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How little you know: The Deniable Darwin by David Berlinski

posted at 6:35 pm on March 22, 2010 by


The Deniable Darwin collects essays written from 1996 to 2009 mostly on the same general theme: That the insufferable pretensions and aggressive self-certainty of science ideologues prevent us from justly appreciating how much we actually have learned about the natural world, and how wonderfully little that is. He applies his dauntingly well-informed, remorselessly cogent skepticism to several fields of study – theoretical physics, mathematics, linguistics, molecular biology – but it’s his dismantlement of Darwinism that he takes to center stage for a virtuoso recital.

The program’s highlights include two name-taking essays, the book’s title piece and another (“Has Darwin Met His Match?”) from seven years later, presented along with full replies from most of the named and regiments of their supporters, and extensive rebuttals from the author. Giving the impression of deep familiarity with the professional and popular literature, and advancing his critique in a richly literary style, Berlinski argues that the Darwinists remain very far from demonstrating and evidencing how evolution via random mutation and natural selection could explain what the evolutionists claim it explains – that is, everything.

Berlinski’s ideas have been taken up by some Intelligent Design and Creationist writers and activists – including the sponsors of the Discovery Institute Press, which published this book – and that fact leads the Darwinists to accuse him, in brief, of the thought-crime of religious faith. The maneuver conveniently relieves them from confronting his argument on its own terms, particularly his denial that the only logical alternatives to Darwinian evolution are Biblical literalism and its cousins. The most you can say about Berlinski’s argument on this score – the argument he actually makes as opposed to the one he’s frequently assumed to be making – is that it points, insistently, to obviously “design-like” aspects of the natural world that no biologist has been able to explain except by childlike inferences, circular reasoning, and “just-so” stories – how this, that, or the other biological peculiarity might/must have served a survival purpose – and by scandalously oversold pseudo-experiments.

It’s true that one expression for the goal-seeking-ness, design-like-ness of life and everything else might be “God,” but “God” is a word, and in some ways we know as little about words as we know about… most stuff. A great lover of language once informed the world that the closer we look at a word, the further it recedes from view, and his wisdom seems to apply to biological processes, the origin of the universe, the human mind, and the divine, too.

For the non-scientist – as for some number of scientists, too – reaching a confident judgment on the underlying issues and disputes is impossible, but the responses of the Darwinists and other keepers of the faithless faiths tend to reinforce Berlinski’s argument: I’m happy to side provisionally with the debater who doesn’t rely on repetitious, ideologically rigid, churlishly defensive, and at times blatantly dishonest polemics. (Berlinski never touches on Climate Change, but the parallels with that debate are striking.) Maybe that’s a judgment from personal taste or political prejudice. Yet if we can’t really explain how the incredible yet inescapably fundamental complexity of a single functioning living cell arises and elaborates itself, armies of just-in-time enzymes translating intricately arranged protein instructions into vitality, then in the broad sense whatever else we know, or think we know, about the origins of higher organisms and ecosystems remains at root a narrative, a matter of taste or contingency, not a full-fledged theory in the same way that relativity and quantum mechanics are theories – good and tested to n decimals, as Berlinski likes to remind his readers.

If there are definitive answers or sets of answers to these questions that are both accessible to and discoverable by human beings, we don’t have them yet. We’re not really even close. By taking us step by step through our answerlessness, Berlinski restores wonder, mystery, and humility to the discussion – while pointing to whole continents of thought and knowledge hardly even visited, much less mapped and settled.

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions

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Sounds like a good read- you might be interested in this article “Why everything you’ve been told about evolution is wrong” which examines new research which seems to show that your environment can actually affect the genetic material which is passed on. Rather than your DNA remaining static, your lifestyle/environment can affect the material surrounding it- the epigenome- which, in turn, affects which genes are switched on or off.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/mar/19/evolution-darwin-natural-selection-genes-wrong

The whole process would appear to be more complex (and less well-understood) than the likes of Richard Dawkins and co would have us believe

Jay Mac on March 22, 2010 at 7:19 PM

Thanks, Jay Mac. That is an interesting article, both for its content and for the way that the author on the one hand wants to make fun of Dawkins et al just a bit, but on the other hand – from the initial anecdote at the expense of Biblical literalists to the obligatory laudatory words on natural selection – writes as though afraid of being rebuked as an ignorant heretic.

