1.3 Quote Mining and the Case of Punctuated Equilibrium
Parasitical authority quoting, the crack addiction of sloppy secondary “scholarship”.
For all the reasons previously outlined, those called upon to actively defend the hard-won scientific position are not always sufficiently skilled in the rhetorical techniques necessary to make their case clearly to a public already suspicious of them. A dandy example of this occurred just as I began work on Troubles in Paradise.
In April 1998 a new science education guideline on the teaching of evolution was being proposed by the National Academy of Sciences, and sparked the by now customary creation/evolution media debate. PBS’s News Hour duly assembled a quartet of appropriately balanced guests to thrash out the issue, Donald Kennedy (1998). Kennedy represented the NAS, countered by someone from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, while from the “front lines” of high school education came two science teachers. One was a pro-evolution biology instructor, the other an earth science teacher from a Christian high school who expressed at least an open mind towards creationist views (actually a very open mind, as it turned out).
What struck me most about their exchange was how quickly the creation advocates launched into certain specific claims, and how slow the evolutionists were to respond. Practically the first words out of the Liberty University spokesman’s mouth concerned how the evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) had supposedly admitted to the lack of transitional fossils in the geological record. Likewise the creationist-ready earth science teacher noted how he found it difficult to believe in the evolution of whales because there were no known intermediate forms.
In the study of the debating tactics of creationists, the Gould matter is particularly notorious. Gould most emphatically did not believe there were no intermediate forms in the fossil record, as even a casual reading of his monthly columns in Natural History magazine would have demonstrated, and was downright annoyed at how often his views were misrepresented by creationists. Gould (1983, 259-260; 2002a, 986-990) showed no reticence in making his views known here, nor did Godfrey (1987) or Ecker (1990, 158-159). Just how many highly specific transitional fossils there are I have touched upon in Downard (2003b; 2004).
Misrepresentation of Gould and his colleague Niles Eldredge by creationists has been rampant, involving around 40% of the instances encountered initially in the “The Quote Mine Project” undertaken at Talk.Origins Archive (2005m). The limpet-like tenacity with which evolution critics latch onto such remarks in the first place illustrates something important about what’s going on inside their heads. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer (2011f) represents an illustrative nadir here: “Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould said, ‘The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology’ (Note” ‘extreme rarity’ is Harvard-speak for ‘nada, zilch, zippo.’).”
Apart from the trivial goof of typing a quote mark after Note instead of the colon (they’re on adjacent keys on the standard QWERTY keyboard) the fact remains that for someone like Gould (as big a stickler for terminological precision as ever there was in science) “extreme rarity” meant exactly that: rare but not nonexistent. It’s hard to get plainer than Gould (1983, 258-260) noted by John Pieret at Talk.Origins Archive (2005m): “[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.”
After offering the extensive pre-mammal therapsids and assorted human precursors as explicit examples, Gould concluded: “Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.” (That “next section” dealt with the Punctuated Equilibrium explanation for that pattern that is our current topic.) All of which meant that (know it or not) the hectoring Mr. Fischer was on this occasion bearing false witness—which Fischer (2014) only compounded when he lazily reprised the piece for Alan Keyes’ conservative Catholic Renew America with a new date but the same unfounded claim, further abetted when creationist Michael Snyder (2014) reprised Fischer’s “nada, zilch, zippo” quote.
Fischer could confuse things this way so easily if he lacked any real concept of Deep Time to put the data set that he didn’t examine into perspective. Not that it’s that hard of a concept to grasp. Most people encounter practical distinctions about rare circumstances in their daily life. While it is “rare” for my yard to have three feet of snow on it (in fact, most of the days go by year after year without that happening, especially in the summertime), my shovel and I are all too aware that on occasion (and not even every winter) there has indeed been that much white stuff to rearrange so I can get my car out of the driveway. The inability to distinguish between “rare” and never seems so basic a mistake that one can wonder whether such a person could be trusted on anything. Such as a realtor trying to sell me property in Spokane claiming that because three-foot snowfalls were an “extreme rarity” here (true enough) that this meant I would never have to worry about shoveling snow (”nada, zilch, zippo“). Even should such people venture a correct opinion now and then, might this only have been due to an inadvertent stumble onto the truth?
