From the Quote Mines: Phil Skell

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In the August 29 issue of the Scientist, Phil Skell writes in his opinion piece “Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology” the following:

Phil Skell Wrote:

Despite this and other daculties, the modem form of Darwin’s theory has been raised to its present high status because it’s said to be the comerstone ofmodem experimental biology. But is that correct? “While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s dictum that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,’ most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas,”

A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000. “Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”

I decided to investigate the quote. Guess what?

The same quote was mined on ARN and Grape Ape responded

Grape Ape Wrote:

You forgot to post the very next passage:

Yet, the marginality of evolutionary biology may be changing. More and more issues in biology, from diverse questions about human nature to the vulnerability of ecosystems, are increasingly seen as reflecting evolutionary events. A spate of popular books on evolution testifies to the development. If we are to fully understand these matters, however, we need to understand the processes of evolution that, ultimately, underlie them.

So I did a search on Google and found the quote mined on the Discover Institute in Skell’s article. A creationist website John Mark Ministries, Answer In Genesis Feedback and a Skeptics page about an AIF debate

Is it not time to put to rest this canard?

2 TrackBacks

Longtime readers here know I'm no fan of Phil Skell, the creationist academic at Penn State whose schtick is to claim over and over that evolutionary biology has no relevance to modern biology, and that we'd all be just fine without it. Now h... Read More

More Skell from stranger fruit on August 31, 2005 11:24 AM

Over at the Panda's Thumb, Pim points out that Skell's latest skreed engages in the usual selective quotation. The article states: A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000. “Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unify... Read More

61 Comments

Good Lord. Do these people have no shame?

Dave wrote: “Do these people have no shame?” In a word; NO! Not science, but the politics of deception, guides them. You should get used to it, there is more to come.

.

Actually, “these people” are simply using the same techniques they use when quoting from the Bible.

With a narrow enough focus, you can get biblical permission for any idiocy or horror.

So what was A.S. Wilkins thinking of when he wrote (in 2000) “… at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”?

I’m not a biologist, but surely the usefulness of evolutionary-based explanations for living phenomena has been known for decades. (Since the joining of evolutionary zoology and the new science of genetics in the 1940s, I recall hearing - pardon my ignorance if I have this wrong.) If Wilkins meant that ‘bean counting’ descriptive science could go on without reference to evolutionary explanations for observed phenomena, I suppose I understand, but don’t advances in science come about when an explanation of a phenomenon is given?

I find creationist quote mining despicable, but the onus is on scientists to be accurate and clear in what they write.

Over at DI, http://www.discovery.org/scripts/vi[…]d.php?id=496 I found this interesting article:

DARWINIAN EVOLUTIONARY THEORY AND THE LIFE SCIENCES IN THE 21ST CENTURY Roland F. Hirsch This essay was originally published in “Uncommon Dissent” (ISI Books, 2004) edited by William Dembski.

In the Conclusions section is this gem:

Life as revealed by new technologies is more complicated than the Darwinian viewpoint anticipated. Thus evolutionary theory, which was considered to be a key foundation of biology in 1959, Adam S. Wilkins, the editor of the review journal BioEssays, put it this way in introducing an issue of his journal devoted to evolution in December 2000: The subject of evolution occupies a special, and paradoxical, place within biology as a whole. While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s dictum that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution,” most can conduct 19 their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas. “Evolution” would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.55

Sound familiar?

The article itself goes on about how new techniques, new discoveries in the genome, etc can’t be handled by the current theory of evolution. I don’t know enough science to analyze this. Anyone care to take this on?

I couldn’t find any reference to Hirsh in Talk Origins search.

Maybe I’m missing something, but doesn’t Skell in his piece address the charge of quote mining and cite the second paragraph and respond to it? Here is where I read it: http://www.discovery.org/scripts/vi[…]iscoMainPage

If that’s true, would not that make PvM a quote miner because he left out the fact that Skell in fact quoted the passage in its fullness and addressed its charges?

Jim Ramsey Wrote:

Actually, “these people” are simply using the same techniques they use when quoting from the Bible.

Sure does sound like it to me!

It is shameful that they actually feel good about the “work” they are doing all along while not following one of their Ten Commandments, specifically:

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Red Mann Wrote:

Anyone care to take this on?

I am reading it now.

