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The Quote Mine Project

Or, Lies, Damned Lies and Quote Mines

Geologic Column Quotes

by the newsgroup
Copyright © 2004

As noted in the Introduction, our intent was to continue to add to our collection of quote mines. This is the fourth such addition and it primarily concerns an area of intense concern by young-Earth creationists: the geologic column.

There are a number of fairly obvious reasons for this concern on their part. Geology was, after astronomy, one of the first sciences to be organized as a professional study of nature along modern lines. It has a rich and extensive history of success in both increasing our knowledge of the world and proving its worth with many practical applications. In short, it works in obvious and easily demonstrable ways. William Smith (1769-1839), a civil engineer involved in the construction of canals in England, showed the utility of geology to a particularly important economic activity of his day by preparing the first detailed geological map in 1815. The economic importance of geology continues into our own day in fields such as oil exploration and mining.

However, unlike astronomy in its early stages, geology did not promise a stability and permanence for the world that could easily be read back into the scriptural notion of a directly creative and eternal God. Geology's raison d'être is that the world has a unique and discoverable history, a conception of nature fundamentally at odds with the notion that the Earth was created "as is" a few millennia ago. That this was a wrenching change in thinking about the world at the time is something that is difficult for most of us to appreciate today but young Earth creationists grasp its significance to their beliefs quite readily. [*]

Benoît de Maillet (1659-1738), in his Telliamed, or Conversations between and an Indian Philosopher and a French Missionary on the Diminution of the Sea, the Formation of the Earth, the Origin of Man, etc. (1748) and Georges Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), in his Histoire Naturelle, published from 1749 onward, were among the first to propose that the Earth was formed by the slow action of natural causes. This eventually brought Buffon into conflict with the religious establishment of his day, which he sidestepped by paying lip service to Biblical Literalism while going on with his work undeterred.

Worse, from the perspective of Biblical Literalism, this same historical thinking fed back into and was reinforced by astronomy with the development of the nebular hypothesis of the formation of the solar system by Pierre-Simon Marquis de Laplace (1749-1827) and others. From there, such thinking eventually spread to biology, the last great bastion of creationism in science to fall. James Hutton (1726-1797), with his proposal of the Principle of Uniformity (also known as Uniformitarianism) and expanded on and developed by Charles Lyell (1797 - 1875), a confidant and mentor of Darwin, were central to the formation of the ideas that lead to his Origin of Species. Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), a devout Christian though not a young Earth creationist, still hoped to find geological evidence for the Biblical Flood but concluded that there was none, a severe blow to any prospect that there might be scientific support for Literalism.

Therefore, it is not merely the fossils that are a part of geologic column, and the support they lend to evolutionary theory, that raise the ire of young-Earth creationists but geology itself. In the pantheon of sciences producing evidence contrary to their beliefs, geology is historically and scientifically central to what they see as materialistic attacks on their beliefs. It is no surprise, then, that they devote considerable effort to discrediting the logic and science behind geology.

Since these quotes are not from a single source, as was the case in the original Quote Mine Project, there are some differences in how they are organized. Before each quote there appears in brackets a brief description of the Editor's impression of the proposition that the quotes are cited for by creationists. That is followed by at least one link to a creationist site using the quote mine. Naturally, these descriptions cannot be exhaustive and are only as accurate as any impression. By all means, you are encouraged to check for yourself as to creationist usage of the quotes. The easiest way to do so is to go to the Google Advanced Search page and, in the "Find results" box designated "with the exact phrase," enter a short, but distinctive, phrase from the quote mine and click on the "Search" button. Of course, if you are here researching a particular use of a quote, you will already have an idea of how it is being used.

The numbering of the quotes is different as well. While the original set of quote mines was numbered simply 1 - 86, these are numbered 5.1, 5.2, . . . etc.

Finally, there are links at the bottom of the page to responses in the previous Quote Mine Projects concerning the geologic column.

