Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Happy Darwin Day

First of all, I want to wish everyone the very merriest of Darwin Days. February 12 is the birthday of Charles Darwin.  Enjoy your celebrations, but please be sure to drink responsibly. This would be an unfortunate day to be inducted into the Darwin Awards

Darwin is the author of The Origin of the Species, which brought forth the idea of natural selection. Darwin defined natural selection in the introduction of his book:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

In other words, those characteristics which lead to more offspring will tend to be propagated over the long term. How can this possibly be debated? It is perfectly logical, and has been demonstrated over and over through selective breeding. The inevitable implication of this idea - evolution - is what appears to be the big issue with creationists.
Bjork's unnatural selection of an Oscar dress

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a web page that deserves note on this auspicious day: 44 Reasons Evolution is Just a Fairy Tale. Michael Snyder's article starts out as follows:

The theory of evolution is false. It is simply not true. Actually, it is just a fairy tale for adults based on ancient pagan religious philosophy that hundreds of millions of people around the world choose to believe with blind faith.

Perhaps I am not understanding his point here, but, aside from the mention of pagan, I think Snyder's comment about blind faith applies equally well to creationsists. For example, in the recent debate between Bill Nye (the Science Guy [1]) and Ken Ham (founder of the Creation Museum), Ham had the following to say: "The Bible is the word of God. I admit that's where I start from." No amount of evidence could convince him that the world was more than 6,000 years old.

Argument #1

Snyder leads off with this argument: "If the theory of evolution was true, we should have discovered millions upon millions of transitional fossils that show the development of one species into another species. Instead, we have zero."

I didn't have to think very long to come up with the words Eohippus and Merychippus that I learned in grade school. I admit that these are the only stages in the evolution of the horse I could think of off the top of my head, but the Florida Museum of Natural History was able to fill in some of the gaps for me. Even this is a summary of the transitional fossils found. For a more complete family tree, see this article on Horse Evolution.

Transitional fossils in evolution of the horse 

I'm sorry Mr. Snyder. You are not making a very compelling argument here. Your leading argument is just plain wrong. 

Or maybe I don't understand the idea of "transitional fossil"? I decided to check the ultimate authority on everything, Wikipedia on transitional fossils. This entry describes what appears to be three quarters of a zillion transitional fossils.

Argument #2

My readers may have not noticed that my tongue was firmly implanted in my cheek when I referred to Wikipedia as being the ultimate authority on everything. Any argument that rests solely on references to Wikipedia is potentially shaky. 

The question of exactly what constitutes a "transitional fossil" comes into question because of the next four arguments from Snyder. To summarize these arguments, Snyder has provided quotes from various scientists who say that transitional fossils do not exist.

The first scientist that Snyder brings up is none other than Darwin himself. Darwin is quoted as saying “why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?” Snyder goes on to say that Darwin believed that these fossils would be discovered.
The search continues...

I don't think that anyone in the evolution business would claim that Darwin wasn't a luminary. But his comments on the completeness of the fossil record are perhaps not all that up to date. After all, paleontologists have had 155 years to sharpen their pickaxes since Darwin asked that rhetorical question.

Like a good historian, Snyder provides a reference for his quote from Darwin. Synder's quotation of Darwin is correct, but he refers to a rather dubious source for the quote. This secondary source is a web page with the title "The Big Lie - Exposed". This article starts by linking evolution to racism. The article follows with a quote from Mein Kampf. The second paragraph essentially says that evolution was a lie started by the Devil.

Ummm... need I go on? I'm sorry, Mr. Snyder, but if you wish to be taken seriously by me, you really should reference sources that are just a tiny bit less blatant in their bias.

Argument #3

In Snyder's next argument, he exhumes a quote from a paleontologist by the name of Colin Patterson. According to the quote, Dr. Patterson said there were no transitional fossils. Well. There you have it. The quote was from a book he wrote in 1978.

But this is a bit odd, really. The book that the quote came from was about evolution and had the curious title "Evolution". Surely if he had proof that evolution was bunk, he would not have chosen to be a paleontologist, and wouldn't have written a book on evolution!

The quote from Snyder's article also seems to contradict a statement from Dr. Patterson's own book:

In several animal and plant groups, enough fossils are known to bridge the wide gaps between existing types. In mammals, for example, the gap between horses, asses and zebras (genus Equus) and their closest living relatives, the rhinoceroses and tapirs, is filled by an extensive series of fossils extending back sixty-million years to a small animal, Hyracotherium, which can only be distinguished from the rhinoceros-tapir group by one or two horse-like details of the skull. There are many other examples of fossil 'missing links', such as Archaeopteryx, the Jurassic bird which links birds with dinosaurs (Fig. 45), and Ichthyostega, the late Devonian amphibian which links land vertebrates and the extinct choanate (having internal nostrils) fishes ...