The only thing so far that I have wondered on my own is the following statement taken from that article:

: the availability of complete genome sequences for two dozen microbial species led to a surprising discovery, one that previous information had only hinted at. The genome sequences revealed that for at least two microbial domains (bacteria and archaea), much of the inheritance is in a horizontal direction. And it also seems likely that—contrary to the assertion in the National Academy of Sciences document cited above—there was no “common ancestor cell,” but rather it is now thought more likely that there was a pool of cells that changed communally over a long period of time.

Basically they are attempting to explain the LGT phenomenon, (lateral gene transfer).

I have not done a lot of independent research on this. However, I’ve often wondered if there were more than one “bowl” of primordal soups from which life could have arouse in different areas around the world. Whereas instead of one common ancestor there could be a web or a few of them.

Seems that most of the first part of this article supports this idea.

Of course, it was edited by William Dembski, so who knows how much of it is the original work of Roland F. Hirsch. Seems that Dembski’s book of Uncommon Dissent is a collection of essays from “intillectuals” who don’t agree with Darwinism.

So far from Hirsch first few pages, it looks as if he isn’t arguing evolution per say, just has a few different ideas about it. So in my mind Dembski is saying, “Lookie Here, they don’t agree with EVERYTHING, so it must ALL be WRONG.”

Which we all know that the job of scientist is to question everything when new evidence supports a different theory. Then test are conducted to see if the new theory better explains the new information obtained.

It dosen’t disprove Darwinism or evolution, it just highlights it and solidifies it with better explainations of what actually happend.

I found a little bit of a “bio” for Hirsch here: http://www.sc.doe.gov/sc-80/esconne[…]20Hirsch.htm

As I read more and more into this, I will try to investigate and let you know what my opinion based on other data as well.

ID Paley Wrote:

If that’s true, would not that make PvM a quote miner because he left out the fact that Skell in fact quoted the passage in its fullness and addressed its charges?

You are right, I had not noticed that Skell addressed his quote later on when confronted with the rest of the quote. He argues that it ‘supports his point’ and argues that Darwinian explanations are to supple.

Remember what Skell wrote

But is that correct? “While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s dictum that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,’ most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas,” A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000.1 “Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”

If Skell is talking about experimental biology and Wilkins is not, then why quote him?

Thanks to ID Paley for pointing out that one needs to more carefully read that to which one responds

In Darwin-only crowd desperately rejects any competing theory Jonathan Witt, senior fellow at Discovery Institute, writes:

To shut down debate, other tactics are needed. A favorite is to assure people that Darwinism underpins all of modern biology. Many people of good will strongly believe this, but they are mistaken,

A.S. Wilkins, a leading evolutionary biologist, concedes this point. “The subject of evolution occupies a special, and paradoxical, place within biology as a whole,” he wrote. “While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s dictum that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,’ most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas. Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”

Again the same creationist quote to show that Darwinism does not underpin all of modern biology.

Pharyngula reported on the quote mining ”…in the light of evolution.”

The renown carbene chemist, Professor emeritus Dr. Philip Skell of Pennsylvania State University, did a survey of his colleagues that were “engaged in non-historical biology research, related to their ongoing research projects” and found that the “Darwinist researchers” he interviewed in answer to the question “Would you have done the work any differently if you believed Darwin’s theory was wrong?” found that the answers “for the large number” of those persons he questioned, “differing only in the amount of hemming and hawing” was “in my work it would have made no difference,” and some added they thought it would for others (2003. p. 1). Of interest is Molecular, Cell and Development Biology majors at Yale University graduate school will no longer be required to take courses on evolution (Hartman, 2003).

And our friend Salvador uses the same quote to support his claim that

Darwinian evolution (as in the origin of all species, not adaptational evolution as seen in anti-biotic resistance) is an inessential theory to biology, and arguably an impediment. Common design is a stronger, more encompassing paradigm than common descent because common design covers the issue of convergence and similarity more adequately than common descent. Common design is a more unifying concept than common descent, independent of any reference to intelligent agencies. Darwinism is thus superflous.

On Pharyngyla, more in depth exploration of Skell’s claims

I.D. Paley is exactly right. Goodness PvM, Have you no shame?

I love how Skell completely ignores the mention of ecological impact in the extended quote, which, we have seen, relies heavily on understanding of evolution. Not to mention combating disease and improving and sustaining agriculture.

