Chapter I

1.3 Quote Mining and the Case of Punctuated Equilibrium

Intelligent Design doesn’t fare much better, including Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt.

This sorry situation doesn’t get any better over in Intelligent Design Land.

Hit-and-run P-E coverage crops up in peripheral jabs by George Sim Johnston (1995; 1997), Patrick Glynn (1997, 48), Henry Schaefer (2002), Geisler & Turek (2004, 152), the fringe pseudoscience-monger James Hogan (2004, 407), and John Walton (2005) replying to Dawkins & Coyne (2005). Despite his many years of research on the Intelligent Design issue as science correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, Gailon Totheroh (2005) still thoroughly mangled the microevolution/macroevolution distinction when he imagined P-E “posits great leaps forward in evolution in a geologically short time span.”

Climate skeptic Roy Spencer (2005) took a swipe at P-E when he claimed it was devised by Gould to account for the fossil record, which in his view “is almost (if not totally) devoid of the transitional forms of life that would connect the supposed evolution of amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds, etc.” At William Dembski’s Uncommon Descent Dave Scott (2008) congenially welcomed Spencer as one more credentialed float for the Intelligent Design parade.

A look at some of the sources drawn on by the hit-and-run artists here helps explain how technical scientific issues could regularly get so mushed together. Roy Spencer wrote he had “intensely studied the evolution versus intelligent design controversy for about two years” twenty years earlier—which would be the mid-1980s. Unless he was cribbing some YEC literature, the salient ID work available at the time that purported to undermine the evolutionary implications of the fossil record was Denton’s singularly inadequate Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985).

Then there is antievolutionary mathematician (and Deacon at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles) Christopher Cagan (2003), who magnified Gould’s argument about “stasis” versus “sudden appearance” at the species level into a sweeping refutation of general evolution. Part of a remarkably belated snit over the criticism of Young Earth Creationism way back in Philip Kitcher (1982), Cagan accused Kitcher of relying on “outdated science” because “In the last twenty to thirty years, more and more scientists, Christian and non-Christian, have given up on the outdated nineteenth-century theory of evolution in the face of the scientific evidence.” This surging scientific consensus consisted of exactly two witnesses: some extensive quoting from biochemists Michael Denton (1985, 77, 328-329) and Michael Behe (1996, 39, 65. 168-169, 192-193), neither of whom ever disputed that Darwinian speciation takes place or discussed any details of the mechanisms involved (the point about which Gould was concerned, remember).

In 2005 Jody Sjogren, Robert Lattimer and Douglas Rudy prepared a slim and derivative volume for Science Excellence for All Ohioans (an offshoot of the American Family Association) then trying to inveigle those slim and derivative ID arguments into Ohio’s science education. Without stopping to document even a single instance of actual fossil ensembles to back up their assertions about the import of P-E, Sjogren et al. (2005, 28) pronounced: “whereas the theory of evolution would predict that there would be the strongest evidence for linking the highest level groupings (because they are the most dissimilar and would require vast numbers of transitional forms) the fossil record demonstrates the opposite: The gaps between the higher-level groupings are universal and complete.”

Or Thomas Woodward (2003, 40-42, 124-125, 127-128), who dribbled so many pages of authority quoting (including praise for the philosophizing of Phillip Johnson in the Denton-inspired Darwin on Trial) that the connection of PE to speciation issues rather than the macroevolutionary emergence of major biological changes should have been apparent even to him. Rushing too fast to ponder the import of the scientists he was quote-mongering, he easily settled on the familiar creationist trope that Woodward (2006, 101-102) would more concisely abstract to the broad generality of the “sudden appearance of new forms, bursting onto the scene without identifiable ancestors.”

By the early 21st century Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution (2000a) had joined Denton and Johnson as exemplars of ID argument. But how could Spencer, Cagan, Woodward or Sjogren et al think they could understand the fossil record by proxy, drawing only on a succession of non-paleontologists rather than the voluminous paleontological literature none of them bothered to consult? Lacking any concept of what genuine intermediates might have looked like (so they might have recognized them as such were they to have inadvertently stumbled over one or two on some adventure in a natural history museum) they were clueless to the reality of the past, where those many “new forms” appearing over millions of years (including a bevy of reptiles, mammals, dinosaurs and birds covered in the chapters to follow) were not “bursting onto the scene without identifiable ancestors.” Quite to the contrary, some of these have so rich an ensemble of possible progenitors (the first mammals especially, as even Johnson disingenuously recognized in Darwin on Trial) that the difficulty is trying to parse which among the many prospects might lie closest to the root of the tree.

