Berlinski and his astonishing “cows to whales” argument

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.

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Now I understand why my favorite cheddar cheese comes from Wales.

At a reasonable rate of 1 item/s, that's a consecutive 14 hours of these "calculations". I find it unlikely that he actually sat and thought of these for that long.

any time a science avoids coming to grips with numbers, it's somehow immersing itself in a perhaps unavoidable but certainly unattractive miasma

Which is why I always wince when an economist draws a straight line on an unlabeled sheet of paper and calls it a "curve"

By justawriter (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Berlinski is an embarrassment. I actually like his first book - A Tour of the Calculus. Another example of how someone who is an expert in one area mistakenly thinks they know it all in some other area.

By the way, on a slightly different topic, if people are actually looking for some serious academic (classic) papers on what's wrong with trying to "count" traits in a a-theoretical way, Ridley has a nice discussion of this in his book on cladism: Evolution and Classification: the Reformation of Cladism. The classic paper is L.A. S. Johnson's "Rainbow's End" from Systematic Zoology 19 (1970).

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.
- ...

Andres! You owe me a new keyboard now...scalding hot coffee all over my desk and computer :-D

"One wants to know what directs evolution"?

"One wants to know what directs evolution"??!?!

Commence head smacking..

PZ said:

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.

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."

To me, that sounds an awful lot like Berlinski thinks he gets to multiply any change he can think up with by some other arbitrary number to reflect these "coordinated changes." I'm guessing he probably came up with a list of something like 200+ differences and then just multiplied the whole number by itself to be safe.

So long as you're pulling numbers out of your ass, you might as well at least make them sound impressively large.

By H. Humbert (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

I just watched the Berlinski video. I started the video with a Ph.D. in a biological science, and now after watching it, I don't have one anymore. The video actually destroyed my having a Ph.D! Damnit! Stop linking to it!! It's dangerous!

One presumes this will appear on Good Math, Bad Math... but I'm not sure he needs to say much more.

All this time the phylogenetics crew have been barking up the wrong tree with their synapomorphies and phylogenetically informative characters! ;)

If he'd actually looked at the field he'd have been up to his ears in maximum likelihood statistics and bootstrap analyses.

And I, _Arthur, won't believe Belinski before I see his 50,000 entries List.

Did he counted the differences in his mind, or in writing ?

I tried counting sheep in my mind, but I fell asleep.

Do you think he looked at a whale, then at a cow, and went "That bit's smaller, there's one. That's smaller as well, jolly good, there's two. This wiggly bit is smaller, three. One two three four feet, by cor, we're up to seven!" and so forth?

I thought Berlinski's book on calculus was terrible over-written tripe, and that was before I found out he is a creationist. Sorry, an "advocate for intelligent design".

Does this mean that if I can count enough ways I'm different from my mom and dad then they couldn't possibly be my parents?

It wouldn't take me too long to get to 50,000...

Did Berlinkski count visible anatomy traits or DNA traits? Neither is fully satisfactory to analyze the differences betwen and evolutionary histories of whales and cows, but at least with DNA you can get to 5,000 differences easily. Whether they're significant differences is another discusssion, e.g. Jonathan Marks' WHAT IT MEANS TO BE 98% CHIMPANZEE.
Counting visible differences between species - that is, significant heritable differences, ones which are distinct from individual or population differences - was the historical project of comparative anatomy for a century or so - since Edward Tyson and his 1680 discovery that porpoises are mammals. It had practical and conceptual difficulties: which traits are significant? why not have heritable behaviors qualify as traits (a la Konrad Lorenz)? Do the traits look the same due to recent inheritance, or have they converged out of adaptive functional necessity?
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). So cladism emerged, emphasizing multiple unweighted traits, and sometimes de-emphazing evolutionary (historical) considerations. They're happy with DNA data.
Berlinski should have at least alluded to cladism with its emphasis on quantification. Perhaps he is aware of it, but found its actual experiences trying to implement such judgement-free algorithms a bit too discouraging? And it does ignore evo-devo analyses altogether.
I confess I haven't watched this Berlinski video. Having read three of his books and seen him give seminars at Berkeley, I've had my fill.

Lol he's making stuff up. And he knows those guys use numbers all the time. Either dude has got a serious chip on his shoulder or he's in it for the glory, or both. He sits around and counts differences between whales and cows before checking up to see if the the whales came from the cows... yeah right.