That’s the methodological implication of Fischer’s remark: a diagnostic glimpse into a mind not merely willing to rely on a secondary redaction of someone’s belief, but precipitously capable of not even being able to understand what little it is they are claiming to pay attention to. And, by extension, into the minds of anyone who teases their audience with Gould’s “trade secret” quote as though it meant what they imagined it did. This can run the gamut from legislative proposals (Timothy Macko put it into his New Mexico House Bill 1321 in 1997) all the way up the apologetic food chain to Phillip Johnson repeating it when lecturing in that state in 2001, reported by David E. Thomas (1997a; 2001) following the New Mexico antievolutionary scene.
But more fundamentally: who should care what Stephen Jay Gould or any other person (scientist or otherwise) thinks about a matter? The pertinent question should be what are the facts? If a scientist ventures an opinion, that is relevant to assessing their expertise or conclusions, but not as an excuse to bypass whatever data there might be underlying the statement in the first place. So why bother with the authority quote when you can just go to the information? That is, unless you don’t actually know any of the information, because all you have ever read are the authority quotes. Thus the persistence of quote mining in the creationist debate—a venerable practice dating back at least to the early 1880s regarding pro-evolution physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), Michael Barton (2010)—tells us far more about the mindset of the apologist than it ever could about what is or isn’t found in the fossil record.
Because most current antievolutionists come from a conservative Christian background, their propensity for quote mining comes quite naturally to them, as the technique of defending doctrine by “proof text” is a long-standing practice of apologetics. The invocation of “As Isaiah saith...” for a Bible believer primes them to do the same thing when they put on their antievolution hat: “Thus spake Stephen Jay Gould.” For a believer, any seeming admission “out of their own mouths” is too tempting to resist, no matter how superficial and misleading the addictive practice may be from a methodological standpoint. Consequently there is a sizable antievolutionist literature (particularly among Young Earth creationists) devoted entirely to compiling—or more accurately, repeating—those scientific quotations deemed to undermine the credibility of evolutionary theory.
Representatively wordy examples of “saturation quotation” are Morris & Parker (1987, 2-26), Gish (1993a, 367-386), Ankerberg & Weldon (1994) and Bert Thompson (1995, 11-87). Indeed, some whole books consist of little else, notably the two-volume tome of Wendell Bird (1989) or the more recent apologetics of Vance Ferrell (2001; 2006f). The idea that a secondary quote is not the same as the facts about which the quote is directed simply never occurs to them.
Not surprisingly, so disingenuous but popular an approach to “evidence” readily spills over into antievolutionary apologetics on the Internet. Whole websites consist of nothing but strings of well-worn authority quotes, such as Warren Johns (2014) at the Genesis File. Repetitive usage is rampant, such as the frenzy of on-the-same-day web posting by California creationist Bill Morgan (2005m) deploying several pages of “Actual Quotes by Evolutionists“—and the same again as “Amazing Quotes By Evolutionists,” Morgan (2005s). At least he gave a nod to the secondary source from which he vacuumed them (Henry Morris), but others are not so fussy. The tendency runs from the local, such as Northwest Creation Network (2011), to the international, like David Loughran (1996) in Scotland.
Politics enters the fray via the Conservapedia website (at conservapedia.com). Founded by Phyllis Schlafly’s son Andy in 2006 as an alternative to the supposedly left-leaning Wikipedia, Conservapedia routinely recycles quote-mined nuggets in its many creationist entries—giving an unintended irony to their definition of “accuracy” in Conservapedia (2013m) as “conservatives strive for accuracy, while many liberals are masters of deceit.” The inappropriately named lobbying group Texans for Better Science Education (2012c) is also prone to quote mongering, though arguably the Mount Everest of apologetic rehashing lies in Turkey with the venerable Harun Yahya (2008c)—no less confident of his Islamic veritas, of course, than Morgan, Loughran or Schlafly are for their Christian ones.
