Pharyngula

You know, I really can’t stand George Gilder. He’s one of those pompous poseurs who pretends to be a fan of science and technology, yet whenever he opens his mouth you discover that he doesn’t know jack about the subject. I’ve excoriated Gilder before (a whuppin’ so cruel that Gilder’s daughter and then Gilder himself showed up in the comments to complain, and he was still publicly complaining about his brutal mistreatment a year later), but now he’s back with yet another rambling whimper about evolution.

Steve Reuland has already dismantled the babbling techno-geek in detail, so I’ll let him take care of most of it. I do want to mention the very revealing opening paragraphs, where Gilder exposes himself as an ideologue who is out to use his version of “science” in service to his biases. He used to like evolution:

Darwinism seemed to offer me and its other male devotees a long-sought tool—resembling the x-ray glasses lamentably found elsewhere only in cartoons—for stripping away the distracting décor of clothing and the political underwear of ideology worn by feminists and other young women of the day. Using this swashbuckling scheme of fitness and survival, nature “red in tooth and claw”, we could reveal our ideological nemeses as naked mammals on the savannah to be ruled and protected by hunting parties of macho males, rather like us.

But he was shocked and disappointed to learn that…OH NOES!! There are GIRLS in the clubhouse!!!

In actually writing and researching Sexual Suicide, however, I was alarmed to discover that both sides could play the game of telling just-so stories.

It is telling that in this section of his essay he is mentioning source that are marginal at best (Robert Ardrey and Elaine Morgan, for instance), and that his clearly stated intent is to use science where it suits him for nakedly ideological ends. It’s not surprising that he went on to help found the Discovery Institute, which continues to abuse science to fit its religious ends. I am also rather amused to learn that one of the wellsprings of Intelligent Design creationism was the frustrations of an anti-feminist, who discovered that he couldn’t use evolution to propagandize for gender inequity. That can’t possibly mean his bigotry was wrong, of course—it means biology is wrong!

The rest of it is the usual self-promoting puffery of Gilder, which Reuland has ably ripped apart—he tells us about learning molecular biology and information theory, when all he does is reveal over and over again that he doesn’t understand those subjects at all, having only learned a few buzzwords that he uses to try and wow the rubes. It’s all classic fast-talking con-artistry.

He’s also trying to argue that riches and information must trickle down from above, that there must be a hierarchy with the source of all at the top. Really.

Throughout the history of human thought, it has been convenient and inspirational to designate the summit of the hierarchy as God.

I’ve seen this kind of thing somewhere else. Do we really want to go back to the Middle Ages?

i-3ac9ac9ca78155c44c490e23db77d073-chain_of_being.jpg

Comments

  1. #1 Betty Cocker
    July 4, 2006

    What an empty windbag, I could not bother reading the entire thing.
    “words in themselves cannot generate mind or intelligence.”

    Certainly not in this case.

    Elaine Morgan’s book was a brilliant, devastating, and hilarious dismantling of Desmond Morris’s pompous book, The Naked Ape, and still worth reading for that, however poor the formulation of her own theory with it. Great science humor.

  2. #2 Jesurgislac
    July 4, 2006

    Elaine Morgan’s book was a brilliant, devastating, and hilarious dismantling of Desmond Morris’s pompous book, The Naked Ape, and still worth reading for that, however poor the formulation of her own theory with it.

    Her theory that humans evolved from amphibious apes paddling around in the Pleistocene is hardly unique to Elaine Morgan, and appears quite as well supported as any other theory as how we ended up mostly-hairless, covered with fat, smart, and articulate.

    As she points out herself in at the beginning of the second half of her book, anyone who presents sociological theories based on evolutionary data is bound to get hissed at, and when she wrote The Descent of Woman “Feminist” was a brand new word for evolutionary biologists to hiss.

  3. #3 llane1@unl.edu
    July 4, 2006

    Gilder’s intellectual process differs little from that of Biblical creationists. He merely chooses a different set of incompetent sources.

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    July 4, 2006

    No, the Aquatic Ape Theory is complete bunk. I recall years of wrestling with crackpots like Verhaegen and Kuliukas on usenet — it’s a beautiful example of selective reading of the evidence to support a theory that has been thoroughly shot down, multiple times.

  5. #5 quork
    July 4, 2006

    In case anyone has forgotten Gilder’s classic from the Boston Globe, July 27, 2005:

    ”I’m not pushing to have [ID] taught as an ‘alternative’ to Darwin, and neither are they,” he says in response to one question about Discovery’s agenda. ”What’s being pushed is to have Darwinism critiqued, to teach there’s a controversy. Intelligent design itself does not have any content.”

