1.3 Quote Mining and the Case of Punctuated Equilibrium
Creation Science drops the ball on Punk Eek, again & again & again, 100% failure rate.
Fazale Rana and Ray Bohlin did at least try to bump into some of the issues, bungled though their efforts may have been, but overall their creationist compatriots fall completely flat. This is particularly noteworthy when it comes to Young Earth Creationism, who offer a much longer parade of hit-and-run allusions to P-E with even fewer “exceptions that prove the rule” to spice up the mix.
The overall pattern is clear enough: just claim P-E is a problem for “evolution” and move on without any analysis at all. Older examples run from an anonymous Jehovah’s Witnesses volume, Watch Tower (1985, 23), Old Earth Creationist Alan Hayward (1985, 18-19), or the extensive interview jabs by Luther Sunderland (1988, 12, 99, 111, 113-119, 122-126). Dave Nutting’s Alpha Omega Institute has posted several hit-and-run swipes: Think & Believe (1985c; 1989b), with Michael Shaver (1995) getting points for Kulturkampf succinctness when he apparently conflated Gould’s left-leaning politics with the scientific issue by dubbing P-E as “the Marxist attempt to explain away the problem.”
Moving into the 1990s, Don Batten (1994b) spooled out authority quotes over seven pages in the AiG Journal of Creation without mentioning any concrete examples—and as editor of the creationist Answers Book it is that piece alone that was cited in the single page allusions to P-E in the Ham et al. (2000, 130) and Catchpoole et al. (2007, 121) secondary iterations. Further hit-and-run artists: Trevor Major (1996a) in Reasons & Revelation; examples 91-92 among 301 Startling Proofs & Prophecies Proving That God Exists in Canadian creationists Peter & Paul Lalonde (1996); Scott Huse (1997, 89-90); Ankerberg & Weldon (1998, 223-224); Kent Hovind (1999e) claiming in one of his video lectures that P-E was devised to explain why no “missing links” existed; and Russell Leitch (1999c) and the more recent Eric Blievernicht (2002) defending the YEC ramparts at the ironically named Lutheran Science Institute.
The heavy hitters of creationism fare no better here. Henry Morris (1985, vii-viii, 90) dropped the customary authority quotes and suggested P-E relied on “mysterious hypothetical processes” without any mention of allopatric speciation and its interplay with geological context (but then as a YEC founder, geological sequencing would not be his long suit in any case) or any examples of its application, such as the C. nefrens from Kelley (1983) above. Adding Gary Parker only made matters worse, as Morris & Parker (1987, 150) blathered that P-E not only claimed multiple stages (for speciation?) but even “involved organisms so unfit to survive that they existed only in small populations that left no fossil remains.” No documentation was proffered to permit an observer to identity how the two creationists could manage to get the basics of the idea so fuddle headed wrong, while Parker (2006, 173) solo opted for vague generality.
The venerable Duane Gish (1993a, 229) similarly insisted P-E claimed to operate “by some as yet unknown mechanism” without reference to its allopatric roots. In his final main work, Evolution: The Fossils Still Say NO! Gish (1995, 39) promised P-E “will be discussed in some detail in the final chapter of this book.” Gish (1995, 160) dangled it again: “This idea will be discussed in a later chapter” but assured his readers that it “is totally without merit.” When Gish (1995, 353-356) did get around to it was just to repeat his mantra about “unknown mechanisms” (still no Mayr/allopatric connection) and addressed not a single specific example of what P-E advocates were exploring. Appropriately enough, though, Gish’s own index didn’t even include this main section as an entry under punctuated equilibrium. In turn, the parasitical Hank Hanegraaff (1998a, 40-45) confidently vacuumed up Gish’s slapdash treatment without blinking—a trick Hanegraaff would repeat with more perilous scholarly consequences regarding the Protoavis case concerning bird evolution, in Chapter 2 of Downard (2004).
Someone else of the Hanegraaff “copy what you don’t know enough to ferret out on your own” stripe is James Perloff’s Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism. As we’ll see in the chapters to come, Perloff scooped up broad arguments (citations and all) from the likes of Morris & Parker (1987) and Gish (1993a; 1995), and Perloff (1999, 116) tried to build on that shaky foundation to flush PE down the drain because it “cannot account for the missing links between larger classifications (genus, family, etc.). It does not explain, for example, the complete absence of transitional fossils between invertebrates and fishes—a span that supposedly took 100 million years. Nor does it illuminate how complex organs evolved.”
