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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why the creationists love the 1980 Chicago meeting on macroevolution

A meeting on macroevolution was held at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in October 1980. Normally these meetings would not attract much attention from the press but in this case there was an article published in Discover a month before the meeting took place that suggested something revolutionary was in the wind. Stephen Jay Gould discusses the episode in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (pp. 981-986).

The article in Discover referred to "growing dissent from the prevailing view of Darwinism" and mentioned that there would be a meeting in Chicago. As a result of this article, a bunch of journalists turned up at the Chicago Macroevolution meeting expecting fireworks.

There was a lot of talk about punctuated equilibria at the Chicago meeting and how the ideas of Eldredge and Gould conflicted with the gradualism that was part of traditional Darwinian evolution. This is complicated stuff so it's no wonder that many journalists misinterpreted the discussion as support for the idea that evolution was being challenged as the creationists claimed.

Gould mentions that there were some "good and responsible commentaries in the general press" and he specifically mentions an article by Boyce Rensberger in the New York Times. That's the article highlighted in a recent post by Granville Sewell on Evolution News & Views (sic): Here's What the NY Times Was Saying About Evolution in 1980. Here's what Sewell said on Feb. 24, 2014.
I recently re-read a November 5, 1980, New York Times News Service article, "Ideas on Evolution Going Through a Revolution Among Scientists," that I had clipped long ago from a Houston newspaper. I was struck by how similar the comments about the fossil record, about micro- and macroevolution, and about the limitations of Darwinism are to things you might read, oh, right here on Evolution News & Views. 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.

According to the article, the fact that species always seem to appear suddenly in the fossil record, and the fact that more and more scientists realize natural selection cannot explain the major steps of evolution, does not mean that evolution itself is in doubt. Instead, it "reflects significant progress toward a much deeper understanding of the history of life on Earth."
You can read Rensberger's entire New York Times article by following the link at Evolution News & Views. I think you will agree with Gould that the article is quite reasonable once you understand punctuated equilibria. The headline on Rensberger's article is "Ideas on evolution going through a revolution among scientists" and this might be an exaggeration but, as Gould notes, Rensberger didn't write the headline.

Many of the reports in the popular press in 1980 were not as good as Rensberger's piece. The general public was left with the impression that evolution was in trouble.

That was 34 years ago. 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.

David Klinghoffer doesn't want to be left out so he jumps in the next day with his own demonstration of ignorance: Question for a Censor: Should a Teacher Be Punished for Telling Students What the New York Times Said About Evolution in 1980?. Here's what Klinghoffer said ...
I'm not sure I'd recommend trying this at home, but...what if a public-school biology teacher in a state where there's no academic freedom law gave her class the New York Times article that Granville Sewell brought to our attention yesterday? The point of such laws is to protect, from administrative retaliation or other censure, instructors who share mainstream scientific criticism of Darwinian theory with their students. Censors like Zack Kopplin oppose legislation like that, claiming they are protecting students from being indoctrinated in "creationism." He's been trying and luckily failing to roll back the Louisiana Science Education Act in his own home state.

"This law allows creationism to be snuck into public school science classrooms," Mr. Kopplin told readers of Britain's Guardian newspaper recently, adding, "This legislation that allows 'critiques' to be snuck into public school classes is the modern day strategy of creationists." He noted also, "Tennessee has a law based off [sic] Louisiana's that allows creationism to be snuck into the classroom." All this is hogwash, of course -- the laws in question explicitly exclude teaching about religious doctrines like creationism from protection.

The article from the New York Times News Service, published in 1980, documents very mainstream doubts about Darwinism from distinguished scientists, of a sort that, as Dr. Sewell points out, would be routine today here at ENV. It's nothing to do with Zack's straw man, "creationism." The question someone should pose to Zack Kopplin is: If a teacher were to share that article with her class, should she be shielded from punishment, or subject to it?
Here in Ontario, the high school biology curriculum requires that students learn about punctuated equilibria so any teacher who gives out the New York Times article would be just doing their job. That would probably come as a great shock to David Klinghoffer.

Most Sandwalk readers understand creationist tactics and they understand that most creationists are either stupid or liars when they discuss punctuated equilibria. But for those few who don't get it, let's see what Stephen Gould has to say in "Structure" on page 986.
Creationist misappropriation of punctuated equilibrium

Since modern creationists, particularly the "young earth" dogmatists who must cram an entire geological record into the few thousand years of a literal Biblical chronology, can advance no conceivable argument in the domain of proper logic or accurate empirics, they have always relied, as a primary strategy, upon the misquotation of scientific sources. They have shamelessly distorted all major evolutionists in their behalf, including the most committed gradualists of the Modern Synthesis (their appropriations of Dobzhansky and Simpson make particularly amusing reading). Since punctuated equilibrium provides an even easier target for this form of intellectual dishonesty (or crass stupidity if a charge of dishonesty grants them too much acumen), no one should be surprised our views have become grist for their mills and skills of distortion. I have been told that Duane Gish, their leading propagandist, refers to his compendium of partial and distorted quotations from my work as his "Goulden file."

Standard creationist literature on punctuated equilibrium rarity goes beyond the continuous recycling of two false characterizations: the conflation of punctuated equilibrium with the true saltation of Goldschmidt's hopeful monsters, and the misscaling of punctuated equilibrium's genuine breaks between species to the claim that no intermediates exist for the largest morphological transitions between classes and phyla. I regard the latter distortion as particularly egregious because we formulated punctuated equilibrium as a positive theory about the nature of intermediacy in such large-scale structural trendsmdash;the "stairstep" rather than the "ball-up-the-inclined-plane" model, if you will. Moreover, I have written numerous essays in my popular series, spanning ten printed volumes, on the documentation of this style of intermediacy in a variety of lineages, including the transition turn to terrestriality in vertebrates, the origin of birds, and the evolution of mammals, whales and humans—the very cases that the usual creationist literature has proclaimed impossible.
This was written in 2002—that's 12 years ago. This proves that Granville Sewell and David Klinghoffer are at least a dozen years behind in their readings about evolution. Either that or they are lying, but perhaps that "grants them too much acumen."


