Response to Marvin Kuehn's Letter (Dec. 1989)

Gordon C. Mills

Dept. of Human Biological Chemistry & Genetics
The University of Texas
Medical Branch
Galveston, TX 77550

From: PSCF 42 (March 1990): 60-61.

I am writing in response to the letter by Marvin Kuehn (December 1989) expressing his views on Michael Denton's book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. I certainly  grant Kuehn the right to criticize this book, when the criticism is given in a forthright manner without resorting to inflammatory rhetoric. However, I am concerned when I read the following: "whose claims to scholarship or integrity are woefully deficient"; "the same old creationist tactics and il-founded objections"; "Denton's lack of precision...and expertise..."; "The standard creationist tactic..."; "ignored or dismissed by some sleight of hand..."; "Denton's lack of intellectual acuity..."; "Denton's major flaws lie in his scholarship and integrity"; "...his citations of leading biologists often distort and twist their intent..."; "infuriated by the unsustainable attacks on evolution..."; "...repulsive misuse of sources."

Why is it that Kuehn could not have criticized the book without resorting to phrases such as those quoted above? Although Kuehn makes various references to Denton's lack of scholarship and intellectual acuity, as nearly as I can tell, Kuehn is really saying that his opinion on these topics differs from that of Denton. Unfortunately, Kuehn does not give page citations for most of his criticisms, so it has been difficult to assess his charges of Denton's misuse of quotations. One quotation that I could check was the charge by Kuehn: "...where he [that is, Denton] makes Halstead sound like a cladist." The quotation from Denton's book (p. 139) follows: " the words of Beverly Halstead (no friend of cladism himself), that `no species can be considered ancestral to any other' marks without question a watershed of evolutionary thought." Kuehn considers this to be a serious distortion. Is this really a distortion when Denton acknowledges that Halstead is not a cladist? This was the only citation given by Kuehn that I was able to identify in the book, so I could not check on others to see if they were twisted or distorted.

As one of those at the ASA-sponsored conference on "The Informational Content of DNA" held in Tacoma, Washington in June 1988, and one who met Michael Denton and listened to his presentations, I was greatly impressed. The charges of "Denton's lack of intellectual acuity..." and "who claims to scholarship or integrity are woefully deficient...", I believe to be totally in error. Denton is a molecular biologist, and in this area, where I believe I have competence to judge, I consider his knowledge to be extremely up-to-date. Since I am a biochemist and a molecular biologist, I will leave to others to judge his expertise in some other areas of biology. However, I am extremely impressed that in this era of specialization, that one individual can write so well on a broad range of topics as Denton has in his book.

I will not attempt to evaluate Kuehn's critiques of Denton in all areas of biology, but I will take a few examples to point out what I consider to be unjust criticisms. Kuehn notes: "Perhaps the best example of Denton's lack of intellectual acuity can be seen in his handling of molecular homologies." I have just complete writing a paper on protein and nucleic acid homologies for another scientific journal, and I believe I can speak on this aspect with some expertise. First let me note that there is much disagreement as to what homologies in proteins and nucleic acids really mean, so there is clearly room for differences of opinion. Kuehn makes the following statement: "From the gross differences that both fish and mammals have from lamprey he fallaciously concludes that all vertebrate groups are equidistant from each other." This comment demonstrates Kuehn's misunderstanding of what Denton is really saying. The statement in question by Denton (p. 285) follows: "When the various terrestrial vertebrate groups, amphibia, reptile, or mammal, are compared with fishes, all are equally isolated." All one needs to do is to compare the difference matrices provided by Denton on p. 279, or the more complete matrices in Dayhoff's Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure, and the reader will see the essential truth of Denton's statement. These groups are all isolated from fish and they are isolated from each other. Nowhere does Denton say what he is purported to have said in the quotation of Kuehn that I cited.

Kuehn also criticizes Denton for the mishandling of certain technical disputes within biology (e.g., punctuationalism, cladism, neutralism, etc.). I have read these portions of Denton's book carefully and could find no evidence of this mishandling. One should remember that in a book with a broad coverage of a topic, one cannot expect the technical detail that might be required in a manuscript that is limited to a single topic. Again there are clearly differences of opinion on these topics that Kuehn chooses to refer to as "minor technical disputes," but I believe the use of the terms "mishandling" and "lack of precision" in reference to Denton are inappropriate.

In conclusion, it should be evident that I disagree markedly with the view of Kuehn regarding Denton's book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, and find myself in accord with the previous review of this book by T.E. Woodward (December 1988). Denton notes repeatedly throughout his book that he is aware that his views are controversial, but he has presented those views carefully with a considerable amount of evidence to support them. I believe it is time for those who support more traditional views of evolution to reexamine the data and acknowledge that no satisfactory scientific explanation has been provided for many questions dealing with origins; whether they be the origin of the universe, the origin of life, or the origin of the many types of multi-cellular life. We need more scientists like Michael Denton, who are willing to challenge "generally accepted theories." All theories need to be continually challenged; most will be found to be in need of some modification, while others may need to be discarded and replaced with a new theory that is more in accord with the facts. If there are not scientists among us who are willing to challenge prevailing theories, there is little hope for progress in science in the future.