The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Patterson Misquoted
A Tale of Two 'Cites'
Copyright © 1997 by Lionel Theunissen
[Last Update: June 24, 1997]

Other Links:
Letter from Patterson to Sunderland
Carl Wieland of the Australian Creation Science Foundation was reluctant to provide the author of this article with a copy of this letter from Dr. Colin Patterson to creationist Luther Sunderland.
[Note: The link listed above was originally provided to the FAQ author by anti-evolutionist David Buckna, who challenged Lionel to include it in the FAQ.  The link is disabled because it no longer links to that letter (as of 2002/01/06).  -- Wesley R. Elsberry]

In 1993 I attended a public lecture on the Queensland University of Technology (Australia) campus by Carl Wieland, the director of the Creation Science Foundation here in Brisbane. That was my first encounter with Carl Wieland and the CSF, and it wasn't to be my last. In his lecture Wieland made a string of absurd claims, to which I objected vocally much to his chagrin. On each point Wieland refused to answer my objections and stated that questions would be allowed at the conclusion of the lecture (where I was allowed to ask one whole question!). Anyway that's another story...

During the lecture a quotation of Dr. Colin Patterson was used to justify the standard creationist argument that 'there are no transitional forms.' Numerous other creationists I have encountered have used the quote, and an extended version (which fills in the text between the ellipsis) appears in the CSF "Revised Quote Book", published in 1990. So the quote is in wide usage, at least in Australia:

"I fully agree with your comments on the lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions in my book. If I knew of any, fossil or living, I would certainly have included them. . .I will lay it on the line, There is not one such fossil for which one might make a watertight argument."

-- Dr. Colin Patterson, senior paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History.

I decided to get to the bottom of the matter. The quote is from a personal letter dated 10th April 1979 from Dr. Patterson to creationist Luther D. Sunderland and is referring to Dr. Patterson's book "Evolution" (1978, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.). My first step was to read the book. (I believe it is now out of print, but most university libraries should have a copy.) Anyone who has actually read the book can hardly say that Patterson believed in the absence of transitional forms. For example (p131-133):

"In several animal and plant groups, enough fossils are known to bridge the wide gaps between existing types. In mammals, for example, the gap between horses, asses and zebras (genus Equus) and their closest living relatives, the rhinoceroses and tapirs, is filled by an extensive series of fossils extending back sixty-million years to a small animal, Hyracotherium, which can only be distinguished from the rhinoceros-tapir group by one or two horse-like details of the skull. There are many other examples of fossil 'missing links', such as Archaeopteryx, the Jurassic bird which links birds with dinosaurs (Fig. 45), and Ichthyostega, the late Devonian amphibian which links land vertebrates and the extinct choanate (having internal nostrils) fishes. . ."

Patterson goes on to acknowledge that there are gaps in the fossil record, but points out that this is possibly due to the limitations of what fossils can tell us. He finishes the paragraph with:

". . .Fossils may tell us many things, but one thing they can never disclose is whether they were ancestors of anything else."

It is actually this statement which is the key to interpreting the Sunderland quote correctly; it is not possible to say for certain whether a fossil is in the direct ancestral line of a species group. Archaeopteryx, for example, is not necessarily directly ancestral to birds. It may have been a species on a side-branch. However, that in no way disqualifies it as a transitional form, or as evidence for evolution. Evolution predicts that such fossils will exist, and if there was no link between reptiles and birds then Archaeopteryx would not exist, whether it is directly ancestral or not. What Patterson was saying to Sunderland was that, of the transitional forms that are known, he could not make a watertight argument for any being directly ancestral to living species groups.

Of course, my opinion on the interpretation was never going to impress a creationist -- I don't think anything is enough to convince a creationist -- so I decided to see if I could get the full text of the letter and see if it would clarify the context. Since the quote appears in the "Revised Quote Book", and the editor claims in the introduction that the text of each quote is held in full, I faxed the CSF and asked if they would supply me with the text of the letter. I received the following fax back from Carl Wieland (Dated 18 June 1993) who apparently remembered our exchange at QUT:

FAX to: Lionel T
From: Carl Wieland

Re: Your requests.

