Context changes meaning of quotes


A letter to the editor of July 23 quoted from books by two 20th century biologists, Horatio Newman and Ernst Mary, to argue that modern scientists have doubts about the theory of evolution.

In context, however, the quotations suggest nothing of the sort. The letter quotes Newman stating, there “is no absolute proof of evolution” without mentioning that in his next sentence he argued that the same is true of any historical fact like the existence of Napoleon or Caesar, and that the job of the historian and the scientist is to build solid cases out of the available evidence.

In the original source (which the letter-writer clearly did not consult), Newman concluded that “not only does the hypothesis work, but, with the steady accumulation of further facts, the weight of the evidence is now so great that it overcomes all intelligent opposition by its sheer mass.

There are no rival hypotheses except the outworn and completely refuted idea of special creation, now retained only by the ignorant, the dogmatic, and the prejudiced.”

Contrary to what the letter implied, Newman had absolutely no doubts about the fact of evolution and felt only contempt for creationism. The letter was equally misleading in citing Ernst Mayr, and even misquoted him: “The fact that the evolutionary theory is now so universally accepted is no proof of its own correctness.”

Mayr actually wrote not “evolutionary theory” but “synthetic theory,” for he was participating in a debate about the mechanisms of evolution among biologists who accepted evolution as a fact, not questioning evolution itself. Moreover, on the very same page Mayr wrote that “the essentials of the modern theory are to such an extent consistent with the facts of genetics, systematics, and paleontology that one can hardly question their correctness,” before sensibly arguing that certain aspects of evolution require further study.

Like Newman, Mayr knew very well that evolution explains the modern diversity of life. The letter underscores why professional scientists and historians are required to cite their sources honestly.

John Cotts

Walla Walla