  1. I was there. Jeff Levinton even asked me to chair one of the important sessions. I turned him down, saying that I really was not actively involved in work on that topic. Then, in the event, with someone else in the chair in that session, I was furiously waving my hand wanting to make an important point. And couldn't get recognized, as too many other people had things to say too.

    Live and learn ...

  2. I should also add a possible reason why Boyce Rensberger's article was so sound. John Rensberger, who is an emeritus faculty member here, is a paleontologist, and I think they may be brothers.

    1. John Rensberger and I are not brothers, only distant cousins who have never met.

  3. This gould guy and others are just embarrassed with the creationists punching home a excellent point.
    PE was a correction of evolutionary process. THEY were saying previous idea(s) were wrong. AMEN
    So YEC/ID creationists justly highlight PE as evolutionism having failed in major needs for evidence.
    SO they are forced to retreat to PE. Which means We don't expect to find intermediates in the fossil record. Its quick and then stability. Yeah thats the answer.
    These dudes were just early critics of evolution and tried to save it from its lack of evidence for how evolution happened. However the baby should of been thrown with the bath water.
    ID/YEC researchers are fishing for the baby and its going before too long.

    If evolutionists want to criticize creationists about our portrayal of the PE correction as sign of a problem and a bigger problem THEN ADMIT its intellectually morally fair to say PE confronted and corrected and replaced a previous historic error in evolutionary "theory". Correction always means wrong or a little wrong.
    Wrong a little hints at more more wrong to be shown .
    Like the Ham debate we win this point.

    1. The Game of Thrones producers should consider making a new TV series based on Byers' fantasy world.

    2. You do understand that people make fun of religion because it never changes, but praise science because it changes as evidence is uncovered? Of course you don't... you throw babies out with bathwater.

    3. So, professional liars like Gish and ignorami like you know more about the meaning of Gould's work than Gould himself?

    4. Yes if its about punching home that a correction counts as qualifying a previous position as being in a spectrum of error. WRONGISH or WRONG!
      Evolution has no biological scientific evidence for its major claims.
      This Gould fella , slightly sharper, realized in some areas , like the fossil record, IMDEED there was not found the EXPECTED evidence to support evolutions claims on how evolution happened.
      So he reaaranged, PE, conclusions to FIT the LACK of fossil etc evidence.
      It was just a early sign of the present decline in evolutionary biology's rights to calim to be a scientific theory. Its just a hunch or unsupported hypothesis to justify convictions that whales once walked the land,.
      They did walk the land but didn't evolve into the water. Wrong hunch.
      YUP .Creationists get Gould better then Gould.
      In a future timeline of the extinction of confidence in the evolutionary theory HE will be noted as a early doubter of interpretations of raw data.
      You heard it here first

    5. If we look beyond the ranting here, there is a valid point that should be of great concern to those concerned with integrity in science. If there has been a "correction" to the Modern Synthesis, then it must have been wrong about something. What, precisely, was wrong? When was the correction made? Is there a reference that I can cite?

      Theories are integrated, so you can't just change one part without changing other things. What else got changed as the result of the correction?

      I do not see this kind of accountability in evolutionary biology. Instead, the Modern Synthesis has just become a moving target. Keynote speakers today promote ideas about evolution that literally were rejected as anti-Darwinian by Fisher, et al. It isn't just that we discovered things they never thought of, like lateral transfer. We have discovered things that they thought about and dismissed, like variation-biased evolution or mutation-driven evolution.

    6. But (continuing the thought), it is all still defended as "the Modern Synthesis", which is no longer treated as a theory, but has transmogrified retroactively into a social movement that consists of "whatever we believe." Some authors such as historian David Hull actually thinks it is a virtue of the "Modern Synthesis" that it absorbs all the new ideas. He is confused. A social movement and a theory are 2 different things. The architects of the Modern Synthesis had settled ideas about how evolution works, and they built those ideas into their theory.

  4. In exactly the same way, the creationists love the 1967 Wistar meeting, which (as far as I can tell) had essentially zero impact on the actual practice of evolutionary biology.

    1. Evolutionists, OTOH, are quite fond of the 2007 Wistar II meeting. Especially the part where Ann Gauger admitted that a novel beneficial trait had evolved in her lab before her very eyes.

    2. Creationists were positively apoplectic over the evolution meeting in Altenberg, Austria in 2008 (the Altenberg 16).

    3. Creationists and ID types actually loved the "Altenberg 16" meeting because it was hyped with a lot of stuff about how the Modern Synthesis was dead and how at this meeting it was going to be replaced. They could then cite that as evolutionary biologists "admitting" that evolutionary biology didn't work. Ignoring what was actually said at the meeting, they could be ecstatic, not apoplectic.

    4. I should add that the 1980 Macroevolution meeting in Chicago was actually a very timely meeting, with all the major people who had been arguing for and against Punctuated Equilibrium. It was a useful airing of arguments, even if it did not settle anything. Its significance was not just that it could be distorted by creationists.

  5. This may be a dead horse by now (a dead Hyracotherium?), but the article of mine to which links on this page go is only about half of what I wrote in the New York Times.

    The rest goes on to discus how much actual time might pass within a single punctuation. I cite Gould saying that 50,000 years of natural selection might fit within a single, apparent punctuation of the equilibrium.

    The rest of the piece discusses "hopeful monsters" and other concepts. Subscribers to the NYT can find the full article in the archive online.