Once your scholarly eye is attuned to the practice, parasitical quote mining can be spotted in many ways, from telltale spelling errors copied from one to the next to the sporadic absence of relevant details, such as the lack of dates for many of the quotes shoveled out by Jay Seegert (2013f) at his Creation Education Center in Wisconsin. Quote-plucking also runs the risk of being unaware of the provenance of the statement or the background of its author. Thus the ostensibly Intelligent Design Idea Center (2011) effortlessly glommed onto a quote on mammal evolution secondarily from Young Earth Creationist Duane Gish (1995, 155-157). As we’ll see, Gish is a master of manipulative citation, invariably neglecting to mention any contrary evidence when he offers up a creation-spun text, so anyone relying on him for ammunition was repeating Gish’s defects without even realizing it.
Another example occurred in Texas when the YEC creationist dentist turned education activist, Don McLeroy, became chairman of the Texas school textbook board, Beil (2008). As documented by Kansas biology teacher Jeremy Mohn (2009), in his campaign to undercut evolution in Texas schools McLeroy (2009a) compiled a handout of what he thought constituted incriminating evidence against evolution, but which simply consisted of a flurry of out of context snippets gathered from a quote mining website Genesis Park (2011a-af), including material which Genesis Park had in turn lifted secondarily from a cherry-picking review of (guess who!) Stephen Jay Gould (2002a) in an Answers in Genesis article, Moeller (2004). Mohn had been able to track down and confirm this particular scholarly daisy chain because Moeller had made a telltale typographical error regarding the page number in a quote culled from Gould, which Genesis Park (2011af) duly copied, as did the final parasitical destination of McLeroy. (McLeroy’s pedagogical hijinks will be encountered again later in section 1.7.)
Since it is the very idea of apologetic quote mongering that is at methodological issue, though, it is interesting to compare the blithe Bert Thompson (1998) or Think & Believe (1990d) enthusiastically endorsing the practice, compared to Sean Pitman (2004d) the unrecovered quote-addict who salved his qualms by strongly recommending the responses at the Talk Origins Archive (talkorigins.org) and cautioning that the examples should “only be used as occasion for further review” before plowing ahead with 50 pages of the favored claims, all devoid of any explanatory context.
The attraction of secondary quotation as a surrogate for sources is understandably strong, and all the more so for dedicated Internet dilettantes, where brevity all too easily dislodges space-hogging context. Thus Julie Haberle defends her use of authority quotes on the website she runs with her husband, Who Is Your Creator, as well as on the antievolution billboards she has put up around Minnesota, Myers (2007h) and Florien (2009).
Completely lost in such a shuffle are the facts that ought to be the focus of all the attention. The moment you actually start paying attention to those niggling details, though, you can see (a) how challenging it is for science defenders to get traction in this area with evolution skeptics, and (b) start getting a sense on where the problem lies as to how antievolutionists get to be (and resolutely stay) so fuddled up.
In the Gould case it was the matter of identifying transitional fossils and assessing the rate and dynamics of evolutionary change. Examples of this were covered concerning many specific cases in Downard (2003b, 2004), especially regarding the inability of creationists to get a grip on the specifics of their purportedly created “kinds.” But here it is relevant to note what Gould’s discussion of the “absence” of transitional forms was about: the pace of evolutionary change as detectable in an inevitably incomplete fossil context, not its occurrence when all the available data are brought to bear (from forms both living and extinct).
The inherent problem facing paleontologists is that the apparent rate of speciation (also known as cladogenesis) seen in living forms, while pretty darned slow when studied by a field researcher tracking down individual variations in the wild, is still blindingly fast when it comes to how likely it is for any particularly visible change in bones to be trapped by the sporadic process of fossilization. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) grasped the essential problem in Chapter IX of Origin of Species, and while there has been a lot of paleontological work since to fill in many of the gaps known in 1859, the speciation versus preservation issue remains a critical one to grasp when dealing with any particular slice of geological time. As Gould (1980b, 184) himself put it: “In describing the speciation of peripheral isolates as very rapid, I speak as a geologist. The process may take hundreds, even thousands of years; you might see nothing if you stared at speciating bees on a tree for your entire lifetime.”
