Creationist State Board of Education Members Attack Common Ancestry and the Tree of Life

A Report by
Steven D. Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 January 31

I love it when Creationists prove me right. The Young Earth Creationist State Board of Education members say that they only want the "weaknesses" of evolution taught, not Young Earth Creationism or Intelligent Design Creationism. Several have untruthfully claimed that they have never advocated that any form of Creationism be taught in Texas public school biology classrooms. In fact, six of them appointed three Creationists to be expert reviewers of the new science standards, including Stephen Meyer of the Intelligent Design Creationist Discovery Institute, who is not even a scientist. Now, two amendments passed by the SBOE on January 22 directly promote the claims of Creationism by explicitly casting doubt on the fact of common ancestry (also known as common descent). A well-known Creationist blogger openly admits that one of these is a "giant leap for intelligent design."

Amendment to Earth and Space Science by Barbara Cargill

Readers know what the two amendments are, since I discussed them in some detail here and here in my live blogs that were written while the amendments were being debated. The first was one proposed by SBOE member Barbara Cargill from a long list of thirteen such amendments to the Earth and Space Science (ESS) standards, five of which passed with only the last discussed here. This was Student Expectation 8A which censored essential information about the "appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution" of fossils and added the unscientific words "assess the arguments for and against universal common descent." With Chair Don McLeroy's facilitation, Ms. Cargill blind-sided several SB members with misleading information about the "experts" who advised this change. She admitted later that her "experts" were two Creationists, one of whom was not even a scientist and the other not an Earth scientist or paleontologist but a chemist. Her fast-talking and misrepresentation caused two SBOE members to abstain, so the unscientific, pro-Creationist amendment carried with a 7-6 vote. If just one of the two had voted no, this anti-scientific amendment would have deservedly failed. The Earth scientists who wrote the ESS standards have prepared a signed Report on the five amendments that Cargill was able to successfully get approved. In the report they unanimously oppose changing standard 8A and want it returned to its original language.

Barbara Cargill duplicitously worded her proposed amendments in ways that did not reveal what phrases her amendments would cut. This tactic violated proper TEA practice that indicates words to be removed with strike-throughs. This was especially damaging in Student Expectation 8A, for she deceptively hid the removal of the phrase "appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution" of fossils, the key requirement of the standard. This removal is anti-evolutionist. The replacement--"assess the arguments for and against universal common descent"--is completely unscientific and notoriously Creationist, since only evolution-deniers claim that arguments or evidence against common descent exists. We must consider ourselves lucky that none of the other really egregious anti-scientific Cargill amendments passed (the other four that did were minor and only slightly unscientific).

Ms. Cargill also said there have been recent "significant challenges" to evolutionary theory that rejected Darwin's "Tree of Life." The Tree of Life is a metaphor Darwin used to describe the universal phylogeny of all organisms--that is, a representation of common descent--that he hypothesized to exist if his "theory" (actually, his hypothesis) was true.  Cargill cited a news article in either New Scientist or The Telegraph in which a European scientist disputed Darwin's "Tree of Life" showing the common ancestry of all living organisms as "wrong and misleading." To her, this proved that her amendment to ESS 8A had merit. I will discuss the merit of the news articles in New Scientist and The Telegraph in my next report.

Amendment to Biology by Don McLeroy

The second unscientific amendment was the work of Chair Don McLeroy himself. On January 22 he proposed two amendments to Biology; the second and most damaging is the one adding Student Expectation 7B in Biology. This added a requirement to

analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.

Dr. McLeroy took fifteen minutes to justify his amendment in one of the most bizarre narratives I have ever heard, extolling a long list of scientific books and papers he claimed to have read but with obviously little understanding of any of them. He quoted passages from these works listed in the "Supporting documentation" of citations that accompanied his amendment. I scanned this document when I returned home and posted it on the Web on January 25; it was quickly downloaded and analyzed by several writers. McLeroy's litany of pseudoscientific learning convinced two normally pro-science SBOE members (Geraldine Miller and Lawrence Allen) to vote yes, carrying the amendment 9-6. This addition to the Biology evolution standards requires instruction in paleontology and fossil evolution for the first time in the history of biology education in Texas (biology texts universally cover these topics today). McLeroy's intent was to emphasize the evidence of sudden appearance and stasis of fossils which in his ignorant mind proves that Creationism is true, since this is what he has read in the Creationist literature on this subject (which he did not list in his "Supporting documentation"). Of course, such patterns in the fossil record do not demonstrate Creationism but other phenomena which he obviously misunderstood.

