A Case Study in Creationist Quote-Mining

To a Christian, few things are more aggravating than when someone pulls a Bible verse out of context to prove a pet point, especially if that point runs counter to the larger purpose of the text.

When I read creationist literature, I assumed its authors, as fellow conservative Christians, were being just as honest with their quotations from scientific literature as they would be with the Bible. After 40 years of granting creationists this favorable assumption, it took only a few weeks of reading actual scientists’ work to see how unfounded my trust had been.

A sentence we saw in an Answers in Genesis online textbook two posts ago is a case in point.

Harold J. Morowitz, professor of biophysics at Yale, has calculated that the [probability of] formation of one E. coli bacteria in the universe at 10-100,000,000,000, or one in 10 to the power of 100 billion.

Dr. Morowitz’s calculation is very popular among creationists, some of whom quote him at length. The creationist book, A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, brings in more from Morowitz:

[Morowitz’s actual words:] …no amount of ordinary manipulation or arguing about the age of the universe or the size of the system can suffice to make it plausible that such a [random] fluctuation [to produce an E. coli] would have occurred in an equilibrium system. … This is outside the range of probabilistic considerations, and really, outside of science. We may sum up stating that on energy considerations alone, the possibility of a living cell occurring in an equilibrium ensemble is vanishingly small.

And two paragraphs later:

Again, we stress in a very firm quantitative way, the impossibility of life originating as a fluctuation in an equilibrium ensemble.

Dr. Morowitz was a professor at Yale for over 30 years. Imagine that! A creationist at Yale! How lonely he must have been, surrounded by secular scientists who were unwilling to recognize God’s creative hand in the formation of all this beauty and order.

Would you be surprised to learn that he was not a creationist at all; that he testified against creationists in a creation-science textbook case; that he thought the emergence of life by naturalistic processes, far from being unlikely, may have been inevitable; and that creationists have quoted him completely out of context?

The book from which the quotations were taken, Energy Flow in Biology, argues that the flow of energy in a system acts to organize the system. Morowitz’s point in the quotations above was that a system in equilibrium will never produce life, but a flow of energy such as radiation from the Sun organizes the system and may ultimately produce life.

The universe is not in equilibrium, and was even less in equilibrium in the past, so to apply Dr. Morowitz’s calculation to the actual universe, rather than in the service of a hypothetical as he did, is entirely dishonest.

At least the aforementioned creationist book (A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization) was honest enough to include enough of Morowitz that the alert reader could spot the word “equilibrium” (even if the book totally ignored the concept) but Answers in Genesis was not even that forthcoming.

Energy Flow in Biology is not available online but I can direct you to a short paper Morowitz wrote called Energy Flow and the Organization of Life. It opens with this paragraph (emphases mine).

Life is universally understood to require a source of free energy and mechanisms with which to harness it. Remarkably, the converse may also be true: the continuous generation of sources of free energy by abiotic processes may have forced life into existence as a means to alleviate the buildup of free energy stresses. This assertion — for which there is precedent in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics and growing empirical evidence from chemistry — would imply that life had to emerge on the earth, that at least the early steps would occur in the same way on any similar planet, and that we should be able to predict many of these steps from first principles of chemistry and physics together with an accurate understanding of geochemical conditions on the early earth. A deterministic emergence of life would reflect an essential continuity between physics, chemistry, and biology. It would show that a part of the order we recognize as living is thermodynamic order inherent in the geosphere, and that some aspects of Darwinian selection are expressions of the likely simpler statistical mechanics of physical and chemical self-organization.

Dr. Morowitz’s life’s message, not to mention the theme of the book from which creationists love to quote, is that systems will inevitably self-organize in the presence of energy flows such as heat from the Sun. Far from arguing that life could never have arisen by chance, he argued that it may have been forced, deterministically, into existence. Later in the same essay he likens the emergence of life to the emergence of a lightning bolt that transports energy between sky and ground more efficiently than gradual diffusion. Both are “non-equilibrium channels” that “inevitably” and “predictably” form in the presence of “two reservoirs at different potential.”

Let that sink in: Creationists quote Dr. Morowitz as an expert witness in their case that life could not have arisen without a Creator, but his actual meaning was that life was probably inevitable even without one.

Do you think that’s honest?

How about Dr. Morowitz? What does he think? As it happens, he was also called as an expert witness in McLean vs Arkansas Board of Education, a creation-science court case. In that situation, he was able to speak for himself, and you can read the rather amusing transcript here. Suffice it to say that he takes a dim view of creationists, calling them “deceptive” and “unscientific.”

This post has explored just one example of creationists’ practice of “quote-mining” — of grabbing a sentence or two from a reputable scientist and making the words mean what their author never intended them to mean. If you’d like many more examples, check out The Quote Mine Project at talkorigins.org.

As I looked into the creation/evolution issue in my final years as a Christian, I found this dishonesty everywhere among creationists. Although I maintained my faith in the wake of creationism’s collapse, this was my first realization of the extent to which today’s evangelical Christian message relies on smoke and mirrors.

Do you think creationists even know how dishonest they’re being? I will speculate on that in my next post.

9 responses to “A Case Study in Creationist Quote-Mining

  1. So, you found *one* example of a misused quotation. This doesn’t negate Darwin’s admission that they eye couldn’t have evolved, nor his deathbed conversion. Also, I’ve heard a number of Einstein quotes that make it sound like HE believed in God, too. Are you smarter than Albert Einstein?

    Kidding, obviously. Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for letting me know you were kidding. I wouldn’t have known otherwise because I have indeed heard all of those false claims enough times that it did not surprise me to hear them again!

  2. Creationists can only be ignorant or dishonest.

    If they know the evidence and were honest, they wouldn’t be creationists.

    If they know the evidence and call themselves creationists, then they are bending the word ‘creationist’ to mean something it generally doesn’t like Ken Millar does when he, an evolutionary biologist and good catholic christian uses the word ‘creationist’ to mean ‘someone who believes that god made the universe using natural laws and time that he made’ which Ken damn well knows almost nobody associates with the word ‘creationist.’ I mean, that’s great and all but it’s like he’s trying to obfuscate the matter!


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