Or Eldredge & Tattersall (1982, 59): “Speciation can occur very quickly. In perhaps a few hundred years, new reproductively isolated species can form.” Indeed, some speciating wild sunflower hybrids appear to have pulled this off in only 60 generations, Ungerer et al. (1998). But the process can be far less frisky, as when Eldredge (1995, 99) reminded that his ballpark bracket of “five to fifty thousand years” was “consistent with some of the events we believed we had some direct data on from our own studies.” Eldredge’s fossil focus are trilobites, but for mammals, “speciation has typically required one hundred thousand to a few hundred thousand years,” Lister (2004, 221). Throw the far more abundant birds into the mix and the average rates for warm-blooded critters looks even slower: “speciation in birds and mammals generally takes about 2 Myr (million years),” Futuyma (2004, 30).
On this matter of scale, critic of YEC Frank Sonleitner (1987, 26) dryly reminded that “Fifty thousand years may be an ‘instant’ in the geological record, but in human terms it is a very long time. In creationist terms, it is five times the age of the universe!” And 2 million years is considerably longer, of course.
While creationists get bogged down on the pacing issue, they get even more muddled if they try to move on to what Gould and other advocates were talking about when they proposed an explanation for why species transitions weren’t being detected very often in their fossil data: Punctuated Equilibrium (Punk-Eek or P-E for short).
Paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984) had laid out much of the fossil speciation issue in Simpson (1944), but backed off from the implications, Eldredge (2009b) and Milner (2009, 387). By the late 1960s, when Gould and other P-E proponents arrived on the scene, paleontology had yet to incorporate the neo-Darwinian lessons on how population biology affected species formation, while the non-paleontologists of the Modern Synthesis had tended to constrain Darwin’s original concepts into a narrower gene-centered “panselectionist” framework of natural selection driven adaptation largely divorced from the organism’s ecological dynamics or developmental constraints.
In practical terms, the non P-E view of things at the time was a “phyletic gradualism” that saw speciation primarily as the transformation of a parent A into a later species B, meaning that the old A form would end up gone (called sympatric speciation in the evolution lexicon). Though Darwin had recognized that changed forms could also migrate into a new range and give the illusion of a more rapid transition than had actually taken place, he tended in Origin of Species to frame things in a stricter A-B replacement context, and by Gould’s day this view got extrapolated into the expectation that the Bs would keep on going into later Cs and Ds in a nice ladder of progressive change.
By the time Gould and Eldredge came along an important new concept had been added to the speciation debate (or old, if you remember that Darwin had touched on the essentials of it in 1859): Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) built on ideas pioneered by Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) in the 1930s and later geneticists to propose that most speciation occurred by geographical isolation, Provine (2004)—a “founder principle” whereby local variation in a population that had spread more widely could hit genetic bottlenecks causing subpopulations to fission off as separately breeding allopatric (Greek for “other parentage“) speciation events.
Though a textbook of the period like Paul Moody (1962, 319, 472, 505-506) was aware of the allopatric model for speciation (peripatric is another term for the process) and suggested how rapidity in isolated populations could produce a sparse sampling of intermediates, the idea was not connected forensically to the prospect that slower speciation over a broad geographical range could produce a similar effect. It was left to Gould & Eldredge to recognize that if allopatric speciation was a common state of affairs, it couldn’t avoid generating punctuated patterns in the fossil record.
As illustrated in Figure 3 below, the allopatric idea that the parent A wouldn’t have to disappear in order for there to be a new B (as it would have in the simpler conception of the sympatric model) meant that there was no necessary reason for the As (or the new Bs) to be caught on some continuously changing evolutionary escalator. It was just as possible for individual species to remain in a stable mode for any length of time (either before a speciation event or continuing on unchanged after a sibling species split off in a regional isolate). It was the frequency of just such “stasis” periods in the fossil record that was the “dirty little secret” that paleontologists like Gould were reminding their non-paleontologist colleagues of.[FIGURE 003]
Figure 3. “Gradual” or “Punctuated” change—and how can you tell? In this simplified schematic, a few slices of preserved geological time in horizon II showed A’s presence in times 1-4, then a gap with no examples, followed by the “sudden” appearance of the new B at time 6. Where a sympatric gradualist view might think a speciation event took place during 5-6, the actual allopatric speciation event took place back at time 3 (and in location III that wasn’t preserved as II was), with B persisting and then replacing A in its old location II following A’s local extinction (such as due to environmental changes rendering site II less suitable for A than its sibling B). Note that A continued to get along quite nicely in adjoining location I, which may even have been preserved, only to be eroded away as III was (say by glaciers) before human geologists could get a chance to see it. Besides the issue of where the As and Bs lived at any given time, there is the matter of how much of the fossilized time layers actually end up preserved for paleontologists to put a spade to. Had layers 4-5 been eroded (an entirely possible prospect) B would appear to have even more “abruptly” replaced A in zone II. A further “map of time” issue to remember here: this schematic puts the layers from 1-7 in time sequence, earliest at the top—but real deposits would appear the other way around, with the oldest (1) on the bottom, and the youngest (7) on the top.