    Own goal!

  6. #6 King_Aardvark
    July 4, 2006

    What’s the deal with The Naked Ape? I read it a while back and it did seem quite dated (in some places a lot) but it didn’t strike me as particularly pompous. Is it pompous to take us down a peg to be just another animal?

  7. #7 Jesurgislac
    July 4, 2006

    it’s a beautiful example of selective reading of the evidence to support a theory that has been thoroughly shot down, multiple times.

    The site you linked to isn’t very thorough about “shooting down” the theory of the Aquatic Ape – at least, the sections I read through were (carefully? carelessly?) ignoring facts in support of the theory.

    Never mind: it’s not a discussion I really want to have.

  8. #8 Jesurgislac
    July 4, 2006

    King: Is it pompous to take us down a peg to be just another animal?

    The main problem with The Naked Ape is that Desmond Morris seems to assume that humans are a male animal, bringing the female of the species into his theories only when the male needs to have sex. ;-)

  9. #9 King_Aardvark
    July 4, 2006

    Ahh. Forgot about that. It’s been a couple years since I read it.

  10. #10 thwaite
    July 4, 2006

    For those unfamiliar with the aquatic ape hypothesis, this wikipedia article is a useful backgrounder.

    It mentions several alternative hypotheses, such as that human hairlessness was due to sexual rather than natural selection. (It omits that it was Darwin himself who strongly argued this.)

    Of course sexual selection itself comes under recurring criticism, most recently from Joan (formerly Jonathan) Roughgarden. S/he’s been written up by Seed Magazine, and a useful peer discussion of her hypothesis, with her response, appeared in Science Magazine 5/5/06 (subscription required).

    Getting back to Gilder, I first encountered his ID screed in this Wired magazine sidebar (scroll to end) … intelligent design theory begins by recognizing that everywhere in nature, information is hierarchical and precedes its embodiment – eh?

  11. #11 Ann Homily
    July 4, 2006

    Almost by definition, Darwinism is a materialist theory that banishes aspirations and ideals from the picture.

    …Yep, and it’s a durned good thing they never taught the Wright Brothers that there “Theory of Gravity”…!

  12. #12 John Emerson
    July 4, 2006

    Gilder is a big fan of Julian Simon, who argued that because there are an infinte number of points on a line, we can never run out of resources:

    “The length of a one-inch line is finite in the sense that it is bounded at both ends. But the line within the endpoints contains an infinite number of points; these points cannot be counted, because they have no defined size. Therefore, the number of points in a one-inch segment [of a line] is not finite. Similarly, the quantity of copper that will ever by available to us is not finite, because there is no method (even in principle) of making an appropriate count of it…” (Simon, The Ultimate Resource, 1981, p. 47)

    I suspect that Simon used amphetamines. Everything makes sense if you have enough amphetamines.

    Simon debunked

  13. #13 Betty Cocker
    July 4, 2006

    Jesurgislac,

    I have no idea of the current status of the Aquatic Ape theory, I think my point was she did not present the theory as elegantly as she debunked the Naked Ape. It was a book I really liked, and I wished it had had as wide a readership as the Naked Ape.
    On the aquatic theory, are we not the only ape to have subcutaneous fat? Also human babies have a reflex up to a certain age – if you dump them under water they will immediately stop breathing, they don’t attempt to breath and choke. I have no idea if other primates have this reflex. Both these might point to some sort of aquatic past.

  14. #14 Troutnut
    July 4, 2006

    Wow, that original takedown of Gilder was a fun read.

    Communication theory and information theory have some things to offer when applied in the proper context by real scientists. But I too often see them intertwined with fields like “social theory” and “criticism,” which are packed with pseudo-intellectuals like Gilder who rise to fame by borrowing big words they don’t understand. Their papers are assessed based not on rigorous standards of evidence or reason, but on their ability to drop names and use buzzwords inventively.

    It is criminal enough that universities waste money paying such people to play this game in their own little world. It is worse that they rightfully inspire the “isolated Ivory Tower blah blah” accusations that wrongfully splash damage onto real academics. It is worst when one of them becomes a public nuisance because he forgets that real academia, especially science, is about more than collecting pat-on-the-back citations for using big words and catchy metaphors. They forget that real scientists hold ideas to higher standards than they do, and they don’t understand why scientists laugh at their pet “theories” which would go over very well according to the standards of their fiction-based corner of academia. They expect respect for the ridiculous because that’s what they trade in for their entire careers.

    I don’t know to what extent Gilder has arisen from these circles, but his writings smack of the sort of nonsense that Alan Sokal exposed in his famous hoax.

