1.3 Quote Mining and the Case of Punctuated Equilibrium
And then there’s Casey Luskin & Phillip Johnson, overlooking those invertebrates.
Flying at too high an altitude to identity the inhabitants below is a problem also for the Discovery Institute’s web posting star, the prolific Casey Luskin. Like other antievolutionists, Luskin (2008m) cannot resist fielding the obligatory Gould and Eldredge quotes, but Luskin (2004a) has also followed the Fazale Rana path of veering onto technical turf. Luskin went Rana one better though by coming perilously close to some actual data by naming a few of the fossil examples being discussed by his evolutionary target, but at no point did he dwell on what was changing about them or how any of this related to any design explanation.
The one example Luskin may have thought he really was putting under the microscope concerned the variation in an Antarctic radiolarian Pseudocubus vema (which Luskin slightly misspelled as “Pseudocobus”) that lived two to five million years ago. Reprinting a chart from the aforementioned Gould & Eldredge (1977, 126), Luskin appended in red “very rapid rates of change” notations to indicate two spurts in the graph that he obviously deemed to be the critical points for the ID case. He acknowledged that it did show a pattern, but “a pattern is not a process—what is the process which can account for this pattern? Is this pattern more consistent with the process of intelligent design, or Darwinian evolution. On its face, intelligent design is capable of infusing large amounts of information into the biosphere rapidly, which could result in this rapid morphological change.”
On its face the chart Luskin reprinted had plenty of relevant information, starting with the label on its left axis: it was measuring the “mean thoracic width (microns)” of that one radiolarian species. Microns being a thousandth of a millimeter, this meant the study had tracked the quite miniscule shifts in the girth of the aft end of its silicate exoskeleton, which resembled a lumpy raspberry, as Luskin might have discovered had only he taken the scholarly step of consulting the primary source of Davida Kellogg (1975, 362-363) instead of riffing off Gould & Eldredge secondarily, to find out more specifically what the two paleontologists might have been talking about.
Over the sample period of three million years the value at first fluctuated steadily over a small range (86-95 microns). When you included the range of the individual samples that comprised each data point, though, measured as “coefficients of variation” by Kellogg (1975, 364), the early sample COVs ran around 12-14. Thus it would appear that a 10% shift in the dimensions represented some fairly basic genetic mechanisms governing that parameter, and would naturally raise questions about what environmental or other factors may have been stimulating that fluctuation in the sea around Antarctica.
We already encountered that connection above concerning the extinction pulse radiolarians went through as the seawaters cooled (a trend in turn connected to broader tectonic factors in this instance, as the growing separation of Australia from Antarctica altered the circumpolar circulation patterns). Kellogg (1975, 368) specifically noted that living radiolarian species tend to develop larger skeletons in colder water, so the overall increase in the size of P. vema over the whole period of cooling would hardly be a biological shocker.
From the fluctuating initial condition there was a jump upward though a wider intermediate (99 micron size)—though again that represented only about a 5% increase over the already present variation range and actually involved a lower coefficient of population variation (around 8). These lower COVs (8-11 range) prevailed over the next million years as the population oscillated around a still higher spread of thoracic size (104-110 microns). Interestingly, a resumption of the higher earlier coefficients set in during this time, which may well have contributed something to what happened next: a return to a fluctuating phase but this time showing a persistent upward trend in thoracic size. Yet again this involved individual increments of change only in the 5-10% range, but the result was that by the end of the sampled period the back end of P. vema had enlarged into the 130s (or about 50% bigger than its ancestors had been several million years earlier) with a correspondingly reduced front end.
Looked at in detail (which Luskin clearly did not) this “process” looked like a nice mix of phyletic gradualism with punctuated burps, but one (big irony alert here) not actually involving even an explicit speciation event, since it was P. vema all the way through. Which makes one wonder what it was that Luskin thought was going on with these wee radiolarians all those millions of years ago. Did he really think this heralded some massive “design” intervention here?
Without realizing it, Luskin was denying the existence of microevolutionary processes by suggesting that this quite modest illustration of punctuated modes in the adaptive strategies of ocean critters somehow illustrated the macroevolutionary design mythologies of antievolutionism. When I apprised Luskin of this oversight at a Seattle lecture he gave in June 2013, Luskin said he had dealt with the example because a critic of Intelligent Design had brought it up in a debate with him over macroevolutionary issues. Maybe so, but if that critic was under the impression that this represented anything other than microevolutionary wiggling, he too had blundered.
Which still left Luskin in his own pickle, which stems from a studied reluctance to dive below the surface detail to fully understand what it was he was looking at. Antievolutionists like Luskin may say they accept microevolutionary change, only objecting to radical atheist Darwinian macroevolutionary extrapolations, but in effect they don’t acknowledge any such thing—just as most modern antievolutionists profess to accept that speciation takes place, but when the rubber hits the road they hunker down and concede nothing.
