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Quote-Mining: An Old Anti-Evolutionist Strategy

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Quote-Mining: An Old Anti-Evolutionist Strategy
Author(s): 
Michael D Barton
Volume: 
30
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2010
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
14–15
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

While searching historical databases for material on John Tyndall, the subject of my master’s research, I came across an article in The New York Times of November 25, 1884, “Turn in the tide of thought: Thomas Kimber’s lecture on science in relation to divine truths” (Anonymous 1884). It is an account of a lecture regarding a return to biblical teachings and harmony between scientific discoveries and Scriptural statements. From the article:

As an illustration of the change of thought, the lecturer spoke of evolution’s failure as a strong theory and the downfall of Darwinism. When the theory came out it was seized upon with avidity, and most of the great scholars examined it and accepted it. Now they had given it up. Prof Virchow in the Edinburgh celebration said evolution had no scientific basis. No skull had yet been found differing to any extent from the general type. Prof Tyndall had lately said that “evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture”. Prof Huxley, at first one of its strongest advocates, said the link between the living and the not living had not been found. It must be found to prove the evolution theory.

John Tyndall (1820–1893), an Irish physicist and science popularizer, was an ardent supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and showed his support most famously in his 1874 address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast. He was a member of the X Club — with Thomas Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Herbert Spencer, and five others — a dining and social club established in 1864 that supported Darwin’s theory of evolution and campaigned for the authority of science in British society. Knowing who Tyndall was, when I read “Prof Tyndall had lately said that ‘evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture,’” I immediately questioned the quote. How is it that a man with a well-documented reputation of his support for evolutionary theory became adjoined to a quotation that seems to imply the very opposite of his position? I popped the quote into Google Book Search.

In 1878, Tyndall published an article in The Nineteenth Century titled “Virchow and evolution” (republished as Tyndall 1879). Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902), a German physician and biologist, opposed the theory of evolution based on the lack of fossil evidence (openly in an 1877 speech in Munich). Tyndall’s article addressed that speech:

The keynote of his position is struck in the preface to the excellent English translation of his lecture — a preface written expressly by himself. Nothing, he says, was farther from his intention than any wish to disparage the great services rendered by Mr Darwin to the advancement of biological science, of which no one has expressed more admiration than himself. On the other hand, it seemed high time to him to enter an energetic protest against the attempts that are made to proclaim the problems of research as actual facts, and the opinions of scientists as established science. On the ground, among others, that it promotes the pernicious delusions of the socialist, Virchow considers the theory of evolution dangerous; but his fidelity to truth is so great that he would brave the danger and teach the theory, if it were only proved. The burden indeed of this celebrated lecture is a warning that a marked distinction ought to be made between that which is experimentally established, and that which is still in the region of speculation. (1878: 822)
Two pages later:
In a discourse delivered before the British Association at Liverpool, after speaking of the theory of evolution applied to the primitive condition of matter as belonging to “the dim twilight of conjecture,” and affirming that “the certainty of experimental inquiry is here shut out,” I sketch the nebular theory as enunciated by Kant and Laplace.… (1878: 824, emphasis mine)

Clearly Tyndall did not reject the theory of evolution, but simply made a distinction between what can be known about evolution through experimental inquiry and what cannot. The piece in The New York Times either took Tyndall’s quote out of context and skewed his intentions or unknowingly borrowed the misquote from another source. This is a perfect example of quote mining, a creationist tactic that members of the NCSE are all familiar with (see the Quote Mine Project at the TalkOrigins Archive). It is common to find instances of quote-mining perpetuated by 20th and 21st-century anti-evolutionists against the words of 19th- or 20th-century evolutionists, Darwin included, but I was rather surprised to find an occurrence of strictly 19th-century quote-mining.

Tyndall did not state that “evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture,” but rather that “the theory of evolution applied to the primitive condition of matter” belongs to “the dim twilight of conjecture.” Surely those are two different meanings. Darwin explained how species evolved, but not how life first originated. This is what Tyndall was getting at.