We have gotten this same sort of nonsense from Dave Scot in times past - can’t these guys come up with something new? Skell simply shows his ignorance of modern biology, which isn’t surprising, since he doesn’t do it. And, this being science, the argument from authority (Wilkins) counts for squat. Even if Wilkins meant it in the way Snell suggests, it is merely one opinion.

Physicists working in solid-state physics don’t acknowledge gravity explicitly in their papers, either. Does that mean they don’t think it exists? What tripe.

T.Russ: I guess PvM was a bit hasty here, wasn’t he? Well, we all make mistakes. Best we can do is own up to them. That reminds me… what’s the disposition of your accusation that DI critics had no substance - nothing but insults and rhetoric? Specifically as regards the essays by Elsberry et al? If I recall correctly, you characterized it as “sickening”. You were going to explain yourself over at antievolution.org. How’s that coming along?

Mr. Russ

I.D. Paley is exactly right. Goodness PvM, Have you no shame?

If I may suggest, your own invariable practice of abandoning a thread as soon as any question becomes inconvenient for you to answer is far more shameful behavior than PvM’s occasional mistake. You will note that when the matter was brought to his attention, he apologized for it.

Your own lapses of ethical and intellectual credibility appear to be without apology of any kind.

Amusing.

Regarding the “common pool” theory: It seems possible that descent occured from a common pool rather than a common cell, but mostly because our picture of that far back is a bit murky. We know that we all (as in all life) have structurally similar ribosomal RNA, F1/F0 ATPases and globins, derived at one point from common ancestor genes as they have sequence similarities that can connect any life form to any other (through intermediaries). It seems a simpler explanation to guess that a common cell had these, as now we assume that organisms don’t trade ribosomal RNA. But back then, who knows?

Regarding the use of “Darwin” (I prefer evolutionary theory) in experimental biology: In my research on molecular mechanisms of pathogenesis in Mycobacteria, I think about evolution all the time. There are nonpathogenic environmental Mycobacteria, and obligate pathogen Mycobacteria (like M. tuberculosis and M. leprae), then there are environmental Mycobacteria, such as the M. avium we study, that opportunistically attack immunocompromised patients. Why do they do that? What advantage does it provide the organism, which is successful at living in soil and water, to attack animal hosts? What can comparative genomics of different Mycobacteria tell us about the mechanisms of virulence? Evolutionary theory is at the heart of these questions, and I don’t see how the quesitons or answers would make sense without them. In that way, evolutionary theory is extremely helpful in our work.

I’m sure there are many people in biology who could do the same work without knowing about evolution. I’m also sure there are many like myself for whom it is extremely helpful (I wonder how many hits the NCBI BLAST server gets each day…). Then, there are probably others, like the aforementioned ecologists, for whom it is essential.

I can excercize my right to vote without knowing anything about history, but knowledge can only help us. In any case, it would be a logical fallacy to conclude that evolution isn’t real just because some biologists don’t use it.

I understand the quote. My wife does biology research (convergence and extension of cells in Zebra fish embryos, etc.) and says evolution is like gas for her car. She doesn’t think about it much, but she can’t get anywhere without it…

The truth is, you can conduct biological research without thinking, day and night, about evolution. I’m sure there are many facets of biological research that evolution might not even be necessary.

If you want some idea why people “quote mine” evolutionists, you might care to consider the way that ALL sciences are in a more or less constant state of change - *perhaps* especially evolutionist ideas.

From a pro-evolution point of view - which usually seems to start from the assumption that evolution is a fact, and all that remains is to sort out the details - the change will tend to be viewed as a kind of self-adjusting process as scientists home in on the details. In this model, changes of course are not merely acceptable but positively expected.

OK, now look at it from the point of view of someone who DOESN’T start from that same assumption (come on - you can understand a different point of view without having to agree with it!). How does some in that situation start to argue against the claims of evolutionism? Or more precisely, WHERE do they start? Not surprisingly, it seems to me, they tend to look for “faults in the fabric” - what you call “quote mining.”

Now, you might well argue that the anti-evolutionists pick and choose and only take as much of a quote as suits their purpose. And let’s say you’re right. Do you honestly think that evolutionists don’t do exactly the same thing - when it suits them? You’d better believe they do. Back in July there was a discussion going on about the Scopes Monkey Trial. If you want to see some REALLY outrageous misrepresentation, distortion and selective editing - by otherwise reputable academics - I invite you to visit this web page for a view of how “the other half” do it:

http://www3.mistral.co.uk/bradburya[…]enness3.html

Mr. Bradbury,

If you want some idea why people “quote mine” evolutionists, you might care to consider the way that ALL sciences are in a more or less constant state of change - *perhaps* especially evolutionist ideas.