Let’s look at the details overlooked in Luskin’s glancing blow. Plausibly related to the adaptive requirements of a consistently cooling habitat, the increase in P. vema certainly did not signal some extraordinary influx of “large amounts of information”—whatever that may have entailed, as Luskin offered no specification. The DNA of that extinct fossil being unavailable for review, Luskin would have needed to venture into the study of extant radiolarians had he been disposed to turn his vision of an intelligent designer’s putative genetic tinkering of one Miocene radiolarian’s waistline into something more substantial than a bumper sticker.
One may compare Luskin’s non-analysis with what goes on in actual scientific work, such as Baker (1983) distinguishing hybridization episodes in fossil taxa. Radiolarians have posed a long-standing challenge for taxonomists, like Blueford (1984), Petrushevskaya & Swanberg (1990) and Swanberg et al. (1990), because their fossil forms are so very diverse and (living as they do in a very big tank of water way down deep in the cold) their biology and habitat are difficult to study. Only recently have molecular analyses begun to sort out their deeper relationships, Zettler et al. (1997), LÃ³pez-GarcÃa et al. (2002), Nikolaev et al. (2004) and Kunitomo et al. (2006).
To add a couple of cherries atop Luskin’s P-E parfait, Luskin (2008q; 2012r) invoked Luskin (2004a) as showing “the failure of the fossil record to provide support for Darwinian evolution.” Even more baldly, responding to a critical comment from Robert Camp (apropos Luskin’s “A Positive, Testable Case for Intelligent Design”) Luskin (2011o) affirmed that he had “written extensively on the inability of Darwinian evolution to explain abrupt appearance of new life-forms, this is not just a ‘feeling’ but a strong scientific argument that needs to be dealt with. So if you wish to respond, please respond to the scientific arguments at links like” ... Luskin (2004a)! That Luskin actually thought that piece contained a useful presentation of any “scientific arguments” only serves to illustrate how elastic the ID conception of “scientific” is (and how exciting education might become should such standards be adopted outside the Discovery Institute preserve).
If Luskin represents a pinnacle of the ID investigative regimen here, mathematician Granville Sewell (2005; 2006) fell far lower on the slope when he repeatedly drew on Rensberger (1980), a perfectly fine report for the New York Times News Service on a confab on developments in macroevolutionary thinking at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, to commandeer Niles Eldredge (addressing the then very new P-E issue) as his sole poster child counterexample to the view “that no serious scientists harbor any doubts about Darwinism.” Snippets of Rensberger’s article have appeared in creationist quote-mining for some time, such as Talk.Origins Archive (2005m) concerning horse evolution—interestingly, extracted from the same specific Houston Chronicle syndicated version Sewell used, suggesting a common Texas genesis for that apologetic thread.
Sewell (2014b) rolled Rensberger out again concerning the “academic freedom” measures that had become the latest antievolutionary initiative: “Sharing with students this type of mainstream scientific criticism of Darwinian theory is precisely the kind of speech that academic freedom laws seek to protect.” David Klinghoffer (2014m) promptly pounced on this to tweet Zach Kopplin (the student critic of antievolution campaigns in Louisiana and elsewhere) asking: “Should a Teacher Be Punished for Telling Students What the New York Times Said About Evolution in 1980?”
The short answer to his tweet would be no, of course a teacher shouldn’t be punished over a thing like that. But should there be no reaction? Why would a teacher in 2014 feel the need to trot out a 1980 newspaper article (even one from someone as competent as paleontologist Boyce Rensberger)—antiquarian interest? No one at the Field Museum conference in 1980 could have told anything about the role of HOX genes in macroevolutionary body plan changes, since they wouldn’t be discovered for decades. Nor could they have evaluated the many exciting fossil finds on whales and birds and tetrapods that only later filled in so many of the “gaps” paleontologists were talking about when Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) was running for president. Consequently, any 21st century teacher presenting that 1980 chestnut as representing “doubts about Darwin” in the way antievolutionary ideologues see it could honestly be accused of educational malpractice, no less than someone thinking to sow “doubts about media technology” by waving a faded dot-matrix fax bulletin on audio cassette decks and Betamax VCRs (needlessly distracting their students intently texting and googling on their tablets and cellphones).
Moran (2014a) cited Gould (2002a, 981-986) on the Chicago conference and subsequent creationist mischaracterization of Punctuated Equilibrium’s relation to evolutionary processes as evidence that “Granville Sewell and David Klinghoffer are at least a dozen years behind in their readings about evolution.” What Moran had to say about Sewell could be applied to legions of antievolutionists:
You would think that by now the creationists would have learned something about punctuated equilibria so they would understand that it’s a possible extension of evolutionary theory and that it has nothing to do with the Cambrian explosion, saltation, or the major transitions observed in the fossil record. That’s clearly not the case as Granville Sewell demonstrates. He is as ignorant today as he was in 1980.
