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Niles Eldredge Out Of Context

09/07/11

  03:04:44 am, by Nimble   , 736 words  
Categories: Thoughts, Religion, Science

Niles Eldredge Out Of Context

Creationists love "gotcha" quotes. In a world view where scientists are all party to one great conspiracy, these are signs of cracks in the great façade.

These quotes bounce all over the internet, mindlessly copy-pasted.

There is a catch, though. These "gotcha" quotes are taken from the middle of something else. One might be left to wonder, "why is a top-notch scientist saying these things?"

The problem, of course, is context. "But these are their exact words" is piss-poor defense when it misrepresents what the person being quoted is saying.

I could do this to myself:

Even Ritchie, fanatic science idolizer and trifle-eater, admits: "scientists are all party to one great conspiracy, these are signs of cracks in the great façade."

So, for a real-world example, we have this nugget floating around the internet right now:

Darwin’s theory of macroevolution, says that over time, undirected natural processes led to all life forms, from the most primitive cell to human beings. He predicted countless fossils would prove him right. But the transitional fossils Darwin predicted would validate macroevolution are embarrassingly absent. Even ardent evolutionist, Niles Eldredge admits, “No one has found any such in-between creatures...and there is a growing conviction among many scientists that these transitional forms never existed.”

Niles Eldredge is no creationist. Has someone caught him out? By the quote, it would somehow seem that he is exposing the underbelly of science.

What is the use of the quote saying? The plain implication here is that there are no transitional fossils that support "macroevolution". In creationist parlance, nothing above the level of a "kind" or "baramin" - a representative ancestor on Noah's Ark.

Some creationist sources actually point to an article from which this comes. This is from a Los Angeles Times article entitled "Alternate Theory of Evolution Considered" by George Alexander in 1978.

This is not a freely-available article, and there is next to no reference to anything else in the article.

So I decided to take a look, and shelled out $4 for a historical copy through ProQuest.

Looking through the article, what Eldredge meant becomes clear.

Eldredge was - along with Gould - a proponent of "punctuated equilibrium", the idea that evolution happens in fits and starts instead of smoothly.

Let's see this quote in context:

If life had evolved into the wondrous profusion of creatures little by little, then there should be some fossiliferous record of those changes, Eldredge said. That is, one would expect to find transitional creatures that were a little bit like what went before them and a little bit what like {sic} came after them.

But no one has found any evidence of such in-between creatures. This was long chalked up to "gaps" in fossil records, gaps that proponents of gradualism confidently expected to fill in someday when rock strata of the proper antiquity were eventually located.

But all of the fossil evidence to date has failed to turn up any such missing links, Eldredge said, and there is a growing conviction among many scientists that these transitional forms never existed. And if this is so, then the gradualist view of evolution is an inaccurate portrayal of how life developed.

(The pieces quoted by the creationist are in bold)

Population genetics confirms to a fair extent what Eldredge and Gould were getting at: large populations are "stable" - it is only through isolation that species are "free" to forge a different path in a statistical sense.

So we would not be looking at finding a smooth gradient. Technically, it might be possible to see these intermediate stages - but the accelerated time frame and smaller populations in which this is accomplished means that you could be digging up sites for a very, very long time and still never find fossilized members of these small communities.

Eldredge says as much:

"If there were 'links' in the sense that people often talk about 'missing links,'" Eldredge said, "they would have been ephemeral in time and place and our chances of ever finding them are extremely remote. It all might have happened in just a few thousand years, and then the human species by that time was well established."

Does any of this support creationism? No.

Importantly, does any of this support what the creationists imply by their choice of quote and framing the quote such that an "ardent evolutionist" "admits", never mind the large gap covered by "..."?

Decidedly not.

At long last, have they no shame?

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