[*] Some references for those interested in more information on this subject:

Bowler, Peter J., 2003. Evolution: The History of an Idea, Third Edition, Completely Revised and Expanded (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press)

Johnston, Ian C., 1999. . . . And Still We Evolve: A Handbook for the Early History of Modern Science, Third Revised Edition, Section Two: The Early History of Modern Geology

Internet History of Science Sourcebook

Quote #5.1

[Dating of fossils is the result of circular reasoning]

The intelligent layman has long suspected circular reasoning in the use of rocks to date fossils and fossils to date rocks. The geologist has never bothered to think of a good reply." - J.E. O'Rourke, "Pragmatism vs. Materialism in Stratigraphy," American Journal of Science, January 1976, p. 48.

The rocks do date the fossils, but the fossils date the rocks more accurately. Stratigraphy cannot avoid this kind of reasoning if it insists on using only temporal concepts, because circularity is inherent in the derivation of time scales.", American Journal of Science, Vol. 276, p.53

Representative quote miners of the first quote: Creation Apologetics: Quotes From Scientists on Evolution [1], Stewarton Bible School: Evolution: Fact or Fallacy?, and From Atheism 2 Christ: What Are Scientists And Others Really Saying About Evolution?

Representative quote miners of the second quote: True Authority: Come, Let Us Reason In Circles Together, Institute for Creation Research: Circular Reasoning in Evolutionary Biology, and Genesis Park: Dating Rock Layers

To begin with, the first quote from this article has a false period that hurts the case of the quote miners. [2] The article starts with:

The intelligent layman has long suspected circular reasoning in the use of rocks to date fossils and fossils to date rocks. The geologist has never bothered to think of a good reply, feeling that explanations are not worth the trouble as long as the work brings results. This is supposed to be hard-headed pragmatism. (Emphasis added)

The original pragmatism of Peirce, James, Dewey, and other turn-of-the-century American philosophers drew many of its best illustrations from geology, but geologists have not used the pragmatic method to improve their basic argument....

Notice that O'Rourke certainly has methods used by geologists as working. That something works is certainly a justification for using it. O'Rourke continued:

...In fact, the majority of the world's geologists, those in the communist nations, believe in dialectic materialism, which has often attacked pragmatism, and most geologists in western countries use a kind of pop materialism based on the same "matter-in-motion" mechanics.

Materialism gives primacy to matter and slights mind. It minimizes the role of the observer and his cognition. Consequently, it is ill-prepared to answer queries about how we obtain or verify a certain kind of knowledge. Yet that is the prime concern of stratigraphy, which has to evaluate an enormous mass of particular facts that cannot be summarized in equations nor repeated in experiments.

Pragmatism, however, was designed to test concepts, to find out if they really do organize experience. It recommends that the definition be written like instructions, so that they many be verified directly. The more abstract ideas may have to pass through intermediate terms before reaching objects, but any concept, regardless of how rarefied or esoteric, must be verifiable eventually through sense perception in space and time (Kant, 1781, p. 195; James, 1907, p. 141).

The pragmatic test for stratigraphic terms many be applied by two questions: (1) out of what observations was the concept formulated; (2) how is it to be confirmed in the field?

The article goes down hill from there. It was rambling, confused, extremely poorly written, more about bad philosophy than about geology, and filled with extreme left-wing vocabulary. I am surprised that it got published in a science journal. [3]

Lets skip to the conclusions. I will ask the reader to read carefully. Note that he is clear (well about as clear as his rambling article gets) that circularity can be avoided.

The charge of circular reasoning in stratigraphy can be handled in several ways. it can be ignored, as not the proper concern of the public. It can be denied, by calling down the Law of Evolution. Fossil dates rocks, not vice-versa, and that's that. It can be admitted, as a common practice. The time scales of physics and astronomy are obtained by comparing one process with another. They can be compared with the geologic processes of sedimentation, organic evolution, and radioactivity. Or it can be avoided, by pragmatic reasoning.

The first step is to explain what is done in the field in simple terms that can be tested directly. The field man records his sense perceptions on isomorphic maps and sections, abstracts the more diagnostic rock features, and arranges them according to their vertical order. He compares this local sequence to the global column obtained from a great many man-years of work against his predecessors. As long as this cognitive process is acknowledged as the pragmatic basis of stratigraphy, both local and global sections can be treated as chronologies without reproach.