The inevitable consequence of this for fossil preservation was a punctuated structure that looked more like a staircase than a ramp: new allopatric species appearing alongside (or supplanting) their parents rather than a parade of localized sympatric replacements. Unless you had an extremely detailed fossil record to go on, though, with layers representing a near continuous deposition over a relatively short period (spacing only thousands of years apart or less) the odds of capturing the occasional allopatric speciation blips in spatially diverse populations that remained comparatively stable most of the rest of the time were would be low enough that their preservation would be taking place only rarely.
But “rarely” doesn’t mean non-existent, and no one in the gradualism/P-E debate was claiming there weren’t any examples of speciation in the fossil record (by which we mean new forms appearing as similar variations on a previously existing form). Indeed, while bigger animals like land vertebrates tend to speciate in a punctuated pattern of stasis-speciation-stasis—though with exceptions, such Rose & Bown (1984) on gradual change in early primates—for little critters like marine protistans (diatoms, for example, that live in huge populations that conveniently rain their secreted shells down on the seafloor for millions of years) the known fossil record for them shows that phyletic gradualism is their norm, not the exception.
Paleontologist Robert Prothero (1992) provides an excellent summary of the technical issues and major players pro and con, and Thanukos (2008b) neatly illustrates how P-E plays out in fossil contexts. See also Eldredge (1991a, 34-58; 2005, 176-182; 2008b), Gould & Eldredge (1993) or Gould (2002a, 745-1024) for P-E from the horses’ mouths, and Sonleitner (1987), Schwartz (1999, 320-330), Shermer (2001, 97-116) or Asher (2012c, 73-78) for further takes on the “controversy“. The evaluation of foraminifera by Ellen Thomas (1986) and David Jablonski (2000) exploring macroevolutionary trends on a broader paleobiology scale illustrate that the hardest thing to determine when a new species first appears in a particular fossil ensemble is not whether it is a legitimate offshoot or a previous form, but rather distinguishing whether it has evolved locally or has migrated from an originating population elsewhere, exactly the issue Eldredge and Gould were trying to stress in their P-E argument (and which I highlight in Figure 3 above).
The further perspective of Gould & Eldredge (1977, 121) is informative here, as they reminded their readers and critics of the need to assess the data at the appropriate scale of resolution: “The model of punctuated equilibria does not maintain that nothing occurs gradually at any level of evolution. It is a theory about speciation and its deployment in the fossil record.” However gradual the individual allopatric speciation events may be “in ecological time” Gould & Eldredge reminded that this would still involve only “a geological microsecond.” Likewise Gould & Eldredge (1993, 225) reminded: “Phyletic gradualism has been well documented, again across all taxa from microfossils to mammals.”
One may further examine the “shop talk” in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology concerning C. Wu (2001a-b) by Bridle & Ritchie (2001), Britton-Davidian (2001), Mallet (2001), Mayr (2001b), Orr (2001b), Rieseberg & Burke (2001), Rundle et al. (2001), Shaw (2001), van Alphen & Seehausen (2001) and Vogler (2001). Representing quite a spectrum of current thinking about how to pin down the genetic, adaptive, and ecological factors affecting speciation, none of the pros and cons of Wu’s “genic view" of speciation involved any apparent anxiety or uncertainty over the rate of speciation in geologic history. Similarly the two papers on outstanding issues in the process of speciation in the National Academy of Sciences Sackler Colloquium for the Darwinian Bicentennial, Schluter & Conte (2009) and Via (2009).