So what gives? I found a few references to Patterson referencing his own quote:

One quote: "I think the continuation of the passage shows clearly that ... the creationists' [interpretation] is false."

Another quote: "I was putting a case for discussion, as I thought off the record, and was speaking only about systematics, a specialised field."

Still another: "I do not support the creationist movement in any way, and in particular I am opposed to their efforts to modify school curricula. In short the article does not fairly represent my views. But even if it did, so what? The issue should be resolved by rational discussion, and not by quoting 'authorities,' which seems to be the creationists' principal mode of argument."
It's not nice to twist my words!

One important thing to note is that Patterson was open to continuous revision of his understanding of evolution. He book on evolution came out in 1978 and was revised in 1999. The introduction to the second edition says something of his change in thinking:

The knowledge in my first edition came from education and indoctrination; it was that neo-Darwinism is certainty. The knowledge in this second edition comes more from working things out for myself; it is that evolution is certainty. And part of the ignorance in the first edition concerned the difference between neo-Darwinism and evolution, whereas the ignorance in this edition is of the completeness of neo-Darwinism as an explanation of evolution.

I am not sure I understand the distinction between neo-Darwinism and evolution, but... my explanation of the original Patterson quote that appeared in Snyder's article was that Patterson was a man willing to revise his own beliefs based on the facts presented. This is what science is all about. His questioning did not result in his abandonment of evolution, but rather his embracing a refinement to the original theory which was a better explanation of the existing facts.

Argument #4

In Snyder's fourth argument, he brings a quote from the well known author and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. [2] I didn't have to go to Google to find out who this guy is. I recall having read several of his books, and I think I still have a copy of The Panda's Thumb in one of my piles of books.

Snyder quotes Gould as having said the following in 1980:

The absence of fossil evidence for intermediary stages between major transitions in organic design, indeed our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediates in many cases, has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.

Once again, I find myself a bit skeptical that such a strong advocate of the science of evolution would have been found saying something which appears to completely contradict the whole idea of evolution. Is there another explanation?

Note that Gould does not say "persistent and nagging problem for accounts of evolution". The word "gradualistic" is stuck in there. What could this possibly mean?

Gould's quote was taken out of context. Gould was not saying that evolution is false, but was arguing for a refinement to the theory of evolution. Don Batten (who Snyder references) does give a reasonable explanation for the quote from Gould:

Recognizing the non-gradualist nature of the fossil record, in 1972 Gould and Eldredge published a radical new theory of evolution that supposedly fitted the observations of the fossil record. They described the fossil record as representing long periods of equilibrium or stasis (things staying much the same), which are punctuated by the relatively sudden appearance of new forms. Hence they dubbed their new theory ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (PE).

This explanation actually fits quite well with an explanation from an eminent blogger who was summarizing a book by Stephen Jay Gould. I understand it was a book about pandas that the blogger found in a pile of books he had somewhere or other. I quote from the blog:

[Gould] argues that, while [the lack of missing links] could be explained by our sparse sampling of the geologic record, the lack of evidence points to our misconception about the evolutionary process. He claims that evolution is not always a gradual process, but that new species are created only when evolution occurs in spurts.

So... argument 4 is an example of quote mining, that is, sifting through to find a small snippet and then presenting it out of context. It is also an example of a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. Here I get to the point of the blog I referred to earlier. Evolution may sometimes be a very gradual process, but oftentimes evolution is revolution.

Argument #5

Snyder brings yet another paleontologist to the stand. In this case it is Stephen M. Stanley of Johns Hopkins University [3], who is quoted to have said the following in 1981:

In fact, the fossil record does not convincingly document a single transition from one species to another.

Here we have another case of quote mining. The full context of this comment is that Stanley was not referring to the whole of the fossil record, just the Bighorn Basin. For the full quote, see section 8 on this web page.

Summary so far

So, Snyder's first argument was just plain incorrect. His quote in the second argument is 155 years old so it hardly can be taken to describe the most recent advances. The next three quotes (the newest of which is 35 years old) were taken out of context. In addition, Snyder is apparently unaware of the refinement to gradual evolution which is called punctuated equilibrium. This was first published in 1972.

Argument 6

The next argument shows a complete lack of understanding of the evolutionary process. Snyder says:

If “evolution” was happening right now, there would be millions of creatures out there with partially developed features and organs. But instead there are none.

Happening right now?  Evolution is happening right now, or at least "right now" on the geologic time scale. The domestication of plants and animals has demonstrated that natural selection can speed evolution along. A more recent example of evolution is the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Corn and its distant cousin, teosinte
My dog Scrabble and his distant cousin
Wild boar and pig

Here are some additional examples of evolution in action:

I'm sorry, Mr. Snyder. You really should do a little research before making such statements.

