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The Quote Mine Project

Or, Lies, Damned Lies and Quote Mines

Assorted Quotes, Part 2

by the newsgroup
Copyright © 2006

Quote #4.19

[Spontaneous generation of living organisms is impossible]

One has only to contemplate the magnitude of this task to concede that the spontaneous generation of a living organism is impossible. Yet here we are -- as a result, I believe, of spontaneous generation. - George Wald, Harvard University biochemist and Nobel Laureate, 1954

Representative quote miners: Mars Hill Ministry: The Origin of Life --The "Hardware"; The Journey: Spontaneous Generation; and True News: The Origin of Life - Evolution’s Dilemma.

It should first be noted that, while Wald uses the term "spontaneous generation" throughout the article, he is not really concerned with the historic notion "that life arises regularly from the nonliving: worms from mud, maggots from decaying meat, mice from refuse of various kinds" that was shown to be untenable by Francesco Redi, Lazzaro Spallanzani and Louis Pasteur. Although he gives an account of Redi's, Spallanzani's and Pasteur's work, his real concern is "how organisms may have arisen spontaneously under different conditions [than exist in the present] in some former period, granted that they do so no longer." In short, he is speaking about what we would now call "abiogenesis."

The source of the above quote is an article Wald wrote, entitled "The Origin of Life," that appeared in the August 1954 issue of Scientific American (vol. 191), on pages 44-53. This is the same article that was ultimately the source of Quote Mine #57.

As was the case with Quote Mine # 57, the creationists have frequently mangled the citation in passing around the quote. The "Journey" site above gives the source as "George Wald, 'The Origin of Life,' Scientific American, 191:48, May 1954" as does The Triunity Report: The Origin of Life and The Suppression of Truth. Another site, Adventist Review: The Simple Cell?, gives it as "Scientific American, May 1954." The latter site goes on to merge this quote mine with a variation on Quote Mine #57, which itself was a paraphrase of what Wald said that bore little resemblance to his actual point, thus creating a true paragon of misinformation.

Unlike Quote Mine #57, however, the actual words attributed to Wald do appear in his article, on page 46. Immediately following on the two sentences above is a third that, together, form a complete paragraph that reads:

One has only to contemplate the magnitude of this task to concede that the spontaneous generation of a living organism is impossible. Yet here we are -- as a result, I believe, of spontaneous generation. It will help to digress for a moment to ask what one means by "impossible." [Emphasis added.]

Wald then goes on to discuss probability, beginning with the simple-to-calculate cases of coin tosses and dice, where the possible number of outcomes are known. He continues:

When one has no means of estimating the probability beforehand, it must be determined by counting the fraction of successes in a large number of trials.

Our everyday concept of what is impossible, possible or certain derives from our experience: the number of trials that may be encompassed within the space of a human lifetime, or at most within recorded human history. In this colloquial, practical sense I concede the spontaneous origin of life to be "impossible." It is impossible as we judge events in the scale of human experience.

We shall see that this is not a very meaningful concession; For one thing, the time with which our problem is concerned is geological time, and the whole extent of human history is trivial in the balance.

Wald then discusses the fact that highly improbable things can happen but that, as a result of the skeptical attitude of persons of good judgment, "events which are merely very extraordinary acquire the reputation of never having occurred at all." But Wald calls scientists the "[l]east skeptical" of all "judicious persons" because "cautious as they are, [they] know very well what strange things are possible." Wald's example for this, the possibility that a table will spontaneously rise into the air if "the molecules of which the table is composed, ordinarily in random motion in all directions, should happen by chance to move in the same direction," neatly anticipates Fred Hoyle's "Tornado in a Junkyard" argument. Therefore, according to Wald, "it does not mean much to say that a very improbable event has never been observed."

More importantly, though:

When we consider the spontaneous origin of a living organism, this is not an event that need happen again and again. It is perhaps enough for it to happen once. The probability with which we: are concerned is of a special kind; it is the probability that an event occur at least once. To this type of probability a fundamentally important thing happens as one increases the number of trials. However improbable the event in a single trial, it becomes increasingly probable as the trials are multiplied. Eventually the event becomes virtually inevitable.