One marvels at the genius of Doctor Berlinski as he counts the differences between cows and whales -- undistracted by the little flakes of bellybutton lint he is simultaneously mining
from his navel.

By waldteufel (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

I don't see how anyone with any kind of analytical skills could fail to see the flaw in what Berlinski is asserting - let alone a mathematician!

Leave aside the fact that whales didn't evolve from cows, trying to count the differences between a cow and a whale is like trying to count the colors in a spectrum - it's a continuum and any counting is totally arbitrary and artificial.

I could probably count the differences between me and my mother indefinitely. It's just a matter of how finely you want to parse. Does that mean that I'm not her offspring? (I could probably count similarities for just as long.)

Jeesh!

So it isn't just a miasma, it is an unattractive miasma. Unlike, ya know, an attractive miasma.

By fardels bear (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Sonja #16

Beat me to it...

Berlinski is obviously a disaster in applied mathematics. But ya really gotta question his overall intelligence when he decides to "count differences" then "stops at 50,000". What, couldn't this alleged mathematical prodigy just find references into the number of cells, organelles, and molecules (proteins etc) to ease his burden? Oh no. All he needed was to be able to say that he stopped counting when the number reached a sufficiently high value. That's the extent of his little "demonstration".

Completely clueless that nothing in this approach even remotely leads to what he wished to claim from the outset. This guy is pure crackpot. He should be tossed from whatever position he holds.

By Arnosium Upinarum (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Berlinski is an embarrassment. I actually like his first book - A Tour of the Calculus. Another example of how someone who is an expert in one area mistakenly thinks they know it all in some other area.

Wait! This pompous patronizing *ASS* sitting there saying "cows sure are different then whales" and nodding as though he said something relevent and weighty is the same guy who wrote "A Tour of the Calculus" which, albeit florrid, was pretty darn clear and amusing?????

Sheesh! Idiots abound!

Anyway, I kept waiting for him to say "and since there are 50,000 differences between a cow and a whale this means...something" Huh? There are 50,000 differences between my and my pet cat; does that mean I can't own a cat? See a cat? Eat a cat? Evolve into a cat? Talk about a cat? Play chess with a cat? There are thousands of cultural differences between San Francisco and Paris; does that mean I can't visit Paris?

Sheesh, the first paragraph of his "Tour of the Calculus" is comparing Xeno's paradox to a swaggering frat-boy at a kegger believing he's so clever for arguing you can't reach a wall because you must pass an infinite number of points. So now he's saying a cow can't evolve into a cow because there is a finite number of differences? You'd have thought he'd know better.

I'm going to prove that nobody wrote the works of Shakespeare now. Proof: There's a heck of a lot of words in the works of Shakespeare. QED.

By wooz... oh, I'… (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

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.

Arnosium Upinarum: This guy is pure crackpot. He should be tossed from whatever position he holds.

Berlinski is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. He is ideally suited to that position, wouldn't you say?

Reminds me of the old joke about the farmer who wanted a better cow (or racehorse, or whatever).

A particularly florid version, from this page:

The USDA once wanted to make cows produce milk faster, to improve the dairy industry.

So, they decided to consult the foremost biologists and recombinant DNA technicians to build them a better cow.
They assembled this team of great scientists, and gave them
unlimited funding. They requested rare chemicals, weird
bacteria, tons of quarantine equipment, there was a
God-awful typhus epidemic they started by accident,
and, 2 years later, they came back with the "new, improved cow." It had a milk production improvement of 2% over the
original.

They then tried with the greatest Nobel Prize winning chemists around. They worked for six months, and, after requisitioning tons of chemical equipment, and poisoning half the small town in Colorado where they were working with a toxic cloud from one of their experiments, they got a 5% improvement in milk output.

The physicists tried for a year, and, after ten thousand cows were subjected to radiation therapy, they got a 1% improvement in output.

Finally, in desperation, they turned to the mathematicians. The foremost mathematician of his time offered to help them with the problem. Upon hearing the problem, he told the delegation that they could come back in the morning and he would have solved the problem. In the morning, they came back, and he handed them a piece of paper with the computations for the new, 300% improved milk cow.

The plans began:

"A Proof of the Attainability of Increased Milk Output from Bovines:

Consider a spherical cow......"