  15. #15 QrazyQat
    July 4, 2006

    I’m the guy (Jim Moore) with the site PZ linked to. I have to say that I certainly don’t cover all the claims of AA proponents, but in my defense I have to say it’s unbelievable how hard it is to cover everything wrong they say. Any given page of Verhaegen’s writing, for instance, contains typically dozens of errors and just plain BS. To go over this and cover it right is very time-consuming. But I try to do at least part of it. I encourage Jesurgislac to email me at the feedback address on my site with any facts he believes are particularly in favor of the AAT — it would help me decide what to cover in the future by seeing what people find most convincing.

    My main goal in doing my site is to demonstrate the degree of reliability of the AAT/H proponents’ methods — and it’s low.

    On the topics brought up by Betty Cocker, our fat, according to the leading expert on the evolutionary significance of fat (Caroline Pond — and read her great book, The Fats of Life — just a great science book, IMO) our fat deposits and distribution is just like that of other primates who eat a lot. In the wild they don’t eat that much, but in captivity they often can, and when they do we see just what we see in humans. The greater amount of our fat compared to our wild relatives is almost certainly due to predation, or relative lack of it — animals which live in relatively predator-free places become fatter than their relatives, for instance those on some predator-free islands. This is because fat is a great thing (extra food) when it doesn’t slow you down; if you can afford to slow down (fewer predators) you can afford to lay on extra fat. Our species has had relatively effective means of protection from predators (weapons and fire) for hundreds of thousands of years. Our fat is also rather obviously a sexually selected trait rather than what we see in any of the fatty aquatic beast — this is all covered on my site.

    The swimming baby thing, holding the breath and all, is a great example of unreliability of AAT/H proponents’ research. This was covered in a short 1939 paper (which they sometimes site, so one assumes they might have read it) and on the first page it covers the fact that this feature was found in all animals tested. It is apparently a holdover from a pre-mammalian past, and/or due to the fact that these infants just got out of spending their lives to that point floating underwater — 9 months of it for us). Yet despite this info being in the very source they cite, they don’t report it. That tells you something about their degree of scientific rigor, and you see this again and again in their work.

    Lastly, I have to say that the Wikipedia article, while not hopeless, does suffer from bias from the input of a few too many of the idea’s uncritical supporters. I did a tiny bit of editing at one time, but feared I would get dragged into a Wiki-war that would sap as much time as the newsgroup posting did when I did that. I have become somewhat of a lightning rod on the subject, and my presence tends to attract a touch of rabidness.

    Sorry about the long post. If you’d like to get into more of a discussion on the subject, email me.

  16. #16 qubit
    July 4, 2006

    Gilder is a big fan of Julian Simon, who argued that because there are an infinte number of points on a line, we can never run out of resources:

    That is just downright precious. So Gilder is a fan of an especially stupid, innumerate crackpot who denies the atomic theory of matter. Who’d have guessed?

  17. #17 BlueIndependent
    July 4, 2006

    I’ve heard these sorts of “public conversion stories” before. They invariably emit themselves from the mouths of ingrates like David Horowitz and others who are still bitter they got trampled under the righteous steam roller of the civil rights movement, and the anti-Viet Nam war effort.

    One is amazed at all the effort and money-thrown away over decades-these people spend to puff their ideologies and big, thick-headed false morals. And it continues on daily sans abatement.

    Anyone with remedial motor skills would opine of this that such efforts could’ve been much more positively directed toward solving hunger and other crises, rather than crying and whining and contorting like spoiled children about how much liberalism and the advances it made sucks.

  18. #18 junk science
    July 4, 2006

    Darwinism seemed to offer me and its other male devotees a long-sought tool–resembling the x-ray glasses lamentably found elsewhere only in cartoons–for stripping away the distracting d├ęcor of clothing and the political underwear of ideology worn by feminists and other young women of the day.

    I used to think Darwinism could let me see through women’s clothing too. What a crock it turned out to be.

  19. #19 thwaite
    July 4, 2006

    Wow, that original takedown of Gilder was a fun read.

    Yes, now that I’ve reviewed it I agree – PZ’s initial response to Gilder’s sidebar was prompt and pointed, to excellent effect. Wish I’d been reading pharyngula then. My class & I did have some fun with Gilder’s purple prose and conservation-of-information illogic just on our own.

    About that same time (Fall ’04) is also when National Geographic had its cover story “WAS DARWIN WRONG?” – inside the answer was “no”, but still I wondered at what it apparently takes to engage popular interest.

  20. #20 thebewilderness
    July 4, 2006

    “Throughout the history of human thought, it has been convenient and inspirational to designate the summit of the hierarchy as God.”