Argument #8

Snyder's eighth argument concerns a quote from paleontologist Mark Czarnecki. Snyder says that Czarnecki "once commented on the fact that complex life appears very suddenly in the fossil record…" Unfortunately Snyder never read the quote that Czarnecki followed up with, since the quote from Czarnecki is about intermediate lifeforms, and not about the first lifeforms. So, the quote actually belongs among the first set of quotes about transitional forms.

The quote from Czarnecki may or may not have been taken out of context. I have not been able to find a copy of the article or a longer quote. The quote is apparently from the Canadian magazine MacLean's in 1981 [4]. The magazine is still in existence, but the archives on their website don't go back that far. When I do a Google search with a sequence of words in quotes, the search is unfortunately littered with hits from creationsist's websites that have copy/pasted the quote from somewhere else. Google tells me that there are about 20,000 copy/pastes.

So, I'm sorry... I can't fact check a quote from a little known paleontologist (not even mentioned on Wikipedia) writing in a popular magazine 33 years ago.  

Arguments #7 and #9

Snyder's seventh argument is a short one:

If the theory of evolution was true, we should not see a sudden explosion of fully formed complex life in the fossil record. Instead, that is precisely what we find.

Wisconsin's state fossil

About 500 million years ago, there was a sudden jump in the diversity and complexity found in the fossil record. When I say "sudden", what I really mean is "over a period of ten million years". For his ninth argument, Snyder brought out a quote from none other than Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is a well known atheist and adversary of creationism. Here is what Dawkins says about the Cambrian explosion:

It is as though they [fossils] were just planted there, without any evolutionary history. Needless to say this appearance of sudden planting has delighted creationists. Both schools of thought (Punctuationists and Gradualists) despise so-called scientific creationists equally, and both agree that the major gaps are real, that they are true imperfections in the fossil record. The only alternative explanation of the sudden appearance of so many complex animal types in the Cambrian era is divine creation and both reject this alternative.

Or at least that is what Snyder claims that Dawkins said. The quote above is an example of blatant and irresponsible misquotation. Snyder left out the ellipses just after "delighted creationists". This omission hides the fact that Dawkins offered one explanation for this sudden appearance. Here is the part that was elided (I added the bolding):

Evolutionists of all stripes believe, however, that this really does represent a very large gap in the fossil record, a gap that is simply due to the fact that, for some reason, very few fossils have lasted from periods before about 600 million years ago. One good reason might be that many of these animals had only soft parts to their bodies: no shells or bones to fossilize. If you are a creationist you may think that this is special pleading. My point here is that, when we are talking about gaps of this magnitude, there is no difference whatever in the interpretations of 'punctuationists' and 'gradualists'.

I provide the following three quotes to substantiate my claim that a critical part of Dawkins' quote was omitted:

First, this is from the book itself "The Blind Watchmaker".

Second, from Dawkins' book "The Greatest Show on Earth", where he quite rightly complains about being misquoted.

Finally, this is from a website that is devoted to correcting the dishonest quote-mining that has been done in the name of creationism.

I am not suggesting that Snyder is the one responsible for this outright lie. There are about 4,158 other websites which include the unethical misrepresentation of Dawkins' quote. Any one of them may have started this lie [5]. It is likely Snyder is guilty only of irresponsible scholarship. And being too lazy to think.


I stopped reading Snyder's article at this point. If you have to resort to lying to prove your point, there is no point. Not to mention that fact that Snyder has repeatedly demonstrated his ignorance of evolutionary science.

If there are logical and scientific reasons for evolution to be "a fairy tale for adults", those arguments are not to be found in this article.


[1] Imagine the pretense of someone calling himself "the science guy"!  John the Math Guy would never be so self-aggrandizing.

[2] Not that I am keeping track, but this is the third deceased scientist that Snyder has quoted, Darwin died in 1882, Patterson in 1998, and Gould in 2002.

[3] Dr. Stanley is still alive as I write this. But he did retire in 2005.

[4] What is it with Snyder's pulling up quotes from over 30 year's ago?

[5] I Googled the phrase "sudden planting has delighted creationists. Both schools of thought" including the quotes. Google initially turned up 41 hits. I scrolled to the bottom and clicked on "repeat the search with the omitted results included". It told me there are about 4,160 results. One of these was the legitimate fact checker site about quote mining.


  1. Thank you Erin! I hope your festivities have been exuberant.

  2. Happy Darwin day to all my evolved brothers and sisters capable of inventing these devices we communicate on along with the languages we communicate with.

    However, insofar as there is a genetic component to behavior, including reckless behavior, it would follow that drinking too much and inviting harm upon oneself is part of natural selection.

    Two of the greatest social evolutions of mankind in our history have been science and democracy. Some folks abide neither; others think both are good and positive methods. I've yet to hear a person support the one and reject the other.