Sir Arthur Keith Misquote or Complete Fabrication

The following quote is sometimes used by fundamentalist creationist who think it somehow makes evolution less credible.

“Evolution is unproved and improvable, we believe it because the only alternative is special creation, which is unthinkable.”

(Sir Arthur Keith, a militant anti-Christian physical anthropologist)

Yet no one can find the source of the above quote.

There is a hypothesis that the above quote evolved from the quotes of others such as that of D.M.S. Watson

the theory of evolution itself, a theory universally accepted not because it be can proved by logically coherent evidence to be true but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.

This quotation of Watson is often used in Creationist writings in an attempt to show that Watson, and thus by extension promoters of evolution in general, dismiss creationism due to antitheistic bias. A slightly different version of the quotation, derived from a secondhand source, is sometimes used (e.g., by C. S. Lewis):

[Evolution is] accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or . . . can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.

Sometimes the words in square brackets are incorrectly incorporated into the quotation, and/or the ellipsis is omitted.

Watson’s original statement first appeared in a 1929 article, “Adaptation,” in the journal Nature:The second version of the quotation, given above, is formed by combining parts of two similar passages in Watson’s paper, one from the first page and one from the third. The first passage reads:

[1] Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or is supported by logically coherent arguments, but because it does fit all the facts of taxonomy, of paleontology, and of geographical distribution, and because no alternative explanation is credible.

The second passage reads:

[2] If so, it will present a parallel to the theory of evolution itself, a theory universally accepted not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible

The ellipses in the second version of the standard quotation from Watson elide his statement in [1] that evolution fits “all the facts” of taxonomy, paleontology, and geographical distribution. They also omit his statement, which directly follows quotation [1] above, that “Whilst the fact of evolution is accepted by every biologist, the mode in which it has occurred and the mechanism by which it has been brought about are still disputable.”

Watson thus considered evolution a fact, belief in which was supported by its fit to a wide range of other facts. He thought “special creation” unbelievable and the mechanisms of evolution disputable (his article was devoted to emphasizing the inadequacy of contemporary theories of adaptation, and mentions “special creation” only in passing). This was in 1929, several years before the inception of evolutionary biology’s Modern Synthesis, which integrated Mendelian genetics into Darwinian thought and produced widespread scientific consensus about basic evolutionary mechanisms. Stephen Jay Gould describes 1900–10 as “the period of greatest agnosticism and debate about evolutionary mechanisms” and adds that even the 1920s were still “not happy times of consensus for evolutionary theory in general.”

When it was made, over 80 years ago, Watson’s complaint that the mechanisms of evolution were poorly understood was accurate. His statement that evolution was believed “because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible” was a provocative exaggeration, contradicted by his own remarks (i.e., evolution already “fit all the facts” of several major knowledge fields).

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