Our past exchanges would have served to show you (if your intention was bona fide) not only the bona fides, but the validity of many of the things you were challenging. Instead of coming back for a genuine discussion in the interests of discovering truth, you have sidestepped these issues and are moving into a totally unrelated area.

I can only assume that your intention is not, and is unlikely to become, bona fide and will therefore not permit our staff to give you the references etc you seek as you are clearly simply looking for the negative and cannot be relied upon to give an objective assessment (not meant as any personal disrespect, but from our encounter at Uni you are clearly so emotionally involved and hostile to our platform that it would serve no useful purpose for us to do your work for you. the quotes in the RQB are extensively referenced, and you have access to public libraries, etc. You are even free to write to the authors yourself, since most would be still alive.

The very reason the RQB is the Revised Quote Book is that the original "Quote Book", published in 1984, had been withdrawn due to an embarrassing number of errors. (Some quotes even seem to have been fabricated.) The introduction of the RQB coyly refers to that fiasco as follows:

"With CSF, as usual, sorely under-funded and overworked at the time, the original Quote Book had been hastily put together from quotes sent in by a number of people. Some of these turned out to have been simply written down on a card after listening to a creationist speaker at a lecture. . ."

It is ironic that so-called Creation 'scientists' (including those of the CSF) often complain that they are not treated with the respect they feel they deserve. Yet any scientist who published a work of such appalling scholarship would probably lose his or her job and certainly would never be taken seriously by the scientific community again. If the sort of 'science' peddled by those responsible for the "Quote Book" is not being taken seriously, it is because creationists are treated exactly the same way that any scientist who acts incompetently would be.

Looking through the RQB does not inspire any confidence that it is any better than the original "Quote Book". Many of the quotations are clearly out of context. Also, out of the 130 quotes, at least 13 (10%) are secondary references. Secondary quotes are a convenient way to misrepresent. Sure, the 'quote' might accurately reproduce the secondary text, but does the secondary text accurately reflect the original text? Then there are the 'uncheckable' quotations: sources like personal letters, lectures, TV interviews, etc. which cannot be referenced in a library. Interestingly, Dr. Colin Patterson is quoted five times. Every single one is from a source uncheckable in a library.

Hence the onus was clearly on the CSF to prove its own 'bona fide' intentions and allow its references to be checked. After all, what is the point of claiming to have the full text on file if no one is allowed to see it?

I wrote back to Carl Wieland and explained that the quote I was interested in was from a personal letter, and as such could hardly be referenced in a library. He was unsympathetic and so as a last resort I took Wieland's own advice and set about contacting Dr. Patterson personally. Wieland only has himself to blame for the response.

I phoned the British Museum of Natural History and to my delight discovered that Dr. Patterson was still working there. I faxed him the text of the quote and asked him whether my interpretation, the creationist interpretation, or some other interpretation of his words was correct. Here is his reply dated 16 August 1993:

Dear Mr Theunissen,

Sorry to have taken so long to answer your letter of July 9th. I was away for a while, and then infernally busy. I seem fated continually to make a fool of myself with creationists. The specific quote you mention, from a letter to Sunderland dated 10th April 1979, is accurate as far as it goes. The passage quoted continues "... a watertight argument. The reason is that statements about ancestry and descent are not applicable in the fossil record. Is Archaeopteryx the ancestor of all birds? Perhaps yes, perhaps no: there is no way of answering the question. It is easy enough to make up stories of how one form gave rise to another, and to find reasons why the stages should be favoured by natural selection. But such stories are not part of science, for there is no way to put them to the test."

I think the continuation of the passage shows clearly that your interpretation (at the end of your letter) is correct, and the creationists' is false.