    Because if you didn’t have God to blame for your asshattery the feminists would win!

  21. #21 archgoon
    July 4, 2006

    Blueindependent wrote:


    I’ve heard these sorts of “public conversion stories” before. They invariably emit themselves from the mouths of ingrates like David Horowitz and others who are still bitter they got trampled under the righteous steam roller of the civil rights movement, and the anti-Viet Nam war effort.

    David Horowitz is not bitter due to being trampled by the civil rights movement, he’s bitter for the fact that he provided financial assitance and legal council for the black panthers who, he believes, murdered a friend of his to cover up financial fraud. He’s bitter because he felt that the left was either silent or supportive of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

    Horowitz was a supporter of the civil rights movement, and, from what I can tell, still is. He seems to be against things which he feels go against the spirit of treating people as people, such as affirmative action and reparations. He has condemned the current Republican stance against homosexuals as intolerant.

    Horowitz associated with the extremists during the 60′s and 70′s. I believe his main error is the extension of the views of 60′s extremists to the rather scattered number of views that compose the current american left. Most of his actions which I disagree with seem to stem from this view.

    Now, I really don’t want to defend Horowitz, but referring to his friend being murdered and the massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge as being trampled under righteous steam roller of the civil rights movment seems to be inaccurate, and not useful in understanding where people we disagree with are coming from.

  22. #22 Azkyroth
    July 4, 2006

    Given his obvious misogyny, I assume his daughter, based on the fact that she’s willing to defend him, is another untreated case of Stockholm Syndrome? *eyeroll*

  23. #23 Betty Cocker
    July 4, 2006

    QrazyQat, thank you, your post was interesting and answered a couple of questions I did not have the answers to. I will check out your site, and see what else is there.

  24. #24 xebecs
    July 5, 2006

    After reading some of the excerpts from the original, here and on other blogs, I can’t escape the feeling that it’s a parody. It reads like a parody. Can someone please check to make sure the author isn’t “Gregor Glider” or something like that?

  25. #25 BlueIndependent
    July 5, 2006

    That may be true archgoon, but I seem to recall from one of his pices I read a couple years ago, that he began hating the left when he saw how many students in colleges were protesting against the Viet Nam war, and that these were the privileged who were railing against a “righteous” war against communism/oppression.

    Basically what I’m saying is, I’ve heard the same sort of views from Mr. Horowitz that I’ve heard from others that despise the very good and real social movements of the 60s. Maybe it’s generalizing to include him with those people, but he doesn’t necessarily run away from them either.

    If he denounces the anti-gay Reps, then great. More power to him. But he’s shown a willingness toward intellectual dishonesty, which is going to pigeonhole him agaisnt his critics every time. Lately he’s been on this tyraid about how colleges are so left-leaning, and how the press is so anti-Republican. This is a staple rightwing argument that barely produces any fruit whatsoever, but he keeps on going around and making it. It’s the sort of blame-everyone-else-for-society’s-problems syndrome the rightwing pays its bills with, and it’s one of the very things I continue to reject out of hand for its dishonest approach to people.

  26. #26 Daniel Martin
    July 5, 2006

    On the why-is-this-primate-hairless thing, is there any way to accurately date when human ancestors began to use fire regularly? And is there any real way to tell when we began to lose our fur?

    If you’ve ever seen the way a bunch of 12-yr-old boys behave when given a campfire, (sticking sticks in to catch the ends on fire, waving said flaming sticks around, etc.) a very obvious disadvantage towards being a fire-using species with lots of fur presents itself.

  27. #27 QrazyQat
    July 6, 2006

    This is an old comments thread now, so I don’t know if you’ll see this, (but then if you just read that…).

    The earliest controlled use of fire seems to be between 1.3 and 1.5 mya; they look for signs of a hearth, where a fire was kept burning for some time without any apparent natural cause. The problem is that you might well have earlier very brief fires that would be hard to spot, just as early wood tools and unaltered rocks used as tools would be difficult, if not impossible, to spot.

    There is no way now to tell for sure when our body hair patterns changed (we assume, probably rightly, that our present condition is not the ancestral condition). But there is the interesting attempt to date this by looking at the evolution gene that helps determine skin color; I don’t know that it’s definitive, but intriguing. It shows the changes happening maybe 1.2 mya, which also fits with the idea (just a supposition so far really) that this was part of a suite of changes that happened along with the change to a longer-legged, more rangy and taller hominid that was all part of the changeover from australopithecine to Homo.

    While it’s possible there’s a connection, I think it’s a correlation rather than a cause. After all, we still had/have plenty of head hair to catch fire, and it is really that much of a problem? It hasn’t wiped us out yet. :)

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