Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Evolution

Colin Patterson
Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press, 1999. 153 pages.
Reviewed by
Karen Bartelt
In 1981, paleontologist Colin Patterson spoke at the American Museum of Natural History. Later he said that in his talk, "I put a case for [the] difficulties and problems with evolution, specifically in the field of systematics. I was too naïve and foolish to guess what might happen: the talk was taped by a creationist who passed the tape to [creationist] Luther Sunderland. ...I was putting a case for discussion, as I thought off the record, and was speaking only about systematics, a specialised field" (Fezer 1984: 5).

Snippets from this unauthorized taping (for which no authorized transcript exists; see Strahler 1987) have been making the rounds of anti-evolutionist publications since Luther Sunderland and Gary Parker's 1982 Impact article. They have popped up in many subsequent issues of ICR's Impact (for example, Buckna and Laidlaw 1996) and routinely appear in anti-evolutionist articles and web sites (for example, Lenard 2000). Patterson was also featured in a 1996 article in the journal Origins and Design (Nelson 1996), a venue devoted to "intelligent design theory", which included 9 of his quotations that supposedly manifest what Nelson calls Patterson's "agnosticism about evolution".

Fast forward to 1999; if ever he was, Patterson is agnostic about evolution no more. All opportunities for anti-evolutionist innuendo and misstatements are put to rest in the second edition of Evolution. Sadly, Patterson died 3 days after delivering the manuscript to the publisher; 2 of his colleagues (Peter Forey and James Mallet) did some minor revisions and final editing.

The book is a concise, lucid introduction to evolutionary biology for the layperson. Among the valuable resources is a discussion of molecular biology that contains references to 1996 and so is fairly up to date. The drawings and charts make the text easier for a nonspecialist to follow.

I really appreciated the discussion of hemoglobin. Patterson reports that 550 mutations of human hemoglobin have been described (including substitutions, deletions, and additions), and that 1 human in 2000 carries a mutant hemoglobin. The "Tak" and "Saverne" mutations add 10 amino acids each to the beta hemoglobin chain, while the "McKees Rocks" mutation shortens the same chain by 2 amino acids. This is a powerful argument against the anti-evolutionist mantra of "mutations are bad", because, as Patterson notes, "none inhibits development and most produce no detectable physical symptoms" (p 29).

Patterson also focuses on homology at the molecular level, especially as it applies to the evolution of hemoglobin. There is a good discussion of gene duplication, the relationship of the hemoglobin pseudogenes to the active genes, and some nice gene histories showing hemoglobin relationships among primates and other mammals. Patterson finds Motoo Kimura's neutral theory of evolution quite appealing and returns to it frequently. If one is looking for a pithy comment to counter anti-evolutionist claims, try Patterson's conclusion that "[I]n genetic terms we are hardly more distinct from chimpanzees than are subspecies in other groups of animals" (p 113).

Though an interesting introduction to evolutionary biology, the real strengths of this book are in its final chapters and preface, where Patterson explains his ideas about evolution and comments on creationism and (indirectly) on the 1981 taping of his talk. Clarifying his views on evolution in the preface to the second edition, Patterson says:
The knowledge in my first edition came from education and indoctrination; it was that neo-Darwinism is certainty. The knowledge in this second edition comes more from working things out for myself; it is that evolution is certainty. And part of the ignorance in the first edition concerned the difference between neo-Darwinism and evolution, whereas the ignorance in this edition is of the completeness of neo-Darwinism as an explanation of evolution ... I think that belief [shared ancestry] is now confirmed as completely as anything can be in the historical sciences ... [but] ... I am no longer certain that natural selection is the complete explanation...". (p vii).
Although Patterson considers the general theory of evolution ("evolution has occurred") to be a historical theory and hence "by some definitions" not a part of science because it deals with unrepeatable events, he acknowledges that it does have rules, does make general predictions, and is open to disproof. Furthermore, evolution has survived a series of severe tests unimaginable to Darwin - including its consistency with genetics, the universality of DNA, and "the evidence from DNA sequences of innumerable 'vestigial organs' at the molecular level" (p 117).

Patterson concludes, "[i]n terms of mechanism ... the neutral theory of molecular evolution is a scientific theory; it can be put into law-like form: changes in DNA that are less likely to be subject to natural selection occur more rapidly. This law is tested every time homologous DNA sequences are compared. ... But neutral theory assumes (or includes) [the] truth of the general theory - common ancestry or Darwin's 'descent with modification' - and 'misprints' shared between species, like the pseudogenes or reversed Alu sequences, are (to me) incontrovertible evidence of common descent" (p 119).

Creationism itself receives only a few pages, which include Patterson's response to the taping: "Because creationists lack scientific research to support such theories as a young earth ... a world-wide flood ... or separate ancestry for humans and apes, their common tactic is to attack evolution by hunting out debate or dissent among evolutionary biologists. ... I learned that one should think carefully about candor in argument (in publications, lectures, or correspondence) in case one was furnishing creationist campaigners with ammunition in the form of 'quotable quotes', often taken out of context" (p 122).

Perhaps the best audience for this book would be anti-evolutionists. Not only could they learn about the evidence for evolution at the molecular level, but they might be inspired to correct the inaccuracies about the late Dr Patterson that abound on their web sites.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.