That brush with Sunderland (I had never heard of him before) was my first experience of creationists. The famous "keynote address" at the American Museum of Natural History in 1981 was nothing of the sort. It was a talk to the "Systematics Discussion Group" in the Museum, an (extremely) informal group. I had been asked to talk to them on "Evolutionism and creationism"; fired up by a paper by Ernst Mayr published in Science just the week before. I gave a fairly rumbustious talk, arguing that the theory of evolution had done more harm than good to biological systematics (classification). Unknown to me, there was a creationist in the audience with a hidden tape recorder. So much the worse for me. But my talk was addressed to professional systematists, and concerned systematics, nothing else.

I hope that by now I have learned to be more circumspect in dealing with creationists, cryptic or overt. But I still maintain that scepticism is the scientist's duty, however much the stance may expose us to ridicule.

Yours Sincerely,


Colin Patterson

Click here to view a scan of the original letter [113k]

Note that not only does Patterson confirm that the creationist representation of the quote is false and that my interpretation is correct, but he goes on to point out that another quote which appears in the RQB has been misrepresented. (I only sent him the text of the one, but did mention the other four quotes in the RQB.) The quote which claims to be from a keynote address was actually from an informal talk, and is a comment on systematics only, rather than a general comment on evolution as it is represented in the RQB.

I sent Patterson's reply to the CSF requesting that they retract the quotes in question. Carl Wieland sent me a very long letter giving all sorts of contradictory reasons why the quotes were supposedly valid. For example:

"Incidentally, if space permitted, I would have been quite happy for the continuation of his quote to also go in to the Quote Book. Because I do NOT agree that the continuation shows clearly that your interpretation is correct. Nor is it fair for Patterson to comment on the creationist interpretation without a clearer definition of what is meant by 'transitional forms'..."

Wieland seems to completely miss the point. How can it be unfair to ask Dr. Patterson to comment on the meaning of his own words? What could be more fair? He is, after all, the only person who truly knows what he meant. Whether Wieland agrees with him or not is neither here nor there. As for the comment about a definition of transitional forms, the exact opposite is true; creationists should supply a clearer definition of 'transitional forms' when they quote scientists. When quoting scientists like Patterson or Gould as saying 'there are no transitional forms' they neglect to mention that they are only referring to transitional forms at the species level. They know full well that Gould has stated that transitional forms between orders and families are in fact abundant, and even a cursory read of Dr. Patterson's book will yield numerous examples of transitional forms.

Wieland's comments on the 'keynote address' were almost comical:

"Since we have the entire tape, I assure you that it is a typical example of somebody squirming [I hesitate to use this word re such an honest and genuine scientist as Dr Patterson seems to be] when a quotation has been used by creationists which they didn't want to be used. I assure you, the context does not alter the meaning, and in any case Dr Patterson does not say that it is taken out of context in the sense of a misquote, but merely states that it was an address 'to systematists'. Reading the entire address, it would scarcely matter if it were a girl guides meeting, the comments are valid."

I have to point out that Dr. Patterson certainly does imply that he was taken out of context. He states that his talk concerned systematics only, and nothing else. Yes, the comments are valid. But they are valid comments about systematics, not about evolution in general as implied in the RQB. I will also point out that at least in terms of my understanding of Australian Law, taping someone without their knowledge and then publishing excerpts is illegal. It's certainly unethical.

I think that this whole saga demonstrates just how deceitful creationists can be. Whether they are willingly deceitful or just don't know any better, I don't know. But deceitful they are. To top it off I wasn't surprised when soon after I had released the letter on fidonet, a creationist was posting the claim that I had written to Dr. Patterson and that he had confirmed that the quotes of him in the RQB were genuine, by selectively citing the following sentence:

"The specific quote you mention, from a letter to Sunderland dated 10th April 1979, is accurate as far as it goes."

It seems that no matter how thoroughly one destroys a creationist argument, you can be sure that they'll find some twisted way to justify using the same argument tomorrow. It is frustrating to have to repeat the same explanations over and over, but you really do need the patience of a saint to argue with a creationist. I guess the price of truth is eternal patience. Anyway, if there are still creationists who think the quotes of Patterson are valid, I'd like to know what part of the following sentence you don't understand:

"I think the continuation of the passage shows clearly that your interpretation (at the end of your letter) is correct, and the creationists' is false..."

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