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.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

You doubt that he did calculations to come up with 50,000?
But, sure he did.
Every time he thought up of a difference ("Hey, a cow is big, and a whale is bigger"), he pressed "+" then "1" into his calculator.

50,000, on the other hand--I suspect that he really came up with 50 (I'm giving him a lot of credit here) and then accidentally-on-purpose multiplied his number by 1000.

So David Berlinski is sitting. He's contemplating the cow, and he's enumerating the changes.

This raises an interesting question:

How many cow changes can dance in the mind of a pinhead?

Seems 50K is a good start.

I don't know of anyone qualified to have an informed opinion on the matter who believes that cows evolved into whales, but Berlinski has clearly demonstrated that it's possible for a human to turn into a jackass.

Whatever you do, PZ, don't refer to Berlinski as a crackpot! You know what happened the last time you did that.

Besides, Berlinski lives in France. He has the right, er, droit, to be au contraire. N'est ce pas?

p.s. And, think of the money I'll save going whale watching in Wisconsin!

Re #30, Hi David, I rather expected my casual summary would bring out the taxonomists. I'm not a specialist - the closest I come is semi-popular books like Carl Zimmer's AT THE WATER'S EDGE (which is a splendid discussion of whale evolution, if anyone cares). But I do recall the early acrimony in taxonomic creeds, er philosophies from the days of Sokal and Rohlf. Zimmer's description of more recent work by Patrick Luckett seems more congenial to me. Luckett does attempt to impute 'characters' to molecular sequence data and to assign weights - that is, to think about each "phylogenetically informative character", rather than just dump them into a computer for tally. So I guess he's an artist rather than a scientist.

I wasn't thinking of neontologists, tho ancient DNA is pretty fascinating stuff. What I meant to say is that most cladists really like classifying the living by using the plenitude of sequence data in contrast to the paucity of morphological characters. And it seems odd to me that Berlinski would ignore this quantitative shift.

I eagerly await his proof that seahorses didn't evolve from horses.

If I wanted to count the differences between a cow and a whale, I would enlist a kindergarten class.

By mgarelick (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

My research has revealed that it's whales that evolved into cows.

However, the confusion is natural, since what is now Wales was composed entirely of crows 6000 years ago.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Re David Berlinski

Just for the record, Berlinski does not, repeat does not, have a PhD in mathematics. His PhD is in philosophy. As far as I know, he has never published a single paper in a peer reviewed mathematical journal.

If it were necessary, here is further proof of Berlinski's status as an irredeemable shithead:

Berlinski, along with fellow Discovery Institute associates Michael Behe and William A. Dembski, tutored Ann Coulter on science and evolution for her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism. Approximately one-third of the book is devoted to polemical attacks on evolution, which Coulter, as Berlinski often does, terms "Darwinism".

By George Cauldron (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Sonja said:

Now I understand why my favorite cheddar cheese comes from Wales.

You're fired.

That was awesome! Thanks.

Has Berlinski just discovered a retarded version of numerical taxonomy? What will he discover next--white bread?

Lies, damned lies, statistics and now mathematical proof that cows aren't whales. Lovely.

As Larry Moran points out, the DI's Rob Crowther has his own rather curious interpretation of Berlinski:

CSC Senior Fellow David Berlinski talks about the evolution of cows from whales.

By Tim Tesar (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Lol, Tim! Proof that even they haven't a clue what Berlinski is rambling on about!

But he's an anti-evolutionist, so it must be worthwhile ::eyeroll::

By H. Humbert (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Look, it's easy. Take one cow and cut it into fifty thousand cubes. Each one of those cubes would have to be different for the cow to be a whale. If you want a number higher than 50,000 use smaller cubes.

Having read this, other posts on Pharyngula, posts on EvolutionBlog, various talk... forums and having thought for over 20 seconds on the subject, I think the summing up of ID/cretinist argument in Berlinksi's video as

"Cows go moo"

Is as intellectually rigorous as it gets

OK, here's my take on this whole whale-cow controversy swirling through the scientific creationism world.

Whales swim in the ocean. Cows live on land.

Cows made for some very funny Gary Larson Far Side cartoons. Whales (to my knowledge) never appear in one of these cartoons.

Ergo, cows did not evolve from whales and vice versa. Hence, gawd did it.

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."

Posted by: H. Humbert | August 29, 2007 5:07 PM | kill

So when people get glasses, they must simultaneously get brain surgery?