CK MacLeod on March 22, 2010 at 7:53 PM

Jay Mac on March 22, 2010 at 7:19 PM

This is not a new theory and as there is more and more credible and well thought out experiments it will build on what we already know. It doesn’t overturn natural selection, however. It identifies other pressures which are contributing to evolutionary change.

lexhamfox on March 22, 2010 at 8:03 PM

This is a tightly written essay – especially this part;

Berlinski argues that the Darwinists remain very far from demonstrating and evidencing how evolution via random mutation and natural selection could explain what the evolutionists claim it explains – that is, everything.
Berlinski’s ideas have been taken up by some Intelligent Design and Creationist writers and activists – including the sponsors of the Discovery Institute Press, which published this book – and that fact leads the Darwinists to accuse him, in brief, of the thought-crime of religious faith.

Opposition to un-proven junky pseudo-science, combined with even the slightest statement of any kind of faith, gets you labeled right away as a creationist nut. Those who cling to the discredited dogma of Darwinism, like the recently discredited AGW true-believers, attack any question with zeal.

massrighty on March 22, 2010 at 8:16 PM

The book that convinced me that there’s design in the universe is called “Privileged Planet” (http://www.privilegedplanet.com/) by Guillermo Gonzales and Jay Richards. Not about Darwin at all, it’s about the impossible coincidences in the design of the universe that allow for human life and scientific discovery.

joe_doufu on March 22, 2010 at 8:21 PM

Putting aside for the moment the fact that Berlinski’s book was published by the Hogwarts press, why do I give a crap what he thinks? There’s no shortage of Christians who are actually biologists who support evolution, do your readers a favor and review one of their books. Not that their religious beliefs should matter. Just wanted to take the opportunity to suggest how hysterically goofy the “thought crime” comment was.

RightOFLeft on March 22, 2010 at 8:32 PM

RightOFLeft on March 22, 2010 at 8:32 PM

I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re trying to say. Do you? To Berlinski’s opponents, Dawkins and his ilk, refusing to pre-judge religious faith marks you as a fool or “thought criminal,” a term from Orwell for someone who thinks differently than the ruling class would prefer. The existence of Christian believers in evolution is neither here nor there.

CK MacLeod on March 22, 2010 at 8:43 PM

Yet if we can’t really explain how the incredible yet inescapably fundamental complexity of a single functioning living cell arises and elaborates itself, armies of just-in-time enzymes translating intricately arranged protein instructions into vitality, then in the broad sense whatever else we know, or think we know, about the origins of higher organisms and ecosystems remains at root a narrative, a matter of taste or contingency, not a full-fledged theory in the same way that relativity and quantum mechanics are theories – good and tested to n decimals, as Berlinski likes to remind his readers.

An excellent point and one of the most crucial elements of this entire argument, from my perspective.

Cylor on March 23, 2010 at 2:25 AM

I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re trying to say. Do you? To Berlinski’s opponents, Dawkins and his ilk, refusing to pre-judge religious faith marks you as a fool or “thought criminal,” a term from Orwell for someone who thinks differently than the ruling class would prefer. The existence of Christian believers in evolution is neither here nor there.

CK MacLeod on March 22, 2010 at 8:43 PM

And Dawkins thinks “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a plausible explanation for our evolution. So that should tell you how rational he is.

But really, have we got a better theory than natural selection and random mutation? Because I’ve yet to see one that doesn’t introduce things we can’t measure.

TheUnrepentantGeek on March 23, 2010 at 10:28 AM

But really, have we got a better theory than natural selection and random mutation? Because I’ve yet to see one that doesn’t introduce things we can’t measure.

TheUnrepentantGeek on March 23, 2010 at 10:28 AM

And how can we measure natural selection? It’s been 150 years and so far, there’s no evidence supporting it, nor have we ever seen it occur in nature. How is Darwinism any less of a religious belief than intelligent design. Or rather, how is intelligent design any more of a religious belief than Darwinism?

joe_doufu on March 23, 2010 at 10:48 AM

But really, have we got a better theory than natural selection and random mutation? Because I’ve yet to see one that doesn’t introduce things we can’t measure.