That last paragraph is poorly worded, but it is precisely what Andrew MacRae says in his far clearer FAQ in the Archive, "Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale: Circular Reasoning or Reliable Tools?", which shows why the geologic column is not circular reasoning.

Thus the quotes are out-of-context though in this case the creationists can be pardoned a bit due to O'Rourke's horrid writing. What is less pardonable is that the creationists think that quoting a confused and badly written article proves anything.

Lets quote a bit more:

The mapper and the stratigrapher use similar work methods. The mapper does not ordinarily walk out every contact but travereses the strike, plotting and comparing sections. The stratigrapher also compares sections and in the early days was basically a mapper. Decades of collective experience have taught him which lithic and organic features can be expected to persist laterally and which cannot. Index fossils are those known to have a wide horizontal and narrow vertical range and recur consistently above certain taxa and below others....

Is that last sentence saying exactly what the creationists are trying "refute" by quoting him? If fossils in the field have a certain consistent order then it is certainly not circular reasoning to conclude that they have a stratigraphic order.

Continuing the paragraph:

...They are regarded as the features most reliable for accurate, long-distance correlations. Stratigraphic work differs from mapping chiefly in the selection of data and the greater distance between sections. The actual method of both is a comparison of rock features (lithic, origanic, and radiometric) in above-below relationship of the vertical order.

And later, again rambling with bad philosophy to make simple point:

Material bodies are finite, and no rock unit is global in extent, yet stratigraphy aims at global classification. The particulars have to be stretched into universals somehow. Here ordinary materialism leaves off building up a system recognized by physical properties, to follow dialectic materialism, which starts with time units and regards the material bodies as their incomplete representatives. This is where the suspicion of circular reasoning crept in, because it seemed to the layman that the time units were abstracted from the geologic column, which had been put together from rock units.

One final quote:

The first radiometric dates had to be calibrated by comparison with some other standard, however crude. The best previous time scales had been obtained by estimating the average rate of sedimentation and applying it to the total thicknesses of the sedimentary rocks in the geologic column. The total cannot be measured at any one place; it had to be added up from empirical correlations. Plotting the radiometric values against the maximum thicknesses of the geologic systems made a reassuring test (Holmes, 1947, p. 142).

- Mike Hopkins

[1] This site states that its list of quotes is "Compiled by: Sean D. Pitman M.D.". Dr. Pitman, a regular poster at the usenet group, informs us that he is not associated with that site nor has he ever been contacted by those who maintain it for permission to use his name. - Ed.

[2] Not all creationist quote miners cut the sentence off halfway and put an inappropriate period in the quote. Here are some sites that have the entire sentence: 12 Quotes from Leading Evolutionists, The Parent Company: Section 3: Quotations from Scientists, and The Revolution Against Evolution: Uniformitarianism and the Geologic Column.

[3] Steven D. Schafersman, Ph.D. reached the same conclusion in his article, "Fossils, Stratigraphy, and Evolution: Consideration of a Creationist's Argument", that appeared in Scientists Confront Creationism, Laurie R. Godfrey, ed., 1983 (New York: Norton & Co., pp. 219-44). Calling O'Rourke's article "full of errors of fact and reasoning about biostratigraphy" (p. 222), he proceeds to give a concise description of how biostratigraphy actually works, pointing out O'Rourke's errors, and detailing the misuses Henry Morris, in particular, put the quotes to, above and beyond O'Rourke's mistakes - Ed.

Quote #5.2

[Geologic Column Is Pieced Together By Circular Logic]

. . . fossils have been and still are the best and most accurate method of dating and correlating the rocks in which they occur. ... I can think of no cases of radioactive decay being used to date fossils. - Derek Ager, New Scientist, Nov.10, p.425, 1982

Representative quote miners: The Interactive Bible: Professor Knockout Quotes!: The Record of the Rocks, Creation Apologetics: Quotes From Scientists on Evolution [1], and Answers in Genesis: Creation Magazine: Stumping old-age dogma

The citation of some quote miners is wrong. The article was from 1983.

