Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Hunter Baker Redux

I didn’t know that the men’s movement had blogs until I received an e-mail this weekend from Vic (aka David) with a link to one. The subject of the blog entry, much to my surprise, was evolution and the ID movement. Is there some connection between the men’s movement and the ID movement? Many of the same people who are anti-evolution are also strongly anti-feminist, so I suppose there might be, but it still seems a bit out of place. Unfortunately, the author of this blog has no permanent links to specific posts, so you’ll just have to scroll down till you find the title Intellectuals Who Doubt Darwin.

The post was written, according to the text, “by our friend, Hunter Baker the Great”. Long time readers of this blog may remember Hunter Baker as the author of the National Review Online article about the Leiter/VanDyke brouhaha (see previous posts concerning this here, here, here and here). That situation involved a book review published in the Harvard Law Review by Lawrence VanDyke, a Harvard Law student, of a book about ID and the establishment clause written by Frank Beckwith. Frank is a professor of law at Baylor and a friendly adversary in the evolution/creationism battle who has posted comments here from time to time.

Left to me, I would perhaps change this description to “Hunter Baker the Credulous and the Unethical” – credulous because he seems to accept uncritically virtually every word that comes from the mouths or pens of ID proponents; unethical because in the process of writing a scathing (and largely inaccurate) article in NRO he did not bother to reveal the fact that he is Beckwith’s graduate assistant in the Church/State Studies program at Baylor. That does not speak well for his journalistic integrity, or that of the National Review Online. It would be the equivalent of me publishing a blistering critique of someone who had written a bad review of a book by Rob Pennock without bothering to reveal that Rob is a friend and that we co-founded an organization together. Now on to the substance of Baker’s claims.

He begins with a brief review of the Scopes trial and then advances the notion that evolution has begun to “unravel” as a result of the work of Phillip Johnson:

The publication of his book, Darwin on Trial, now appears to have marked a new milestone in the debate over origins. Prior to Johnson’s book, the critics of evolution tended to occupy marginalized sectarian positions and focused largely on contrasting Darwin’s ideas with literalist readings of the Genesis account. Johnson’s work was different. Here we had a doubter of Darwin willing to come out of the closet, even though his credentials were solid gold establishment in nature. He had attended the finest schools, clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, taught law as a professor at highly ranked Berkeley, and authored widely-used texts on criminal law.

Leaving aside for a moment this often-repeated but utterly absurd notion that evolution has begun to unravel (or is a “theory in crisis” or any other silly catchphrase popular among the IDists), the thing that jumps out here is the unsubstantiated and entirely vague invocation of the “establishment”. The use of such terms is usually a reliable sign that one is dealing with nonsense, but particularly when it is as vague as this. The IDists love to talk about the “Darwinian establishment” in hushed tones, like conspiracy theorists whispering “illuminati” and “rosicrucians” to each other with a knowing nod. But here we have Baker somehow thinking it notable that Johnson was a member of “the establishment” as though there was some common set of goals and values and interests between the legal academy, of which Johnson was and is a member, and the scientific community. Lumping these two disparate groups together as part of an undefined “establishment”, while it may make good boilerplate polemics, makes for sloppy thinking. And by joining them together, it masks the obvious incongruity that an attorney feels qualified to reject the work of 99.9% of all of the geneticists, anatomists, biologists, anthropologists and paleontologists in the world (for a thorough critique of Johnson’s arguments, see Mark Perakh’s article).

Phillip Johnson and a number of others, raised enough doubts about the dominant theory to cause a number of intellectuals to take a hard look at the theory, particularly the gap between what can be proven and what is simply asserted to be true. Since that time, authors with more technical backgrounds, like mathematician/philosopher William Dembski and biochemist Michael Behe have published books providing even more powerful critiques of the neo-Darwinian synthesis based on intelligent design theory.

Except that these “powerful critiques” have been almost universally rejected by their colleagues in those fields, and have been quite thoroughly refuted many times over. To Mr. Baker and his fellow travelers, of course, this is proof that the ever-present They, the High Priests of the Darwinian Dogma, are unfairly shutting out these brave Defenders of Truth and Goodness. This tendency of IDists to strike a martyr pose and cast themselves as couragous tilters-against-windmills is as annoying as it is absurd.