TheUnrepentantGeek on March 23, 2010 at 10:28 AM

Berlinski argues convincingly that Darwinism fails that same test on the central questions of speciation, the origins of life, and the development of complex organic systems. All we have are defective or inadequate theories, along with variously oversold where not fraudulent claims to the contrary. That there is no scientifically compelling alternative doesn’t validate the defective theory.

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 10:50 AM

But really, have we got a better theory than natural selection and random mutation? Because I’ve yet to see one that doesn’t introduce things we can’t measure.

The question is what we propose to do about this. An unproven theory should not be taught as gospel. Darwin’s theory, as subsequently modified, has been partially validated, at least by implication. That’s great. But the “macroevolution” element of the theory remains undemonstrated.

The question why Darwinian theory can’t be taught as theory, with its successes noted but also its unproven elements, is a valid one.

When I was in high school, we were taught that there were different theories of how light worked, and scientists hadn’t demonstrated one over the other to their satisfaction. Hard as it may be to believe, hearing this didn’t make me immediately whip out the book of Genesis, read the first chapter, and inform the physics teacher that the scientific community could stand down from its labors — all was explained elsewhere.

Over time, it really has come to seem that it’s the philosophical (as opposed to narrowly scientific) adherents of Darwinian theory who can’t stand for their theory to be subject to the same processes of skepticism and disproof that govern our other scientific postulates.

J.E. Dyer on March 23, 2010 at 11:25 AM

How is Darwinism any less of a religious belief than intelligent design. Or rather, how is intelligent design any more of a religious belief than Darwinism?

joe_doufu on March 23, 2010 at 10:48 AM

ID simply posits an intelligent mind behind evolutionary processes. Essentially it affirms Darwins ideas more than it undercuts them.

What you’re really getting at is naturalism – the idea that the material, physical world is all there is. That is essentially unprovable. Unfortunately, it’s all scientists have to work with because science is all about measurement and by definition you can’t measure the supernatural. The epistemology is unforgiving that way.

Berlinski argues convincingly that Darwinism fails that same test on the central questions of speciation, the origins of life, and the development of complex organic systems. All we have are defective or inadequate theories, along with variously oversold where not fraudulent claims to the contrary. That there is no scientifically compelling alternative doesn’t validate the defective theory.

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 10:50 AM

Darwin was merely the originator of evolutionary theory. There have, in fact, been other theorists since him with some ideas about speciation and the like. Discussing Darwin in vacuum isn’t terribly useful for this reason.

It’s kind of like arguing over Freud in Psychology. He was instrumental in introducing the unconscious mind – a construct in common use today. But many of his other theories didn’t prove useful. This does, not of course, reduce the value of the idea of the unconscious.

So really you’re arguing with an out of date understanding of your opponents. Granted I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if other theorists are addressed (IIRC you didn’t mention them) but they do exist.

Look, I’m a theist so I have no problem with ID, but going after Darwin this late in the game sort of misses the point.

TheUnrepentantGeek on March 23, 2010 at 11:32 AM

Darwin was merely the originator of evolutionary theory. There have, in fact, been other theorists since him with some ideas about speciation and the like. Discussing Darwin in vacuum isn’t terribly useful for this reason.

“Darwin” the historical figure is secondary to the discussion. “Darwinism,” shorthand for the theory of evolution as propounded and taught, is pretty well-defined: Natural selection + random mutation. There are no other mechanisms allowed. “Some ideas about speciation and the like” either falls within that strictly defined model, and is taught as the only acceptable theory, or it’s something else.

Many brain cells have been used up trying to show how randomness + selection can, in effect, anticipate the future – how an ecosystem can act like a brain (and a brain like an ecosystem), but, once you admit that that’s what you’re doing, you’re talking about something other than the theory of evolution as taught and popularized. I’m quite open to a materialistic explanation that somehow incorporates design-like features into evolution, and some scientists do appear to be looking for them, but once it’s widely accepted that there is a need to look for them, the revolution in evolution will have begun.

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 12:14 PM

The question is what we propose to do about this. An unproven theory should not be taught as gospel. Darwin’s theory, as subsequently modified, has been partially validated, at least by implication. That’s great. But the “macroevolution” element of the theory remains undemonstrated.

