Mike the Mad Biologist

George Gilder and ‘Anti-Education’

PZ, in response to a Boston Globe article about ID proponent George Gilder, attacks Gilder’s idiocy. I’ve pointed out some of Gilder’s stupidity he displayed in a Wired article before, so I won’t revisit that intellectually depauperate wasteland again. But while rereading my original post and PZ’s response, something struck me: Gilder is the antithesis of education.

In what I called the “Power and Glory” section of Gilder’s Wired article, he expounds on the Majestic Mystery of the Phospholipid Bilayer:

Just as physicists discovered that the atom was not a massy particle, as Newton believed, but a baffling quantum arena accessible only through mathematics, so too are biologists coming to understand that the cell is not a simple lump of protoplasm, as Charles Darwin believed. It’s a complex information-processing machine comprising tens of thousands of proteins arranged in fabulously intricate algorithms of communication and synthesis. The human body contains some 60 trillion cells. Each one stores information in DNA codes, processes and replicates it in three forms of RNA and thousands of supporting enzymes, exquisitely supplies the system with energy, and seals it in semipermeable phospholipid membranes. It is a process subject to the mathematical theory of information, which shows that even mutations occurring in cells at the gigahertz pace of a Pentium 4 and selected at the rate of a Google search couldn’t beget the intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being in such a short amount of time. Natural selection should be taught for its important role in the adaption of species, but Darwinian materialism is an embarrassing cartoon of modern science.

Most biologists, when writing for a lay audience, go through great pains to make complex subjects comprehensible (although we don’t always succeed). Gilder, by contrast, takes a subject matter that biologists have successfully taught to thousands and thousands of high school and college students and makes it sound hopelessly complex.

Gilder’s ‘anti-education’ is designed (pun intended) to confuse and intimidate the reader: ribosomes, phospholipids, and enzymes, oh my! Having softened up the reader with the technobabble equivalent of channeling the goddess Ramtha, he can then make unsubstantiated declarative statements like “intelligent design theory begins by recognizing that everywhere in nature, information is hierarchical and precedes its embodiment. The concept precedes the concrete.”

This cybervitalism sounds a lot like the Genesis story, where God speaks, and then things are. PZ points out that the reason materialist explanations were accepted by mostly Christian scientists is because materialism has explanatory power and continues to do so. But there’s something else that bothers me about Gilder’s cybervitalism: it ignores the reality that, in biological systems, genetic information is not separate from biological structures. Organisms are not computer programs–which is the underlying framework I think Gilder is operating from (Neo meet Darwin). In fact, ribozymes contain both heritable information and are interacting, functional structures, since they are RNA molecules that contain information and perform enzymatic functions (hence the name ‘ribozyme’).

One final point: Gilder claims that biologists “must feel very vulnerable.” Far from it: modern biology is stronger than ever. Frankly, critiquing Gilder is like picking on the slow kid. But if we don’t educate people, some might actually take him seriously. After all, a lot of people were stupid enough to invest their money with him….

Comments

  1. #1 Glen Davidson
    April 30, 2007

    even mutations occurring in cells at the gigahertz pace of a Pentium 4 and selected at the rate of a Google search couldn’t beget the intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being in such a short amount of time.

    Hmm, I wonder what other than mutation and selection would produce exactly the kinds of “intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being” that is slightly differently configured in chimps, rather more differently configured in a rabbit, and still existent (many of the parts, not all) but with quite a different sort of output in yeast. Care to give us the mechanism, Georgie?

    It’s what these fucking morons (must be allowed, considering that this blog is listed under “fucking morons”) always refuse to discuss, the actual arrangements, interelationships, and details involved in their paeons to the intricate interweavings that they have no interest in explaining.

    What I’d like to know is, how did “the designer” know what to mimic so that he could make organisms appear to be evolved? He must have observed it (perhaps computed it), then designed everything so that it appears as if it evolved. Meaning that apparently evolution did occur (even if in a computer simulation), it’s just that the designer used what he observed in order to fake his designs as though they were evolutions (sure, if the designer were God He (reportedly) wouldn’t need to do this, but you know, it’s not really about religion so we don’t have to concern ourselves with such idle notions).

    So fuckhead Gilder needs to tell us where this evolution happened, so that the Designer could design according to evolution. He’s in awe of such apparently evolved structures, hence it is incumbent upon him to explain design according to evolutionary principles.

