Evolution? Prominent Scientist Reconsiders


True science involves a willingness to cast aside pre-conceived notions, the strength to stand up to peer pressure, and a commitment to follow the search for truth wherever it might lead. An historic demonstration of such science in action took place on November 5, 1981, when Dr. Colin Patterson spoke to over fifty classification specialists and guests at an open meeting at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Dr. Patterson, a senior paleontologist at the British Museum, has been a respected evolutionary scientist for many years. He had been invited to speak on evolution and creation because, as he put it, he had been kicking around non-evolutionary or even anti-evolutionary ideas for about eighteen months. Few more profound or provocative probings of the subject have been undertaken in the century since Darwin.

Unfortunately (as was true of the meeting of evolutionist authorities in Chicago in October, 1980), no official transcript of the meeting will be made available to the public, and Dr. Patterson declined to edit file transcript prepared by the authors from a tape recording of the public meeting. Fortunately, however several other scientists also recorded Dr. Patterson's talk, and this brief article has been prepared (checking several tapes to insure accuracy) so that a larger number of people can share in the intellectual excitement of that history-making meeting.

Why was Dr. Patterson willing to express his anti-evolutionary or non-evolutionary views to the scientific community? Because, as he put it, he woke up one morning after twenty years of research on evolution and realized that there was not yet one thing he knew about evolution for sure. Shocked to learn that he had been misled so long, he asked other leaders in evolutionary thinking:

"Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing that is true?"

In Chicago, his question was greeted only by silence from the geology staff at the Field Museum and at the Evolutionary Morphology Seminar at the University of Chicago. He received the same silence in reply everywhere he asked it.

Against this background of this apparent void in knowledge, Dr. Patterson addressed himself to the need for reevaluating our thinking with these words:

The text of my ‘sermon’ will be from Gillespie’s book, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago University Press, 1979). I want to consider the way in which these two alternative world views, evolutionism and creationism, have affected or might affect systematics and systematists.

Gillespie showed that Darwin had tried to replace the creationist paradigm with one having no room for any final cause, and he took it for granted in his book that Darwin and his disciples had succeeded in that task. Patterson then said that he himself took Gillespie's view until recently. "Then I woke up," said Patterson, "and realized that all my life I had been duped into taking evolutionism as revealed truth in some way.

Gillespie had argued that the creationist paradigm was not a research-governing theory but was instead an "anti-theory," a series of vacuous statements that seemed to communicate knowledge but really conveyed none. But, observed Patterson, it seems that same complaint can also be applied to evolutionary theory today: an "anti-theory" couched in the language of knowledge but conveying none.

Focusing particularly on systematics (the science of classification), Patterson expressed his recently formulated assessment that the evolutionary hypothesis of common ancestry was devoid of explanatory value. In fact, he went on to say that the effects of the theory of common ancestry had not been merely a lack of knowledge but "positively anti-knowledge."

Strong words indeed! It seems likely that Patterson was saying that the most fundamental aspect of evolutionary theory, descent from common ancestry, was an "anti-theory" that generated "anti-knowledge," i.e., a false interpretation of the data actually contrary to the data at hand.

One of the most ignominious examples of a statement conveying a kind of "anti-knowledge" is this one frequently repeated by evolutionists: "Evolutionists all agree that evolution is a fact; the only disagreement is on how evolution occurred." How absurd. If evolution is to be taken seriously as a scientific theory, then it must be an explanatory statement regarding how changes occur over time. The means or mechanism of change is what a scientific theory must be all about.

Patterson seems to make a similar point regarding mechanisms. He quotes Gillespie saying that creationists in Darwin’s time frequently pleaded ignorance of the means of creation, but always affirmed the fact of creation. Now, Patterson perceptively noted, the shoe is on the other foot. It is the evolutionists who seem to be affirming the fact of evolution, while continually pleading ignorance of the means or the "how" mechanism of evolution. On this point, he said, it seemed hard to distinguish creationist attitudes of the past from attitudes of evolutionists today. In fact, speaking directly to his fellow evolutionist specialists in the audience, Patterson said that during the last few years they and he "have experienced a shift from evolution as knowledge to evolution as faith.

Then Dr. Patterson got down to the specifics of the case at hand: how the evolutionary hypothesis of common ancestry acted as an anti-theory that conveys anti-knowledge which is "harmful to systematics."

