A number of years ago, journalist Robert Wright labelled evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould “the accidental creationist” in an oft-quoted article that appeared in The New Yorker. According to Wright, Gould was culpable of (unwittingly) aiding and abetting creationists because of his public pronouncements on evolution, based on “his muddled [understanding of] evolutionary theory.” Indeed Wright went on to quote this infamous quip by John Maynard Smith (another prominent evolutionary biologist), who said of Gould:
[T]he evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.I don’t know which evolutionary biologists Maynard Smith talked to, but they were off the mark by a long shot, and his vitriolic comment was anything but fair play toward an esteemed colleague. Be that as it may, I was reminded of this incident several times during the past few weeks because of a sudden spike in mis-quotations of yours truly that have appeared on two “prominent” creationist blogs: the bizarrely named “Evolution News” and the more ironically termed “Uncommon Descent” (the four entries are here, here, here, and here, in chronological order of appearance).
The barrage began on March 23rd at Uncommon Descent, where Sal Cordova picked up several quotes from a recent Rationally Speaking post (on “Universal Darwinism” — he got the link wrong, don’t know for sure if by unintelligent design or what). Cordova ended the short post by summarizing my position thus: “Dennett is wrong, Dobzhansky is wrong, Dawkins is wrong, and Pross (the author Pigliucci critiques) is wrong. Grand slam!” To which he added: “Duane Gish said it better: ‘Nothing in evolution makes sense in light of biology.’”
Of course I did not say anything like “Dennett, Dobzhansky, Dawkins and Pross are wrong” across the board, and instead disagreed with specific statements and positions taken by these writers. But apparently if you are a creation-fundamentalist the very concept of honest disagreement and open discussion eludes you. And so does the idea that the nature of science makes it an open-ended enterprise where progress is made in part precisely because people disagree.
The following day a “memo to Sal Cordova” appeared, again at Uncommon Descent, posted by Denyse O'Leary, entitled “Massimo Pigliucci may be in transit” (uh, oh!). The entire post consists of two quotes from me (and they didn’t give me royalties!), one about Dobzhansky, the other from a slightly older Rationally Speaking post about consciousness.
Now, it’s not clear to me exactly where those two quotes may signal my transition to, but they ought to be pretty useless to pseudoscientists of any stripe. In the first instance, I simply pointed out that Dobzhansky exaggerated when he famously wrote (not in a technical paper) that “nothing in biology makes sense if not in the light of evolution.” I stated the obvious: plenty of research has been done in biology (e.g., during much of the molecular biology revolution) by moving evolution to a background condition, without explicitly taking it on board. But this is as controversial as to say that much research has been done in physics (e.g., non-equilibrium thermodynamics) without explicitly taking on board quantum theory. To go from there to say that one can therefore reject/deny either evolutionary biology or quantum physics is nonsense on stilts.
My second claim was that I think that some of my fellow atheists of late have been a bit too quick at declaring things like consciousness to be an “illusion", since such conclusion is based on questionable metaphysical grounds and indeed is pitted against some of the best neurobiological evidence to date. But are the good folks (ahem) at Uncommon Descent now saying that people who think consciousness is a real phenomenon are somehow bound to accept metaphysical fables concerning the existence and postmortem survival of the soul? I don’t think so.
Third day: on March 26th Evolution News (ah!) picked up on my Dobzhansky comment to conclude that “This is a point that has been made repeatedly by Darwin critics and proponents of ID, on this blog and elsewhere. The neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (and even common descent itself) has very little heuristic value or practical application when it comes to most fields of biology.” The comment was made by one “Jonathan M.” (people, please, at least have the decency to identify yourselves if you write for the public, yes?) and is, naturally, another non sequitur. First of all, as I mentioned above, my comment is most certainly not the kind of thing that “Darwin critics” and IDers have been saying. Second, if it is the case that the theory of evolution (it’s the Modern Synthesis, by the way, not neo-Darwinism, get your history of biology straight) has little heuristic value this is in the same sense in which quantum mechanics ain’t particularly useful for building bridges. In neither case does it follow that the theory is somehow wrong or deficient. But, again, logic (even at the 101 level) isn’t these people’s forte.
Finally, we get to Casey Luskin, who wrote a longer piece on April 5th for Evolution News on the recent Tennessee bill that would allow the teaching of “controversy” over evolution in that state’s schools. Luskin quotes me thus: “As evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci said: ‘[I]t has to be true that we really don't have a clue how life originated on Earth by natural means.’” Except that dear Luskin “forgot” to quote in context. Here is the full version:
There are two points that must be borne in mind, however, before going for a [Fred] Hoyle-like explanation for the origin of life [i.e., the life originated on other planets and was imported on Earth]. First, it has to be true that we really don’t have a clue about how life on Earth [original italic] originated by natural means. As we will see, though the situation is messy, it is not that desperate.Now, does it sound to you like Luskin fairly represented what I actually wrote? Didn’t think so. And of course in that same article I lambasted creationists and IDers of all stripes. So you see the problem with Wright’s charge against Gould: it is pretty much impossible to write for the public in an intellectually honest way and not be willfully misquoted by people who have no qualms at being intellectually dishonest if it suits their ideological agenda. That shouldn’t stop us from engaging the public, or from pointing out every time these bozos are trying to get free mileage by distorting what we write. Incidentally, isn’t lying a violation of one of the Ten Commandments? (It’s the 10th, 9th, 17th or 21st, depending on which version of the sacred scriptures you prefer.)