Pharyngula

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Yesterday, I was reading a good article in the October 2004 issue of Wired: “The crusade against evolution”, by Evan Ratliff. It gives far more column space to the voices of the Discovery Institute than they deserve, but the article consistently comes to the right conclusions, that the Discovery Institute is “using scientific rhetoric to bypass scientific scrutiny.” Along the way, the author catches Stephen Meyer red-handed in misrepresenting Carl Woese (by the clever journalistic strategem of calling Carl Woese), and shows how the DI’s favorite slogans (“Teach the controversy” and “academic freedom”) are rhetorical abuses of the spirit of the ideas behind them. It’s darned good stuff. I should probably say more about the good article, but I’m still picking magma out of my ears after reading a one page insert in the article — a ghastly, ignorant broadside by George Gilder that prompted a personal eruption. I’ve calmed down now, so I can tear it apart more delicately than I might have yesterday.

I’m still a bit peeved at the fool, so I’m going to remonstrate against him first—but maybe later I’ll say more about the Ratliff article.

Biocosm
The technogeek guru of bandwidth utopia defends intelligent design and explains why he is a believer.

Here’s the start of our problem. Gilder can actually be called a “technogeek guru”, that is, somebody with some amount of credibility among people who like technology. He doesn’t deserve it. He’s a con artist. He’s a glib slinger of five-dollar words, but he really doesn’t understand the concepts beneath them. When I read his babbling version of biology below, it’s clear that he has about the same depth of understanding of the field as your average sixth-grader—in other words, he can crib from the encyclopedia.

Our high schools are among the worst performers per dollar in the world — especially in math and science. Our biology classes, in particular, espouse anti-industrial propaganda about global warming and the impact of DDT on the eggshells of eagles while telling just-so stories about the random progression from primordial soup to Britney Spears. In a self-refuting materialist superstition, teachers deny the role of ideas and purposes in evolution and hence implicitly in their own thought.

Mr Gilder has apparently never even looked at any American high school science curricula. There is no anti-industrial propaganda anywhere to be seen, nor is there anywhere any criticism of capitalism. Our schools churn out eager consumers.

Teachers do also try to squeeze in a little science, though. Yes, global warming is real, and yes, insecticides can cause damage to organisms at all levels of the ecosystem. I think it’s good that some of that gets taught, and more should be taught. The only anti-industrialist attitude here is the one that denies the existence of substantial problems, rather than recognizing them and trying to overcome them.

Mr Gilder also makes the first of his many errors about evolution here. I do not deny that I personally possess ideas and purposes; I do deny that the cheerios I had for breakfast possess them, but that does not refute my first assertion. Similarly, evolution is a process that led to me, that did not require thought to occur. Bacteria evolve without a shred of thinking. It does not diminish my brain power to see that my distant ancestors had less of it.

The Darwinist materialist paradigm, however is about to face the same revolution that Newtonian physics faced 100 years ago. 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.

Wow. So the Intelligent Design creationists are going to prove Darwin wrong and throw all of pre-ID biology on the ash heap of history, just as Einstein did to Newton and all of pre-Einsteinian physics? I guess Gilder doesn’t understand the history of science, either, since that didn’t happen.

Gilder is also dead wrong on what Darwin thought about the cell. Although nobody of his time knew much about what was going on inside the cell, they did have microscopes and knew that there was considerable complexity in there. The late 19th century was actually a period of intense discovery in cell biology, with the advent of subcellular staining techniques and better microscopy that led to observations of such things as chromosomes and organelles like the Golgi apparatus.

Biologists ‘came to understand’ that cells were more than a lump a century or two ago. And no, the Discovery Institute had nothing to do with it. Since that complexity is only now just beginning to dawn on the panjandrums of the DI, it says far more about how far behind they are than anything about modern science.

Aww, but now look: here’s the part where little Georgie recites a bunch of big words he learned.

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 semi-permeable phospholipid membranes.

If a little kid had written that, I’d be impressed; coming from a “technogeek guru”, though, it’s pathetic. Everything is just a teeny-tiny bit off. Cells don’t actively store information in DNA, as his sentence implies, and it’s just wrong to say they store it in “DNA codes”. Real biologists are pretty careful to avoid using the term “replication” when they mean “transcription.” I have no clue why he’s singling out three forms of RNA. And the end of his sentence is just running off the rails into confusing referents: cells supply the system with energy? What system? And they seal what in membranes? Energy? Reading that stuff, I can sort of imagine where Gilder got these impressions, but I can also see that he’s just stacking words he doesn’t understand well into his own little tower of Babel.

Since it is Gilder, though, he also has to somehow slide his buzzword biology into his stock of computer cliches. Voila!

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 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.

Just a hint, George: you should never accuse others of being an embarrassing cartoon.

