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DI again accused of quote-mining

The following appeared in the San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times on August 13, 2003, and is posted here with the permission of its author.

John G. West of the Discovery Institute, in his guest column Friday, quoted an article in a leading biology journal as purported support for his view that alternatives to contemporary evolutionary science ought to be presented in biology textbooks. I am the author of the article he quoted (but did not properly cite) and I am writing to make it absolutely clear that West is gravely mistaken in taking the excerpted sentence out of its full context.

It is very misleading of West to try to derive legitimacy for his mission by scouring the scientific literature for a phrase or sentence and then attaching a meaning that was not intended and would be far different if read in the entirety of the work or related work by the same author. The intent of West and the Discovery Institute is to recast legitimate scientific inquiry into the causes and mechanisms of evolution as doubt about the process of evolution.

There is plenty more to understand about 3 billion years of life's history, but the basic fact we share common ancestors with other apes, indeed with all animal life, is not one of them.

West, citing my article, wrote, "In 2000, for example, an article in the journal Cell noted that there is a 'long-standing question of the sufficiency of evolutionary mechanisms observed at or below the species level ("microevolution") to account for the larger-scale patterns of morphological evolution ("macroevolution").' Yet this 'long-standing question' about neo-Darwinism isn't covered in most textbooks. Why not?

The implication West asserts is that my phrasing "long-standing question" implies some doubt. Rather the meaning is that this is a question being actively explored. We know, for example, that mass extinctions caused by impact events shape evolution; this is not what would traditionally be in the realm of the category of microevolution. Yet my article was actually about the genetic mechanisms underlying the evolution of large-scale differences between species (macroevolution).

Furthermore, I answered this question in the article, as well as in subsequent articles in the leading journal Nature and in a leading textbook, that indeed, the genetic processes operating at the level of individuals and species are sufficient to account for evolution of form at higher levels. West chose not to quote any of the remainder of the article or other work by me as they would completely destroy his case.

West and the Discovery Institute preach fairness, so if they are going to selectively quote a scientist it is only fair that the scientist's actual views are fully disclosed.

While the Discovery Institute's feeble challenges to the immense body of science underlying evolutionary biology presents no substantive scientific issue, its political and religious aspirations are very real issues. As happened in Kansas, Ohio and several other states, the Discovery Institute has sought to influence school science standards and textbook content in Texas. Its appeal to citizens' sense of fairness masks an agenda that would undermine the quality of science education in this country and introduce a thinly veiled religious doctrine as "science." Scores of scientific organizations, the National Academy of Sciences and many school boards have rebuffed this agenda. I hope that state and local authorities in Texas will do the same.

Sean B. Carroll,
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Professor, molecular biology and genetics, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, Wis.