Right off the bat he was committing the familiar category error so many creationists make: punctuated equilibrium is about tracking speciation events in an imperfect fossil record, and thus not in and of itself some magic crowbar to pry higher-level taxonomical origins or metazoan organ development off the table. That would require a different body of technical argument, which none of those creationists managed to offer—meaning the sundry mistakes of Morris, Parker & Gish became by parasitical infection Perloff’s own.
Curiously, the most glancing blows in the early P-E parade were by Kurt Wise. A rarity in the creationism biz, Wise has a legitimate paleontology degree (with fitting irony he studied under Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, which must have been an educational experience for them both). As a dedicated Young Earth Creationist, though, there are sizable speed bumps as to how much of the paleontological evidence Wise can acknowledge without doing injury to his theological spinal column. Brilliant and enthusiastic, Wise landed at Bryan College in Tennessee to teach paleontology. His iconoclastic career is described in Numbers (1992, 281-282); see also K. R. Miller (1999, 173-174, 187) and Witham (2002b, 52-53, 103-107).
Initially Wise (1989) tried to shoehorn the P-E debate into a Flood Geology framework, as though punctuated jumps in forms followed by periods of stasis somehow supported the simultaneous deposition slosh-and-mush environment implied of the Flood. He alluded to some technical literature on one page, such as Kellogg (1975) and Williamson (1981), but didn’t explain how any of these fossil examples could be successfully integrated into the still exceedingly vague Flood model. That this might be a serious difficulty has been borne out by what he has (and hasn’t) penned since. While Batten (1994) was citing the 1989 article favorably, Wise (1994, 220) restricted himself to citing Gould & Eldredge (1977) but only to support a general claim that interspecific transitional forms were “rare” in the fossil record and not to evaluate anything more about P-E or try to co-opt it for Flood Geology. The proposition has been gathering dust in the decades since, all the way down to our age of instant Internet access when YEC blogger (and non-paleontologist) Justification by reason (2012) apparently came across Wise’s 1989 piece fresh. Didn’t it seem a tad odd, though, that there was nothing further to report on this fine apologetic insight after over almost a quarter of a century?
Part of the reason for this may well stem from the fact that Wise also happens to be part of the baraminology movement, a dedicated band of recent creationists who, flush with their academic degrees, have been trying to nail down how many created kinds (AKA baramins) God really had generated during the Creation Week 6000-odd years ago. Along the way the baraminologists have had to concede that many extinct animals were actually related by natural evolutionary descent (dubbed monobaramins) occurring within the created baramins, noted in Appendix III of Downard (2003b)—which opened yet another taxonomical Pandora’s Box, as they have had to accommodate astonishingly rapid evolution of the kinds post-Flood (presumably under the very noses of an assortment of literate BCE cultures, going about their business in Mesopotamia, Egypt and China).
One of those monobaraminic groups turns out to be the venerable horse evolution sequence, acknowledged by T. Wood & Cavanaugh (2003, 4-5). So it was rather amusing to see the YEC Answers to Evolution (2004) pamphlet boldly claiming that P-E “theory suggests that evolution occurs during short periods of sudden, drastic change with long periods of little or no change,” and illustrating this with only four examples culled from the fifty-million-year-plus fossil record of horses, contrasting the “SLOW, STEADY CHANGE” of regular evolution with the “SHORT PERIODS OF SUDDEN, DRAMATIC CHANGE” expected in P-E.
Tactically, had the pamphlet creators deliberately selected so sparse a sampling (rather than the whole parade of known fossil examples) to support the claim that the changes seen were too “drastic” or “DRAMATIC” to be accounted for by natural evolutionary means, or had they simply not realized there were more fossils to evaluate? In either case the fact remains that without specifying just what “drastic” or “DRAMATIC” were supposed to mean it was an exercise in stage managing, not science, that only got worse once you realized that their own side had just thrown in the towel on the very example they thought to use. Oops!
What makes the Answers to Evolution pamphlet stand out, though, is precisely that they did try to illustrate their P-E claim with something, even if it misfired without their realizing it. The vast bulk of creationist takes on the subject never get any farther than quote mining, from The Interactive Bible (2000a) to the apologetics of David Noebel explored by critic Jeffery Lowder (2000b).