Wald gives the following example:

Consider a reasonably improbable event, the chance of which is 1/1,000. The chance that this will not occur in one trial is 999/1,000. The chance that it won't occur in 1,000 trials is 999/1,000 multiplied together 1,000 times. This fraction comes out to be 37/100. The chance that it will happen at least once in 1,000 trials is therefore one minus this number -- 63/100 -- a little better than three chances out of five. One thousand trials have transformed this from a highly improbable to a highly probable event. In 10,000 trials the chance that this event will occur at least once comes out to be 19,999/20,000. It is now almost inevitable.

Time is in fact the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here. Given so much time, the "impossible" becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles.

It is now clear why the quote miners omitted the sentence following the snippet they appropriated. Including it might have tipped off the people the quote is intended to impress that they are being mislead. And if they went and actually looked at the article, they would find that Wald was not saying that a naturalistic origin of life is impossible but was, instead, engaged in a bit of rhetorical flourish, leading up to his conclusion that:

The important point is that since the origin of life belongs in the category of at-least-once phenomena, time is on its side. However improbable we regard this event, or any of the steps which it involves, given enough time it will almost certainly happen at least once. And for life as we know it, with its capacity for growth and reproduction, once may be enough.

In short, Wald's conclusion in the article is diametrically opposed to the spin the creationists want to put on it. Wald is not, as the creationists would have you believe, arguing for a naturalistic view[1] despite the "evidence" of the supposed great improbability of life arising naturally, he is arguing that there is no such "evidence." Wald's point is, first of all, that the probability of abiogenesis happening is impossible to calculate. But beyond that, the very nature of the problem suggests the likelihood that abiogenesis did happen, here on Earth or somewhere in the universe.

Creationists are free to dispute Wald's arguments or his conclusions, of course. In fact, he accepts, based on the evidence available in 1954, that there was some 2 billion years between the point that conditions on Earth made life possible and its first appearance. Evidence discovered in the 50 years that have passed since Wald's article suggests that liquid water first appeared on the Earth about 4.4 billion years ago, while the earliest fossils found are dated at 3.5 billion years ago and the earliest (though disputed) signs of life date to 3.8 billion years ago. It is not immediately obvious that 700 million years or so is insufficient for Wald's argument to be valid.

Ultimately, the question of whether the arguments Wald advanced were right is not the point here. The quote miners could have set out Wald's arguments and tried to make a case against them and no one could have complained. They chose, instead, to misrepresent his arguments in an attempt to hijack Wald's reputation. They succeeded only in ruining their own.

- John (catshark) Pieret

[1] There were a number of letters about Wald's article published in the October 1954 issue of Scientific American. One of them makes a crude attempt to argue that the term "trial" implies a conscious "trier," which Wald, in a response to the letters, disposes of by pointing out that he "meant only an event to whose outcome one might attach a probability."

More interestingly, a professor R. L. Probst refers to Human Destiny, a book by Lecomte du Noüy, that, in turn, claims that calculations made by Professor Charles-Eugène Guye about the formation of proteins showed that:

. . . the time needed to form, on an average, one such molecule in a material volume equal to that of our terrestrial globe is about 10243 billion years. But we must not forget that life appeared about one billion years ago.... We are faced with an interval which is more than 10243 times too short.

Probst sums up his point:

I will admit that the scientist should try to explain events by natural causes, without bringing in the intervention of God, as long as it is possible and reasonable to do so. But science demands that a theory have some solid evidence supporting it.: Therefore, to hold that life has developed spontaneously by chance is not a scientific' statement; it is a sheer act of faith, perhaps based on a prejudice against admitting the action of an agent outside of the material universe.

Wald replies that he has "no strong personal prejudice against invoking God's intervention in the origin of life." In fact, he notes:

The Jesuit priest, John Turberville Needham, a great champion of spontaneous generation, believed that God created matter initially with the potentiality of spontaneously generating life. Indeed, as pointed out in my article, this belief is consonant with the relevant passages in the Book of Genesis [that God bade the earth and waters to bring forth plants and animals]. If Professor Probst is dissatisfied with this view, where does he believe that God intervened? Was it to create the first protein? Or the first living cell? Or a man?

