Monday, June 25, 2007

Quote mining in "The Edge of Evolution" - well, not really ...

EvolutionBlog has a post that has been syndicated to Panda's Thumb, relating to Behe's "Edge of Evolution" (EoE).

It doesn't bother engaging with any of the scientific content of the book. Actually, come to think of it, I haven't seen anything that does, yet. It is more concerned with allegations against Behe of being "not fair" - specifically, by "quote mining" - that is,
the practice of compiling quotes from large volumes of literature or spoken word. The term is used derogatorily to accuse the "quote miner" of cherry picking and misquotation, where favorable positions are amplified or falsely suggested, and unfavorable positions in the same text are excluded or otherwise obscured. (Wikipedia)
Actually, despite the post title, the first third of Rosenhouse's post doesn't relate to EoE at all, but rather to Darwin's Black Box, Behe's previous book, and to one specific instance, a quote by Jerry Coyne.

Rosenhouse says that Behe is guilty of lifting the quote out of context
to make a small criticism about an esoteric part of the theory appear to be a criticism of the whole shebang
Is that what Behe is saying? Behe prefixes this series of quotations with:
It is not just paleontologists looking for bones, though, who are disgruntled. A raft of evolutionary biologists examining whole organisms wonder just how Darwinism can account for their observations.
Rosenhouse helpfully expands the quote from Coyne and Orr:
Although a few biologists have suggested an evolutionary role for mutations or large effect (Gould 1980; Maynard Smith 1983: Gottlieb, 1984; Turner, 1985), the neo-Darwinian view has largely triumphed, and the genetic basis of adaptation now receives little attention. Indeed, the question is considered so dead that few may know the evidence responsible for its demise. Here we review this evidence. We conclude--unexpectedly--that there is little evidence for the neo-Darwinian view: its theoretical foundations and the experimental evidence supporting it are weak, and there is no doubt that mutations of large effect are sometimes important in adaptation. We hasten to add, however, that we are not “macromutationists” who believe that adaptations are nearly always based on major genes. The neo-Darwinian view could well be correct. It is almost certainly true, however, that some adaptations involve many genes of small effect and others involve major genes. The question we address is, How often does adaptation involve a major gene? We hope to encourage evolutionists to reexamine this neglected question and to provide the evidence to settle it.
My understanding of this - and I've no doubt people will correct me if I'm wrong - is that Coyne and his co-author are saying something along the lines of: "The assumption is that a neo-darwinist process is assumed to be the basis of evolution - evolution is driven by successive, slight genetic changes - but this is assumed - there is little experimental evidence or theoretical basis. However, we're keeping the faith, and we hope that scientists will make good this shortfall having read this." In their area of special interest, they say, the evidence is missing.

Behe goes on to add, on the next page:
Before going further, we should note the obvious: if a poll were taken of all the scientists in the world, the great majority would say they believed Darwinism to be true. But scientists, like everybody else, base most of their opinions on the word of other people. Of the great majority who accept Darwinism, most (though not all) do so based on authority. Also, and unfortunately, too often criticisms have been dismissed by the scientific community for fear of giving ammunition to creationists.
So, is Behe saying that Coyne, Orr, or anybody doubts "the whole shebang"? I don't see that - just that they are saying that in their own area of knowledge, there is a lack of supporting evidence. Which was the point he was making - and is also what Coyne and Orr are saying.

Of course it's irritating when something that you say in one context gets used in another, particularly if you don't agree with the person who uses it. But has Behe misrepresented what Orr and Coyne said? Did they actually say the opposite - that is, "There is lots of evidence in support of evolution in the area in which we are experts." Had they said that, it would have undermined Behe's argument - but they didn't. You can only find Behe guilty of quote mining in this case by quote mining both Behe and Coyne.