We cannot be sure of the intention of the person who wrote the piece in The New York Times. The article is neither critical nor laudatory of Kimber’s lecture. What is certain is that Tyndall was not presented accurately in this anti-evolution piece; nor elsewhere. From The Medical Record (December 1, 1883):

In other quarters there are indications that the doctrine of Darwin is losing some of its charms for scientists. Some tell us that they accept it as a step to something else. Others find its demands on their credence too great. Your readers know pretty well the opposition it has encountered by such men as St J Mivart, Virchow, Wharton Jones, FRS, and others. A further indication of uncertainty in scientific minds is afforded by the statements of Prof Tyndall, who, in the Popular Science Review, says that “Evolution belongs to the dim twilight of conjecture. … Those who hold the doctrine are by no means ignorant of the uncertainty of their data, and they only yield to it a provisional assent. … Long antecedent to his advice I did exactly what Virchow recommends, showing myself as careful as he could be, not to claim for a scientific doctrine a certainty which did not belong to it. … I agree with him that the proofs of it are wanting. I hold with Virchow that the failures of proof are lamentable, that the doctrine of spontaneous generation is utterly discredited.” (Anonymous 1883: 611)
In Friends’ Review (March 22, 1884):
Probably the following quotations from Prof Tyndall’s utterances on evolution, taken from The Popular Science Monthly, will surprise some of those who have hastily accepted the theory, and based assumptions upon it. “Evolution belongs to the dim twilight of conjecture, and the certainty of experimental inquiry is here shut out. … Those who hold the doctrine of evolution are by no means ignorant of the uncertainty of their data, and they only yield to it a provisional assent. … Long antecedent to his advice I did exactly what Prof Virchow recommends, showing myself as careful as he could be, not to claim for a scientific doctrine a certainty which did not be long to it. … I agree with him that the proofs of it are wanting. I hold with Virchow that the failures of proof have been lamentable, that the doctrine of spontaneous generation is utterly discredited.” (Anonymous 1884: 524)
Samuel D Gross, an American trauma surgeon, wrote in his Autobiography (1887):
If we believe in a great First Cause, as all rational men must, why not assume that all things, visible and invisible, were the product of a special creation instead of a gradual evolution, as asserted by Darwin and his followers? If God could create the earth, the stars, and the mighty planets, of which our world forms only an insignificant part, could He not also, by a special act, have created all the dwellers therein, from the most minute microcosm up to the most complicated form of animal life? I agree with Professor Tyndall that the whole subject of evolution belongs to the dim twilight of conjecture. (Gross 1887: 186, emphasis mine)

It is important to note that a common creationist strategy — the intentional misquoting of supporters of evolutionary theory by removing particular passages of their writings from their original context to make it seem they were stating something different from their original intent — has a history that dates at least to the decades following Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Sadly, out-of-context quotes from statements made by supporters of evolution gain a life of their own, being repeated in newspapers, periodicals, books, websites, and documentaries without anyone’s consulting the original source. Anti-evolutionists engage in quote-mining because they can only sustain the mistaken view that even experts in biology doubt evolution if they quote selectively. Once quotes are placed out of context, other anti-evolutionists never go back to check the original source. Furthermore, once they are in print, it is easy for an indiscriminate search to find mined quotes.

It is unfortunate that such misconceptions about evolution have been perpetuated by an organization with a reputation for accuracy like The New York Times. As the Quote Mine Project attests, and my little bit of on-line searching shows, it is only a little more complicated to find the proper context, which allows a reader to know the author’s original intention in what he or she wrote about evolution.


References

[Anonymous]. 1883 Dec 1. Our London letter. The Medical Record 24 (22): 611–12.

[Anonymous]. 1884 Mar 22. Correspondence. Friends’ Review: A Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal 37 (33): 524.

[Anonymous]. 1884 Nov 25. Turn in the tide of thought: Thomas Kimber’s lecture on science in relation to divine truths. The New York Times 8 (col 2).

Gross SD. 1887. Autobiography of Samuel D Gross, MD, with Sketches of His Contemporaries vol 2. Philadelphia: George Barrie.

Tyndall J. 1878 Nov. Virchow and evolution. The Nineteenth Century 4 (21): 809–33.

Tyndall J. 1879 Jan. Virchow and evolution. The Popular Science Monthly 14 (17): 266–90.


About the Author(s): 

Michael D Barton graduated from Montana State University in 2010 with a master’s degree in history. His research concerned the role of John Tyndall as a supporter of Charles Darwin, and he is a participant in the John Tyndall Correspondence Project. He blogs about Darwin, evolution, and the history of science at The Dispersal of Darwin.

AUTHOR’S ADDRESS
Michael Barton
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
info@ncse.com