This is an implicit argument made by many creationists and is generally supported by quotes from evolutionists. They quote one prominent evolutionist talking about one problem, another evolutionist talking about another problem and it seems if you put all of those quotes together that evolution is nothing but one problem after another. They say that a theory with so many problems surely can’t be trusted as reliable.
There are, however, numerous problems with trying to argue against a scientific hypothesis by simply quoting individual opinions. I discuss those below.
Just an opinion
First of all we need to agree on what a quote really is: an expression of someone’s opinion at one point in time.
That’s all it is.
A quote doesn’t represent actual evidence. It’s an opinion. Even if you have a quote from someone with expert credentials it’s still nothing but an opinion.
Creationists will occasionally interject a complaint here. They say that experts testify in court and their testimony is considered evidence.
Actually, that’s not exactly true.
Experts in court cases offer their expert opinion on how best to analyze actual evidence. A DNA expert, for example, will analyze DNA found at a crime scene. But even the best DNA expert in the world can’t just express their opinion without that DNA evidence. No expert can say something like, “I’m an expert and because of that I consider the defendant to be guilty!” If there is no DNA evidence then no DNA experts will testify. Even psychiatrists who testify in court won’t necessarily explain evidence that is physical in nature (i.e. you can hold it in your hand), but they might use their expertise to explain someone’s specific behavior and how that applies to their guilt or innocence in the court case. So even they are doing more than merely expressing an expert opinion; they are applying their expertise to those specific actions.
There are two conditions under which the use of an expert’s quote makes sense. A quote makes sense if it is used as it would in a court case. If there is some evidence – say a particular DNA sequence – that argues for or against evolution, then a quote from an expert explaining that evidence makes perfect sense. It is also often the case that an expert can explain things – even if it is only an opinion or a philosophical point. For example, Richard Dawkins is an expert. But he is also amazingly good at explaining evolutionary concepts. So quoting someone like him because they his explanatory skills are so good makes sense as well – with the understanding that Dawkins (or whoever) is still merely expressing an opinion.
Because a quote is nothing but an opinion, it is offset by someone else’s opinion that is different. If one expert says that “evolution is a fact” and the other expert says “evolution is not a fact”, what have you accomplished? Obviously nothing is accomplished under such conditions.
This can also be related to court cases. It is not unusual to have expert testimony on both sides of some evidence. One expert might claim that a piece of evidence implicates the defendant. The other expert may argue something completely different. It’s often the case that the two testimonies offset each other.
That’s when they are arguing over a specific piece of evidence! If they are expressing opposing opinions without any evidence to analyze, then the opposing opinions really accomplish nothing.
Evidence, in a scientific scenario, always wins out in the end. To quote an expert:
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts."
- Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Evidence is a fact. Quotes are nothing but opinions.
Snapshot in Time
As I mentioned earlier a quote is merely someone’s opinion at one point in time. We’ve all had opinions that changed over time. Experts are no different.
At the end of the 19th century a British scientist named Lord Kelvin (William Thompson) may have been the most well respected scientist on Earth at the time. He was President of the Royal Society in Great Britain which was the most elite group of scientists on Earth during his Presidency. The units used in the absolute temperature scale are named after him (degrees Kelvin).
That same Lord Kelvin said, in 1895:
"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."
Lord Kelvin lived until 1907 so he undoubtedly heard about the flight of the Wright Brothers in 1903. My guess is that his opinion that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” changed after that news reached him. We have no quotes saying otherwise – Lord Kelvin was a very proud man not prone to admitting mistakes. But since Lord Kelvin was a very smart person we should certainly expect that his opinion changed.
Yet the quote is still there, etched in time. Lord Kelvin can’t change what he said in 1895.
If someone was to quote an undeniable scientific expert - Lord Kelvin – saying as plainly and simply as could be that heavier-than-air flight is impossible, that argument wouldn’t be very persuasive in the 21st century. That would be especially true, and especially ironic, if they made that claim while a Boeing 747 flew overhead.
In the same way, someone who simply quotes an expert something negative about evolution, especially if the quote is from long ago, is not making a very persuasive argument.
As one specific example, I recently – in 2010 – had a creationist give me a quote from 1957 saying that there were very few human transitional fossils. Of course that is more than 50 years ago. To imagine that such a quote is even relevant in the 21st century is a bit ridiculous.
Quotes may say something different in their original context
This is the primary problem with quotes as used by creationists – out-of-context quotes. As an example, here is a commonly used quote from none other than Charles Darwin himself:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. (Darwin 1872)
That would seem to cast strong doubt on the possibility of evolution taking place. Here we see the very godfather of evolution calling the possibility of the eye evolving to be ‘absurd’.
Yet if we look at the entire quote – in context – the message that we get is very different. Here is the complete paragraph (with the first sentence highlighted):
“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.” (Darwin 1872, 143-144)
Here we see that Darwin didn’t really think that it was absurd at all.
Darwin continues with three more pages describing a sequence of plausible intermediate stages between eyelessness and human eyes, giving examples from existing organisms to show that the intermediates are viable.
Charles Darwin made the use of such out-of-context quotes very easy. It was his writing style to ask a question or make a skeptical comment in the first sentence of a paragraph but then answer that question or address the skepticism in the remainder of the paragraph. Such is the case here. Those first sentences – when removed from the rest of paragraphs – seem to provide very skeptical opinions against evolution. But when put into the proper context, such skepticism vanishes.
The web site http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/quotes/mine/part1-1.html lists a very large number of out-of-context quotes frequently used by creationists. This quote from Darwin is included but so are many other quotes from other evolutionists. They do not form a very persuasive argument against evolution.
One final comment related to such quotes is that their very existence shows that evolutionists are allowed to make skeptical comments about evolution. Creationists like to make the claim that many scientists are actually very skeptical of evolution but the scientific establishment forces them to swallow their negative opinions and not say anything that could be considered to contradict the scientific mainstream view that evolution is a fact. They obviously don’t understand the irony of immediately turning around and quoting an evolutionist saying something that, apparently, contradicts the scientific mainstream view that evolution is a fact.