How little you know: The Deniable Darwin by David Berlinski
posted at 6:35 pm on March 22, 2010 by CK MacLeod
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.