So we end up with the likes of Woodward marching in lockstep with the coverage of P-E in Johnson (1991, 50-53, 58-61), where Johnson (1991,52) declared, “Punctuated equilibrium explains the prevalence of stasis in the fossil record by linking macroevolution with speciation,” and Johnson (1991, 53) questioned “whether this mechanism can explain more than a relatively narrow range of modifications which cross the species boundary but do not involve major changes in bodily characteristics.” Paul Chien (1997) in turn followed the Darwin on Trial P-E cue sheet, by which time Philip Johnson (1997b, 61-62) had ricocheted off the topic again by parsing the fossil change arguments of Niles Eldredge (1995, 95)—more on that below.

P-E has swirled around that creationist drain of “stasis” and “sudden appearance” ever since, as though Intelligent Design was the default option for anything supposedly unresolved in fossil history. Thus James Le Fanu (2009, 117-120) took his time to circle the traditional antievolutionary “stasis” talking points without ever venturing a view of his own about what may have been happening in the actual fossil past. And Donald Ewert (2010e) briefly flirted with the PE issue while arguing that the vertebrate immune system poses a problem for Darwinism—a topic explored in Chapter 4 of Downard (2004), citing only fellow-ID friendly non-paleontologists Lönnig & Saedler (2002) as to how much the fossil record supposedly supported what they imagined “stasis” to be (and without, of course, specifying whether any of that makes any sense in a design context).

Trying to be evenhanded in their The Complete Idiot’s Guide® to Understanding Intelligent Design, Carlisle & Smith (2006, 115-116) brought up P-E as an example of “just how fiery the conflict is within mainstream science.” But Christopher Carlisle is a chaplain and W. Thomas Smith a journalist, which could explain some of their “summarize from afar” limitations, such as offering no documentation when they contended “adherents to ‘punk eek’ see evidence of the theory in the fossil record in a marine micro-fossil, in the trilobite, and in the beloved Tyrannosaurus Rex.” As Carlisle and Smith capitalized the species part of T. rex their understanding of the details might be less than tight (I made the same mistake many years ago and was promptly corrected by a geology prof whose grip on nomenclatural etiquette was better than mine).

They may have been referring to Horner et al. (1992) but, if so, this was not much help in defending a non-evolutionary view of life, since that paper had not only affirmed P-E dynamics in an ensemble of Cretaceous dinosaurs—they had also identified quite a few transitional specimens, such as the ones discussed it in Chapter 3 of Downard (2004). Beyond that, given the importance of migration dynamics in the P-E argument it is relevant that Horner et al. concluded “that the evolutionary pulse coincided with a marine transgression,” and subsequent work has uncovered more of the zonal shifts driven by climate change that unsettled their habitat, Eberth et al. (2013). Thus yet another case where looking more closely at the spotty examples being brought up evolution critics only reveals more of what they are strenuously resisting: the past life on Earth running along a thoroughly natural track of evolutionary change relating to their environment.

Such niggling details played even less a role for Kenneth Poppe, where Kulturkampf concerns kept leaking into “paleontology” instruction. As a “paleontology teacher” at Trail Ridge Middle School in Colorado, reported by Ready (2007), Poppe promoted his global warming skepticism to the kids, landing him on the P. Z. Myers (2007c-d) critical radar. William Dembski (2006m) recommended Poppe as “competent in the relevant science” in an introduction to Poppe’s Reclaiming Science from Darwinism, never spotting Poppe’s penchant for glib overstatement (as we’ll be seeing on fossils and human origins) that put him on a par with the vacuous dinosaur musings of Mike Riddle from Answers in Genesis or the paleontologically naïve Native American creationism of Vine Deloria (1933-2005). As for P-E, in Exposing Darwinism’s Weakest Links, Poppe (2008, 134) summarily decreed (without burdening the reader with undo documentation) “that the fossil record, hominid or otherwise, does not support either Darwin’s phyletic gradualism or Neo-Darwinism’s punctuated equilibrium, the only two games in town.” For further perspective, Poppe (2009) had grand aspirations of revolutionizing science and social education in a Christian direction via his International Foundation for Science Education by Design, but as of 2013 the IFSED had evidently passed from the scene.

Breakpoint, the website of Nixon Watergate scandal alumnus Chuck Colson (1931-2012), is another venue where the Kulturkampf campaign presses on. Allan Dobras (2009) thought to dispose of P-E there by waving an unfavorable 1990 review of Gould (1989) by none other than Richard Dawkins, who had called one of Gould’s book “a mess.” Except the book was Gould’s Wonderful Life on the Cambrian Explosion, which wasn’t about punctuated equilibrium (as we’ll see in Chapter 9) so even if Dawkins’ snarky assessment of it were valid it would have no bearing on the factual validity or practical utility of P-E.

Gould was posthumously mugged again by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in a January 2008 debate with atheist firebrand Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011): Boteach declaring that Gould didn’t believe in evolution at all because now he was into punctuated equilibrium—a gobsmacking confusion that drew comment from P. Z. Myers (2008a) who had attended the exchange. Paleontologist Robert Asher (2012c, 77-78) later offered the episode to illustrate how P-E had become “the mother lode for creationist quote-mining.”