Walter ReMine’s 1993 book The Biotic Message devoted a whole chapter to P-E composed of dueling quotations without ever once exploring any of the available fossil evidence directly, ReMine (1993, 326-338). ReMine (1993, 326) was especially obtuse in complaining about P-E’s “peculiar emphasis on speciation,” wandering off on a tangent of whether “species selection” (where selection acts at a higher taxonomic level than individuals) plays a role in P-E. By then far removed both from the basics of speciation issues and the fossil data, ReMine (1993, 338) finally accused: “Punctuationists did not get their notions of speciation by observing it in the living or fossil word. Instead, their notions were invented to destroy phylogeny.” Missing from this was poor Ernst Mayr, who came up only on p. 335, but only for a few authority quotes, not apropos allopatric speciation, a concept ReMine never mentioned. Given this major effort, it was natural for ReMine (2001) to argue in much the same (albeit) shorter vein when responding to a debate with evolutionist Massimo Pigliucci.
Continuing on in the 21st century antievolutionary P-E parade, Bert Thompson & Brad Harrub (2002a) double-dipped the same quote mine nuggets on adjoining pages at Apologetics Press in the course of complaining about the list of “creationist nonsense” John Rennie (2002b) called attention to in Scientific American. Fred Heeren (2002) performed a similar PE trick at Hank Hanegraaff’s Christian Research Journal—though subsequently Heeren has apparently shifted to a theistic evolutionist and general science writer, such as Heeren (2004; 2008; 2011).
The creationist version of P-E has filtered on to some school classes via teachers inclined in that direction, such as the painfully derivative information packets passed out under the radar to his students by Virginia biology teacher Larry Booher (2005) thinking that P-E “is ‘macroevolution’ on a rapid pace” without any reference to any of the considerable science literature bearing on the issue by that time. More on Booher in section 1.7.
Creationist organizations with newsletters that continue for some period may not be able to resist the temptation to repeat the P-E canard either. That was the case with Dave Nutter’s Alpha Omega Institute noted above, and (maybe not coincidentally) also true of an organization much impressed with Nutter’s contribution to creationist apologetics, the San Antonio Bible-Based Science Association, from the quick stab by Scott Lane in SABBSA (2001f) to George Grebens (2005) sloughing off P-E in a reprint piece on “understanding the issues” which included exposing the “pantheistic” roots of the New World Order. SABBSA (2006i) then managed to erase Niles Eldredge from the picture altogether: “With the passing of Stephen Jay Gould, Dr. Stanley is now the foremost authority in the field of punctuated equilibrium.” While Steven Stanley is a fine and respected paleontologist, how the SABBSA managed to promote him to such prominence on this issue is a mystery (it may have been due to his work on extinction dynamics and macroevolutionary processes, subjects about which creationists have another long record of misunderstanding).
The sloppy secondary scholarship continued in SABBSA (2012l), a riff on David Letterman’s Late Show Top 10 Reasons skits (“Cool Things about Being an Evolutionist”) offering as the No. 10 example: “You can call ‘punctuated equilibrium’ a scientific theory, then explain why scientific evidence for it cannot be found.” The SABBSA attributed this bon mot to nwcreation.net, but the piece they linked to—British Columbia public school teacher David Buckna (1996) from the ICR—contained no such listing among its 33 questions that “would make good classroom discussions.” As Buckna diligently framed the mistaken claims of creationists on paleontology (likely culled from Duane Gish) and cosmology without any supporting documentation, one can imagine what manner of freewheeling science instruction his Canadian students were exposed to.
Moving on in our chronicle of P-E confusion, college freshman Craig McClarren (2002) confidently recycled piles of YEC arguments, to the eventual consternation of critic Frank Steiger (2012), but in another rare example of sober reevaluation, McClarren (2012) had come to oppose creationist thinking after realizing how little he had actually known about the facts when he was 18. As someone who went through a comparable maturation process regarding the crackpot theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, I can sympathize.
Would that creationist dentist Jobe Martin (2002, 97) had followed the McClarren track before he declared “the slow, gradual evolution of millions of years idea is passing out of favor,” citing only the obligatory Gould, and adding Richard Milton (1997, 215), who hadn’t gone into any more detail in his dismissal than Martin had. Milton is a prickly British neo-catastrophist who exported his 1992 book, Facts of Life, to America in a 1997 edition, Shattering the Myths of Darwinism, and Martin revealed far more about his own limited understanding of the players when he described Milton as “Atheist and evolutionist” as well as “England’s premier evolutionary science journalist.” As we’ll see in subsequent chapters, the irreligious contrarian Milton’s consistently antievolutionary writings have put him about as far from respected science journalism as you can get without bumping into Erich von DÃ¤niken, and about the only people who highlight Milton are confused YEC authors like Martin or Tom Willis (2008b)—more on him later. See Ã˜stman (2009a) for further perspective on Jobe Martin’s claimed “expertise” in matters biological.