What a retard, this Berlinski fellow.

When it's eight, nine, ten, eleven too,
I'll be goin' strong and so will you.

steve s for the win!

It's amazing how often the word 'pompous' comes up when Berlinski is discussed - it seems to be his most defining characteristic. If you'd like to see that pomposity spectacularly punctured, try and view a copy of the Firing Line debate - Ken Miller wiped the arrogant sneer off Berlinski's face and left him looking like an idiot.

Berlinski...Xeno's paradox to a swaggering frat-boy at a kegger So this hack begins a book on calculus with Zeno's paradox? What a hoot. The guy doesn't realise that the straight line that Zeno is talking about is an empirical entity; applying logic to solve empirical problems is not a slam dunk. Now if he had only had the patience to read up an alternative proof on atomism he would be wasting his time (and ours) with a stupid paradox like Zeno's. Beerlinski isn't likely to stray here and definitely not into goodmathbadmath. The last time Berlinski swaggered onto the pages of GMBM Chu-Carroll administered him a shellacking that he isn't ever going to forget. Having seen the way DI hacks get fisked here Berlinnski will keep very far away from these pages. The DI folks are cowards first.

Differences? Screw the number of differences. The real question for Berlinski should be; with an eternal, infinitely creative designer at the designing board, why is an aquatic carnivore so goddamn similar to a terrestrial herbivore?

By Ick of the East (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Why do I get a Python flashback of Ann "Berlinski" Elk ("this is my theory, which is what it is, which is mine")...

Piling on Zohn's comments, I think Fraser H (LOL "cows go moo"), Andres, & Sonja owe me a monitor, keyboard and a mouse for their rather awesome comments way up above...

By Steve Murphy (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Wow, a quick review of the 1997 Firing Line debate shows that Berlinski was whipping out this pointless and ill-conceived question a decade ago.

He asked Eugenie Scott "Could I ask you to give us your best estimate of the number of changes required to take a dog-like mammal to a sea-going whale?" and said his reason for doing so was "I'm trying to anchor the discussion in something factual and concrete like a number."

http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/p45.htm

What a dumb ass.

Seriously.

By H. Humbert (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

I just skimmed this thread about Berlinkski and my IQ dropped by 50%. There is a number for the old fraud!

Whales have internal remnants of legs, small bones. Occasionally whales are found with atavistic .......LEGS! A dolphin was found with such just recently.

Already we are seeing that the theory that whales evolved from 4 footed bovine like animals is supported by anatomy.

There is also the DNA sequence data.

There is also the fossil record. The early whales had ......LEGS. We have found transitional fossils on the path between land dwelling 4 footed creature and aquatic mammal.

Berlinkski and his bogus calculations and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. What a bunch of nonsense from the pseudoscientists.

Would this be a perfectly spherical cow radiating milk isotropically?

Berlinsky is redeemable. He admits that evolution is a fact. He only objects to the idea of cows evolving into whales. And he is right, because cows did not evolve into whales. He arrives to the right conclusion by a wrong methodology. When one of my students submits an exam like this, I use to give him a "Pass" grade.

By jaim klein (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

From Larry (#48)
"Cows made for some very funny Gary Larson Far Side cartoons. Whales (to my knowledge) never appear in one of these cartoons."

Yes, but a whale did appear in the sky high above Magrathea. I think this counts as another difference. (Does the accompanying bowl of petunias count too?

From Rebecca (#29)
"A Proof of the Attainability of Increased Milk Output from Bovines:

Consider a spherical cow......"

Damn I wanted that line first!

Berlinkski and his bogus calculations and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Berlinski and his bogus calculations are not worth three dollars.

Whales and Farside...

I recall a pair of whales singing Louie Louie into the microphone dropped down by researchers.

Perhaps he only has 49,999 differences after all.

Hang on, if whales come from cows, how come we still have cows?

By Mister Scoville (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Look, it's easy. Take one cow and cut it into fifty thousand cubes. Each one of those cubes would have to be different for the cow to be a whale.

And, given some spices, a really large oven, and 50,000 toothpicks, you have lovely hors d'oeuvres for the next DI picnic!

Or would it be sushi?

I thought Berlinski's book on calculus was terrible over-written tripe, and that was before I found out he is a creationist. Sorry, an "advocate for intelligent design".

