HAS DARWIN MET HIS MATCH IN BERLINSKI?
By Mark Perakh
Posted on December 14, 2002
This country has the largest in the world number of Nobel laureates, including physicists, chemists, and biologists. Strangely, it also has perhaps the largest in the world percentage of gullible people believing in astrology, the Bible code, communication with dead and all kinds of crank science. Crank science takes many forms but its unavoidable feature, which makes it recognizable through all of its often ingenious disguises, is the absence of evidence. One of the modern and very active versions of crank science is the so called Intelligent Design (ID) movement.
Commentary, although not a scientific publication, is a serious journal whose authors are usually experts in their fields. Therefore the publication of the article by the mathematician David Berlinski (Has Darwin met his match? Commentary; New York; Dec 2002) which is the second such occasion (his previous opus on the same subject appeared in 1996) seems somehow surprising. Berlinski is far from being an expert in biology in general and the evolution theory in particular. He never conducted a biological research, never published any material of biological character in any of the scientific journals. No wonder that he so highly praises the opuses of another amateur in biology, a lawyer Phillip Johnson whose attack on Darwinism was shown to display the lack of understanding of the subject he so brazenly set out to discuss and who has a penchant to misquote and to distort the views of his opponents (see, for example, critique of Johnson in the Unintelligent Design section on this site).
Berlinski’s paper has other surprises as well. Perhaps the most amusing one is his apparent change of mind as compared with his earlier utterances. Berlinski supplied rave blurbs to the books by the prominent advocates of ID, William Dembski and Michael Behe. In this new paper, however, unexpectedly Berlinski casts doubts on the plausibility of the ID concepts so vigorously promoted by Dembski and Behe.
Berlinski’s main thesis, expressed succinctly, is that both Darwinism and the ID alternative to it are equally unsubstantiated. If Berlinski thesis is formulated that way, perhaps the reasons for his new approach can be understood. So far, despite all the persistent efforts by the ID advocates, while politically they have been often successful, they failed to get a foothold in science. A search through the scientific literature reveals absence of any discussion of the ID theory. In particular, Dembski, Nelson, Wells, Meyer, all listed by Berlinski as having “respectable training,” while having indeed earned legitimate scientific degrees from respectable schools, have not been publishing any scientific data which would have resulted from research in biology or other fields of science. Behe seems to be an exception as he authored a number of papers in biochemistry. His widely read book titled Darwin’s Black Box where he introduced the concept of Irreducible Complexity (IC) has however no relation to his biochemical research. Dembski, who is a very prolific writer on ID, has apparently to his credit only one mathematical paper (on randomness), published many years ago. Wells, by his own admission, set out to study biology on the advice of the Reverend Moon, with an explicit goal set in advance - to destroy Darwinism, hardly a proper motivation for an unbiased scientist.
Although the ID advocates rant incessantly about the supposed acceptance of their concepts by the mainstream science, in fact almost all their publications appear only in their own outlets. They are anxious to be treated as equals in science. Asserting the equal status of Darwinism and the ID, as Berlinski does in his paper, even if only by casting doubts on both equally, may seem to be a step forward from their standpoint.
Here are examples of specific points in Berlinski’s paper which call for a rebuttal.
1. Contrary to Berlinski’s assertion, the fossil record, as incomplete as it is, admirably supports the tenets of Darwinism, all protestations by ID advocates notwithstanding.
2. Contrary to Berlinski’s assertion, Cambrian “explosion” is not a major stumbling block for the evolution theory. Plausible explanations have been offered by biologists while the ID advocates have not provided reasonable arguments against these explanations.
3. Contrary to Berlinski’s assertion, biologists are not “standing in silence” regarding the explanations of “why the peacock tail?” and all other “whys” Berlinski suggests as allegedly insurmountable riddles for the evolution theory. In fact, biologists have suggested Darwinian answers to those “whys” long before Berlinski asked his “why” questions. He seems to be either unfamiliar with the pertinent literature or possibly suffering, using his own words, from “inability to read the literature.”
4. A similar remark seems to be in order with regard to Berlinski’s discussion of Nilsson-Pelger’s (btw, not Pilger as Berlinski consistently misspells it) paper wherein the time necessary for the Darwinian evolution of a mammalian eye was estimated. Although in a footnote Berlinski accuses the physicist Matt Young in “an inability to read the literature,” it looks like such an accusation can be rather properly made in regard to Berlinski’s own misreading of Nilsson-Pelger’s fine paper wherein he even did not notice the proper spelling of the author’s name, not to mention his misinterpretation of Nilsson/Pelger’s methodology (to which Young referred correctly).
5. Berlinski's references to the anthropic principle reveal his insufficient familiarity with the literature on that subject (including such recent publications as those by Vic Stenger, Bill Jefferys and Michael Ikeda, and others, see the Anthropic Principle section at www.talkreason.org ).
6. A similar remark is in order regarding his discussion of chance and necessity. While his critique of Dembski's treatment of probabilities is often (although, in my view, not always) reasonable, it mostly repeats the critical comments offered before by other authors. Many articles containing such an earlier critique of Dembski’s treatment of probabilities can be seen in the Unintelligent Design section at www.talkreason.org , and some of them also on this site.
7. Contrary to Berlinski's assertion, it is ID advocates like Behe and Dembski rather than scientists who have been obsessed with Behe's mousetrap example. A few scientists have made fun of that example by showing that Behe's mousetrap can be developed in small steps following an evolutionary mechanism. Contrary to Behe's insistence, his mousetrap was shown to be not "irreducibly complex," thus debunking Behe's and Dembski's claims based on that example.
8. Contrary to Berlinski's assertion, there is no penetration of ID into such areas as mathematical physics. In fact, all publications of the ID advocates are of "philosophical" type, lacking scientific data in support of their
concepts. The most mathematically loaded material in the ID literature is in the books by Dembski, wherein he attempts (in my view, unsuccessfully - see the critique of Dembski on this site) to apply concepts of information, probability, and complexity theories to substantiate the ID hypothesis, but nowhere it even remotely relates to mathematical physics.
The list of unsubstantiated assertions in Berlinski's paper can be easily extended. Overall, Berlinski's enviably eloquent paper offers almost nothing new or original, is largely misleading in his presentation of the situation in the biological science, and adds nothing of substance to the controversy in question beyond an effort
aimed at putting the failed ID hypothesis on equal footing with genuine science.
My thanks to Randy Bennett, Pete Dunkelberg, Russell K. Durbin, Paul R. Gross, Bill Jefferys, and Matt Young for useful comments on the initial draft of this article.