It is true that the fossil record often exhibits the sudden appearance of fossils and the stasis of fossil species in strata through time. But the fossil record also has abundant examples of transitional fossils between species, genera, families, orders, and other higher taxa, gradual changes in fossils through time, and the very unsudden appearance of fossils in sequential series in strata through time. In fact, fossils appear in a great variety of tempos, modes, and sequences in strata, sometimes making the interpretation of fossil lineages and clades difficult and controversial. But in all of this fossil data there is no evidence for Creationism. Genetic continuity can be inferred in any analysis or evaluation of fossil history throughout the entire record of life on Earth. Sudden appearance of new fossil species and higher taxa is usually due to the  gaps and hiatuses in the sedimentary rock record, the paucity and patchiness of fossilization, incomplete collection by paleontologists, and the speciation or evolution of most species in areas away from the main species population (as peripheral isolates, the usual form of allopatric speciation). There is no evidence that sudden appearance of new fossil species or higher taxa is due to special creation. Stasis is a very common pattern among species lineages, but not the only pattern, and stasis certainly does not mean that evolution does not occur.

Common Ancestry

Readers will easily see the common topic that connects these two anti-scientific, pro-Creationist amendments. Creationists possess a universal antipathy to common ancestry (also termed common descent). Common ancestry is an inference from the fact of evolution: if evolution is true, then all living species and their ancestors must share a common ancestor in the past. Once evolution is accepted, common ancestry is inevitable. The concept of common ancestry pre-dates Charles Darwin, for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck hypothesized common descent in his early model of evolution in his book Philosophie Zoologique published in 1809, the year of Darwin's birth. Creationists notoriously claim to believe in microevolution but not macroevolution, since in their minds the latter implies the existence of common ancestry while microevolution (erroneously) does not. Often Creationists misdefine microevolution as change only within a species that does not result in a new species. In fact, speciation is the ultimate result of microevolution. Macroevolution consists of  the evolutionary processes that occur within or affect taxa higher than species.

Nature does not distinguish between micro- and macroevolution; the terms are only used by evolutionary biologists to simplify discussions about evolutionary processes. Some evolutionary processes and results work on a microevolutionary level and others on a macroevolutionary level; the organisms don't care which. According to the traditional model of evolution, all macroevolution is the result of microevolution. However, it is quite likely that separate macroevolutionary processes occur (beyond the obvious one of mass extinction), such as macromutations, group selection, and species selection. The important fact is this: if microevolution is accepted then macroevolution and common ancestry are inevitable results as long as genetic continuity within a lineage is maintained. Consider the diagram below:

There is a continuous connection between ancestors and descendants through different levels of genetic history. Individuals in a species population are part of anastomosing webs of genealogies which, through time, are part of a lineage (a lineage is a species population through time). The pattern of lineages in their continuity, splitting, and divergence is termed a phylogeny, and groups of lineages form a clade. The mapping of phylogenies and clades is termed a phylogenetic tree or simply tree. In modern practice, the presence and absence of shared and derived characters is used to construct a tree termed a cladogram (the tree pictured above is a phylogram because it includes divergence, but we need not discuss the details here). The phylogenetic tree of all organisms in life's history is termed the Tree of Life. As you can see, as long as genetic continuity is maintained between ancestor and descendant, a tree with common ancestry will result. Thus, claiming there is no such thing as common ancestry (or common descent) requires some extraordinary proof of genetic discontinuities through time, and such evidence just does not exist. Once again, and contrary to the Creationist rhetoric we've heard repeatedly from members of the Texas SBOE, once microevolution is accepted, macroevolution and common descent are necessary consequences unless genetic discontinuity is proved.

