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Just What Do They Say, Dr Morris?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Just What Do They Say, Dr Morris?
Author(s): 
Troy Britain
Volume: 
19
Issue: 
1
Year: 
1999
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
22–23
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The March 1999 edition of Back to Genesis, written as usual by the President Emeritus of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), Henry Morris, was titled "What They Say". As we have come to expect from such a title, it was yet another example of a creationist bashing evolutionists with their own words. Knowing that quotes of mainstream scientists given by creationists are not always exactly what they appear to be, I read the article with a wary eye. My skepticism was vindicated when I happened upon the following:
There are no evolutionary transitions fossilized anywhere, although billions of fossils are there still preserved in the rocks.

"One of the outstanding problems in large-scale evolution has been the origin of major taxa, such as the tetrapods, birds, and whales, that had appeared too suddenly, without any obvious answers, over a comparatively short period of time."

Professor Carroll, an eminent Canadian paleontologist, is well aware of such highly publicized fossils as Archaeopteryx (the alleged half-reptile, half-bird) and the so-called walking whale, but he still has to acknowledge that birds and whales arose suddenly without obvious ancestors(Morris 1999: b).
What first made me suspicious about this was the past tense of the sentence ("had appeared") which Morris quoted. Second, I knew that the implication Morris was gleaning from the quote simply wasn't true, and given my understanding that Robert Carroll is a competent paleontologist, I suspected something might be wrong. So I went to look up the context. The text selected by Morris for quotation is indicated in italics.
Is macroevolution conceptually different than microevolution? The main driving forces are the same as at the species level: population growth, genetic variation, and behavioral plasticity. At both time scales, external factors of the biological and physical environment control the rate, scope, and direction of change.

One of the outstanding problems in large-scale evolution has been the origin of major taxa, such as the tetrapods, birds, and whales, that had appeared to rise suddenly, without any obvious answers, over a comparatively short period of time. Increased knowledge of the fossil record has greatly increased our understanding of these and other transitions, and show that they do not necessarily require processes that differ from those known to occur at much lower taxonomic levels. To Simpson and others of his generation, higher categories were recognized by a combination of factors: morphological and adaptive distinction, a significant number of included taxa, and appreciable longevity. From examples considered in this text, it can be seen that adaptive change, morphological change, and radiation can be decoupled in that each may occur at a different time. We now see that the overall rate of evolution is not greatly faster during the origin of a group than it is within the ancestral or the descendant lineages, and with the discovery of intermediate forms, we see that they are not necessarily any more poorly represented in the fossil record than single lineages might be at other stages of evolution (Carroll 19997: 391).
So not only does the very next sentence in the paragraph contradict Morris's implication but a few sentences later Carroll specifically refers to the existence of intermediate forms and explicitly states that the evolution of higher taxa did not occur at a different rate than that of groups at lower taxonomic levels. Even if one were to disagree with Carroll about the facts of the matter it is clear from the context that Carroll is saying the very opposite of what Morris implied he was saying.

But what about being more specific? For example Morris refers specifically to Archaeopteryx and the evolution of birds. What does Carroll say about avian origins in the very book that Morris is quoting from above?
Despite the enormous gap in anatomy, physiology, and way of life between modern birds and the other long-recognized vertebrate classes, the fossil record provided singularly informative evidence of the origin of birds long before we understood the ancestry of tetrapods, amniotes, or mammals. Historically, the question of the origin of birds has concentrated on a single genus, Archaeopteryx from the Upper Jurassic, which appears as an almost ideal intermediate between "reptiles" (specifically dinosaurs) and birds....until recently little was known of either the ancestry of Archaeopteryx or of animals intermediate between this genus and essentially modern birds of the later Mesozoic. Within the past twenty years, a host of new discoveries have begun to fill both these gaps, outlining the accumulative evolution of avian characters over a period that spans approximately 40 million years, from the obligatory terrestrial dinosaurs to an essentially modern avian anatomy(Carroll 1997: 306-7)
And what about whales, which Morris also takes great pains to emphasize as a problem Carroll must admit to?
The transition between mesonychids and primitive but obligatorily aquatic whales is represented by a sequence of intermediate animals from the upper portion of the lower Eocene and the lower half of the middle Eocene of Pakistan, continuing into the later middle and upper Eocene of Egypt and southeastern United States (Fig. 12.20). This sequence extends over a period of 10-12 million years, beginning with riverine sediments, including primarily fossils of terrestrial mammals, through shallow coastal marine, to deep neritic deposits at the edge of the continental shelf. Several genera are recognized, showing the progressive reduction in the size of the appendicular skeleton, freeing the tail for aquatic locomotion, and a succession of modifications in the structure of the middle ear (Carroll 1997: 330).
Morris concludes his article saying, "most everything they [evolutionists] say...seems potentially something that can be used against them" (Morris 1999:c). Well, I suppose if one is willing to rip a scientist's words completely out of context and twist them to imply the exact opposite of their original intent, then Morris might be correct.

There is a further irony in that Morris includes a footnote to the above statement, which refers his readers to his recent book That Their Words May Be Used Against Them (1997). There, he says, one may find further quotes of the same nature almost (3000 of them) as those found in this article (Morris 1997: c). Considering the way in which the quoted sections misrepresent the intent of the works Morris cites, we would have to ask of what use such a tome would be to the serious seeker of knowledge.

References

Carroll RL, Pattern and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution. New York: Cambridge U Press; 1997.

Morris HM, Back To Genesis 1999; 3:b-c.

About the Author(s): 
Troy Britain
TroyBritain@compuserve.com