    I’m just waiting for these swine to back up anything they have said heretofore.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    April 30, 2007

    Gilder’s is pretty much the typical shell-game of the IDers. Just fire off a bunch of technical words in a seemingly coherent sentence to make it look like you have something profound to say.

    Software implementation on computing devices is a wholly different process than cellular protein synthesis. But the analogy is tempting and makes you think of things that are designed, basically boiling it all down to argument by innuendo. Much like Behe when he talks about mousetraps and other so-called “IC” structures, he’s using very limited analogies to conceal the fact that his ideas are biologically vacuous.

  3. #3 ancientTechie
    April 30, 2007

    As a software developer, I find Gilder’s computer analogy irritating and meaningless. In the kitchen, I can use a recipe to turn a half-dozen ingredients into a cake that would require supercomputer-choking amounts of data to describe on a molecule-by-molecule basis. The recipe itself, of course, can be contained in a small text file, using a few standardized symbols.

    The fact is, the “intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being” need not be described in molecular detail within DNA; the recipe approach is much more efficient and practical — and it reflects the manner in which DNA is understood to function. Richard Dawkins, of course, pointed this out in The Blind Watchmaker, nearly twenty years ago.

  4. #4 pmcw
    April 30, 2007

    I think the principles of natural selection are self-evident enough for me to to accept as fact. However, I would love to hear from an expert on the theory of evolution where it all started. What was the first bit of matter and what was the first source of life and what were the origins?

    Regards, pmcw

  5. #5 Mike the Mad Biologist
    April 30, 2007

    pmcw,

    the first bit of matter: hydrogen atoms; before that, you’ll have to talk to a physicist (it’s above my pay grade).

    the first source of life and what were the origins: there are many competing hypotheses, but some include:
    1) a prebiotic soup that was ‘energized’ either by lightning or hydrothermal heat.
    2) self-replicating clay particles that incorporated ribonucleic acids and proteins. Ultimately, the acids and proteins replaced the clay (which remain in vestigal form as metal ion co-factors)

  6. #6 Roger Austin
    April 30, 2007

    As an investor in George Gilder’s Telecosm paradigm for almost ten years, I can attest to his visionary status. He discovered Qualcomm long before Wall Street. Investors who did their own due diligence have been well rewarded. I was one of them. His annual Telecosm Conference draws a wide audience of technology insiders and investors. Many of them are household names on mainstreet and Wall Street. He counts as personal friends many highly regarded innovators and thinkers, including Carver Mead who is one of my favorites.

    I must say that I find George far less evangelistic about his musings into science than his detractors, i.e. Richard Dawkins, who has elevated his own musings to religious status. George is enthusiastic and outspoken. He welcomes debate. Why do you seem inclined to stifle it? He admits his mistakes, including his enthusiasm for some technology companies that didn’t execute in the marketplace. Calling someone a procreating imbecile is hardly commendable. If there is no such thing as intelligent design in the entire universe then why do you criticize someone for their lack of intelligence?

  7. #7 pmcw
    April 30, 2007

    Mike, Thanks for your response. I’m curious, where did the hydrogen, prebiotic soup and/or clay particles come from? And, how did the first hydrogen atom, which I believe is absent a neutron, without any other things in existence, morph into what ever came next? I’m not trying to be obstinate, I’ve just always been curious about how all what we have today started and you’ve been more than willing to share your thoughts. Regards, pmcw

  8. #8 MarkH
    April 30, 2007

    He’s a classic crank – completely incapable of even recognizing a good argument.

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    April 30, 2007

    “He welcomes debate. Why do you seem inclined to stifle it?”

    Hey Mark, have you covered the denialist tactic of implying that your critics are trying to silence you on your blog yet? That’s quite a classic if I do say myself.

  10. #10 Edward
    May 1, 2007

    I’ve thought for a long time that the whole creationist movement (including ID) was anti-education: If the American public was well educated in critical thinking and was aware of all the evidence, canks like Gilder would not have a major following. There are many issues that the republican party has taken into it’s tent that I have similar feeling about: Denying global warming (Gilder also does this), “supply-side” economics, etc.