In a more recent defense in The Jerusalem Post of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s electioneering doubts about evolution being only “a theory,” Boteach (2011) tweaked his misunderstanding somewhat by saying Gould had been:

arguing that the large gaps in the fossil record make a mockery of a theory of gradual evolution, which is why Gould advocated “punctuated equilibrium”—a variation on Darwinism in which evolution takes place in dramatic periods of change followed by long eons of stasis. Gould maintained this position precisely because, as Perry said, the theory of evolution has “some gaps in it”—in the case of the fossil record, quite literally.

One may notice again how easily antievolutionists bandy about those “long eons” without ever grounding it in the known realities of Deep Time.

In a curious instance of “convergent evolution,” like Walter ReMine’s The Biotic Message above, Stephen Meyer’s much-touted Darwin’s Doubt on the Cambrian Explosion devoted a whole chapter to “PUNK EEK!” and Meyer (2013a, 136-152) turned out to be just as clumsy a digest. Like ReMine, there were only authority quotes, no examination of the technical evidence, but Meyer didn’t even get the big picture straight. Despite the historical progress of P-E thinking in paleontology, one subsection was titled “BURST OF INTEREST AND GRADUAL DECLINE” and Meyer (2013a, 137-139) went so far as suggest it was Gould and Eldredge who came up with the allopatric speciation idea, making it seem as though they were inventing it as an ad hoc way to salvage their fossil data, rather than their having applied Mayr’s already developed theory (in turn based on the genetics of living animals as well as observations about natural living populations).

Indeed, Meyer did ReMine one better by not mentioning Mayr at all in the chapter, leaving the two authority quotes Meyer (2013a, 171, 339) extracted from Mayr’s work to other sections (one to note his attendance at an evolutionary science conference, and later for a quote on the importance of natural selection in Darwinian thinking). For ironic scholarly contrast, Young Earth Creationist Kurt Wise (1989, 15-16) managed better than either ReMine or Meyer, at least recognizing Eldredge and Gould’s debt to Mayr, and paleontologist Kevin Padian alluded to it when cross-examined at the Dover Intelligent Design trial in 2005 (covered in section 1.7), Talk.Origins Archive (2006b).

Tom Bethell, whose 2005 book The Politically Incorrect GuideTM to Science confidently bought into a cornucopia of Kulturkampf favorites (from ID and global warming to AIDS not being caused by HIV), sounded a lot like Henry Morris and Duane Gish above when Bethell (2013e) extolled the contribution of Darwin’s Doubt to the P-E issue over at the conservative magazine The Spectator: “More formally, Meyer shows that ‘pink eek’ doesn’t work out as hoped. Not only have those fleeting ancestors not appeared anywhere, the proponents of punctuated equilibrium never came up with a mechanism that could plausibly produce so much anatomical change so quickly.” Not knowing of Mayr’s role in all this, or the true facts of the paleontological record, was a perfectly understandable (albeit hardly justifiable) lapse for pay-attention-to-just-one-source Bethell given that Meyer hadn’t mentioned any of it himself for Bethell to have read and so trustingly absorb.

Another indication of how out of touch Meyer’s “BURST OF INTEREST AND GRADUAL DECLINE” version of P-E was regarding working science (and by parasitical connection, Tom Bethell’s notions about how fossil ancestors have “not appeared anywhere”) came along just as Darwin’s Doubt was gestating. Paleontologist Robert Prothero (2012a) discussed how the P-E concept had revolutionized thinking in paleontology by integrating the fossil data with a proper understanding of allopatric speciation dynamics. Along the way he happened to note how unresponsive the fauna preserved in the La Brea Tar Pits were to climate fluctuations, alluding to one of his own recent technical papers, Prothero et al. (2012), and off in the fertile hothouse that is Intelligent Design this innocent mention of stasis sparked some confident authority quoting by Uncommon Descent (2012j) and by David Klinghoffer (2012c) and Douglas Axe (2012d) at Evolution News & Views.

The idea that animals should be reacting to climate change is not an unreasonable one (for example, growing more robust limbs or larger size), but Prothero rightly noted how this wasn’t true all that often, especially when larger populations get involved, rather than isolated groups (such as on islands). Nor was he the first to notice this, such as Barnosky (2005) contrasting climate driven “Court Jester” models with the “Red Queen” approach (where coevolutionary competition dominates and climate variation operates more as “background noise”) regarding mammal evolution during the twenty-odd Quaternary Period glacial advances and retreats over the last two million years. Faced with a rapidly changing environment, the luck of mutation is simply too rare a factor to prompt “Court Jester” adaptation—natural selection can favor instead more resilient stable species whose dynamic “Red Queen” combinations allow them to weather more than one crisis or simply pack up and move, Barnosky (2005, 259) or Raia et al. (2012).