The term “evolutionist” is a misnomer; and yes, scientific theories are in a constant state of improvement. That’s why it’s science, as opposed to, say, religion. Scientific theories are intended to be point-in-time best explanations to fit the facts. When the facts change, then the theories need to as well.

From a pro-evolution point of view - which usually seems to start from the assumption that evolution is a fact, and all that remains is to sort out the details - the change will tend to be viewed as a kind of self-adjusting process as scientists home in on the details. In this model, changes of course are not merely acceptable but positively expected.

That’s how all science works. And evolution - considered as a continuous change in biodiversity over time is a fact. Even the most ardent creationists agree - their dispute is over how that change occured: the ‘mechanism’, if you like.

So I’m afraid that you’re wrong - both pro and anti, both sides start with the same assumption.

OK, now look at it from the point of view of someone who DOESN’T start from that same assumption (come on - you can understand a different point of view without having to agree with it!).

Sure. I can do that. Of course, such people don’t exist, but I can imagine.…

How does some in that situation start to argue against the claims of evolutionism? Or more precisely, WHERE do they start?

With the scientific literature, if they are intelligent and well-educated. With pop-science if they’re not.

Not surprisingly, it seems to me, they tend to look for “faults in the fabric” - what you call “quote mining.”

The problem with this statement is that it’s wrong: “quote-mining” is NOT finding ‘faults in the fabric’: it’s deliberately misstating a claim by removing the contextual information that clarifies the meaning. It’s dishonest. It’s unChristian.

Now, you might well argue that the anti-evolutionists pick and choose and only take as much of a quote as suits their purpose. And let’s say you’re right.

No, there are unethical fanatics on both sides of this argument. But the scientific community has built-in mechanisms to remove such people - the creationist (and most of the anti-evolution groups) positively encourage such behavior.

Do you honestly think that evolutionists don’t do exactly the same thing - when it suits them? You’d better believe they do.

As I said, unethical folks can be found everywhere. Science - through peer-review and experimental duplication generally eliminates them.

Back in July there was a discussion going on about the Scopes Monkey Trial. If you want to see some REALLY outrageous misrepresentation, distortion and selective editing - by otherwise reputable academics - I invite you to visit this web page for a view of how “the other half” do it:

I did. Nothing like senstationalist representation of error.

Were I to be fair to Jonathan Witt, the Ph.D. in creative writing, I’d have to correct his claim to be more accurate.

In shorthand, we often say that evolution underpins all of modern biology. In a stupidly strict sense, that might not be so. It would be possible to study the shapes of leaves on trees, for example, without understanding evolution.

So to be correct, we should say: Evolution underpins the understanding of all modern biology.

Sure, it’s possible to tally the shapes of the leaves without understanding evolution. But it’s impossible to understand why all poplars have certain leaf shapes, or why all firs have needles, without a crude understanding of evolution. And it’s impossible to understand modern disease fighting, modern agriculture, modern animal husbandry, modern medicine, modern paleontology, modern botany, modern genetics, etc., etc., without understanding evolution.

Evolution doesn’t underpin the mere lab procedures (the methodological naturalism that ID advocates wish to abandon). Evolution underpins the understanding of the results of the experiments.

RGD:

I suggest that the cross-checks built into the scientific establishment – peer review, replication of methods, construction of tests so that the default result cannot ratify the hypothesis, severe punishment within the community for demonstrable misrepresentation – are there for a good deal more than weeding out the unethical.

As I see it, nobody likes to be in error, everyone is convinced that their ideas capture some essential truth which experiments properly performed will support. The history of science is, as a subtext, also a history of how scientists have constructed methodologies and architected tests to tell them what they wished to hear. A lot of eggs broke when double-blind testing became commonplace.

Yes, science tries to weed out the cheats, but these are rare. Much more often, science is correcting not errors but insufficiently rigorous processes, to which some bias can too easily creep. Inadvertently-introduced bias favors the hypothesis under test more often than can be explained by chance.