The Discovery Institute was still running off this old steam in their “Discussion Guide” on the P-E chapter of Meyers’ Darwin’s Doubt, Discovery Institute (2014c, 11, 13), offering that “Cambrian paleontologists James Valentine and Douglas Erwin concluded that punctuated equilibrium cannot explain the origin of new body plans” and posing a Discussion Question: “Do you find that punctuated equilibrium provides an adequate explanation for the absence of transitional fossils in the Cambrian and Precambrian, and the rapid production of new body plans?” This was a citation to Valentine & Erwin (1987), a pre-HOX era study that was trying to tease out the developmental history of life before the genes and regulatory systems generating morphological novelty were discovered. The outlines of this new perspective were starting to take shape by Valentine et al. (1999), a work Meyer was aware of.
Valentine & Erwin’s old piece has been a quote-mined nugget for some time, from Henry Morris (1989) to Harun Yahya (2007c, 160). Davis & Kenyon (1993, 94, 113) cited only the larger Raff & Raff (1987) anthology of which it was a part. So how come Valentine & Erwin found P-E and phyletic gradualism (which dealt with “change at the species level”) wanting when it came “to the origin of new body plans”? At it happened, the Talk.Origins Archive (2004) “Quote Mine Project” addressed that very point in “Quotes #4.4” by reprinting what Valentine & Erwin had gone on to state:
A difficulty with each of these models is their concern with the generation of diversity. The models differ in the degree to which they associate morphological change and the acquisition of genetic isolation, but all share a common view of morphological novelty as a by-product or consequence of specialization. The seeming paradox of abundant new body plans evolving during a time of relatively low species diversity may be a key to the Metazoan radiation. What may be required is a theory for the evolution of novelty, not diversity, which explains abundant individual transitions occuring in 1 to 5 million years or less and leading to new phyla and classes without the production of easily fossilized intermediates or of numerous species. Valentine & Erwin (1987, 96).
The origin of that phyletic novelty turns on the deployment of a suite of genes that predate the Cambrian Explosion by a wide margin (and were unknown when Valentine & Erwin were writing in 1987), so the “mystery” of that was ultimately irrelevant to the speciation dynamics that allopatric P-E and sympatric phyletic gradualism were grappling with. Instead, the interesting question is why organisms underwent their adaptive spurt when they did and what conditions and triggers pertained in that process. That is a grand story of an adaptive landscape disrupted by climate change and oceanic chemistry conditions far removed from the authority quote terrain of Intelligent Design.
But the failure of antievolutionary scholarship to get their players straight didn’t stop with misinterpreting Gould or Valentine & Erwin. Seven years before Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, the other half of P-E had this to say in Reinventing Darwin about how their concepts related to the Neo-Darwinian picture their views were supposedly so against:
When lecturing to new audiences, I like to present myself as a “knee-jerk” neo-Darwinian, at least when it comes to the matter of adaptation and natural selection. It’s true enough, and comes as something of a surprise to some who suppose that I will promulgate some wild new theory to supplant traditional canon. People tend to equate punctuated equilibria with some alternate notion of how evolutionary change—adaptive evolutionary change—occurs. Eldredge (1995, 55).
This paragraph evidently did not pass under the gaze of a trio of Intelligent Design advocates (David DeWolf, Stephen Meyer and Mark DeForrest) when DeWolf et al. (2000, 49-50) brazenly listed Reinventing Darwin among tomes that supposedly “have cast doubt on the creative power of neo-Darwinism’s mutation/selection mechanism.” Then again, DeWolf et al. (2000, 52) went on to locate P-E a long way from the allopatric speciation issue that was its actual subject:
the fossil record shows long periods of stability “punctuated” by abrupt changes, resulting in entirely new organisms. Punctuated equilibrium reduces the conflict with the fossil record, but does so at the cost of abandoning a sufficient explanatory mechanism for the appearance of biological novelty—the very thing that made Darwin’s theory initially so attractive as a designer substitute.
A firm grip on the content of Eldredge’s book similarly eluded Phillip Johnson (1997b, 59-61) when he mined it for a trimmed quote that evolution “never seems to happen” in the fossil record (adding also an assertion that paleontologists were under “pressure for results” that I have yet to find anywhere in the book). Johnson’s first use of the “never seems to happen” quote appears to have been in his 1995 review of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. As reprinted in Objections Sustained: Subversive Essays on Evolution, Law & Culture, Johnson (1998a, 63) remarked, “Whatever is motivating Eldredge to give all that fervent lip service to Darwinism, it obviously is not anything he has discovered as a paleontologist.” Talk.Origins Archive (2005m) noted how Johnson’s “never seems to happen” extract from Eldredge has subsequently circulated in antievolutionary apologetics.
But Johnson never ventured beyond the Eldredge “quotes” to examine any of the relevant data that might have informed the paleontologist’s opinion, and his scholarship had only grown sloppier (a most troubling affliction for someone previously trained in the meticulous rigors of the law) when he hit the topic again in an essay that appeared in First Things (November 1997) and reprinted in Objections Sustained. Lamenting the primacy of materialist philosophy for Darwinists like Richard Dawkins, Johnson (1998a, 73) pronounced, “That is also why Niles Eldredge, surveying the absence of evidence for macroevolutionary transformations in the rich marine invertebrate fossil record, can observe that ‘evolution always seems to happen somewhere else’ and then describe himself on the very next page as a ‘knee-jerk neo-Darwinist.’”