His first example concerned man and apes and how differences and similarities between them ought to be evaluated in assessing their relationship for classification purposes. Richard Owen, well known creationist anatomist of Darwin’s time, insisted that man could not be related to apes by descent because the human brain contained a certain center, the hippocampus, that was absent in apes. "Darwin’s Bulldog," T.H. Huxley insisted the very opposite, that the ape’s brain did contain a center homologous to the hippocampus and that man thus did indeed descend from primitive apes.

But nowadays we have another example of role reversal: a modern evolutionist taking the approach the creationists once used. According to Patterson, no less an evolutionist than Ernst Mayr, is now arguing that man be maintained in a taxa of high rank, distinct from the apes. Why? Because, in Mayr’s view, the human brain contains a center, Broca’s center, that is quite unlike anything in the ape!

How is it that Mayr can argue for great systematic separation of man and apes if a short time is granted for their divergence, asks Patterson. Apparently it is Mayr’s "knowledge" of evolution, his "knowledge" (non-knowledge) that man has evolved at an exceptional rate.

Far worse for the evolution hypothesis of common ancestry are the latest data of molecular homology, amino acid and nucleotide sequence studies. Patterson said that if Mayr and evolutionary theory are saying anything, they must be saying that those forms more recently descended from a common ancestor have a greater similarity among their genes and gene products than those more distantly related. Certainly, it would seem, that is the clearest, simplest, most direct deduction based on the theory of descent from a common ancestor. But concerning this foundational principle of evolution, Patterson concludes: "The theory makes a prediction, we’ve tested it, and the prediction is falsified precisely."

Common ancestry falsified!? The first example Patterson used in leading up to his dramatic conclusion involved data obtained in Ann Arbor only a month earlier on the amino acid sequences for the alpha hemoglobins of a viper, crocodile, and chicken. On the basis of evolutionary theory we "know" that vipers and crocodiles, two reptiles, are much more closely related to each other than either is to a bird which is presumably a much more distant relative. But this evolutionary knowledge turns out to be "anti-knowledge" and the theory an "anti-theory." It is the crocodile and the chicken that show the greatest similarity (1.5%) of their amino acids in common), said Patterson, with the viper and the chicken the next most similar (10.5%), and the two reptiles with the least similarity (5.6%). In this particular example, the evolutionary "prediction is falsified precisely," insisted Patterson.

An isolated example? No, he continued with several more. An examination of the amino acids in myoglobin shows that crocodiles and lizards share 10.5% while the crocodile and chicken share only 8.5%, a greater similarity for the reptile/reptile pair than for the reptile/bird—except that the lizard/chicken, another reptile/bird pair, is 10.5%, the same percentage as the reptile/reptile pair.

Patterson then questioned the way data have been manipulated by evolutionists. In describing studies of mitochondrial DNA done on man and various primates, Patterson noted the numbers used for comparison are only produced after evolution is assumed to be true and the computer is told to find a phylogenetic tree. In the case of DNA, Patterson continued, we should expect a 25% match by chance alone (since there are only four possibilities for each position), yet among five presumably closely related species (man, chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and gibbon) there was only a 7% match.

Patterson continued with multiple examples, including averaging sets of data for reptiles, birds, and mammals, but they all pointed to the same conclusion regarding evolution: "Something is wrong with the theory." It certainly would appear that if evolution is a scientific theory that can be falsified, then it has indeed been falsified!

But Dr. Patterson did not stop with that negative comment. Instead he asked the audience to permit him to show what a creationist would make of the data, and proceeded to do so. Patterson’s explanation of a creationist view proved too much for some in the audience, and he was interrupted with questions about which creationist he meant. Patterson simply replied that he was speaking for himself, making the profoundly fair and simple point that he could examine a creationist analysis of data scientifically, without either agreeing or disagreeing.

Dr. Patterson’s open and objective approach to the evidence seems to embody the scientific spirit we encourage in students, but so rarely see in practice among professionals. It’s a sad cliché in science to say that old theories never die, only their proponents do. So it is easy to understand the growing interest in creation science among science students still formulating their personal and professional paradigms. But science has precious few examples of scientists who, because of the evidence at hand, have made paradigm shifts at the peak of their professional careers. Dr. Patterson is thus to be highly commended for his intellectual honesty and the courage to face possible ridicule from his scholarly peers.

Dr. Patterson is to be commended for his critical analysis theory on origins and, even more importantly, for his willingness to discuss his work publicly. This should give encouragement to the numerous scientists who are aware of the great problems with evolution theory but are hesitant to talk publicly about them.

Cite this article: Luther D. Sunderland, B.S. 1982. Evolution? Prominent Scientist Reconsiders. Acts & Facts. 11 (6).