Sunday, March 23, 2014

David Berlinski & Evolution

I'm a great fan of Peter Robinson's interview videos under the title Uncommon Knowledge. It is a conservative version of Charlie Rose--at least as good, and better in the sense that Mr. Robinson actually lets his guests talk. While I don't always agree with his guests, I always learn something.

Yesterday I watched an interview with David Berlinski. I went into this fully aware that Mr. Berlinski is a crusader against Darwinism, so that was no surprise. I hoped to learn something new. Even I concede that there might be reasons to oppose Darwinism. It's just that I haven't heard them very clearly formulated yet.

No doubt Mr. Berlinski is a charming interviewee. Unfortunately, much of his argument is just pure nonsense. This is sad because I would love to agree with him on some important issues. I hate to recycle this tired old stuff again, but here goes.

First, like many Darwin skeptics, he's got this thing about the Cambrian explosion. This event, which happened about 550 million years ago, is when multicellular life first appeared (evolved) on earth. Mr. Berlinski argues that all these life forms couldn't have formed in such a short period of time, and further, there is no fossil record showing the continuity between the Precambrian time and post-explosion.

The counter argument is pretty obvious: single-celled organisms don't yield much of a fossil record, so we don't know much about them. And the appearance of multicellular organisms opens up a whole new ecological space. Since evolution can work in parallel, a million species can evolve as fast as one. Since a new species can evolve in a million years or less, it is surely understandable that no fossil record exists. Mr. Berlinski's argument is just silly.

His second argument is even worse. He accuses Darwinism of a tautology: survival of the fittest. We know that the fittest have survived because they're around today, and therefore they must have been the fittest. And true enough: if "survival of the fittest" were the sole content of Darwinism then he'd have a point. But unlike his contention, "fittest" has a very definite meaning. Any critter that can out-reproduce its neighbors is more fit. Fertility rates can be measured, which gives "survival of the fittest" empirical content.

And then he's off on the species kick: you can't evolve new species. This statement is just factually false--Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene provides numerous examples. Also, most biomass on the planet is single-celled organisms that reproduce asexually and don't form species. Yet surely Mr. Berlinski acknowledges these organisms evolve. By what principle is evolution turned off when sex appears?

It is actually very easy to disprove the theory of evolution. All Mr. Berlinski needs to do is to produce one reproducible example of an organism that has a significantly different genetic code from everything else. That would blow evolution out of the water. No need to mess around with the inevitably ambiguous evidence from the Precambrian muck. That we all have the same genetic code is powerful evidence that we are all descended from the same organism. But Mr. Berlinski evinces no knowledge of modern genetics.

And that's what bothers me most. I accuse most religious objectors to evolution of being know-nothing critics. They simply haven't read anything. My Trotskyist friends fall into the same category. I am shocked that somebody who claims to be an intellectual and writes books on evolution should be so phenomenally ignorant.

And then he's full of ad hominem attacks. In Mr. Berlinski's world, we scientists are evil bastards who are just in it for the grant money. In his view, if the federal research budget could be cut to zero (and I agree with him that should happen), then both global warming and evolution would disappear. Of course he's wrong. I work with global warming fanatics every day, and I can tell you they are definitely not in it for the money. Theirs is a missionary, "save-the-planet" zeal.

Unlike global warming, evolution is not a political opinion. Evolution makes no predictions, nor does it impose any public policy. Indeed, evolution is the theoretical framework underlying all of modern biology. It is to biology what the periodic table is to chemistry. It is an incredibly useful organizing principle.

There is an odd symmetry here. The climate change crew accuse their critics of being science deniers. That is, not only do we "deny" global warming catastrophism, but also evolution, and then even the fact that cigarettes cause cancer! We're such knuckle-dragging idiots. Mr. Berlinski holds precisely the same opinion in reverse, and likely for the same reason. He maintains that anybody who agrees with evolution also agrees with global warming catastrophism. But neither the climate crew nor Mr. Berlinski are arguing science anymore. They are simply asserting their own world views irrespective of any evidence.

The truth is that "global warming" is vastly exaggerated, and the theory of evolution is mostly true. Those are just facts. No need to hypothesize some grand conspiracy theory.

So that brings us to where I agree with Mr. Berlinski. Evolution is not a philosophy. It is only science.

Evolution won't tell you what the purpose or meaning of life is. Nor will it tell you what is moral or immoral. Evolution is mute on the question of the existence of God. For that matter, evolution is totally compatible with Mr. Berlinski's intelligent design theory (crackpot science, but perfectly acceptable as a philosophical point of view).

I, for one, center my religion on Thomas Jefferson's words We hold these truths... There is absolutely nothing in evolution that either requires or prohibits those truths. I simply assert them as self-evident, i.e., as a moral imperative. That is my religious faith.

Further Reading:

1 comment:

  1. Evolution wont tell you about the meaning of life? No kidding. The video I saw of Berlinski didnt push the fossil problem. He just calls it a problem. I didnt investigate but the question is: does the fossil record support evolution? You yourself seem to say no.

    THe most compelling arguments against evolution are mutations as good. Where are these mutations that are beneficial to the organism . If the entire spectrum of life is based on billions of great mutations, where are they in our lives. You never hear about Jimmy having this funny mutation thats helping him get more ladies.

    His Cow to whale is illustrative too. Even if you give me a "story" (and it would only be that, a story) of how animals came from water, adapted to land, then went back into the water, the numbers are just crazy. Here he shifts our thought not to that tired evolutionary tree, but to numbers. And the amount of coordinated "mutations" that would have to occur is overwhelming. Its miraculous.

    Where are the computer proofs of natural selection random mutation. When we introduce mutations into a computer program it crashes the computer. Why aren't we seeing this in biology.

    THere is also the problem of complexity. We are suppose to belive that the enormouus complexity came from, dumb luck. And his point that each mutation, infinately benefitial to these lucky animals, is completely detatched from the mutation before it and the mutation after it.

    I am not a believer in evolution for many reasons, but one wonders why there has not been more challenges too it on such as kind of "story based" theory. Where is the evidence? Its just a story.

    But because it supports Atheism is why I think evolution is so powerful. Many peopla are angry at god, or want to live immoral lives and so rationalize. THats who I think darwin was. Not a hero of sweet reason, but a guy angry at god, and desiring to diminish him. Can you think of any other characters that wanted to do that?