In a 1998 e-mail response to my inquiry on the nature of speciation and what Johnson had thought on the matter, he again tossed off the Eldredge quote and added: “Yet Eldredge describes himself on the next page as a ‘knee jerk neo-Darwinist.’” But the “knee-jerk” remark hadn’t occurred “on the very next page” but thirty pages earlier. Nor was it precisely as Johnson quoted it, and when taken in context only undermined his polemical point.
Had Johnson thought to direct his laser-like attention to some of the data there would have been no shortage, starting with a work Johnson (1991, 170) was apprised of already: Laurie Godfrey’s Scientists Confront Creationism. Godfrey (1983b, 209) cited Eldredge’s own trilobite work and the Lake Turkana mollusks of Williamson (1981) as “some of the best known cases” of observed morphological intermediates. One might then move on to the likes of Levinton (1992, 89-90) illustrating shell modifications over 10 million years as Chesapecten (touched on above regarding Kelley’s 1983 paper) changed anchoring habits, where “The chain of ancestors and descendants in the strata is nearly unbroken.”
The layout of mollusk and cephalopod shells show natural trends, of course, Dando (1996, 183-186), with changes among the shelled cephalopods particularly relating to internal buoyancy and balance, Doyle & Lowry (1996, 169-179). The tiny bivalved crustaceans, the ostracods, have similarly shown “a decrease in size from the giants of the Palaeozoic; the number of adductor muscle scars has also been reduced, while the complexity of the hinge has increased,” Doyle & Lowry (1996, 298). How such shifts might measure on an antievolutionary “typological stasis index” is, of course, considerably hampered by the fact that antievolutionists have never deigned to develop one.
Shell changes in a Jurassic oyster and two Cretaceous echinoid lineages suggested phyletic gradualism rather than punctuated development, Doyle & Lowry (1996, 83, 214-215), especially in one of the echinoid examples, where there were many intermediates linking the starting and end genera. Another case of marine invertebrate gradualism would be the four successive species of the Silurian brachiopod genus Eocoelia that graded smoothly into one another (also over a 10 million year span), Simpson (1983, 160-161), and brachiopod shell configuration understandably correlates with their marine environment, Doyle & Lowry (1996, 192-197).
Regarding eight case studies of microevolutionary change in fossil invertebrates (Ordovician trilobites, Silurian graptolites, Carboniferous rugose corals, Jurassic bivalves and ammonites, Cretaceous echinoids, and bryozoans) Doyle & Lowry (1996, 321) concluded they were about evenly split between phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. Though the evolution of graptolites is harder to study because their frail internal anatomy seldom prevents their being squashed into a fossil blur, even at that there are instances where the data are sufficient to trace modifications over time, such as a streamlining of the feeding aperture in the Silurian-Devonian monograptids, Doyle & Lowry (1996, 260-262).
A punctuated shift has also been supported by a study of the Miocene-Pliocene bryozoan Metrarabdotos, Jackson & Cheetham (1990; 1999), summarized by Kerr (1995a) along with studies of Miocene snails, and later also by Gould (2002a, 784-789, 843-845, 867-870). The pattern was especially distinctive in Metrarabdotos where the static branch species tended to have overlapping geographical ranges (a specific prediction of the punctuation model), Doyle & Lowry (1996, 341-343), though as the study period (3.5 to 8 million years ago) had sampling horizons separated by intervals running from 20,000 to a million years, one can’t assume a lot of gradual change wasn’t going on below the coarsely grained depositional radar.
If the extent of invertebrate preservation was supposed to be a measure of how unsuccessful “Darwinism” is, then the incessant rain of planktonic detritus on the ocean floor ought to have been part of Johnson’s first line of defense. But that would have required him to transcend Eldredge’s authority quote and do some research on his own. Had he done so, he might have learned that the radiolarian genus Eucyrtidium branched into two over a million years in the Pleistocene, Simpson (1983, 172-173), following exactly the pattern described by Eldredge in Reinventing Darwin. Or there is the evolution of the late Miocene foraminifer Globorotalia conomiozea, where over about a million years the temperate branch of the population tracked through the intermediate G. sphericomiozea to become G. puncticulata while something else happened down in the tropics:
The main, temperate, populations display a gradual transformation of G. conomiozea during an interval of 0.2 million years, with all measured variables during the interval showing continuous and steady changes. This contrasts with populations in the peripheral, warm tropical sections which showed rapid transition to a new species, G. pliozea, within an interval of 0.01 million years. After speciation, G. pliozea exhibited morphological stasis for a further 0.6 million years. This suggests that at the Miocene-Pliocene boundary, the peripheral tropical populations of G. conomiozea became isolated from the main temperate populations, possibly by the separation of water masses, and that from this point the two main population groups adopted different modes of microevolution. Doyle & Lowry (1996, 86-87).