    At some level, I feel like it’s a big con game by some elements in the republican party: keep the masses ignorant so they will buy the nice fairy tales you are selling them. Its more the corrupting influence of power, than it is the Republican party itself. I think there are elements in the Democratic party that are just as bad, but they are not in control of the party right now. I think that our two-party system concentrates too much power in the hands of the two political parties, and our representative democracy would be much better served if we had a multi-party system with real choice.

  11. #11 qubit
    May 1, 2007

    Mike:

    You’re off by about 300,000 years on the first matter. :p (Sorry, couldn’t resist some astro snobbery.)

    pmcw:

    You could get lost for days on Wikipedia reading about this stuff:
    Timeline of the Big Bang

    It’s a little fuzzy before the electroweak era (since electroweak unification is about as far as we’ve gotten experimentally — the LHC should help settle the questions around supersymmetry and the Higgs mechanism once it’s really online), and quark-gluon plasma models are still a little, shall we say, incomplete, but once you get to hadrons freezing out it’s a pretty clear picture. IIRC, all the Sakharov conditions for baryogenesis are satisfied (universe wasn’t in thermal equilibrium, CP symmetry is violated, and baryon conservation is broken by the chiral anomaly in electroweak theory), so I don’t think matter-antimatter asymmetry is much of a problem (I’m willing to be corrected on this). As for before that… we’re working on it. :) You might also be interested in checking out Sean Carroll’s recent post, How Did The Universe Start?

  12. qubit,

    thanks for the help.

  13. #13 pmcw
    May 2, 2007

    Thank you for your inputs – very interesting stuff indeed.

    While I think natural selection is self-evident, I have a hard time arguing with the notion that there is proof that “creation” (call it ID if you wish, but I think that is too confining) is not a possibility at some point and/or level.

    If we can’t define the absolute origin of what ever it was that came first, I don’t see where we can prove there was never “creation.” And, if there was creation, even at the most simple origin, wouldn’t we have to say that that creation was an extraordinarily intelligent design since this most simple beginning was created in such a way to where it could evolve to all we know today?

    Regards, pmcw

  14. #14 qubit
    May 2, 2007

    pmcw:

    I understand your reasoning, but the universe doesn’t necessarily obey intuition. Obviously, there is nothing absolutely ruling out “creation” at some point (I’m partial to the idea that it’s god’s failed science fair project myself), though a deistic creation is a far cry from a theistic god. However, there are perfectly legitimate solutions to general relativity (our current understanding of the structure of the universe as a whole — we’re just not sure of its scope of applicability) where there is no “first” to use as an origin. Some of these posit an infinite, eternal universe where we are just a tiny bubble of it, while others (which I find more conceptually pleasing myself, though I realize it is a matter of taste) form “closed timelike curves” where time is finite but unbounded like a circle. Or, phrased more poetically (italics theirs, bold mine):

    From the arguments in the last section, we find that the Universe does not seem to be created from nothing. On the other hand, if the Universe is created from something, that something could have been itself. Thus it is possible that the Universe is its own mother.

    I’m not the biggest fan of string theory myself, but the stringy types also have some cool ideas about T-duality (the universe would be enternal with a big bang midpoint). And even if none of these are true, there is nothing logically or physically wrong with there being an absolute start to time (which you seem to implicitly accept yourself if the creator existed to do the creating). On the other hand, there is something physically nonsensical about trying to trace “time” (as we think of it) back to before the Planck era, since it becomes impossible to define time even in principle at those scales.

    Anyway, I’m just babbling random physics now. Short version: we don’t know where the universe originated. We don’t even know if the question makes any sense. But we’re working on it, and that’s the fun part, so it suits me just fine. :)

  15. #15 qubit
    May 2, 2007

    Oh, and Mike, my pleasure. I’m always looking for an excuse to talk about the “big questions.” You know, where did the universe come from?, why does time have a direction?, lager or ale?.

  16. #16 sex shop
    December 21, 2007

    the “intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being” need not be described in molecular detail within DNA; the recipe approach is much more efficient and practical — and it reflects the manner in which DNA is understood to function.

  17. #17 şişme bebek
    June 5, 2009

    Most biologists, when writing for a lay audience, go through great pains to make complex subjects comprehensible (although we don’t always succeed). Gilder, by contrast, takes a subject matter that biologists have successfully taught to thousands and thousands of high school and college students and makes it sound hopelessly complex