This is a clear case of a out-of-context quote. There is no claim whatsoever by Ager that there is circular reasoning involved. Indeed the reasoning behind any kind of dating is not discussed in the piece. Nor is there any claim that any method of dating does not work, is faulty, or the like.

Ager's article is a bit of a screed written by a geologist who is rather mad at the physicists and their machines getting the glory in the popular press as if physicists invented the ability to tell time in the geologic past. Also, like many scientists, he does not like the way his field is covered by popular sources. One could uncharitably call this short guest column a "hissy fit". More charitably, Ager does have a valid point though, when properly understood, that point does not help the young earthers whatsoever.

He starts the piece with:

My frustrations as a geologist were brought to boiling point by David Challinor's article on natural history museums (New Scientist, 29 September, p. 959) and in particular by his remark that "Originally, palaeontologists dated fossils by identifying the geological strata in which they were found. Today, the age of a fossil is determined by measuring the decay of radioactive carbon or by means of their radioactive potassium into argon". I agree whole-heartedly with his plea for the museums but can hardly withhold my fury at his complete misunderstanding of what palaeontologists do and what fossils tells us. Every scientist knows the frustration of having his worked misinterpreted and misunderstood, but nothing exceeds the mortification of having the chief achievements in one's field attributed to someone else or even, as in this case, to another branch of science. Unfortunately this misconception about palaentology is widespread.

Indeed it is. It is probably a good idea to go into this in more detail than Dr. Ager could do in his short column. There are two general types of dating: relative dating and absolute dating. Absolute dating is what one gets typically gets from radiometric dating and it gives dates expressed a quantity of time such as "212 million years plus or minus 3 million years" (as an example). Relative dating does not put a date in millions of years, but rather it says that x is older than y which is older than z. This sort of dating started in earnest with William Smith, who supervised a number of canal building projects in the late eighteenth century, well before Charles Darwin was born. To build a canal you will need to know what kind of rocks you are dealing with. As someone who paid close attention the strata, he noticed that there was a define regularity in the fossils found in them.

Fossils have been long studied as great curiosities, collected with great pains, treasured with great care and at a great expense, and shown and admired with as much pleasure as a child's hobby horse is shown and admired by himself and his playfellows, because it is pretty; and this has been done by thousands who have never paid the least regard to that wonderful order and regularity with which nature has disposed of these singular productions, and assigned to each class its peculiar stratum. - William Smith, 1796, quoted in "William Smith (1769-1839)"

What Smith noted was that certain fossils where only found in certain layers. Furthermore, if given a group of fossils, he could give the order in which they were found in the strata. (Indeed he did precisely that.) Those interested in more detail on William "Strata" Smith might consider reading Simon Winchester's biography of Smith called The Map That Changed the World, 2001 (New York: Harper Collins).

Geologists naturally exploited this discovery. Once one has discovered that fossil A always comes before fossil B which always come before fossil C, etc., then when one finds an example of fossil B one can conclude that it probably is from a time intermediate to that of fossils A and C. The pre-Darwinian geologists, most of whom did not believe in evolution, did just that. They eventually worked out an elaborate relative timescale long before Darwin published The Origin of Species. What evolutionary theory eventually provided was a convincing explanation why this works and in particular why different ages have different fossils.

Now lets look at radiometric dating. Until recently, radiometric dating could not date sedimentary strata, the type of strata that actually contains fossils. Thus radiometric dating is not used to directly date fossils. But if volcanic layers, which can be dated by radiometric dating, exist above and below the strata with the fossil to be dated, then it can be inferred with great confidence that the fossil dates from sometime between the dates for the volcanic layers. This cannot always be done for reasons that should be obvious. It also important to note that the relative timescale is often more precise than the absolute one (though the error bars on radiometric dates have been constantly decreasing as techniques improve).

Ager continued:

No palaeontologist worthy of the name would ever date his fossils by the strata in which they are found. It is almost the first thing I teach my first-year students. Ever since William Smith at the beginning of the 19th century, fossils have been and still are the best and most accurate method of dating and correlating the rocks in which they occur. Oil companies spend millions of pounds employing palaeontologists to date the sediments found in their boreholes. Palaeontology is many things, but its most practical application is in providing a dating service second to none.