Two speciation transitions for the price of one!
Was this what Phillip Johnson had in mind when he proclaimed the static character of the invertebrate fossil record? But then, surveying the seas from high atop the Intelligent Design tepuÃ, he had managed to turn the whole issue inside out, hadn’t he? The extent to which species “stasis” helps the creationist cause depends not on the duration of the subsequent rut, but whether or not there are recognizable intermediates leading up to them from some previous species track. It’s the existence of those intersections, and not the mileage on the side roads, which should have been engaging Johnson’s attention—things like the many transitional sequences described by Patrick Doyle and Florence Lowry in their work on invertebrate evolution that I have drawn on:
So one final witness from Doyle & Lowry (1996, 84, 283): the genus of Neogene foraminifer Globigerinoides looking like a cluster of spheres to start with, but shifting through three transitional species in the genus Praeorbulina before ending up as a plain ball in yet another genus, Orbulina:
Gradualism can be credibly defended where the record is complete and sufficient representatives of the group under study are available for study. Marine plankton, such as planktonic forms of the foraminifera (Chapter 16), are particularly useful in this regard. Their small size, abundance and widespread distribution make them useful subjects in evolutionary studies. The evolution of the genus Orbulina in the Miocene is an example of rapid change over a relatively short time span of 0.5 million years, in which all intermediate forms are known in an exceptionally complete stratigraphical sequence (Figure 4.7). Following this short, rapid burst, Orbulina remained unchanged to the present day, a span of 16 million years of stasis. Should the fossil record have been less complete, this event may have been represented by a sudden speciation event followed by a period of stasis. Doyle & Lowry (1996, 84).
Now you might well wonder what Johnson would make of this information, contradicting as it did his generalization that marine invertebrates posed an intractable problem for Darwinism. In the normal world of scholarly logic a “generalization” is supposed to rest at some point on actual examples. And where it is so grounded, anyone offering the opinion should be easily motivated to trotting out illustrative instances (if only to show up any critic with the temerity to challenge the validity of said generality). But in my e-mail correspondence with Johnson on this matter in the summer of 1998 I learned that he had no intention of acquainting himself with the specifics, or of defending his scholarly logic when it came to his selective interpretation of Reinventing Darwin. He simply repeated the Eldredge stasis quote, as if that constituted an examination of the evidence itself.
I then brought up the Orbulina example in a last-ditch effort to prod him into addressing at least one corporeal marine invertebrate among those abstract creatures populating his giddy generality. At that point Johnson abruptly rolled up his end of the conversation. His response (in its entirety): “Well, I see you don’t get it, and you aren’t going to get it. When you are in a Darwinian way of thinking, everything looks Darwinian—even stasis. You have to step outside before you can see the other side. Have a nice day.”
Moving beyond the smiley face of his salutation, here I have to agree with Johnson. I don’t get it, and never will. I will never be able to ignore the details in the way Johnson has been able to do so effortlessly.
In this regard, it is interesting to note some of the ID icons burnishing Johnson’s reputation on the dust jacket of Objections Sustained. Michael Denton declared that “Professor Johnson combines a broad knowledge of biology with the incisive logic of a leading legal scholar to deliver a brilliant and devastating attack on the whole edifice of Darwinian belief.” And Michael Behe hailed Johnson as “our age’s clearest thinker on the issue of evolution and its impact on society.” A melancholy state of affairs indeed—were it but true. Two years after reading of Orbulina, though, Johnson replied to a questioner on Hank Hanegraaff’s Bible Answer Man show (December 2000) that marine invertebrates showed only “change within the type, there’s no change of one thing step by step into something completely different.”
So I assume he needed to see a bivalve turn into a houseplant in order to exceed his typological expectations. And with this Johnson has walled himself up behind exactly the barricade already so heavily populated by his YEC counterparts, the failure to think about how evolutionary transitions would come about and precisely how they would appear in the process of doing it in a fossil preservation context where some taxa (wee critters whose innards aren’t easily fossilized) are less likely to get sampled than others. We’ll be seeing examples of this when it comes to speciation, biogeography, and the details of the fossil record, but in a fundamental way it is only a variation on what Granville Sewell or Casey Luskin were doing in their own treatments: playing off their secondary sources as though they represented (or could substitute for) primary ones. What you have here is the core of a reliably diagnostic tortucan trait.
While speciation events (today and thus putatively in the fossil past) can involve some interesting bursts of genetic change at the molecular level, surveyed by Venditti & Pagel (2010), this certainly doesn’t require large changes in the deep DNA architecture of the regulatory and structural genes involved in overall morphology. Conversely, animals that maintain a quite monotonous external look over millions of years of speciation cannot be taken as meaning that they have remained genetically frozen inside. P-E falls through that conceptual gap for many antievolutionists, such as Anquinette Jones (2014), a creationist high school science teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, who defined P-E in a PowerPoint class lectures as “Rapid bursts of genetic change cause species to diverge quickly.”
