Mackay’s quote mining (by Dan Ryder)

John Mackay displays his lack of knowledge with the strings of quotations he presents below from evolutionary biologists. This is a popular practice in the young-earth creationist literature: quote some evolutionary biologist out of context so they sound like they’re disagreeing with evolution when they aren’t.

In his debate summary, he quotes Gould: “…our ability to classify both living and fossil species distinctly and using the same criteria, ‘fit splendidly with creationist tenets,’” as though Gould is saying that the variety of living and fossil creatures supports creationism. That’s not what he’s saying, as Gould himself complained in no uncertain terms, many years ago here. (Do you not check your sources at all, Mr. Mackay? This quote-mine was exposed back in 1984!) The quotation comes from p. 205 of The Panda’s Thumb, where the complete quote is: “This notion of species as ‘natural kinds’ fit splendidly with creationist tenets of a pre-Darwinian age.” First, he makes no mention of fossils at all – that’s just added in! Second, he is talking about what people used to think pre-Darwin. Third, he goes on to explain how evolutionary theory gives a much better account of what we find: a mix of stability and change throughout the fossil record.

What we don’t see are unchanging natural kinds, as they used to think – for example, there are hundreds of identified dinosaur species that we obviously don’t see today, and that are found only within a restricted range of strata in the fossil record: wikipedia’s list. Instead we see birds today, whose dinosaur ancestry (or at least cousinhood) is indicated by many different facts, including: skeletal similarity (vertebra, feet), similar lungs,and a collagen structure that is closest to modern birds. (For a basic summary of some of this information and more, see here.)

The next case of quote mining: Mackay quotes evolutionary biologist Thomas Kemp on the “sudden” appearance of “new taxa” in the fossil record, and a biology textbook to the same effect. “Sudden”, here, means on the order of hundreds of thousands of years, which already contradicts Mackay’s view that the earth is merely 10,000 years old. Second, the “new taxa” are often very similar indeed to related taxa: e.g. barosaurus and diplodocus (or other diplodocoids). If these are new “kinds”, using the meaningless creationist term, then a chihuahua is definitely a different kind from a great dane, and it’s game over for Mackay. (He has to maintain that all dogs are the same “kind”, or else he would have to admit that new kinds can come from old ones.)

In the quotations, Kemp and the textbook are discussing an issue within evolutionary biology concerning how rapid evolutionary change can be: when environmental change is rapid, evolutionary change can be too; when the environment is stable, so (typically) are species. If evolutionary change is caused by environmental selection, this is exactly what we would expect. These folks, who are staunch advocates of evolution, would be shocked to learn Mackay is misusing them as fake support for young-earth creationism.

Next case: In his new post (“Family Trees”), Mackay quote-mines an article from New Scientist in 2009 discussing the transfer of genetic material by methods other than reproduction. For instance, it has long been known that one bacterium can transfer short segments of DNA to another bacterium by connecting through a tube – a process known as “conjugation.” This is like the process whereby a language can borrow a term from another, rather than from its parent language(s): for example, we got “pajama” from Hindi-Urdu, not from the parent languages of Anglo-Saxon or medieval French. What this means is that, in bacteria and other single-celled creatures, common descent has a network or web shape rather than a tree shape. (This is also true, though to a much lesser extent, for multicellular creatures like us.)

When Mackay quotes these scientists as questioning the “tree of life”, they are merely suggesting that common descent takes the form of a web rather than a tree. They are not questioning common descent; rather they are displaying the incredible knowledge that we are acquiring about the details of common descent (just as we are about the common descent of languages using exactly the same methods). For example, Mackay quotes Eric Bapteste saying “We have no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality” [rather than a web, I might add!], but conveniently leaves out Bapteste’s later comment: “The tree of life was useful. It helped us to understand that evolution was real.

I’ll have more to say about the language analogy in the post after my next one.

3 thoughts on “Mackay’s quote mining (by Dan Ryder)

  1. QUOTE MINER EH? Dan – since you are the one who argued the existence of these family trees was your best evidence then you are shot! It is irrelevant whether the guys who wrote the article still accept different evidence for evolution since we are not debating what these guys believe about the big picture of evolution – only their claim that the family trees are not real vs your claim they are. So what is relevant is that you actually don’t have a case for family trees being actual evidence for evolution in this debate. They don’t work . They aren’t real – so no evidence Dan!

    The only question to ask about quote usage should be “Is the data in the quote accurate?” And in this case it’s 100% accurate. Family trees have had it. And please stop making silly noises about quote mining and start digging for truth instead of using outdated evolutionist family trees.

    -John Mackay

  2. Since you’re happy to speak colloquially, I will too: Come on, that’s ridiculous. If your reasoning here were correct, it would also prove that English was created from scratch, and wasn’t descended from earlier languages… simply because it has the words “pajama”, “banshee”, “kosher”, and “candy” in it (borrowed from, respectively, Hindi-Urdu, Irish, Yiddish, and Arabic). What utter bollocks, as I believe you Aussies would say. 🙂 Borrowing is still a form of copying, which contradicts your view that animals were created from scratch.

    A direct question: do you accept that it’s obvious English is descended from earlier languages, or not? If yes, then we needn’t pursue this any further; you’re granting the reasoning that goes from that kind of pattern of similarities to the conclusion of common descent. (For others reading this, you can stop here if you like. I just fill in the details a bit next.)

    I argued that the genetic patterns of similarity and difference among organisms demonstrate that they are a product of common descent. This applies whether they are organized in a tree of descent (which is what I focused on), or a network of descent, with borrowing of genetic material between cousins. I believe I even mentioned in passing that the pattern is more complex in single-celled organisms like bacteria (precisely because of genetic borrowing).

    That said – and strictly speaking this is entirely irrelevant, because common descent is proven either way – it has been shown time and time again that the tree or “nested hierarchy” structure is correct for large, multicellular organisms. I direct you, for instance, to Meredith et al.’s study across the entire range of mammals (Science Express, Sept. 22, 2011, pp. 1-8). I quote: “The results reported here provide a robust molecular phylogeny for mammalian families and a solid foundation for resolving the remainder of the mammalian hierarchy below the family level.” (Here’s the tree: .) In other words, the extreme anti-tree statements of a couple of the biologists in the article you found were just getting a little over-excited about their hobbyhorse. Yes, there is borrowing across branches of the tree of descent in mammals, for example, but the tree is robustly there. The borrowing is just an added detail – like we now know that homo sapiens borrowed DNA from neanderthals by crossbreeding (1-4% of your DNA is neanderthal DNA, John.) So the data in your quotes is not accurate, sorry.

    And I repeat: network (as in bacteria) or tree, either way it demonstrates common descent. (And I note that even in a network, the tree structure is apparent at the level of individual genes, rather than whole organisms.)

    Try again.

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