McLeroy's Other Error and the Texas "Quote-Mine"

McLeroy's amendment has another bizarre error, one caused by his profound ignorance of the paleontological information he used to write his amendment. His amendment asks that "the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry...explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record." This requirement makes no sense, because common ancestry does not explain patterns of stasis, sudden appearance, gradual evolution, or any other tempo or mode of evolution. Common ancestry is an inference from analysis of morphological and genetic information, not an explanation of evolutionary patterns. Patterns of evolution (i.e. sudden appearance, stasis, gradual change, transitional fossils, etc.) are explained by speciation, fossilization, fossil preservation, the completeness of stratigraphic and fossil records, and other considerations, but not by common ancestry. So the new student expectation is poorly worded in an ignorant and unscientific way.

Dr. McLeroy said he consulted all sorts of evolution books but failed to really understand them because he lacks a basic understanding of evolutionary theory and paleontology. The reason Dr. McLeroy has such a poor understanding of common ancestry and patterns of evolution is because he obtained his incomplete and incompetent knowledge of paleontology from a very biased source--reading Creationist books and websites--not by reading the scientific books he listed in his "Supporting documentation" attached to his "Two Proposed Student Expectations."

How do I know this? Because in the few days since Chairman McLeroy successfully won his amendment to the Biology standard, Jeremy Mohn obtained the list of quotations and citations from McLeroy's "Supporting documentation" that I posted on the Web on January 25 and publicized. Jeremy re-posted my scan of McLeroy's quotes and citations and analyzed these (i.e., performed reverse quote-mining) and posted them in their original context on his new website, Collapse of a Texas "Quote-Mine," Analyze and Evaluate Don McLeroy's List of Quotes. What his new site does is present each McLeroy quote and citation in context and show that it does not support what he thinks it does. All of McLeroy's quotes were out of context and therefore misleading, a common Creationist tactic. McLeroy was quote-mining. Here's how Jeremy describes what McLeroy does:

A "quote mine" is a misquotation that skews or contorts the meaning of the original author. Such gems are often "mined" from authoritative literature and presented without the context that explains their intended meaning. Often, the "quote miner" will use the material to ostensibly bolster his or her argument while secretly excluding or otherwise obscuring further exposition that is at odds with it.

But wait. There's more! Not surprisingly, Jeremy discovered that McLeroy was taking his quotes from a secondary source, a Creationist website that is devoted to collected quotes that appear to speak against evolution. This is Genesis Park, Exhibit Hall Room 3: The Story of the Fossils. This page has links to other pages titled "Abrupt Appearance in the Fossil Record" and "Stasis After Appearance in the Fossil Record." Sound familiar? Two other pages have quotes about "Large Gaps" and "Lack of Identifiable Phylogeny" in the fossil record. Here's what Jeremy Mohn says about the Genesis Park site:

However, as the evidence below demonstrates, it appears that Dr. McLeroy may not have read all of the sources on his list. In fact, it appears he may have plagiarized some of his quotes from a Creationist website called "Genesis Park."

How can we tell?

Well, the first indication was that the sequence of the quotes is identical. Second, the quotes themselves are nearly identical, with two quotes slightly shortened in McLeroy's presentation. Third, the punctuation used in the quotes is nearly identical, with slight corrections apparently made by McLeroy (errant question marks were replaced by apostrophes). Finally, the citation style used in each list is identical, and yet different from the style used in the other quotes on Dr. McLeroy's handout.

In addition to of all of this, the most definitive evidence in support of the "copy and paste" hypothesis is the existence of a citation error in both lists. As indicated in red below, one of the identical quotes was incorrectly cited as appearing on page 752 when it actually appears on page 750 of Stephen Jay Gould's book.