Similarly, the entry on “Punctuated Equilibrium” in the International Society For Complexity, Information, and Design’s online ISCID Encyclopedia of Science and Philosophy (2005) got the overall thesis of P-E via Stephen Jay Gould (2002a) and Douglas Futuyma (1998) close enough, but couldn’t resist jumping further to claim that P-E held “that genetic change occurs relatively rapidly on a geological timescale.” A confusion the ISCID companion entry on “Evolutionary Stasis” only compounded:
Evolutionary stasis occurs when one or many species remain the same genetically with little change over long geological periods of time; periods of evolutionary stasis are often punctuated by periods of energetic evolution. This pattern is referred to as punctuated equilibrium. Species that have remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years include the cyanobacteria, coelacanth, the lungfish, and some species of crocodiles.
How easy it was for the ISCID to waltz down the same well-trod garden path dead end that Jackson at the AFA had above regarding “living fossils” as being unchanged (see section 1.5 for just how crocodiles measure up in this department).
Such systemic confusion on the part of antievolutionists when it comes to punctuated equilibrium is only a reflection of a much larger conceptual problem when it comes to evaluating the fossil record in general: a persistent inability to wrap their minds around the rather simple concept that a species A and its offshoot B can coexist through time afterward, and how that might play out when the fossil preservation sieve only captures pieces of the puzzle. Ironically creationists are making the same conceptual mistake as the old selectionist evolutionists Eldredge and Gould were working against!
Knowing this background, the cavalier way the antievolutionists appearing on the PBS News Hour back in 1998 riffing off such statements as the rarity of intermediate species in the fossil record was only a symptom of how they got to be antievolutionists in the first place. As tortucans they are never bothered that they don’t pay attention to the available data. It as easy for them to do as it is for people in the checkout line at the grocery store not to be aware of the PNAS issues that aren’t under their noses to begin with.
Couple that with the fact that active antievolutionists are rarely (ok, that’s not quite true—they are never) the people who actually dig up the bones or study the morphology of animals on a technical level (even creationist paleontologist Kurt Wise isn’t an active fieldworker). As they don’t generate any of the data themselves, and don’t intrinsically care one whit about any of the material that does get rammed in their faces by pushy critics of creationism, the dilettante antievolutionist can all too easily conflate the issue of speciation, by which individual breeding populations fission off distinct ones, with macroevolutionary events—changes in form in a lineage of descent sufficiently distinct that they are hardly likely to be the result of any single speciation blip, but instead the result of a long cascade of otherwise entirely microevolutionary speciation episodes.
The actual rates of change taking place in evolutionary time can be quantified, by the way, in terms of standardized units of “darwins” and “haldanes” per Hendry & Kinnison (1999), and as Jablonski (2000, 26) noted of a many technical papers documenting rates in fossil and living species: “microevolution can occur as rapidly as needed to account for virtually any speed observed in the fossil record,” so that “The more challenging question then becomes, why are evolutionary rates generally so slow in the fossil record?” Recognizing how functionally slow evolutionary changes can be in the real world has practical consequences—such as Andersen & Brander (2009) noting how current over-fishing occurs far too fast for adaptive changes to keep up with it.
The vital distinction between speciation events and the macroevolutionary changes that can (although not inevitably or necessarily) accumulate from long ages of those events utterly eluded the seminal Intelligent Design creationist textbook Of Pandas and People, firmly insisting (without—surprise!—bothering with any reference citation): “According to punctuated equilibrium, major evolutionary changes in small populations take place rapidly (say, in a few hundreds to several thousands of years) rather than slowly (that is, in millions of years) as conventional evolutionary theory holds, “ Davis & Kenyon (1993, 86).
Major evolutionary changes, is it? Such as ... ah, Pandas never gets to that part.
The time frames in this inflated version of P-E may have been more due to Davis than Kenyon, since an affidavit Kenyon (1984) submitted to Louisiana in favor of their antievolution legislation had recognized Gould was talking about speciation events, but supplied no numbers: “But during the actual transition from one category of organism to another the evolving populations are so small and so rapidly changing that they do not leave any fossils to document the transition. In other words, in this new theory, it is postulated that the macroevolutionary process is such that it leaves no direct evidence of its occurrence.”
The two Discovery Institute replacements for Of Pandas and People, Explore Evolution by Stephen Meyer et al. (2007, 31-35) and The Design of Life by Dembski & Wells (2008, 73-77), have not shown improvement. Like ReMine’s The Biotic Message, Explore Evolution strolled off on the “species selection” tangent—and once again leaving Ernst Mayr unmentioned. “Let’s look at a real-life example,” Meyer et al. (2007, 34) asked then in bold—only it wasn’t an examination of fossil data but an allusion to a museum display chart from the California Academy of Sciences dating from the 1990s dealing with how animal phyla were supposed to have branched.