And the P-E juggernaut rolleth on in YEC apologetics: the superficial “Science Lesson Plans” of the British creationist group Truth in Science (2005m) and the addenda offered by Charles Voss (2006a,c-h,j; 2012a-b; 2013) to undermine American science textbooks. There’s Dutch creationist Ben Hobrink (2005, 152) in hardcover, Bill Morgan (2005j) online, the quirky Atlantis groupie James Nienhuis (2006, 179-180), Vance Ferrell (2006f, 57, 356) in a top-heavy 800-page tome, and by Creation Ministries International (2011) in a slim pamphlet. Richard Peachey (2002) summarized the (quite transitory) scientific controversy over P-E well enough for the Creation Science Association of British Columbia, but ironically did not link any of it to Ernst Mayr (who Peachey had just brought up regarding the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis) and of course discussed no examples of forms living or fossil to ground the discussion in concrete terms.
The Institute for Creation Research has not been able to resist the P-E cliché either, with John Morris (2010a, 12) and Frank Sherwin (2010) as more recent outings in their Acts & Facts, as has Mike Gray (2013a) from Bob Jones University. Australian creationist Philip Rayment has entered the fray as well at A Storehouse of Knowledge (2012c-d), the online “encyclopedia with a biblical worldview” for people finding CreationWiki and Conservapedia too wishy-washy, critically observed from afar at RationalWiki (2014).
Naturally P-E jabs pop up among peripheral conservative blog axe grinding. At David Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine, Robert Locke (2001a) decided “for punctuated equilibrium to have occurred, a very precise set of conditions have to have obtained throughout the entire past period represented in the fossils, and this is unlikely.” Though substantially more likely than Locke’s bothering to document any of this—his piece being a credulous review of Denton (1985) and Behe (1996a), neither of whom were paleontology resources of note.
Alan Keyes’ conservative Catholic Renew America website has fielded several examples of PE fishing, from Robert Meyer (2004a-b) to the late Fred Hutchison (1950-2010). Evidently under the misapprehension that evolutionists have been suppressing word about P-E for fear of its dire anti-Darwinian import, Hutchison (2005b) emphatically warned: “the evolution establishment has enough clout to prevent school children from hearing about punctuated equilibrium.” Not that his targets were limited to evolution: Hutchison (2005a; 2006; 2007; 2008) was a veritable mini-mart of fringe beliefs, opposing the Big Bang and the Relativity Theory of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) along with the One World Cult and the more usual Kulturkampf suspects of abortion, gay marriage and global warming. Never one to mince words once his dander is up, P. Z. Myers (2006d) offered a predictably unflattering assessment of the oeuvres of this “Renaissance fool.”
P-E potshots surface also at Federal Way Conservative where Jonathan Gardner (2012a) affirmed “Why I Believe in Creationism,” as well as Texans for Better Science Education (2012c,g,k) in their defense of creationist Don McLeroy’s revision of Texas school standards, the ignorance drain spinning full circle at that point given the aforementioned 2009 McLeroy chaining of Moeller (2004) via Genesis Park (2011ad-af) noted above.
Ever since mouse met Internet, people prone to such superficial analysis have discovered the easiest way yet to generate cataracts of credulously parasitical “scholarship” is to simply copy it. A broad example of cut and paste erudition occurred in August 2010 when Glenn Charles Jackson (2010) at the American Family Association (at afa.net) re-tread an undated Creation Truth piece (nipped via creationtruth.com) that presumably was trying to follow in the footsteps of David Letterman (recall the SABBSA in this department noted earlier) by laying out the “Top Ten Reasons Why Darwin is Wrong.” No. 5 on this Jackson’s list was “Stasis of Living Things,” which consisted solely of an isolated quote from Stephen J. Gould (1993a, 15), part of the late paleontologist’s regular (and non-technical) column for Natural History, which Jackson further gussied up with plenty of bold italics:
Stasis, or nonchange, of most fossil species during their lengthy geological lifespans was tacitly acknowledged by all paleontologists, but almost never studied explicitly because prevailing theory treated stasis as uninteresting nonevidence for nonevolution. ...The overwhelming prevalence of stasis became an embarrassing feature of the fossil record, best left ignored as a manifestation of nothing (that is, nonevolution).