As for the substance of his comment, it’s a lie. This mysterious “mathematical theory of information”, which, I suspect, Gilder understands about as well as he does cell biology, says no such thing.

What is the alternative? Intelligent design at least asks the right questions.

OK, what questions? Curiously, after announcing that the one thing ID does right is ask good questions, he doesn’t tell us a single question that it asks.

In a world of science that still falls short of a rigorous theory of human consciousness or of the big bang, intelligent design begins by recognizing that everywhere in nature, information is hierarchical and precedes its embodiment. The concept precedes the concrete.

Ouch. Poor George. That was the early 19th century view of the world, the one that was shaken up by a true revolutionary, Darwin. Darwin demonstrated exactly the opposite: that nature operates by throwing up concrete instances without thought, and then natural processes winnow out the less successful, again without need for thought. What Gilder is admitting here is that intelligent design begins by accepting a demonstrable falsehood.

The contrary notion that the world of mind, including science itself, bubbled up randomly from a prebiotic brew has inspired all the reductionist futilities of the 20th century, from Marx’s obtuse materialism to environmental weather panic to zero-sum Malthusian fears over population. In biology classes, our students are not learning the largely mathematical facts of 21st-century science; they’re imbibing the consolations of a faith-driven 19th-century materialist myth.

Ah, and he dredges up the old creationist caricature of evolution, that it is a purely random process. Whenever someone tells you that it is, it’s a flashing indicator that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. Evolution is not random, although components of the process are.

His conclusion is drivel. Evolutionary biology is highly mathematical, and in fact many of the concepts in statistics that we take for granted and that were developed in the early 20th century were driven by evolutionary biology and genetics. The Discovery Institute is not proposing to improve or make more quantitative the teaching of biology; quite to the contrary, they are proposing to dilute it with unverified garbage, and they certainly have no concrete observations or results to add.

He’s also mangling history again. The majority of the 19th-century biologists who advanced evolution were Christians, just as the majority of modern biologists in the West also happen to be Christian; evolution is a concept independent of one’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof. The ideas of the early evolutionists were not consolations or rationalizations for materialism, but were often made reluctantly and only because the evidence was compelling, as they were contrary to the widely held belief in a Divine Plan. The only myth here is the creationist delusion that evolutionists were all gleeful atheists cobbling up stories to support their beliefs and corrupt Western Civilization.

I really feel sorry for the deluded saps who take investment advice from this blithering ignoramus. That he has been successful at all in the past just demonstrates the truth of the adage that a rising tide floats all boats, even the leaky dinghy skippered by the town drunk.

Comments

  1. #1 Lynet
    April 29, 2007

    Just as physicists discovered that the atom was not a massy particle, as Newton believed…

    Newton believed in atoms? Honestly. Atoms weren’t widely accepted by chemists until John Dalton’s advocacy of the idea in the 19th century; physicists picked up on the idea a bit later than that (part of the point of Einsteins 1905 Brownian motion paper was to look for conclusive physical (as opposed to chemical) evidence that atoms exist).

  2. #2 Thony C.
    April 29, 2007

    Lynet wrote:

    “Newton believed in atoms? Honestly. Atoms weren’t widely accepted by chemists until John Dalton’s advocacy of the idea in the 19th century; physicists picked up on the idea a bit later than that (part of the point of Einsteins 1905 Brownian motion paper was to look for conclusive physical (as opposed to chemical) evidence that atoms exist).”

    Newton was indeed an atomist. Atomism is a Greek theory of matter that goes back to the 5th century BCE. It was revived at the beginning of the 17th century CE and was very popular amongst the new scientists. One of Newton’s first major scientifics disputes was with Huygens and Hooke about his new theory of opticks. Newton as atomist believed that light was particular both Huygen’s and Hooke believed that light was propagated in waves. Galileo was also an atomist as was Pierre Gasendi.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?
    April 29, 2007

    former Nixon speechwriter

    ROTFL!

    “I am not a crook.”
    :-D

    the Discovery Institute, a conservative think thank

    How true, how true.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    April 29, 2007

    former Nixon speechwriter

    ROTFL!

    “I am not a crook.”
    :-D

    the Discovery Institute, a conservative think thank

    How true, how true.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?
    April 30, 2007

    Anybody who places Britney Spears at the top of their evolutionary chain has some very serious judgment issues

    Well, there is no evolutionary chain, so *shudder* nothing can be said to be higher than Britney Spears in any meaningful way.

  6. #6 David Marjanovi?
    April 30, 2007

    Anybody who places Britney Spears at the top of their evolutionary chain has some very serious judgment issues

    Well, there is no evolutionary chain, so *shudder* nothing can be said to be higher than Britney Spears in any meaningful way.

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