As to the supposed calculations, Wald reiterates that:

. . . no adequate basis exists for such a calculation. We are concerned here with the probabilities associated with a series of stepwise reactions and aggregations, none of which perhaps exceeds the bounds of what may happen in a two-body collision.

I wonder how one might have assessed the probability that a mixture of water vapor, methane, hydrogen and ammonia, passed for a week over an electric spark, could form a variety of amino acids in relatively high yield. Yet in 1953 Miller showed that this happens, and our entire conception of its intrinsic probability is revised accordingly.

By the way, Guye was a physicist who died in 1942 and was calculating the odds of atoms lining up by accident to form a protein if a vessel the size of the Earth with the constituent atoms was mechanically shaken at the speed of light. In other words, like Hoyle, he was someone outside his area of expertise, calculating "odds" based on utterly unrealistic premises that have nothing to do with biochemistry as we know it, much less any realistic hypotheses about abiogenesis.

Quote #4.20

[Evolution is not scientific]

Our theory of evolution ... cannot be refuted by any possible observations. Every conceivable observation can be fitted into it. It is thus 'outside of empirical science' but not necessarily false. No one can think of ways to test it. Ideas either without basis or based on a few laboratory experiments carried out in extremely simplified systems have obtained currency far beyond their validity. They have become part of an evolutionary dogma accepted by most of us as part of our training. - Paul Ehrlich and L. C. Birch

Representative quote miners: Institute for Creation Research: The Nature of Science and of Theories on Origins; Creation Science Fellowship of New Mexico: Evolution is Not Science; and Apologetics Press: Logical Illiterates and Scientific Simpletons.

The full citation is: Birch, L. C. & Ehrlich, P. R., "Evolutionary History and Population Biology", Nature 214, 349 - 352 (22 April 1967). For those with subscriptions, the original paper can be found at Nature's website.

[Editor's note: Peter Hutcheson already refuted this quote mine in an article "Evolution and Testability" from the Summer 1986 issue of the NCSE magazine, Creation/Evolution. Thanks to the kind permission of Professor Hutcheson and the NCSE, the portion of that article dealing with this quote mine is reproduced here.]

If one reads only the creationists' quotation from Ehrlich and Birch's article, one would think that Ehrlich and Birch believe that the theory of evolution as a whole is untestable. That impression, however, would be far from the truth, since the creationists have, by quoting Ehrlich and Birch out of context, distorted their views. This is the quotation in Scientific Creationism:

Our theory of evolution has become . . . one which cannot be refuted by any possible observations. It is thus "outside of empirical science," but not necessarily false. No one can think of ways in which to test it. . . . (Evolutionary ideas) have become part of an evolutionary dogma accepted by most of us as part of our training. [pp. 6-7]

The creationists did not cite the very next sentence: "The cure seems to us not to be a discarding of the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory, but more skepticism about many of its tenets" (Ehrlich and Birch, p. 352). If Ehrlich and Birch think that the theory of evolution as a whole is untestable, why do they say, in the very next sentence, that evolutionary theory should not be scrapped? The answer is that they do not regard the theory of evolution as a whole to be untestable, as even a cursory reading of the article shows. At the beginning of Ehrlich and Birch's article, offset and in boldface, is a good precis:

While accepting evolutionary theory, should ecologists be more skeptical about hypotheses derived solely from untestable assumptions about the past? The authors put forward the view that many ecologists underestimate the efficacy of natural selection and fail to distinguish between phylogenetic and ecological questions. [p. 349]

These two biologists are not at all dissatisfied with the theory of evolution as such.