As for having all the credit passed to physicists and the measurement of isotopic decay, the blood boils! Certainly such studies give dates in terms of millions of years, with huge margins of error, but this is an exceedingly crude instrument with which to measure our strata and I can think of no occasion when it has been put to immediate practical use. Apart from very "modern" examples, I can think of no cases of radioactive decay being used to date fossils. In fact, fossils such as small marine invertebrate and plant spores and pollen are constantly used as precision tools in dating the rocks. We are measuring in millimetres while the physicists are measuring kilometres. ...

Clearly Ager is not saying that using fossils to establish the relative age of strata is circular reasoning or does not work. Rather he is pointing out that it is a very reliable and precise means of telling time which is quite the opposite of what the quote miners wish us to believe.

Nor is radiometric dating his only example of physicists taking credit for what was first done by geologists:

. . . What is particularly infuriating at the present time is the way the physicists seem to claim all the glory for the late 1950s. Now you would think that the physicists actually invested continental drift while the geologists stumbled stupidly in the rear studying their fossils, which incidentally have provided some of the best evidence of all, ever since fossil land plants, such as Glossopteris, were found on all the scattered pieces (South America, Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica) of the once-united southern continent we called "Gondwandaland". This was long, long before residual magnetism reversal were ever dreamed of.

Young earth creationists would rather not bring this up. The fact that the relative timescale created by using fossils was essential evidence pointing the way to "continental drift" shows the application of this fossil-based timescale. The strata from the time when Gondwandaland was still united has organisms found in common across continents now widely separated. But in layers laid down after the continent broke up and after there was time for independent evolution to occur on the new smaller continents, the strata show divergence in living forms, demonstrating just how groundless the young earth position is.

- Mike Hopkins

[1] This site states that its list of quotes is "Compiled by: Sean D. Pitman M.D.". Dr. Pitman, a regular poster at the usenet group, informs us that he is not associated with that site nor has he ever been contacted by those who maintain it for permission to use his name. - Ed.

Quote #5.3

[Geology assumes evolution to date by fossil sequence; the sequence is used as evidence of evolution; the reasoning is circular]

Are the authorities maintaining, on the one hand, that evolution is documented by geology and, on the other hand, that geology is documented by evolution? Isn't this a circular argument?" - Larry Azar, "Biologists, Help!" BioScience, Vol. 28, November 1978, p. 714.

Representative quote miners: Center for Scientific Creation: Online Version of In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood (7th Edition) by Walt Brown, Pathlights: Fossils and Rocks: Circular Reasoning, and All About Creation: Geologic Time Scale - The Misconceptions

The article is from pages 712 to 715.

This quote takes the cake for dishonesty. How this one is out of context is fairly unique though.

Larry Azar at the time of this article was with the Philosophy Department of Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. He describes himself as a "philosophy teacher" and in the context of biology he calls himself an "outsider."

His question, "Isn't this a circular argument?" is not a rhetorical question, it is a real one. Basically this article is a philosopher who is not an expert in the sciences asking a series of questions about biology including evolution in hopes that biologists would respond and clarify the issues for him. And they did exactly that. There were a number of letters to the editor on pages 208 to 209 of the April 1979 issue which also had an article in response called "Evolution: Help for the Confused" by Bradley T. Scheer on pages 238 to 241. In that article the quoted question was answered.

The young-Earthers might as well quote questions asked by students to instructors in freshman classes as "evidence" for young-earth dogma.

One thing to note it that this just another piece of evidence that there is no conspiracy to prevent those who question mainstream evolutionary ideas from getting their say.