The question why Darwinian theory can’t be taught as theory, with its successes noted but also its unproven elements, is a valid one.

The political problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a vocal constituency for skepticism without the freight of non-scientific add-ons.

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 12:28 PM

The political problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a vocal constituency for skepticism without the freight of non-scientific add-ons.

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 12:28 PM

Are you sure that circumstance is an empirical fact, and not something people have been conditioned to believe by advocates with an agenda?

I’m not. The proposition that Darwinian theory should be taught as theory, with skepticism where appropriate, has never been put before — if you will — the “Texas school textbook board.” The political question has never been propounded that way.

Advocating the inclusion of ID has actually, for many, been an attempt to get the political question off top-dead-center. I’m not saying it’s the only possible approach, but it’s the closest thing I’ve seen in my lifetime to rescuing the whole issue from the false dichotomy of “Darwin” or “God.”

I wouldn’t sell the people short. If the option were presented of teaching Darwin’s theory as a theory, with appropriate caveats about the limits of its empirical success so far, I’m betting a majority would have no problem with that.

J.E. Dyer on March 23, 2010 at 2:59 PM

The political problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a vocal constituency for skepticism without the freight of non-scientific add-ons.

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 12:28 PM

Probably because the only serious body of doubters are young earth creationists?

TheUnrepentantGeek on March 23, 2010 at 4:04 PM

J.E. Dyer on March 23, 2010 at 2:59 PM

I agree that including acknowledgment of skeptics would probably be perfectly acceptable to a majority of parents who have lives to lead, but they’ll likely remain split as long as the scientific establishment is committed to the hard, science-is-settled, only-morons-question-it position – which may have been rigidified in part for the sake of defense against forces viewed as “anti-science.” It may not help the cause of the skeptically inclined when there are forces poised to storm any breach and seize the citadel of science.

But I don’t know enough about what’s going on in public education, how standards are elaborated, what theories of education predominate, how much freedom teachers have to say “it’s only a theory,” etc.

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 4:32 PM

I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re trying to say. Do you? To Berlinski’s opponents, Dawkins and his ilk, refusing to pre-judge religious faith marks you as a fool or “thought criminal,” a term from Orwell for someone who thinks differently than the ruling class would prefer. The existence of Christian believers in evolution is neither here nor there.

CK MacLeod on March 22, 2010 at 8:43 PM

That’s great, but there’s no ruling class. If Christianity is a “thought crime” there shouldn’t be any Christian biologists. Dawkins should have had them executed already or something. Have you even read 1984? Big Brother doesn’t just say mean things to those who disagree with the political orthodoxy.

RightOFLeft on March 23, 2010 at 4:36 PM

RightOFLeft on March 23, 2010 at 4:36 PM

My sincere apologies to all who thought I was suggesting that Dawkins & Co were seizing dissenters and torturing them in special rooms with the things they feared most in the world, I apologize.

I’ll never, never ever use hyperbole to make a point again! Long live RightOFLeft!

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 4:41 PM

1984 wasn’t just idle speculation, CK. The horrifying future he imagined wasn’t too far removed from the stark reality for the subjects of totalitarian regimes at the time he wrote it. It’s an important book that can’t be casually invoked without robbing it of its impact. I wish I would have found a more polite way to ask, but you should find a more realistic description of the nature and intent of Berlinski’s critics.

RightOFLeft on March 23, 2010 at 4:56 PM

And it’s not that you used hyperbole. You’re misinforming your readers by dismissing legitimate criticism of the DI — from both secular and religious scientists — as some kind of pogrom against religious belief.

RightOFLeft on March 23, 2010 at 5:05 PM

You’re misinforming your readers by dismissing legitimate criticism of the DI — from both secular and religious scientists — as some kind of pogrom against religious belief.

I consider that a strange reading of what I wrote.
Apparently you have something against the DI. My mention of of it has nothing to do with whether or not there are reasons to criticize it on its own terms. I don’t know and only just barely care, and the only reason it comes up is that the Darwinists refer to Berlinski’s association with the DI as though it proves that his work need not be taken seriously.

