternative theories such as neo-Lamarckianism, orthogenesis or mutationism holding sway. 


When we continue reading from D.M.S. Watson's article, which was written before the modern evolutionary synthesis rehabilitated natural selection (which is why it is out of date!) we see that Watson accepted the fact of evolution, but remained cautiously sceptical about the power of natural selection to explain it:
The extraordinary lack of evidence to show that the incidence of death under natural conditions is controlled by small differences of the kind which separate species from one another or, what is the same thing from an observational point of view, by physiological differences correlated with such structural features, renders it difficult to appeal to natural selection as the main or indeed an important factor in bringing about the evolutionary changes which we know to have occurred. It may be important, it may indeed be the principle which overrides all others ; but at present [i.e. 1929] its real existence as a phenomenon rests on an extremely slender basis. 
The extreme difficulty of obtaining the necessary data for any quantitative estimation of the efficiency of natural selection makes it seem probable that this theory will be re-established, if it be so, by the collapse of alternative explanations which are more easily attacked by observation and experiment. If so, it will present a parallel to the theory of evolution itself, a theory universally accepted not because it be can proved by logically coherent evidence to be true but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.Thus the present position of zoology is unsatisfactory. We know as surely as we shall that evolution has occurred; but we do not know how this evolution has been brought about. The data which we have accumulated are inadequate, not in quantity but in their character, to allow us to determine which, if any, of the proposed explanations is a vera causa. But it appears that the experimental method rightly used will in the end give us, if not the solution of our problem, at least the power of analysing it and isolating the various factors which enter into it. (Emphasis mine)
When we continue reading from D.M.S. Watson's article, which was written before the modern evolutionary synthesis was created (which is why it is out of date!) we see that Watson accepted the fact of evolution, but remained cautiously sceptical about the power of natural selection to explain it:

To summarise, D.M.S. Watson never denied that evolution had occurred. In fact, he states that as long ago a 1929, the fact of evolution was not disputed. What was less certain was the theoretical mechanism to explain evolution. This remark however is 84 years old - hopelessly out of date. Since then, we have a far better idea on how evolution took place. The use of this mined quote reflects poorly on us as believers.

The final example of Christadelphian quote mining comes from a presentation [16] by the Halifax Christadelphians:


George Gaylord Simpson was one of the leading palaeontologists of the 20th century, and a leading figure in the creation of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the currently accepted theory of evolution. The implication here is that one of the leading figures in 20th century evolutionary biology is admitting that the theory is shot with flaws. Once again, we have a quote taken out of context. Let's look at the quote in context:
"The chances that the remains of an organism will be buried, fossilized, preserved in the rock to our day, then exposed on the surface of dry land and found by a paleontologist before they disintegrate are extremely small, practically infinitesimal. The discovery of a fossil of a particular species, out of the thousands of millions that have inhabited the earth, seems almost like a miracle even to a paleontologist who has spent a good part of his life performing the miracle. Certainly paleontologists have found samples of an extremely small fraction, only, of the earth's extinct species, and even for groups that are most readily preserved and found as fossils they can never expect to find more than a fraction.
"In view of these facts, the record already acquired is amazingly good. It provides us with many detailed examples of a great variety of evolutionary phenomena on lower and intermediate levels and with rather abundant data that can be used either by controlled extrapolation or on a statistical sampling basis for inferences as to phenomena on all levels up to the highest. Among the examples are many in which, beyond the slightest doubt, a species or genus has been gradually transformed into another. Such gradual transformation is also fairly well exemplified for subfamilies and occasionally for families, as the groups are commonly ranked. Splitting and subsequent gradual divergence of species is also exemplified, although not as richly as phyletic transformation of species (no doubt because splitting of species usually involves spatial separation and paleontological samples are rarely adequate in spatial distribution). Splitting and gradual divergence of genera is exemplified very well and in a large variety of organisms. Complete examples for subfamilies and families are also known, but are less common. 
"In spite of these examples, it remains true, as every paleontologist knows, that most new species, genera, and families and that nearly all new categories above the level of families appear in the record suddenly and are not led up to by known, gradual, completely continuous transitional sequences. When paleontological collecting was still in its infancy and no clear examples of transitional origin had been found, most paleontologists were anti-evolutionists. Darwin (1859) recognized the fact that paleontology then seemed to provide evidence against rather than for evolution in general or the gradual origin of taxonomic characters in particular. Now we do have many examples of transitional sequences.
Almost all paleontologists recognize that the discovery of a complete transition is in any case unlikely. Most of them find it logical, if not scientifically required, to assume that the sudden appearance of a new systematic group is not evidence for special creation or for saltation, but simply means that a full transitional sequence more or less like those that are known did occur and simply has not been found in this instance." [17] (Mined quote in italics. Bold emphasis is mine)
In short, Simpson points out that:

  • The overwhelming majority of animals that die are never fossilised, and the chances of finding fossils is remote, making the likelihood of discovering individual fossils, let alone complete transitional series unlikely
  • The fossil record we do have is remarkably good, given these constraints
  • We do have many examples of transitional sequences
When placed in context, Simpson's real views are readily apparent, and the magnitude of the intellectually dishonest quotation apparent.

Conclusion

Quote mining is intellectually dishonest behaviour, and is one of the reasons special creationists are held in contempt by mainstream scientists. It is distressing as a Christadelphian to see examples of quote mining in our preaching and apologetic material. If one wants to attack evolution, then this is not the way to do it.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here

References

2. Gould S. J.  Evolution as Fact and Theory, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, p. 260


5. Rieseberg L.H. “Hybrid Origins of Plant Species” Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 1997. 28:359–89

6. Dettman J.R. et al  “Incipient speciation by divergent adaptation and antagonistic and antagonistic epistasis in yeast” Nature (2007) 447:585-588

7. Ching C, Takahashi A, Wu C “Incipient speciation by sexual isolation in Drosophila: Concurrent evolution at multiple loci” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (2001) 98:6709-6713

8. Seehausen O et al  “Speciation through sensory drive in cichlid fish” Nature (2008) 455:620-627

9. Bush G.L., Smith J.L. “The Genetics and Ecology of Sympatric Speciation: A Case Study” Res. Popul. Ecol. (1998) 40(2):175-187

10. Prothero D "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters" (Columbia University Press, 2007) p 182-183

11. Darwin: Letter to Prof Hutton. April 20th 1861

13. Watson D.M.S. "Adaptation" Nature (1929) 124:233 

14. Darwin CR. Origin of species [Letter]. Athenaeum 9 May: 617; 1863.

15. Darwin C. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray; 1871.
17. Simpson, G.G., The Major Features of Evolution, 1953, p. 360