No, no, no. Berlinski simply questions "Darwinism." He wouldn't be caught dead advocating anything other than his own cleverness. Here's an excerpt from a Knight-Ridder article, September 27, 2005:

But in an e-mail message, Berlinski declared, "I have never endorsed intelligent design."

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

Simple question in response: how many similarities are there between cow and whale?

By Nathaniel (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

I went to this site and examined temperature data from 326 cities world-wide. In nearly every case, the temperature for July 31, 2007 was different from the temperature for July 30, 2007.

This demonstrates that it's just way too unlikely that July 30 became July 31 through the march of time. Clearly, time is a series of discontinuous snapshots, each unrelated to the ones before.

If you don't believe me, do the math yourself folks.

Counting one change per second betwixt cow and whale would be 13 hours and 48 minutes to get to 50000. I would have stopped earlier but then I'm not a clever mathematician.

By Bruce Anderson (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

I am, also, apparently not a careful reader (see comment #2) sigh

By Bruce Anderson (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

It's only 49,999 if you compare an orca to a Holstein.

Look, it's easy. Take one cow and cut it into fifty thousand cubes. Each one of those cubes would have to be different for the cow to be a whale. If you want a number higher than 50,000 use smaller cubes.

According to the Banach-Tarski Theorem (he is a Math Philosopher, isn't he?) you only need to cut the cow into 6 pieces.

Whales appeared in quite a few Gary Larson cartoons. There was the Humpback singing "Louie, Louie" into a researcher microphone and there was the unpublished "Larry, was that you?" bubble cartoon. I'm sure there were others. There were nowhere as many whales as cows in his cartoons though.

So this hack begins a book on calculus with Zeno's paradox? What a hoot. The guy doesn't realise that the straight line that Zeno is talking about is an empirical entity; applying logic to solve empirical problems is not a slam dunk.

Actually, I really liked his Tour of the Calculus and thought Zeno's paradox is a perfect way to start a discussion of calculus. It's exactly the sort of infinite reqression calculus was invented for and solves. The language of Tour of the Calculus was way over the top and purpler than ... something that is so exceedingly purple that it is primarily known for it's extreme purple, but I thing that was to the books benefit to pound home just how astonishing and revelutionary calculus was.

Here's an excerpt from a Knight-Ridder article, September 27, 2005:

But in an e-mail message, Berlinski declared, "I have never endorsed intelligent design."

I'd intended to make a sly reference to Berlinski's embrace of astrology,

No, no, no. Berlinski simply questions "Darwinism." He wouldn't be caught dead advocating anything other than his own cleverness.

I'm afraid that's probably true. He doesn't embrace astrology but simply wrights a book about the history of astrology. Through the book, which I haven't read, he appearantly treats the suject with historical respect. I think that is fine. I find the concept of the four elements and gravity explained as a consequence of such, historically interesting and I have "respect" for that theory. The review says Berlinski "agnostic" on astrology which seems absurd as anything but utter "atheism" on astrology (or the four elements theory) seems to be self-delusion (or idiocy).

I fear he's fallen into the philosopher's disease of admiring his subject so much he has forgotten that ocassionally there *is* objective truth.

Philosophising about the philosophies of Intelligent Design and Evolution and chatting some need of a hypothetical need quantification in evolutionary theory does absolutely nothing about the the objective "rightness" of historical occurrence of what actually happened.

That intelligent people believed in astrology doesn't make astrology any less wrong, nor does the fact that some armchair evolutionists wannabes are afraid of numbers doesn't make evolution any less right.

Nice little exercise, David the wonder boy (well, it's not really nice, but pat the IDist on the head for trying).

Now, how about calculating the odds that cows and whales would share so many of the same genes and regulatory sequences by chance, instead of by common descent by known means? That, too, can be done, if not actually for whales and cows (now), at least for humans and chimps, humans and fruit flies, and humans and rice.

And you know what? The odds are extremely in favor of evolution by known physics and known biology. Indeed, David the wonder primate, the odds that the cow and the whale would share, say, lactation, hair, and teeth (including in unborn baleen whales) is strikingly in favor of evolution, notably evolution which is not directed by someone as dense as Berlinski has become since taking up the cause of the IDiots (I didn't say that he espouses ID, notice). Nor by anybody much more capable than David, the calculator of odd non-coincidences (gee, David, how much can be learned by comparing non-patterns? But that's about all you anti-scientists can do by now, work with all of the non-patterns, while real scientists look at the similarities, differences, and the taxonomies and patterns based upon those).