Jackson’s quote mining had excised where Gould had explained that the paleontologists prior to 1972 had specifically defined evolution “as gradual transformation in extended fossil sequences,” thus leaving the reader in the dark about what “gradual” and “transformation” was involved and over how “long” a time (or how this related specifically to speciation processes). For Jackson, though, it wasn’t the long parade of definitely transforming organisms that Gould has spent his career investigating and writing about at length (consider Gould’s The Book of Life from that same year of 1993) that stuck in the creationist tunnel vision, but rather the very isolated “living fossils” like the coelacanth that Jackson proclaimed “look exactly like their fossils do!” and, moreover, that these are “not rare. They are ‘overwhelmingly present’ in the fossil record. They are the rule, not the exception.”
This is an attractive trope for creationists—Chuck Missler (2012n) at Koinonia House in Idaho takes a similar tack. Only that isn’t even slightly true: if you consider how many things have slid across the fossil landscape over the last half a billion years, not only are “living fossils” totally the exceptional case, never the rule, they only rarely qualify as possibly the same species as their modern counterparts (and usually not even in the same genus). They are “exactly like” one another only for people who are unfamiliar with taxonomy and never specify what different might mean to them in a context of continuously speciating life (which we’ll see in section 1.5 concerning Benjamin Wiker and crocodiles).
The antievolutionary muddling got even worse when Jackson (and the very trusting AFA copyist) also insisted (without corroborating documentation of course): “Evolution-believers don’t like to talk about this problem—so they usually don’t mention stasis.” A position that should have been hard to defend based on Gould’s own article, since he had written only three paragraphs later how times had changed since 1972 when he and Eldredge had proposed P-E: “Now such studies are routinely made and published, and we have a burgeoning literature to document the character and extent of stasis in quantitative terms.”
That situation has only ballooned in the many years between Gould’s 1993 article and the 2008 pirouettes of Fazale Rana around Greg Hunt, or the AFA channeling of Jackson in 2010. Vermeij & Dietl (2006) extended the dynamics of ecology into the P-E area, Vermeij (2010, 199) noting of this work that adaptations taking place among the majority of a source population that relocates “is sufficient to account for punctuated evolution.” With fitting irony apropos Fazale Rana’s claims about his scientific activities, Greg Hunt (2008) has continued to advance the field by laying out criteria to determine when P-E factors are playing a role in particular situations. Folmer Bokma (2008) has done similar work. Old cases have also been reassessed using newer evidence and these improved analytical techniques, such as Hull & Norris (2009) regarding our old pals, marine foraminifera, or Van Bocxlaer & Hunt (2013) on how “stasis” figures in gastropod radiations in Lake Malawi.
Peeking under the hood of the species level that creationists get so befuddled about, there is the working machinery of the genes and microevolutionary changes there can be viewed along a stasis/punctuation scale as well. Viewed down at that level, while gradual change is regularly observed at the genetic level, P-E type clusters still accounts for around 22% of DNA changes, occurring twice as frequently in plants and fungi than in animals, Pagel et al. (2006). Nor is our own DNA excluded from this process, Z. Jiang et al. (2007) with perspective by Birney (2007). And on the flip side of P-E, Ellegren (2010) investigated stasis in the structure of bird chromosomes.
More ironically, at least for antievolutionists anxious to use P-E as a shoehorn to force it into a supposedly ill-fitting macroevolutionary boot, Pennell et al. (2014) pointedly argue that macroevolution is one area where P-E dynamics have their least utility, which shouldn’t be all that surprising. Macroevolution plays out over millions of years, as long strings of what are otherwise microevolutionary speciation events (whether bumping along by allopatric PE or not) pile up into lineages that do sometimes (but by no means have to) display major transformation (mammals and birds being two prominent examples at the vertebrate class level that will be examined in detail in Chapters 7 & 11).
In other words, there has been a lot of work in this field that core creationist critics pay no attention to, usually because they are not scientists themselves nor do their insular networks easily encounter them. It is even more difficult for the likes of the American Family Association farther down the Kulturkampf trail to run into such technical detail when they demonstrate an inability to heed even the content of the article their apologist Jackson did bother to “quote” from.