I had seen this one before, though ironically Explore Evolution was less detailed than my other sources. I first encountered it at the 1998 “Creation Week” symposium at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where I first bumped into Steve Meyer (then a philosophy professor there). A flier was being distributed criticizing the CAS for its supposedly misleading evolutionary wall display positioning 440-million-year-old fossil corals below 550-million-year-old echinoderms. Jonathan Wells (2000a, 54-55) also alluded to it. Phillip Johnson used the CAS example in his debate with science historian William Provine, Johnson & Provine (1994), where Provine not only agreed that the display was “terrible”—he went on to add criticism of his own. The CAS display (reproduced at the ARN website with more detail than the cartoon in Explore Evolution) looks suspiciously like it was based on a cladogram, a taxonomical technique classifying forms along branching nodes independent of chronology (more on cladistics in due course).
All well and good, but since the contentious end of the CAS display involved taxa stretching back around half a billion years, it was of little relevance to a discussion of how viable P-E was for comprehending the more recent swaths of fossil history where you had a lot more data to run off—and certainly no substitute for actually discussing that fossil history, specifically and in sufficient detail to show that ID was more than a flurry of side issues. Whether the chart was even of concern when it comes to evaluating the appearance of phyla back in the Cambrian may be seen the coverage in Downard (2003b) and Chapter 2 of Downard (2004).
Like the creationists Henry Morris and Duane Gish above, The Design of Life version similarly asserted that “without an empirically confirmed material mechanism capable of accounting for these bursts in evolutionary activity, the theory of punctuated equilibrium finds its support not in any positive evidence but simply in the silence of the fossil record,” Dembski & Wells (2008, 75). In what by now is an unsurprising refrain, again there was no discussion of any fossil examples—and no Ernst Mayr’s allopatric speciation. Once more Mayr turned up in Dembski & Wells (2008, 59, 93, 124) only for a trio of tactical authority quotes: on the necessity of constructing “historical narratives” in thinking about evolution (Dembski & Wells intimating that such practices are somehow divorced from rigorous value), Darwin’s failure to solve the species problem (a particularly cheeky thing to bring up given Mayr’s important role in resolving that “mystery”), and why homology has come to be defined in terms of common ancestry (and hence might be dismissed as merely circular reasoning in Dembski & Wells’ designer view, not as an explanatory framework that long ago proved significantly more productive than the typological alternative and so won the race by competitive success).
Because the chronology and physical examples of past life never surfaced in Of Pandas and People, or its Discovery Institute replacements, or in any other of the plethora of antievolutionary works that dive onto this subject, this way of thinking can easily spiral into hyperbole by followers who don’t understand what “major evolutionary changes” are involved in the P-E debate because none of their restricted sources ever discussed it.
Some of these “bottom of the barrel” examples can truly boggle the mind, such as Terry Jackson (1997) thinking with bold emphasis that PE theory called for “sudden leaps in animal forms. For example, chickens lay eggs hatching into chickards (e.g. half-chicken, half-lizard).” Or Cleone Weigand (1933-2010) addressing the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Weigand (1992): “A hen would lay an egg and a duck would hatch out. A dog would have a litter, and what do you know, one in the litter would be a cat. As Jack Carson would say, ‘I kid you not!’ This is what Gould proposes. Such is the desperation among modern evolutionary scientists.”
As it was the old Tonight Show’s Jack Parr (1918-2004) known for that catchphrase, not the comedic character actor Jack Carson (1910-1963), Weigand might be allotted a dollop of “desperation” himself for not getting Gould’s ideas straight either.
Then there’s the cartoon in Vance Ferrell (2004) captioned: “Species change occurs when millions of positive, only beneficial, highly coordinated mutations suddenly occur in identically the same way in two creatures—a male and a female—born just near each other. This is called punctuated equilibrium.” Ferrell (2006f, 57) upped this to boldface regarding the “astoundingly ridiculous concept that millions of beneficial mutations occur once every 50,000 years to two creatures, a male and a female, who are living near each other—thus producing a new species pair!” Roger Patterson (2009, 99) cribbed a similar argument by Gary Parker (though this AiG version only spoke of “exact mutations” occurring “simultaneously and in close proximity” rather than enumerating them so outrageously as Ferrell had). Patterson grew still vaguer attached to the circumspect Mortenson & Patterson (2013), asserting without documentation that “punctuated equilibrium tries to account for the lack of fossil intermediates by appealing to rapid bursts of change interspersed in the millions of years. They still rely on mutations and natural selection, but at a much faster rate.”
Caught in his own vortex of confusion, though, Ferrell (2006f, 886-887) later repeated that it was Gould & Eldredge’s specific contention that:
every 50,000 years or so, a million beneficial mutations suddenly occur—producing a newborn creature which is a totally different species! The classic statement is that a reptile lays an egg and the first bird hatches into existence. Of course, they admitted that, nearby, another multimillion beneficial mutations just happened to produce a mate for this new creature, which they named a “hopeful monster.”
