Misrepresenting Working Scientists -- A Favorite Creationist Tactic

by Ardea Skybreak

Revolutionary Worker #1216, October 19, 2003, posted at rwor.org

Creationists in general are famous for their shoddy and unprincipled methods. So-called "scientific Creationists" and the "Intelligent Design" Creationists can produce no actual scientific evidence for their theories. They have in fact never published a single scientific research paper in any peer-reviewed scientific journal (which publish articles only after they have been critically reviewed and assessed by multiple working scientists with established credentials and experience in relevant scientific arenas). Since Creationists can provide no scientific evidence whatsoever for their own theories, they focus instead on trying to tear down the opposition (the evolutionists) any way they can: they try to confuse people who don't know much about science into thinking that the theory of evolution is wrong, that the evidence for evolution is not solid or that evolution is a "theory in crisis" as proven by the fact that evolutionists argue among themselves. This is all completely ridiculous! Not only is the theory of evolution just about the most well-documented theory in all of science, but there is no such "crisis" in the scientific community: the overwhelming majority of scientists are in complete agreement about the basic facts and basic operating principles of evolution (including that all life on this planet has been evolving for some 3 1/2 billion years and is continuing to evolve; that natural selection has been shown to be a key mechanism through which evolutionary change takes place over multiple generations; that all living species are related to each other by lines of common descent from a succession of shared ancestors, going all the way back to the earliest forms of life; that human beings are today one single species and are descended from a long series of different upright-walking hominid ancestor species, the first of which split off a few million years ago from an ape-like species which is also the ancestor of modern-day apes, including our closest cousins the chimpanzees).

Again, the vast majority of scientists today (in all fields of science) don't disagree at all on these basics. They do have healthy debates about areas of research that are aimed at further extending and developing our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms and processes. As in any other field of science, there is always more to learn. For instance, evolutionary biologists debate whether many of the truly large- scale evolutionary changes which have taken place throughout earth's history may at times have occurred faster and less gradually than previously assumed (especially in periods of truly major climatic and other environmental changes); or they might argue about the relative importance of natural selection vs. genetic drift in shaping evolutionary changes in different living populations.* These are healthy and productive debates. But not one of these scientists is arguing that evolution by Darwinian natural selection didn't happen or that it isn't a key and ongoing mechanism through which life evolves!

But the Creationists (including the Intelligent Design people) routinely misrepresent evolutionary biologists and other evolutionists and distort what they are actually saying to make it appear that the theory of evolution is in trouble when it clearly isn't. They lie and they distort the words of scientists and quote them out of context. And they keep doing this even after the misquoted scientists complain that they are being misrepresented! For instance, a number of years ago, famed evolutionists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge were reflecting on the fact that major new evolutionary lines often seem to appear rather abruptly in the fossil record. They put forward the view that large-scale evolutionary change likely proceeds over geological time more gradually in some periods and more rapidly in others (according to a model they called "punctuated equilibrium"). If this is indeed the case--if there is in fact unevenness in the rates of overall large-scale evolutionary change and some geological periods are more characterized by "relative stasis," when many species and lineages tend to maintain themselves relatively unchanged for long periods of time (undergoing the usual never-ceasing small-scale evolutionary changes and adjustments, but in general evolving few dramatically new features and spinning off few wholly new species and lineages), whereas other geological periods are characterized by more concentrated and intense large-scale evolutionary changes (including "bursts" of diversification during which many new species and lineages are generated) then one prediction that flows from this is that such alternating patterns (periods of relative long-term stasis or equilibrium in many plant and animal lines occasionally being disrupted or "punctuated" by periods when a whole lot more large-scale evolutionary change is going on) should be reflected in what we see in the fossil record. Eldredge and Gould predicted that if their model of variable rates of large-scale evolutionary change is correct, there would be some points in the fossil record where many new species and lineages would seem to appear rather suddenly or abruptly (though keep in mind that "abrupt" on a geological time- scale typically still means tens or hundreds of thousands of years or more!) and that these periods of more intense large-scale evolutionary change likely would be found to correspond to periods of major climatic or other major environmental changes.

So part of Gould and Eldredge's prediction was that one should in fact not always expect to find perfectly gradual series of nicely graded intermediate species linking all major ancestor and descendent lines in the fossil record. For one thing, many remains never fossilize anyway and many fossils are never found; plus, they argued, not all major evolutionary modifications necessarily took place through long series of tiny incremental changes--some fairly dramatic evolutionary changes could have occurred in a more evolutionary telescoped way in some periods of earth's history. Because the model of punctuated equilibrium can generate testable predictions (unlike anything the Creationists ever "propose"!) it has been useful in generating healthy debates and fresh thinking in evolutionary circles and helping evolutionists avoid getting locked into views of overly slow and gradual evolutionary change or failing to realize that there is no reason to suppose that the rates at which large-scale evolutionary change occurs couldn't speed up or slow down in different geological periods. These kinds of questions continue to be wrangled over by evolutionists, and this is overall a good thing which will help advance our understanding of these processes. But the point here is that none of what Gould and Eldredge put forward ever in any way called into question the well-established and proven basic facts of Darwinian evolution --they were simply critiquing those who might think that large-scale evolutionary change could only happen at a glacially slow and always even rate .