I agree with you entirely that Creationism is *in the business* of generating dishonest misrepresentations. They don’t so much “encourage” such behavior as *require* it. I have no difficulty imagining Bradbury’s “opposing view” - that evidence must flow from preconceptions which cannot be questioned. In fact, I regard this as the default human condition. As far as human psychology is concerned, investigating *anything at all* with a willingness (and ability!) to accept whatever the results might be, is a heroic achievement attainable only by a very few, and only then very occasionally.

No doubt about it, to the limited extent anyone can reach this goal the results are just fabulous - especially when the liars are biting their ankles the whole time.

Flint, I agree completely. I didn’t mean to imply that this was the sole function of the ‘process’ of modern science, simply that elimination of those addicted to falsehood was a nice side benefit.

I wasn’t nearly clear enough.

And let me just add that Skell or any other person who thinks evolution is irrelevant would make a damnably lousy farmer, a poor forester, or a crank botanist. Would it be possible to be a modern veterinarian without some understanding of common descent? Zoologist? I doubt it.

I got to thinking about tree leaves, and the clear absurdity of Skell’s claim clunked out of my thoughts. The brilliance of Darwin’s theory is that it explained well why the leaves of Populus tremuloides and Populus carolinus share so many characteristics, and at the same time why they differ.

I wager that Skell has never seriously studied botany and is not a gardener. Those who do not observe nature carefully should be estopped from criticizing the observations of those who do. They should stop themselves before they make fools.

In the absence of evolution theory, how does Dr. Skell explain the absence of American chesnut trees? In the absence of evolution theory, how does he explain the sudden disappearance of the Mandan tribe, the tribe which kept peace along the Missouri River until after 1805?

Why PvM, thank you for mentioning me, ole Pal. How’s the former YEC turned theistic Darwinist doin’ these days? Have you considered converting back to your former way?

We have an honest quote mine at ARN: Quote Mine #1

here are some gems we collected in yonder quote mines. Glad to see a National Academy Science member like Phil Skell following a fine tradition of honest quote mining.

The neo-Darwinist population-genetics tradition is reminiscent of phrenology, I think, and is a kind of science that can expect exactly the same fate. It will look ridiculous in retrospect, because it is ridiculous. I’ve always felt that way, even as a more-than-adequate student of population genetics with a superb teacher — James F. Crow, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At the very end of the semester, the last week was spent on discussing the actual observational and experimental studies related to the models, but none of the outcomes of the experiments matched the theory.

The Third Culture - Chapter 7 Lynn Margulis

We cannot expect to explain cellular evolution if we stay locked in the classical Darwinian mode of thinking,” Woese says. “The time has come for biology to go beyond the Doctrine of Common Descent.

Carl Woese

And to Ed Darrell who advocates that the “5 points” of Ernst Mayr be taught:

I well remember how the synthetic theory beguiled me with its unifying power when I was a graduate student in the mid-1960’s. Since then I have been watching it slowly unravel as a universal description of evolution. The molecular assault came first, followed quickly by renewed attention to unorthodox theories of speciation and by challenges at the level of macroevolution itself. I have been reluctant to admit it– since beguiling is often forever– but if Mayr’s characterization of the synthetic theory is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy.

Stephen Gould

Salvador, doesn’t it bother you to lie for Christ? You’ve never ‘honestly’ quote-mined anything in your entire life - and that collection is classic unethical misrepresentation.

Doesn’t your conscience bother you at all?

One can do chemistry without atomic theory, too. It stops making sense, but one can do it.

Hey Sal, you’ve complained that Darwin didn’t know any Information Theory. Can you find me a single legitimate, recognized Information Theorist praising Dembski’s work? Or do they also think he’s clueless?

Salvador Cordova gets credit for mining the tailings of of a creationist quote mine!

Here, Sal, start your re-education with a 10-second Google search result: http://www.evowiki.org/index.php/Go[…]y_being_dead

Are you really trying to argue, as your quote mine claims, that Gould said Mayr was dead wrong about evolution?

Do you even read what you cut-and-paste? Can you diagram this sentence? (I wager you can’t, but let’s see):

Since then I have been watching it slowly unravel as a universal description of evolution.

If not, get someone to diagram it for you. Do you think the word “universal” means anything there?

Can you list for us any place in the five facts of evolution where Gould differs from Mayr?

Without hot air, I fear, IDists would suffocate.

we no longer invoke “Newtonian physics”

Shows what you know.

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on August 30, 2005 11:12 PM.

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