I would have loved seeing Jackson or Ferrell (or Patterson and Mortenson should they have dropped down from the rafters to the P-E working floor) trying to document this with any actual scientific source claiming such things, Gould & Eldredge or otherwise. Ferrell’s confusion turns particularly on his scholarly inability to strain past quote snippets to understand what concepts of saltational change were being bandied about back in the 1940s regarding the “hopeful monster” idea of Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958) of reptiles laying bird eggs in one saltational jump, or how those notions were rendered irrelevant by fossil and genetic discoveries since then.
Texas School Board creationist Don McLeroy (2003, 10) welded these misunderstandings together just as tightly himself when he lobbed the P-E bomb in a typical scattershot parade of creationist claims: “the paleontologists/evolutionists proposed abrupt macroevolutionary changes to account for the lack of transitional forms,” and after Goldschmidt in 1940, “Gould and Eldredge followed in 1974 with their hypothesis of ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’.” That was it. Like Steve Meyer, McLeroy never mentioned Ernst Mayr, or concrete examples of what P-E meant or how it could be applied—though he might be granted a feeble excuse here as McLeroy’s piece was in short outline form rather than one with the luxury of space in Darwin’s Doubt where one could make the same mistakes at leisure.
Thomas Heinze (2002) did much the same thing as McLeroy, except he left out all the names, referring only generically to “punctuated equilibrium and these scientists themselves were called saltationists.” Heinze then went on to field the common creationist assertion that modern understandings of mutations conflicted with evolution (which we will be contrasting with the all too available scientific literature in the appropriate later chapters). Erik Anderson (2011, 7-11) has noted similar biological lapses relating to P-E on the part of creationists Gary Parker, Jay Wile and Marilyn Durnell.
More tendentiously, in their appendix on “Rational Inquiry & the Force of Scientific Data: Are New Horizons Emerging?” for Moreland (1994a), Ankerberg & Weldon (1994, 283) meandered even further down the secondary path by fielding a 1970 quote from Ernst Mayr disparaging Goldschmidt, as though that automatically had some bearing on the decidedly non-saltational concept of P-E first proposed by Gould and Niles Eldredge only in 1972 (and which had explicitly built on Mayr’s own scientific work). Del Ratzsch (1996, 84-85, 208), who otherwise deemed Moreland’s The Creation Hypothesis a key work in the effort to establish the scientific credibility of Intelligent Design, found the presence of Ankerberg & Weldon’s piece “puzzling” (interestingly, not mentioning either author by name, saying only the appendix was “written by two people, neither of whom has an advanced degree in science or philosophy”).
As for Terry Jackson’s characterization of chickard-laying hens, that goof is both chronologically and taxonomically flawed: in any geologically savvy evolutionary framework the lizards would have come before the chickens, not the other way around. But more fundamentally wrong is the notion that P-E (or more generally, modern evolutionary theory) proposed the existence of any such cockamamie chimeras in the first place. As we’ll see with Duane Gish’s lecture circuit bovine whale and Kirk Cameron’s celebrated “crocoduck” later on, some creationists cannot resist the temptation to claim evolution is somehow falsified because the wacky “intermediates” they have concocted out of their own misunderstanding about evolutionary processes turned out never to have existed. Sorry, that’s not evolution’s problem.
Along the creationist secondary citation grapevine, by the way, Jackson got listed as a “scientist” and his article linked to by the very conservative Roman Catholic Angelqueen blogger David Mueth (2010), who distilled Jackson’s erroneous technical conclusion to a pithy “Evolutionists put forth much false info.” Jackson’s view “that evolution is a prime Communist tool” clearly appealed to Mueth’s anachronistic Kulturkampf view of the world (writing twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Block and long after they started putting up fast food outlets in China, Mueth’s mental map may have petrified somewhere around 1970).
Such political obsessions aside, these creationist ideas about what Gould & Eldredge thought was solely the product of their own misunderstanding of the work, which hadn’t said anything about a million mutations being needed to generate a new species, let alone that they would have all piled up at once—or, as in Ferrell’s version, that a similar happenstance would have had to have occurred to provide a mate for this isolated accident. At any given time there would be a whole sub-population of animals carrying the slightly varied genetic mix that is showing up at the fossil level as an apparent speciation event.
Edging out even farther on the gangplank of taxonomical exaggeration than Ferrell, though, was Frank Sherwin (2010) opining in the ICR Acts & Facts how Gould “proposed that species are stable for eons, then transmutate from one body plan to another so fast that the changes are not captured in the rock record.” Only Gould explicitly wasn’t talking about eons of stasis or anything about the formation of new “body plans”—how far from speciation we have come once tortucans release the brakes!
The ease with which the likes of Ferrell and Sherwin toss around “species” or “body plans” as though they had a tight grasp of either is no isolated eccentricity, any more than Casey Luskin trying to invoke “large amounts of information” change creeping into poor P. vema. As we’ll see in the chapters to come, there is a high degree of both evasion and confusion among antievolutionists on this matter of what constitutes changes large and small in the living world, summed up in the tussle over “microevolution” versus “macroevolution.”