See, that's the difference between geniuses like David, and people who actually think. David calculates meaningless trivia, scientists calculate relatedness, and actually ponder why baleen whale fetuses have teeth. Who directed baleen whales to have useless teeth? That's right, we can think, and the only sensible conclusion is, "No one gave baleen whale fetuses teeth." Observable designers simply don't design that way, nor do they modify skeletons made for walking on land into propulsive mechanisms for water travel.

Now think, David the calculating parrot, about the differences between actual fish like sharks and mammals like whales. Then try to think as well as any half-wit could, and ask yourself why there are more similarities in whale genes and the homologies of whales and cows than there are between sharks and whales, when it is the latter two which live in the same environments and have many of the same needs.

Huh, it isn't function or "design" which explain the striking similarities between whales and cows (despite the obvious and important evolutionary differences), it's evolutionary relatedness alone.

You lose, sneering one.

Glen D
http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

Berlinski's theory is rediculous. Everyone knows that cows evolved into sea cows.

By P Sundstrom (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

This argument has two main flaws: assuming that modern species evolved from OTHER modern species, and, more fundamentally, that lifeforms come in discrete Platonic, essentialist "kinds". The "Kinds" are fixed and immutable, and have fortified boundaries, i.e. something is either 100% cow, or 100% whale, no intermediates. A feature can only "be" whale-ish or cow-ish.

This naming system mental algorithm clearly helps simple minds when trying to understand a complex world, but it's scientifically inaccurate, and positively harmful to understanding evolutionary processes. "Fruit flies only produce fruit flies, peppered moths only produce peppered moths, Darwin's finches only produce Darwin's finches," etc. can easily make evolution sound impossible.

But, ironically, the tendency to think this way probably itself evolved, for good Darwinian reasons (e.g. having a mugshot of the creature you intend to hunt, etc)

Already we are seeing that the theory that whales evolved from 4 footed bovine like animals is supported by anatomy.

I just need to quibble with "bovine", above -- the ancestors of both modern bovidae and whales were artiodactyls, and therefore related, but Pakicetus was no more "evolved from a bovine-like animal" than humans evolved from a howler-monkey-like animal.

Or to put it another way, after a quick and possibly inaccurate (I used Wikipedia to check genera and geological dates, how sad) bit of research, by the time the ancient ancestors of cows had begun to evolve hooves and such, the ancestors of modern whales had already become completely ocean-dwelling animals. I think.

A phylogeneticist could probably explain it better than that. Probably along the lines of bovidae and cetaceans being both highly derived (and otherwise unrelated) families of the artiodactyls.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

PeteK:

This argument has two main flaws: assuming that modern species evolved from OTHER modern species, and, more fundamentally, that lifeforms come in discrete Platonic, essentialist "kinds".

That's the most reasonable reading I can give to the exercise, too. It strikes me as a bit of armchair baraminology, establishing by the most accurate, cutting-edge and well-researched methods in that field that whales and cows are not in the same baramin. If only this argument were the best baraminology because of some merit, instead of being just as worthless as everything else in that pseudoscience.
It sounds as if the poor guy doesn't understand that mathematics isn't about making up numbers, just as "creation science" makes up its facts and theories. Or maybe he's just playing stupid so as to find convenient numbers to distort. Fifty thousand differences... now there's a miasma!
It's just baffling. I'm almost afraid to ask whether he'd believe there's no similarity between any given irrational number (take pi or e if you like) and the quantity you get by adding 1 to the tenths digit, the hundredths digit, etc. fifty thousand times. It differs in fifty thousand places! (However, all but finitely many digits are the same.) Of course, that's just adding a fairly simple rational, but Berlinski's navelgazing about limits as much as Zeno's link suggests, one has to wonder whether he's gotten to geometric series yet.

A while ago I did some research into how to measure similarity between computer programs. It is a very difficiult problem, and naively counting "features" runs quickly into intractable difficulties of various sorts. I suspect the same would occur if one tried to naively count features of organisms.

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.
- ...

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.

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.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

"Resort is had to ridicule when reason is against us."---Jefferson

"Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength."--Eric Hoffer

By Daniel O'Brien (not verified) on 10 Jul 2008 #permalink

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_astonishin…

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!

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.