Monday, April 10, 2006

Wittlessly Quote-mining

Following the discovery of the fish-tetrapod intermediate Tiktaalik, the creationists seem to be in full damage control mode, making a lot of nonsensical claims that only serve to show us that no fossil evidence, no matter how compelling, could ever convince them of the reality of evolution.

Ed Brayton dissects the latest from the Discovery Institute's Johnathan Witt, which possibly breaks all records for lack of coherence. I'll leave it to Ed to put the smack-down on Witt, but I though I'd highlight something I found pretty amusing. In support of his rather bizarre claim that Tiktaalik is a transitional fossil but not really a transitional fossil, Witt quote-mines (second-hand, naturally) from paleontologist Henry Gee:

The lead-in article contains a classic Darwinian prop, an illustration of a series of fossils purporting to show a Darwinian progression from one form to a fundamentally different one. A passage from Jonathan Wells' book Icons of Evolution might have been written as a direct response to this illustration except that the book was written years before the picture (though, if you read chapter six of the book, you'll see that problems of chronology do not always hinder Darwinists in their story-telling efforts):

Henry Gee, chief science writer for Nature... [wrote:] "No fossil is buried with its birth certificate" ... and "the intervals of time that separate fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent." It's hard enough, with written records, to trace a human lineage back a few hundred years. When we have only a fragmentary fossil record, and we're dealing with millions of years -- what Gee calls "Deep Time" -- the job is effectively impossible... Gee concludes: "To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story -- amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific."

And yet the icons of evolution must be found where they can be found. As the news article in the current issue of Nature puts it, "The newly discovered fossil, Tiktaalik roseae ... might in time become as much of an evolutionary icon as the proto-bird Archaeopteryx."

Here is the illustration from the lead-in article, which Witt doesn't bother to show his audience:

Of course, no one argues that the progression of fossils in which Tiktaalik has been placed represents an actual ancestor-descendent relationship. The fact that they are presented in cladistic form (as a branch off of the main line) makes explicit the fact that Tiktaalik, for example, should not be considered the actual ancestor of Acanthostega (though it possibly is), but rather represents an earlier related form. The actual ancestor of Acanthostega probably would have looked a lot like Tiktaalik, but was most likely a different species, owing to the fact that we have only a handful of fossil specimens available out of hundreds or thousands of species that must have existed. By way of analogy, I have Irish ancestry, but digging up the grave of an ancient Irishman would not mean that I had found my literal ancestor. A distant relative to be sure, but I would have no way of knowing if he were truly my ancestor.

What paleontologists do argue is that Tiktaalik exists as a transitional form that we expect to see if tetrapods evolved from fish. In the above quote, Henry Gee's point is that it's impossible to deduce strict ancestor-descendent relationships (e.g. species A evolved directly from species B) on the basis of scant fossil evidence, which is pretty obvious when you think about it. That doesn't mean that relationships can't be established (e.g. species A is more closely related to species B than either is to species C), and it certainly doesn't say anything about a given fossil being morphologically intermediate between other groups. Witt, and by extension Jonathan Wells, are badly misrepresenting Henry Gee. Even if it weren't obvious from knowing a little about systematics, I can figure this out by consulting the words of... Henry Gee. He has become so frustrated at this persistent misrepresentation, he finally felt compelled to speak out:

That it is impossible to trace direct lineages of ancestry and descent from the fossil record should be self-evident. Ancestors must exist, of course -- but we can never attribute ancestry to any particular fossil we might find. Just try this thought experiment -- let's say you find a fossil of a hominid, an ancient member of the human family. You can recognize various attributes that suggest kinship to humanity, but you would never know whether this particular fossil represented your lineal ancestor - even if that were actually the case. The reason is that fossils are never buried with their birth certificates. Again, this is a logical constraint that must apply even if evolution were true -- which is not in doubt, because if we didn't have ancestors, then we wouldn't be here. Neither does this mean that fossils exhibiting transitional structures do not exist, nor that it is impossible to reconstruct what happened in evolution. [...]

I am a religious person and I believe in God. I find the militant atheism of some evolutionary biologists ill-reasoned and childish, and most importantly unscientific -- crucially, faith should not be subject to scientific justification. But the converse also holds true -- science should not need to be validated by the narrow dogma of faith. As such, I regard the opinions of the Discovery Institute as regressive, repressive, divisive, sectarian and probably unrepresentative of views held by people of faith generally. In addition, the use by creationists of selective, unauthorized quotations, possibly with intent to mislead the public undermines their position as self-appointed guardians of public values and morals.

I don't know about you, but the minute someone issues a public statement completely slamming me like that, I quit citing that person in support of my viewpoint. It's just a little thing I like to call honesty. If he had never said otherwise, you could at least pretend like this person's viewpoint supports yours, but when he comes out and says "no fool, you're wrong," you should probably defer to his judgment. Maybe Witt thinks he knows more about what Gee means than Gee himself does. If that's the case, Witt should have provided a little disclaimer saying, "by the way, Henry Gee disagrees with our interpretation of his words and calls us moral reprobates in the process". That would have been the intellectually honest thing to do. But nah, why let a little thing like the author get in the way of your interpretation?

It's been about four and a half years now since Gee issued that clarification, and Witt is still happily abusing his words, as if Gee never said anything. If anyone wonders why the Discovery Institute people irritate the living hell out of the scientific community, this is why.