Incidentally, the DI published this book, but many of the essays, including the Darwin discussions, first appeared in Commentary magazine, which was at the time published by the American Jewish Committee. Berlinski himself also happens to be Jewish.

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 5:50 PM

…Darwinists refer to Berlinski’s association with the DI as though it proves that his work need not be taken seriously.

Maybe the DI published a sober, fair-minded criticism of evolution. If so, it would be the first time. I think it’s safe to assume the quality of Berlinski’s work is commensurate with the farcically low standards of the
Discovery Institute.

Incidentally, the DI published this book, but many of the essays, including the Darwin discussions, first appeared in Commentary magazine, which was at the time published by the American Jewish Committee. Berlinski himself also happens to be Jewish.

His ethnicity notwithstanding, his ideas themselves are nothing but warmed-over creationism repackaged for a secular audience.

There are experiments that could disprove evolution. Nothing short of rolling up his sleeves and doing real science will get the attention of the Darwinists. That’s the real reason his work isn’t taken seriously. He hasn’t done any to begin with.

RightOFLeft on March 23, 2010 at 7:51 PM

I think it’s safe to assume the quality of Berlinski’s work is commensurate with the farcically low standards of the
Discovery Institute.

You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about, and seem proud of the fact – as little as I cared about the Discovery Institute previously, you’re putting me more and more on their side. If someone with your attitude dislikes them, odds are they’re doing something right.

Despite what appears to be zero familiarity with the writer in question, you still feel qualified to make the following statement:

his ideas themselves are nothing but warmed-over creationism repackaged for a secular audience.

How would you know?

In addition to not being an evangelical or Creationist publication, COMMENTARY magazine has been one of the leading intellectual journals in the United States for over 60 years. Other places where the essays collected here were first published include THE WEEKLY STANDARD and FORBES, just to name two that you may have heard of. You might want to click on the Amazon link for Berlinski’s further qualifications, which, in addition to a PhD in Philosophy, include teaching positions and research fellowships in mathematics, molecularly biology, and other disciplines at leading international universities, such as Stanford, Rutgers, and the University of Paris.

CK MacLeod on March 23, 2010 at 9:58 PM

…………………………..I would like to coment on this thread, but all of my comments go left….

percysunshine on March 24, 2010 at 6:29 AM

There are experiments that could disprove evolution. Nothing short of rolling up his sleeves and doing real science will get the attention of the Darwinists. That’s the real reason his work isn’t taken seriously. He hasn’t done any to begin with.

RightOFLeft on March 23, 2010 at 7:51 PM

That’s rich! Please enlighten us… what are these experiments? The reason Darwinism is still controversial is that it has never withstood any falsifiable hypothesis. If you want to prove something, you have to design an experiment or quasi-experiment in which at least one result could falsify your theory, and prove that it does not.

Darwinism is a religion, in that all results of all experiments and measurements are taken as “proof” of the theory. In the fossil record, you couldn’t find transitional forms (Darwin’s hypothesis), so you decided that “punctuated equilibrium” “proves” Darwinism. Whenever you find a “missing link”, though, that “proves” Darwinism as well. Perfection in nature, like the design of the eye, “proves” Darwinism. But imperfection, like the appendix, “proves” Darwinism, too. And so on.

Why is there so much controversy about Darwinism and Global Warmingism, but not about Einstein’s general relativity, the Big Bang theory, germ theory, genetics, plate tectonics, the periodic table, or any of so many other theories? The answer is that most of those have been demonstrated with simple and clear-cut proofs, many of them famous.

joe_doufu on March 24, 2010 at 10:26 AM

joe_doufu on March 24, 2010 at 10:26 AM

Well said, except I wouldn’t include the Big Bang in the list of non-controversial theories. Berlinski touches on the Big Bang and related theoretical gymnastics, and I happen to have done some of my own reading on it: The question doesn’t excite the level of intensity that Darwinism does, but there appears to be a similar pattern on it, too, of an established theory whose problems have been suppressed. To the credit of Big Bang-ists, they generally seem a lot more willing to consider alternatives. They’ve also been very clever about constructing disprovable hypotheses, and, as I understand it, there are experiments going on even now (astronomical data still being gathered and examined) with the potential to turn it into the Big Dud.

CK MacLeod on March 24, 2010 at 10:53 AM