Pharyngula

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Andrés
    August 29, 2007

    Actually, it’s an easy calculation. Cows are hairy, whales aren’t. So, it goes like this:

    LIST OF DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A COW AND A WHALE:

    - One hair.
    - Another hair.
    - Another hair.
    - Another hair.
    - Another hair.
    - Another hair.
    - Another hair.
    - …

  2. #2 Andrés
    August 29, 2007

    But what if the cow and the whale have the same sign?
    [pun possibilities ripe for exploitation]

    Then you have to take the absolute value of the difference. Which is, after all, what creationism is all about: absolute values.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?
    August 29, 2007

    Aye, but Berlinski also said: “…and don’t forget that these changes are not independent. They’re all linked. If you change an organism’s visual system, you have to change a great many parts of it’s cerebellem, cerebrum, its nervous system…all of these changes are coordinated.”

    So they are actually just one change?

    In particular the assignment of ‘significance’ – always a judgement call – determines how one weights various differences for constructing taxonomies, especially purportedly phylogenetic ones, but it’s always contentious (having a vertebral column makes for a coherent group, but lack of the column doesn’t make inverterbrates a coherent group).

    Phenetics died out when it became clear that there’s no way to define “character”, which means that characters are not countable.

    So cladism emerged, emphasizing multiple unweighted traits,

    1. Please don’t say “cladism”. That makes it sound like an ideology. It’s a method, so call it “cladistics”.
    2. Unlike phenetics, cladistics only needs a definition of “phylogenetically informative character”, and that is feasible. Such characters are countable, and are today used by the hundreds (morphological data) or tens of thousands (molecular data) in phylogenetic analyses. This has turned phylogenetics from an art into a science.

    and sometimes de-emphazing evolutionary (historical) considerations.

    Huh?

    They’re happy with DNA data.

    For that they have to be neontologists. Under remotely normal circumstances DNA doesn’t preserve for longer than 100,000 years. If you want to find out what the closest known relatives of the turtles are, you need morphology.

  4. #4 Daniel O'Brien
    July 10, 2008

    “Resort is had to ridicule when reason is against us.”—Jefferson

    “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”–Eric Hoffer

  5. #5 Berlin
    July 31, 2008

    Oh, I just researched PZ Myers archive on Berlinski’s comments about the whale evolving from a cow, which many of you insisted I do to get my answers. Well, PZ sure leaves a lot out of what Berlinski is questioning. I wonder why? Probably because they have no answers or sound evidence for their conjectures. On the other hand, PZ Myers does a wonderful of job of defending evolution by doing what all evolutionists do when cornered; that is, they always tell us what evolution is not and ignore describing what it is. The rest of you sycophants also seem to specialize in just telling us the “Berlinski is a dope” or “we’ve debunked his challenges before” and then leave it at that because your superior time and talents are not to be bothered by questions.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/08/berlinski_and_his_astonishing.php#more

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    July 31, 2008

    On the other hand, PZ Myers does a wonderful of job of defending evolution by doing what all evolutionists do when cornered; that is, they always tell us what evolution is not and ignore describing what it is.

    Ever tried reading, oh, I don’t know, maybe a biology textbook? It’s the twenty-first century; they’ve even got ‘em available for free online.

    Blogs are not the medium for remedial education. Sorry.

    The rest of you sycophants also seem to specialize in just telling us the “Berlinski is a dope” or “we’ve debunked his challenges before” and then leave it at that because your superior time and talents are not to be bothered by questions.

    It’s like you know me!

  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    July 31, 2008

    I’d advise those reading the thread to take note of the lack of substance in the above two comments. They obviously understand neither Berlinski’s claims or the criticisms of them, they simply took the former as true based upon Berlinski’s supposed authority as a mathematician (something they also got wrong). This is the religious mind at work.

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    July 31, 2008

    I mean the two comments preceding Blake, of course. His comment was not visible as I was composing my comment…

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    July 31, 2008

    I forgive you, Tyler. . . this time!

    (As is well known, atheists only forgive trivial and innocent mistakes once. MOO HOO HA HA!)