- Mike Hopkins

Quote #5.4

[Fossils are dated by the rocks and the rocks are dated by the fossils, classic circular reasoning]

It cannot be denied that from a strictly philosophical standpoint, geologists are here arguing in a circle. The succession of organisms has been determined by the study of their remains imbedded in the rocks, and the relative ages of the rocks are determined by the remains of the organisms they contain." - R.H. Rastall, Lecturer in Economic Geology, Cambridge University: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol.10 (Chicago: William Benton, Publisher, 1956, p.168)

Representative quote miners: Creation Apologetics: Quotes From Scientists on Evolution [1], A Case for Creation: Radiometric Dating- Its Faults!, and Stewarton Bible School: Evolution: Fact or Fallacy?

This is another example of particularly dishonest quote mining.

First, the author of the article gives background as to stratigraphical geology, leading up to the quote mined section:


The end and aim of stratigraphical geology is the elucidation of the history of the earth by a study of the rocks composing it. It is therefore sometimes called historical geology. ... Now stratigraphy is not a mere academic science, concerned only with abstract history and dry bones. It is of enormous practical value, for on it depend many problems in mining and quarrying, engineering, water supply, oil-finding, and a number of other subjects essential to the well-being of the world. ...

Let us now consider briefly some of the principles and methods of stratigraphical geology, in a systematic way. Two of the fundamental laws may be defined and explained as follows.

[The Law of Similar Conditions.]

First of all, there is the principle that certain types of deposit are correlated with certain physical and geographical conditions, and that this held in the past as in the present. This is a restatement of part of the Law of Uniformity . . . when we find among the older rocks certain well-defined types of deposit like those now being formed under known conditions, we are justified in drawing deductions as to the climatic and geographical conditions of the time when the rocks in question were formed. ...

[The Law of Organic Evolution.]

The second great law is that organisms, regarded from the broadest biological standpoint, have developed throughout the history of the world in a certain definite order of progression from the less organized to the more organized types, from lower to higher forms of life. This of course is a mere bald statement of the general principle of evolution. From it follows the great generalization first stated by William Smith, that the ages of strata can be determined by means of their included fossils. [2]

It cannot be denied that from a strictly philosophical standpoint geologists are here arguing in a circle. The succession of organisms has been determined by a study of their remains embedded in the rocks, and the relative ages of the rocks are determined by the remains of organisms that they contain.

However, immediately following on that sentence, Rastall continues the paragraph:

Nevertheless the arguments are perfectly conclusive. (Emphasis added) This apparent paradox will disappear in the light of a little further consideration, when the necessary limitations have been introduced. The true solution of the problem lies in the combination of the two laws above stated, taking into account the actual spatial distribution of the fossil remains, which is not haphazard, but controlled by definite laws. It is possible to a very large extent to determine the order of superposition and succession of the strata without any reference at all to their fossils. When the fossils in their turn are correlated with this succession they are found to occur in a certain definite order, and no other. Consequently, when the purely physical evidence of superposition cannot be applied, as for example to the strata of two widely separated regions, it is safe to take the fossils as a guide; this follows from the fact that when both kinds of evidence are available there is never any contradiction between them; consequently, in the limited number of cases where only one line of evidence is available, it alone may be taken as proof.

Taking all these facts into consideration, then, it has been found possible to construct a history of the earth, at any rate from the times when conditions became comparable with what they are now. ...

There is no credible scenario by which the quote miner could have plucked this sentence out of this article, separating it from the rest of that paragraph, without the deliberate intent of misrepresenting what the author was saying. Rastall states clearly that the seemingly circular reasoning is merely an "apparent paradox" that is not only resolved but is rendered "perfectly conclusive" by the interplay of the two laws he describes. Even if creationists wanted to quibble with Rastall's acceptance of the "Law of Uniformity" or the empiric evidence for certain strata always being associated with certain fossils, they cannot appeal to Rastall as an expert on the logic behind stratigraphical geology and then intentionally hide his explanation of that very logic. At least they can't and keep any pretense of personal integrity.

- John (catshark) Pieret and R. Dunno

[1] This site states that its list of quotes is "Compiled by: Sean D. Pitman M.D.". Dr. Pitman, a regular poster at the usenet group, informs us that he is not associated with that site nor has he ever been contacted by those who maintain it for permission to use his name. - Ed.

[2] See the response to Quote #5.2 for more on William Smith - Ed.

