Over at the Sandwalk, Larry has a video of Berlinski pompously denouncing the idea that “cows evolved into whales”. As everyone is pointing out, it’s ludicrous because cows didn’t evolve into whales — but what struck me is the supercilious arrogance of this mathematician as he plucked numbers out of his ass.
First he claims that he has a quantitative approach to measuring the magnitude of the nonexistent transition of cow to whale:
We have some crude way of assessing quantitatively, not qualitatively but quantitatively, the scope of the project of transformation
Oh, really? This could be interesting, then. But first Berlinski has to sneer at evolution:
any time a science avoids coming to grips with numbers, it’s somehow immersing itself in a perhaps unavoidable but certainly unattractive miasma
It’s a peculiar way to express it, but OK, I agree. Quantitative approaches are important. What is ironic, though, is that Berlinski is applying this to evolutionary biology: what, there aren’t any measurements in biology? Read some population genetics sometime — it’s all about “coming to grips with numbers”, and making quantitative measurements and estimates of rates and frequencies of genetic changes. It’s an idiotic accusation to make, and reveals his own ignorance of the entire field.
But Berlinski has to up the level of irony. Remember, he’s claiming that we have to quantitatively measure the degree of change, and he, the superior mathematician, has a way of doing this. You will be stunned. His brilliant scheme is to recite a litany of things that must be modified in the transition — skin, breathing, diving, lactation, eyes, hearing, etc. — and count them.
That’s right. His “method” is to sit on his butt, imagine a cow, and count everything he thinks is different from a whale. This he calls “calculating”.
I’ve tried to do some of these calculations. The calculations are certainly, certainly not hard, but they’re interesting. I stopped at 50,000.
Think about that. I want more details of his method. So David Berlinski is sitting. He’s contemplating the cow, and he’s enumerating the changes. Does he just make a hash mark on a sheet of paper when he thinks of one? Does he make a list? He says he came up with 50,000 items, and that it was easy. Let’s see a recitation. Was one of his differences that “cow rhymes with plow, and whale rhymes with tail”? How does he know that any of his litany of changes are actually biologically relevant? And do we really believe that David Berlinski can identify that many significant biological differences between two species of mammals?
I don’t think so. You’d have to be an idiot to believe him.
Which is probably why the DI thought his interview was a worthy contribution.