What is absolutely hilarious about this discovery is that Mohn--knowingly or unknowingly--uses an analysis of shared derived characters to show the common ancestry of McLeroy's quotes with the quotes in Genesis Park. This type of analysis, termed a phylogenetic (or cladogenetic) analysis, is identical to what biosystematists use when they construct phylogenies (or cladogenies). Thus, McLeroy's quote-mining of quotes from a Creationist website is revealed by a routine evolutionary analysis.

Jeremy Mohn quite justifiably concludes his "analysis and evaluation" with this:

Regrettably, inaccurate statements are now included in the current draft of the standards. These changes were adopted on the recommendation of Board Chairman Don McLeroy. To bolster his argument in favor of the changes, McLeroy presented quotes from various "authoritative" sources and passed them off as supporting his own doubts about evolution. By removing the "fine print" from his list of quotes, Dr. McLeroy forced his fellow board members to base their vote on incomplete and misleading information.

When the chair of the state school board uses out-of-context quotes in order to persuade others to act as he desires, he is undercutting the trust that has been placed in him. When he apparently plagiarizes those quotes from a website and then attempts to pass them off as the result of his own research, he is displaying a disappointing lack of academic integrity.

When the quotes are read in their original contexts, it is clear that the authors’ intent was the opposite of chairman McLeroy's. They were not professing doubt concerning the sufficiency of evolutionary processes to account for the patterns observed in the fossil record. On the contrary, modern evolutionary theory and the inference of common ancestry are quite powerfully supported by scientific evidence. Texas students should be given the opportunity to learn about this evidence. Therefore, we strongly encourage the Texas State Board of Education to reject this ill-conceived change.

Jeremy's conclusions are also my conclusions. All these are exactly what I would say and did in fact say on January 22 in my live blog about McLeroy's misuse of quotes to attack (1) common ancestry by suggesting that fossils only show stasis and sudden appearance and (2) the sufficiency of evolutionary theory to explain the many different patterns observed in the fossil record. Jeremy Mohn has added important information new to me: Don McLeroy actually plagiarized quotations of evolutionary scientists that he took from a Creationist website (rather than from the books he claimed to have read) to use in his successful attempt to mislead several of his fellow State Board members. This sort of behavior is unethical in any educational system, and Dr. McLeroy should apologize to his fellow Board members and to the public. Then he should resign from both his chairmanship and the State Board of Education for engaging in such unethical behavior. Being ignorant and stupid are bad enough, but plagiarism and deliberately quoting out of context are grounds for resignation. What a fine academic example Don McLeroy, Chairman of the State Board of Education, sets for the students of Texas. His reprehensible behavior is a colossal monument of shame for Texas and for humanity.

The final version of Texas' science standards, slated for a vote in March, will affect how evolution is presented in Biology and Earth and Space Science curricula, textbooks, and classrooms for the next ten years. The quotes and citations that SBOE Chairman McLeroy reeled off at a Texas State Board of Education, and which he used to modify--in a quite unscientific way--the Biology Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills to be used for the next ten years to educate our state's high school biology students, were taken from a notorious Creationist website. He passed them off as legitimate scientific information, which they were in their correct context, but rather than supporting his amendment, in their full and correct context they do the opposite by showing the limited nature of stasis and sudden appearance of organisms in the fossil record. The Chair of the Board that governs our state's public education agency deceived his fellow Board members with misleading quotes out of context to convince them to pass his anti-scientific amendment. McLeroy's shameful activity is what passes for intelligent and considered deliberation at the Texas State Board of Education. This is not the first time Don McLeroy has engaged in unethical behavior; I publicly asked for his resignation on a prior occasion for a similarly contemptible offense. In fact, Don McLeroy is an aggressive, anti-science activist who will apparently stop at nothing to further his pseudoscientific Creationist agenda. Will no one rid of us of this meddlesome dentist? (Nothing as drastic as what happened to Thomas Becket; Governor Perry should just appoint someone else to be Chair.)

Two days after Don McLeroy was able to have his unscientific amendment approved, Dave Scot, a well-known blogger for Uncommon Descent, an Intelligent Design Creationism website, published McLeroy's amendment's text and then said this: "This is one small step for honest teaching of evolutionary theory and one giant leap for intelligent design."

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 February 2