Reports of the National Center for Science Education
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Volume
30
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No.
6
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Quote-Mining: An Old Anti-Evolutionist Strategy

Quote-Mining: An Old Anti-Evolutionist Strategy
Reviewed by
Michael D Barton

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

target="_blank">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.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
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