On February 24 there was a pro-ID confab. in Istanbul. Among the attendees was David Berlinski, whose boneheaded essays for Commentary appear with depressing regularity. The conference website includes a brief abstract for Berlinski’s talk. So, how about we wrap up the week’s blogging by having a look:
Charles Darwin completed his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. At once, the theory that is introduced became popular. One hundred years later, it was widely celebrated as an outstanding success. Thereafter, the time of troubles began. For the past forty years, the great global vision that Darwin introduced into biology has been dying by degrees.
The abstract does not spell out what is intended by “the great global vision that Darwin introduced.” Presumably Berlinski means the two assertions that (1) Species are related by common descent and (2) Natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolution. If that is correct, then it is simply incorrect to say that Darwin’s vision has been dying by degrees. Common descent is so universally accepted, even the likes of Michael Behe concede the point. And you would be hard pressed to find a biologist who would deny that natural selection is a very important mechanism by which evolution occurs. Berlinski may be unhappy about that fact, but it is true nonetheless.
Critics and skeptics have never been satisfied with Darwin’s theory. Mathematicians have been especially dubious. But now even the biologists have begun to read those alarming medical reports with a heightened sense of concern. At least five fatal maladies are converging on Darwin’s theory.
Of course, Berlinski has no basis for his generalization that mathematicians have been especially dubious. You can find a handful of mathematicians throughout history who have challenged evolutionary theory, but that hardly justifies Berlinski’s assertion. And even the ones who have challenged it have generally only been skeptical of natural selection, not common descent.
And the fact remains that all attempts to provide mathematical refutations of Darwinian evolution have been wildly incorrect. They are invariably based on biologically unrealistic assumptions.
Now let’s look at Berlinski’s five maladies:
In the first place, the theory makes no sense. Either it collapses into triviality or it invokes a force with no known cognate to the forces of physics.
I have no idea what this means. I think, based on other things Berlinski has said and written, that the “collapses into triviality” point is just Berlinski’s version of the tautology objection (go here for a detailed treatment of that bit of nonsense), while the “invoking a force” part has to do with our inability to predict the course of evolution from first principles. He seemed quite keen on this point in the big Firing Line debate just over a decade ago. Needless to say, both of these points are not just wrong, but silly. Natural selection is not a useless tautology and it’s not Darwin’s fault that the course of evolution is unpredictable.
In the second place, the theory lacks for confirmation from the historical record.
By the historical record I assume he means fossils. And since the fact of common descent is amply documented by fossils, I’ll assume he means that natural selection as the most important mechanism is what lacks confirmation.
Now, there are certainly instances where fossils do, indeed, document precisely the sort of gradual change Darwin described. But the simple fact remains that fossils are not the right place to look for data on the mechanisms of evolution. Again, it is not Darwin’s fault that most organisms do not fossilize and that even when they do it is usually only their hard parts that survive. So it is not surprising that the fossils fail to document the efficacy of natural selection.
In the third place, it lacks for confirmation both from laboratory experiments and research into natural selection in the wild.
Laboratory experiments and field research have shown that natural selection can cause considerable change over a small number of generations. That’s the best sort of confirmation you could hope for from such experiments. We also have the even more impressive changes that have been obtained via artificial selection by breeders. I reviewed some of the lines of evidence supporting the importance of natural selection in Wedensday’s post. Once again we see that Berlinski is vamping.
In the fourth place, the theory cannot be simulated by means of computer algorithms. If the simulation honestly uses Darwinian principles, it does not work; and if it works, it does not use Darwinian principles.
It is not clear to me what exactly he wants to simulate. Experiments in artifical life and our experience with evolutionary algorithms have shown that random variations sifted by some consistent selection mechanism can build up into massive evolutionary change indeed. I call that simulating evolution by computer algorithms. The rest of this is too vague to respond to.
And in the fifth and final place, the theory has never been defended in terms that make mathematical sense.
Of course, it was the mathematical work of people like Fisher, Haldane and Wright that revived interest in natural selection in the twenties and thirties. Evolution has a solid foundation of mathematical theory. As I’ve already noted, all attempts to refute evolution mathematically have been abject failures.
So these are the five points Berlinski considers most important in building a case against Darwinian evolution. The fact that the journals seem to be publishing large numbers of papers written from a Darwinian perspective does not impress him. He believes a few moments of armchair theorizing can refute it nevertheless. Charming fellow.