But when the Creationists first heard about Gould and Eldredge's model of "punctuated equilibrium" and their critique of some traditional Darwinists who seemed to conceive of evolution always occurring at the same steady pace, they interpreted this to mean "Darwin was all wrong" and immediately published a pamphlet entitled "Harvard Scientists Agree Evolution is a Hoax."**

This was certainly news to Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, who had always been staunch defenders of the basic facts of evolution (the late Stephen Jay Gould's whole life was dedicated to further developing our understanding of the basic principles and mechanisms of evolution, and Niles Eldredge continues to write a great deal to defend evolution and expose Creationism, including in his good and accessible recent book The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism ).

But no matter how much Eldredge and Gould complained about Creationist distortions of their work, the Creationists kept it up, and to this day you'll still hear some of them invoking the theory of punctuated equilibrium as if it somehow contradicts the basic theory of evolution, which of course it doesn't.

More recently, when PBS ran television broadcasts of its important multi-part series Evolution , the Creationists went bonkers and tried to attack it any way they could. Once again, they resorted to literally distorting the views of some of the scientists who had appeared on the program! They quoted some scientists correctly saying things like "natural selection alone cannot explain all of evolution" (because, as fundamental as it is, natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolutionary change) and then claimed those scientists were saying evolution doesn't happen--which of course was not at all what these scientists were saying! One of them, for instance, was simply making the point that the developing science of evolutionary developmental biology is providing important new information on genes that regulate development ,and that it is becoming increasingly clear that such genes (which are not themselves directly subject to natural selection) play an important role in generating genetic modifications which can then serve as the raw material for evolutionary change over the generations.

In another example, the Creationists criticized the PBS series Evolution for supposedly not revealing that the relatively new field of so-called "evolutionary psychology" is controversial among evolutionists (evolutionary psychology generally argues that much of the behavior in the human species today was directly shaped by natural selection operating on our distant ancestors--a theory which many evolutionists do not in fact support). But actually the TV series (and the companion book) do point out that the new field of "evolutionary psychology" is controversial and that many evolutionary biologists don't think it has much validity. But by claiming the series ignores this controversy (even though it didn't!) the Creationists throw another little puff of smoke to distract people's attention from the fact that there is actually an overwhelming consensus among scientists that there is undeniable evidence that evolution has taken place (and continues to take place), including the fact that human beings themselves evolved out of different pre-existing species. The Creationists always conveniently manage to sidestep talking about that consensus in particular. So here again the Creationists are both lying and misrepresenting.

Here's another example: The Creationists like to trumpet the notion that it is not true that there is a "universal genetic code" which binds all life forms together through lines of common descent, and they claim that even evolutionists now agree with this. Once again, this is a gross distortion. It is based on the fact that a few very minor variants have been found within the generally universal genetic code (variations so minor that they have been compared to the difference between British English and American English in the spelling of the word "colour" vs. "color"). Most importantly, the Creationists point to these findings without bothering to let people know that the very scientists who found these minor variants of the genetic code consider them to be evolutionary variations derived from a still overwhelmingly universal genetic code. But you'd never know this from listening to the Creationists, who, as usual, quote things out of context to make it sound like these scientists have somehow found some evidence against evolution! (For more on this, see the separate Box "Rare Variants of the Almost Entirely Universal Genetic Code Are Evidence of Evolution, Not Design.")

A final example of the absurdity of these Creationist misrepresentations: In criticizing the PBS series on Evolution, the biochemist and prominent Intelligent Design Creationist Michael Behe complained that the program did not include anything about the work of Stuart Kauffman, a scientist who does research looking into how complex biological systems can "self-organize" from simpler components. Behe claimed that Kauffman's work on molecular self-organization is posed "explicitly as an alternative to natural selection"--thus giving readers the impression that Kauffman thinks natural selection is not a valid concept, and that he probably agrees with anti-evolution Creationists on this question. Nothing could be further from the truth! Kauffman (like many other evolutionists whose work has been purposefully misquoted and misrepresented by Creationists) is furious that his work is being misrepresented in this way by the anti-evolution Creationists. His research projects explore the possibility that some even quite complex biological systems, including genetic regulatory systems, may be able to self- organize to some extent. He sees this as one possible way biological order can be generated-- in addition to the kind of biological "order" and structuring which comes about through natural selection. Kauffman also feels that one of the important implications of his work is precisely that it shows that it is actually highly probable that simple self-reproducing organisms (the earliest forms of life) could have emerged on their own out of the chemical soup of early Earth through completely natural processes of spontaneous chemical self-organization --the very thing Creationists insist is impossible!

This is what Kauffman had to say:

"While all scholars are free to make what they will of the work of other scholars I wish to distance myself from use of my own work on self organization plus selection by both `creation scientists' and `Design theory.' My own work on self organization suggests that spontaneous order in complex systems may offer a second source of order in biology, in addition to natural selection. My argument does not entail that Darwinian descent with modification into the branching "tree of life" is invalid. Nor does it entail that natural selection is not a critical process in evolution. It does argue that some forms of order in complex systems, such as ordered behavior of genetic regulatory networks and the emergence of self-reproducing, collectively autocatalytic networks, are much more probable than we have realized. Because these arguments suggest a higher probability of such complex systems than we might have supposed, the arguments tend to run against Design theory, which is based on the argument that such complex systems are so improbable that one must infer Design. If I am right, that is just what one cannot infer." (As quoted on the National Center for Science Education web site at www.ncseweb.org)


*Genetic drift refers to observable changes in gene frequencies which can occur in living populations over the generations simply through such things as chance migrations in or out of an area.

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**And actually Darwin, and even more so his friend and staunch supporter the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, had themselves begun to consider that not all evolutionary change necessarily always occurred at the same rate.

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