Perhaps the most absurd claim in Baker’s screed is his sycophantic and hyperbolic lauding of David Berlinski:

Top honors, however, go to David Berlinski’s essay, “The Deniable Darwin,” which originally appeared in Commentary. The essay is rhetorically devastating and clearly draws blood as responsive letters from esteemed Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett carry a tone of near-hysterical outrage. The letters responding to Berlinski are reproduced, as are his replies. For the reader, the result is simply one of the most rewarding reading experiences available. Berlinski and his critics engage in a tremendous intellectual bloodletting, with Berlinski returning fire magnificently. In a particularly amusing segment, Berlinski, constantly accused of misperception, writes, “For reasons that are obscure to me, both [Mr. Gross] and Daniel Dennett carelessly assume that they are in a position to instruct me on a point of usage in German, my first language.” One suspects that the portion of the book occupied by the Berlinski essay and subsequent exchanges will be widely shared with friends.

For those not familiar with this article, I invite you to judge for yourself whether Berlinski’s article is “rhetorically devestating” or inane blather from an insufferably arrogant and obtuse thinker who is way outside his area of expertise. The Commentary article can be found here, and the letters written to criticize it here (Full disclosure, in contrast to Mr. Baker: One of those letters was written by Paul Gross, my fellow Panda’s Thumb contributor, and another by Eugenie Scott, a friend and colleague). Suffice to say, for now, that Mr. Baker, like Phillip Johnson a legal academic, is far more impressed with Berlinski’s than is anyone in the relevant fields of science that he sees fit to criticize. This is not to say that a non-scientist cannot offer a cogent and valid critique of a scientist’s work, of course, but Berlinski has certainly not offered any such thing either in the Commentary article or anywhere else.

Comments

  1. #1 Ruidh
    June 23, 2004

    Someone should do a study of how anti-evolution critique has itself evolved from the first reactions to Darwin’s publication to today’s most recent, pseudo-scientific “theories”. Discredited approaches get junked and replaced with arguments which look stronger but only becuase the average person dosn;t have the background to see the flaws in them.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    June 23, 2004

    Ruidh-

    Several people have already done so. Rob Pennock wrote Tower of Babel, Ronald Numbers wrote The Creationists (though it really should be updated to include the ID folks), and Paul Gross and Barbara Forrest have recently published Creationism’s Trojan Horse.

  3. #3 Carol/akasha-moon
    June 23, 2004

    So, I clicked on the link directing me to the blog written by the anti-feminist. Briefly read through his moan about women being awarded custory of the children and almost choked on my tea when the picture appeared stating ‘Two good reasons to read this blog’. Hmmm, now really, am I supposed to take this man seriously?

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    June 23, 2004

    LOL akasha.

  5. #5 Hunt
    June 27, 2004

    I loved the Berlinski article and the exchange. Dennett’s comment reminded me of his peer commentary on the original “chinese room” paper. Berlinski’s consistent misuse of “big words” was really funny, too.

    By the way, in Orr’s comments, he replies to Berlinski’s arguments about random combinations of elements of a “vocabulary,” like English letters or the chemicals in DNA (apparently he takes the letters used to denote them seriously). Is it just me, or would Orr have done better to point out that randomly combined DNA can create the organic equivalent of “meaningful words” is that unlike in human languages, all combinations of the letters have meaning, some of which are capable of reproducing themselves, and some of which aren’t? In other words, the reason DNA is not at all analogous to human vocabularies, or even computer languages, is that (aside from the fact that the letters are just initials for the names we gave the protiens!)unlike random strings of letters (e.g., jkajeqpca), every combination of proteins has some functional significance, either positive (adaptive) or negative? Or maybe this would have been over Berlinski’s head.

    To Berlinski’s credit, he at least managed to let us know that he’s read Borges, and heard of Joyce! I’m going to start throwing in irrelevant analogies to books I’ve read at the end of my papers, so that people will think I’m literarily sophisticated too!