They are dissatisfied, however, with how some scientists make use of some hypotheses about the evolutionary past. The article is about how some ecologists investigate matters poorly by turning too readily to untestable assumptions about the past to answer their questions rather than first turning to explanations that are falsifiable. Ehrlich and Birch write, for example:

It is clear that considerably more thorough investigations of the present day population biology of these birds, with the emphasis on the genetics of clutch size, magnitude of selection pressure on clutch size, and rates of gene flow, will be necessary before we fall back on an untestable historical hypothesis. [p. 350]

In brief, those ecologists who investigate poorly have used untestable historical hypotheses to circumvent the need for more empirical investigation, which is objectionable. [This is not to imply that historical hypotheses are automatically untestable; see the next article, page nine.]

Ehrlich and Birch also say that the tendency of some ecologists to turn too quickly to untestable historical hypotheses has been accompanied by a failure to address logically prior questions and confusions about what constitutes a proper scientific explanation (pp. 350-351).

What are these untestable historical hypotheses? They are very specific assertions about specific animals in specific locations. One example is about the ancestral habitat of the British great tit, Parus major. Another is about competition in the past between two species of birds on the Canary Islands, Fringella coelebs and Fringella coerulea (p. 350). The point is that these hypotheses are about specific details of evolutionary history. These hypotheses are quite peripheral. They are not fundamental propositions in the theory of evolution. They are not even relatively important to the theory as a whole but represent only some sloppy work on the part of some ecologists. The untestability of these speculations about very specific details, therefore, does not imply that fundamental or relatively important propositions of evolutionary theory are untestable. In fact, such propositions as "More complex lifeforms have developed out of simpler ones" and "Dinosaurs existed and became extinct long before modern humans came into existence" are testable. The evidence could disconfirm them, but it simply does not. No doubt Ehrlich and Birch recognize this, which is why they recommend that evolutionary theory be retained.

Furthermore, Ehrlich and Birch not only favor retaining evolutionary theory but also criticize their colleagues for failing to appreciate "the efficacy of natural selection." As I pointed out earlier, creationists believe that explanations in terms of natural selection are untestable. To say the least, it is not in their best interest to cite as authoritative such strong advocates of the explanatory power of natural selection.

- Peter Hutcheson

Quote #4.21

[Too little evidence in the fossil record to support human evolution]

Palaeoanthropologists seem to make up for a lack of fossils with an excess of fury, and this must now be the only science in which it is still possible to become famous just by having an opinion. As one cynic says, in human palaeontology the consensus depends on who shouts loudest. - J.S. Jones

Representative quote miners:
Institute for Creation Research: The Second Man;
Living Word Bible Church of Australia: A Lack of proof in the fossil record and missing links? ; and
Harun Yahya (The Qur'an Leads The Way To Science): Fossil Impasse.

The full citation is: J. S. Jones, "A thousand and one Eves" review of the book "The Search for Eve" by Michael H. Brown. Harper & Row: 1990., Nature 345, 395-396 (31 May 1990). For those with subscriptions, the original review can be found at Nature's website.

Creationists generally use this quote to indicate that acceptance of human evolution is a matter of faith among researchers without objective scientific support.

However as the quote in fuller context makes clear Jones appears to be making an unrelated point about journalists who are less impressed by the science than by the irrelevant personalities of the researchers:

It [The Search for Eve] is a racy tale about the human race and about the quarrels of those who study it. As usual, the science is more interesting than the scientists. Does it really matter that one proponent has "piercing gelid eyes" while another is a "demure earth mother"? Admittedly, though, there are few fields which can boast papers written from prison where the author is serving time for poisoning the judge who gave him a drugs sentence. Palaeoanthropologists seem to make up for a lack of fossils with an excess of fury, and this must now be the only science in which it is still possible to become famous just by having an opinion. As one cynic says, in human palaeontology the consensus depends on who shouts loudest.

Still, Jones was aware that palaeontologists often bitterly disagree over details, since it is difficult or impossible to know how close any particular homonid fossil "is on the direct line of descent to modern humans." On the other hand, in the same review he says:

Fossils are, above all, evidence for the fact of evolution rather than for how it happened.
New fossil discoveries mean that man has been getting younger every year, and there are now no major disagreements about the date of the separation of the human and the ape family trees.

These and other statements by Jones, flatly contradict the meaning suggested by creationist quote miners.

- Keith Elias


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