Quote #5.5

[The geologic Column Is Pieced Together By Circular Logic]

D. B. KITTS, Univ. of Oklahoma, "But the danger of circularity is still present.... The temporal ordering of biological events beyond the local section may critically involve paleontological correlation. ... for almost all contemporary paleontologist it rest upon the acceptance of the evolutionary hypothesis.", Evolution Vol. 28, p.466

Representative quote miners: The Interactive Bible: Professor Knockout Quotes: The Record of the Rocks, , Northside Church of Christ: Geologic Column, and Pathlights: Fossils and Rocks: Circular Reasoning

The article is from pages 458 to 472 and was published in the September 1974 issue. Here is a more complete quote:

The claim is made that paleontology provides a direct way to get at the major events of organic history and that, furthermore, it provides a means of testing evolutionary theories. This claim raises the critical question of how close we can get to evolution without presupposing some causal theory of descent. With the assumption of the geological apparatus of temporal ordering (for a discussion of this subject, see Kitts, 1966) the paleontologist arrives at a distribution of organisms in space and time. The organisms will have the properties imposed upon them by whatever biological principles have been presupposed in their inference. These properties need not include any required by a causal theory of evolution. The temporal and spatial distribution is not entailed by any biological theory, but by the ordering principles of geology. Thus the paleontologist can provide knowledge that cannot be provided by biological principles alone. But he cannot provide us with evolution. We can leave the fossil record free of a theory of evolution. An evolutionist, however cannot leave the fossil record free of the evolutionary hypothesis.

Next comes the part the quote is mined from:

But the danger of circularity is still present. For most biologists the strongest reason for accepting the evolutionary hypothesis is their acceptance of some theory that entails it. There is another difficulty. The temporal ordering of biological events beyond the local section may critically involve paleontological correlation, which necessarily presupposes the non-repeatability of organic events in geologic history. There are various justification for this assumption but for almost all contemporary paleontologists it rests upon the acceptance of the evolutionary hypothesis. ...

However, the next sentence completely undermines the point the creationists try to make with the quote. The paragraph continues:

Despite these pitfalls we can with reasonable care avoid the danger of presupposing what it is we want to ultimately to test and have at our disposal a distribution of organisms in space and time that we suppose to have been related to one another by descent. Something more is, however, needed. When paleontologists invoke paleontological evidence in support of evolutionary theories that evidence invariable includes assertions about the particular relationship of one [p. 467] fossil organism to another, which is to say, assertions about phylogeny. I have misgivings about the use of phylogenies as instruments of theoretical investigations but they do not stem from the fact that phylogeny construction obviously presupposes whatever theoretical principles they purport to test. They are grounded rather in the belief that, despite some valiant and interesting efforts, paleontological phylogeny construction has not been provided with a solid theoretical foundation (for a recent review of the problem of phylogeny construction see Ghiselin, 1972). Providing this foundation is, in my opinion, the most urgent task now facing theoretically disposed paleontologists.

Kitts was not speaking directly about the dating of the geologic column by the fossils they contain as being circular reasoning, as the quote miners would have the reader believe. Instead, he is talking about what the distribution of fossils tell us about "the evolutionary hypothesis". He specifically notes that "[t]he temporal and spatial distribution is not entailed by any biological theory, but by the ordering principles of geology."

The most that he is saying about dating is that the correlation of widely separated strata may rest, in part, on the proposition that evolution would not result in identical fossil sequences arising in significantly different time periods in isolated locales. While that may be the most common justification given for saying that strata in one locality with a certain sequence of fossils must be the same general age as strata in another location with the same sequence, he also notes that there are others.

Moreover, the quote miners, after invoking Kitts' authority as a scientist to bolster the effect of his words about possible circular reasoning, omit that same authority's opinion that any such problem can be avoided with "reasonable care" by scientists. Even if they had some reason to dispute this further conclusion, to actively avoid discussing it is, itself, an act of dishonesty.

- Mike Hopkins and John (catshark) Pieret

For other quote mines used by creationists to argue that dating of the fossil record relies on circular reasoning, see:


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