Prothero’s Quaternary Science Reviews paper was a discussion of these larger adaptive ecological patterns, not a manifesto of the inadequacy of natural speciation, let alone the “complete absence of evolutionary change,” as the title of Axe’s posting put it. Speciation events were going on all through that period, as Barnosky (2005, 255) noted of Lister (2004), just that the rate of that speciation was not apparently elevated except in the most extreme periods of climate shift, and even then only in isolated cases. Prothero’s analysis wasn’t claiming no changes at all were taking place either: dire wolves got significantly smaller over the measured time frame, for example, but likewise noting how this change didn’t correlate with the climate fluctuations. Nothing in the Prothero paper invalidated the separate issue of the evidence for their earlier evolution from Canis armbrusteri—another of those speciation events antievolutionists are so confident never occur—whose “intergrading morphologies” are surveyed at length by Tedford et al. (2009, 4-5, 137-148) showing “the transformation to the more hypercarnivorous giant form” of Canis dirus.

Syverson & Prothero (2010) had previously spotted a similar situation for prehistoric condors, larger predecessors of the modern California condor (members of the same genus but separate species). The anatomical changes separating the two were modest but distinct (morphs in limb dimensions or skull protrusions), but while the prehistoric model did show fluctuations in size these didn’t correlate with climate shifts, and the speciation drop to the smaller modern condor didn’t occur until afterward, sometime between 9000 and 7000 years ago.

It is revealing that not one of the three riffs on Prothero by the Discovery Institute pundits bothered to relate any of the information underlying Prothero’s argument to their own Intelligent Design model, which would have seemed a perfectly natural thing to do if they actually had an ID model to deploy here—one which explained the base data in a more informative and productive way. For example, does ID explain anything at all about “the union of the optic and anterior lacerate foramina in a common pit”? Those distinctively modified skull openings are just some of the diagnostic features linking C. armbrusteri to C. dirus, per Tedford et al. (2009, 148), a taxon explicitly mentioned as among the “static” La Brea critters in Prothero’s Quaternary Science Reviews paper. Unless ID presented a positive case for such features being examples of design rather than evolution, the dire wolf “stasis” (or any of the other “static” prehistoric beasts toddling about tens of thousands of years ago) would suggest nothing at all in favor of a design option, or pose any threat to the efficacy of evolutionary explanations to account for them.

Sounding a lot like Fred Hutchison above, though, Uncommon Descent (2012j) nonetheless asked: “why does the Darwin lobby oppose allowing students to learn about stasis?” This linked at the word “oppose” to fellow Uncommon Descent poster Denyse O’Leary (2011a), who was complaining how the Texas Freedom Network (2011d) was warning against efforts by antievolutionists in that state to use “stasis” arguments as a means “to introduce discredited, scientifically falsified accounts from intelligent design/creationist publications.” In other words, exactly what Uncommon Descent and the Discovery Institute were doing in their authority quote invocations of Donald Prothero. Sigh.

 It is instructive to contrast this superficial quote-driven Intelligent Design coverage of Prothero’s work with the takes of evolutionists. Creationism critic Larry Moran (2012g-h) took note of Axe (2012c) to remind his readers how the last people who should be surprised by the Prothero findings would be evolutionists, since the idea that change wasn’t obviously driven by climate shifts had been known and debated among them for years. Indeed, Moran (2012e) had only just prior been exploring the finer points of what these stasis periods meant for applied evolution, particularly the role of neutral drift in speciating populations versus active adaptive selection.

Here Moran noted the Jerry Coyne (2011l) web posting (with assorted shop talk in the comments section) critically assessing the proposition in Josef Uyeda et al. (2011) that changes in animal body size as followed over a span of ten million years tended to run in two modes. Short-term bursts of change occurred when animals encountered a new niche (such as a bird discovering a new island habitat), but once adapted to that, if that environment remains stable they will be too, and can settle down into a fairly boring “bounded” track. If the groups hang on long enough, though, past a million years, a new dynamic can take hold should changes in selection pressures occur in ways that can affect many groups simultaneously (such as the introduction of new predator/prey competitive relationships) and so prompt bigger changes that previously were selected against when the group operated only in its isolated “bounded” frame. The effect of such realignment would appear in a fossil ensemble as a macroevolutionary burst capping a long period of comparative stasis.

Uyeda’s work has been part of the ongoing scientific process, of course, with others approaching the stasis issue from varied directions: such as Polly (2012) re Evans et al. (2012) confirming the overall bounded then burst pattern for mammal size evolution, or Sallan & Friedman (2012) suggesting some fossil fish groups have undergone more multiple pulses of evolutionary change than the basic Uyeda model would suggest. That’s how science works—which may be compared to the cloud of nothing orbiting the ID version of the Prothero material during that same period.