Chapter I

1.3 Quote Mining and the Case of Punctuated Equilibrium

When it comes to antievolutionism & sources, there’s a madness to their method.

In one sense we are seeing in the P-E debate the critical limits of antievolutionary arguments in relief: the consistent inability of their proponents not only to approach anything like a large chunk of the evidence, but even more fatally, unable to integrate even what little they do encounter into their own framework. And that is, of course, because they don’t actually have a framework. What they do have is a dogma about what the framework should affirm: that life somewhere and somehow was made—not evolved—and please don’t bother us to supply any more of the details.

And so long as the public debate, the one conducted on news shows or websites, stays at the level of colliding affirmations, the antievolutionist can play the game just fine. But the moment we move back to how all the evidence is supposed to support or refute that affirmation, the general public is lost and the scientist is left to fight a rear-guard action using precise tools, but ones unfamiliar to their audience. No wonder the issue is so hard to deal with for the public.

And should the critic of antievolutionism lose their cool and indulge in a vituperative snap as a shortcut, the rhetoric miners are at the ready to exploit this lapse in etiquette. For illustration, one may explore this thicket circling Jerry Coyne (2011n), P. Z. Myers (2011h) and Jack Scanlon (2011e-g) on the ID critic side, and Barry Arrington (2011c), Douglas Axe (2011b), Ann Gauger (2011d), David Klinghoffer (2011i-j,r) and Casey Luskin (2011l,v,ad,ap,at) on the pro-ID side. Such exchanges can prove very lengthy and singularly unproductive, but such are the pitfalls of tit-for-tat website postings these days.

I have tried to illustrate this larger issue here. As brief as I tried to be in this introductory foray, my explanation of the speciation rate versus fossil preservation odds issue still took way more time (try reading it aloud) than any scientific respondent could dish out even with a lightning delivery. Which in turn raises another question: how likely would it be for the viewers of the PBS News Hour discussion (let alone the more distinctively vox populi demographic of Fox News in the years since) to be sufficiently up on their paleontological speciation concepts to have the slightest idea what was being talked about without diving at least as deep into the background as I had to do here?

Given how persistently this misrepresentation is made by creationists, and how tricky it would be to cover in a snap television response, any evolution defender would need to be up not only on the available facts but primed on a Pavlovian hair-trigger to counter the creationist misrepresentation quickly and decisively. Instead, there intervened a painfully long chasm of airtime before the academic defender got around to it. Although it was admirable for him eventually to note how Gould had participated in drawing up the NAS guidelines in the first place—and so didn’t seem to be a particularly good poster child for evolutionary nay-saying—the fact remained that by then much of the advantage of momentum had been lost as the segment clock ticked down.

An even more interesting bungled opportunity for the pro-evolution side in the News Hour episode concerned the supposed absence of whale transitionals alluded to by the earth science instructor. Had this teacher actually read much outside the creationist literature (which you would have thought a “science teacher” ought to) I can’t imagine how he could have been unaware of the existence of intermediate whale fossils by 1998. For example, David Lambert’s informative compendium, The Field Guide to Prehistoric Life, had been available since 1985, which discussed several early whales whose characteristics differed so markedly from modern ones to constitute on their own intermediate aquatic forms. But more significantly, by the mid-1990s a whole bay full of remarkably specific “whales with legs” had turned up to clinch the case for their descent from land mammals, touched on by Lambert & The Diagram Group (1985, 198-199) and Gould (1994c), or at more length by C. Zimmer (1998).

The details of these fossil whales breached fully in Chapter 4 of Downard (2004), for they are important far beyond the specific issue of how yet another “smoking gun” of evolution has turned up in spite of the best hopes of antievolutionists. Exploring not only how conventional creationists dance around such data, but seeing the equally gymnastic maneuvers of Intelligent Design avatars Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe, will illustrate some prime methodological properties of the tortucan mind.

In an inversion of Polonius’ suspicions about the aberrant behavior of Hamlet, we shall see there is a madness to their method.