Quote: Colin Patterson's Talk

The Claim

I found the following on a Creationist website:

Dr. Colin Patterson who is Senior Principle Scientific Officer in the Paleontology Department at the British Museum (Natural History) and an evolutionist, ...

Patterson, in a speech given Nov. 5, 1981 before other evolutionists, pointed out to a stunned audience that the new data on amino acid sequences contradicts the theory of evolution. He said, "The theory makes a prediction; we've tested it, and the prediction is falsified precisely ... evolution not only conveys no knowledge but seems to somehow to convey anti-knowledge ... harmful to systematics (science of classifying forms of life)."

Patterson's Response

On November 5, 1981, Patterson did give a talk at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, to the monthly Systematics Discussion Group meeting. A creationist in the audience secretly taped the talk, and later circulated a heavily flawed transcript.

Patterson was asked about this, and responded by saying that the talk was only about details within his narrow specialty, cladistics. He had spoken loosely, and thrown out rhetorical questions, since he thought that everyone in his audience was an expert. He had just read a scathing attack on cladistics, and was pretty heated up. He was not talking from notes, and did not try to create a correct transcript.

When asked for a summary, he said that he was talking about the two schools of thought among cladistics experts. One school took evolution as a given. Therefore when they drew a diagram showing the relatedness of various species, they were explicitly drawing a family tree that showed descent. The other school - Patterson's - tried to construct diagrams showing only the logical relatedness of species, strictly based on similarities and differences. That is, his diagrams did not use evolution as an assumption. He was arguing that this is important, because it is a fallacy to use one of your assumptions as one of your conclusions. Since his school did not use evolution as an assumption, they were free to use it as a conclusion.

Patterson said he was not expressing doubt that evolution had happened, and he felt that his "cladograms" were evidence for evolution. For example, here is a quote from the end of the last book he wrote before he died:

[The] "misprints" shared between species ... are (to me) incontrovertible evidence of common descent.

Evolution, 2nd Edition (1998), Page 122

Systematics and cladistics are still with us today, and are now a standard part of evolutionary theory. For example, visit the systematist Tree of Life project.

Last modified: 23 December 2000

Up to the quotes page.

Back to the Creation/Evolution page.

Email a comment.

Search this web site