The Gumby Gambit

Tom Bethell is a fellow traveller with the Intelligent Design creationists of the Discovery Institute; he often publishes on their website, and he’s the author of quite a few books questioning the dogma of science. He also thinks he’s a polymath: he wrote Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary?, which claims that Einstein was wrong, and he also wrote The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, which claims that radiation is good for you, there is no global climate change going on, Shakespeare didn’t write those plays, and evolution is bunk, among many other remarkable assertions.

He’s a gumbyesque crackpot, in other words.

His latest effort is a rant on l’affaire greenscreen in which he explains natural selection to us. Read on; you will be in awe as Mr Gumby bellows out his definitions and explanations. He gets everything absolutely backwards.

An analogous situation arises with varieties of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics. The immune varieties are suddenly “fit” and so they survive. But the word “adaptation” is misleading because the immune varieties have to appear first. They don’t “adapt,” or reshape themselves in recognition of the suddenly hostile environment. They are not like people who “adapt” to cold weather by putting on overcoats. They are like people who accidentally had overcoats on before the cold snap came.

NS is not supposed to be an explanation of how we get more of something; a dark moth, for example. It’s supposed to show how the moth itself arose. And that is what the Darwinists have never been able to demonstrate; not just with moths but with anything else. That’s why I hesitate to call NS “real.” Well, I guess it is, as long as it’s defined narrowly enough.

Read that last paragraph again. It’s a marvel. Tom Bethell doesn’t have even a basic understanding of the principle of natural selection; he doesn’t even understand it as well as Darwin, who wrote it up in 1859.

Natural selection is an explanation of how we get more (or less) of something; it describes one mode of change in the frequency of a trait in a population over multiple generations. It is not about physiological adaptation, but about changes in allele frequency. That’s all biologists have claimed for the concept, ever; it’s one of the things population geneticists have lots of math to describe.

Natural selection is not an explanation for how evolutionary novelties arise in the first place. For that, we have to look at mutations and subtler enabling changes that facilitate the emergence of new phenotypes, like recombination and genetic accommodation. The idea that variation in the environment can induce appropriate changes in heritable traits of organisms is the discarded notion of Lamarckian inheritance — we don’t see evidence of that.

He gets it all completely wrong. Even more remarkably, he gets it wrong after giving a useful analogy with his overcoat example.

Yes, natural selection works exactly like “people who accidentally had overcoats on before the cold snap came.” That’s Darwin’s key insight and Bethell’s key failure: natural selection isn’t about how individuals adapt, it’s about how populations adapt by winnowing out less fit individuals (those who don’t have an overcoat) and promoting the more fit individuals (those who happened to have an overcoat, and will pass it on to their children).

I really don’t understand how someone could write a whole book with chapters about evolution and not grasp that beautiful, simple, elegant idea. I suppose it’s the same way someone with no understanding of physics could write a whole book with no math in it disproving Einstein.

Isn’t it revealing, though, how the Discovery Institute promotes people like Bethell and Gauger who have no understanding of the field they aim to disprove? It’s as if the only people they can find who share their goals are all incompetents with delusions of understanding the science about as well as a reasonable high school student.


  1. #1 Jeffrey Shallit
    December 21, 2012

    Bethell is a blathering buffoon. He’s a perfect match for the Dishonesty Institute.

  2. #2 Wes
    December 22, 2012

    If you really understood the science, how could you be a creationist? The side of the gene pool that they’re swimming in is pretty shallow. Of course, to his target audience, he seems a genius because they know even less than he does.

  3. #3 jhm
    December 22, 2012

    How did Shaxpear make it into a (pseudo)science book?

  4. #4 Russell
    December 25, 2012

    Tom Bethell doesn’t believe in Shaxpear either-

  5. #5 Vladimir Dinets
    Baton Rouge, Bible Belt Buckle
    December 25, 2012

    To me, a more interesting question is: how did he find a publisher?

  6. #6 Russell
    December 25, 2012

    Maybe Viscount Monckton is a syndic of the Earl of Oxford ‘s University Press

  7. #7 Nox
    December 26, 2012


    I’m afraid in the current economic setup, truth has a price. Publishers don’t care if what you’re writing is true or not, as long as they think it will sell and you ask for a small enough cut. With institutes like the Dishonesty Institute, authors like Bethell are probably not paid by the publishers, but pays the publishers. He’s certainly got enough $$ behind him.

    And unfortunately the rot doesn’t stop there. Anyone who is intimately familiar with the academic publication process (even in the strict sciences) knows how the ‘reviewed by a community of peers’ vetting and publication mechanism is deeply flawed and skewed by financial incentives. Great research never sees the light of day because someone with money considers it inconvenient, while mediocre and even down-right wrong research often gets passed and published under the hubris of money.

    In short: being published means nothing.

  8. #8 Healthy
    December 26, 2012

    wow. He is right about darwin explaining selection not generation. But it doesn’t excuse that he should get a minimun grasp of genetic derivation before jumping into widespreading his opinion. He probably doesn’t even know about Mendel, or if he does, he negates him.
    I wonder how does he explain the constant speed of light or the traveling atomic clocks delay. If his reasoning for relativity is as good as his reasoning for evolution…

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