How little you know: The Deniable Darwin by David Berlinski

The Deniable Darwin collects essays written from 1996 to 2009 mostly on the same general theme: That the insufferable pretensions and aggressive self-certainty of science ideologues prevent us from justly appreciating how much we actually have learned about the natural world, and how wonderfully little that is. David Berlinski applies his dauntingly well-informed, remorselessly cogent skepticism to several fields of study – theoretical physics, mathematics, linguistics, molecular biology, and so on – but it’s his dismantlement of Darwinism that he takes to center stage for a virtuoso recital.

The program’s highlights include two name-taking essays, the book’s title piece and another (“Has Darwin Met His Match?”) from seven years later, presented along with full replies from most of the named and regiments of their supporters, and extensive rebuttals from the author. Giving the impression of deep familiarity with the professional and popular literature, and advancing his critique in a richly literary style, Berlinski argues that the Darwinists remain very far from demonstrating and evidencing how evolution via random mutation and natural selection could explain what the evolutionists claim it explains – that is, everything.

Berlinski’s ideas have been taken up by some Intelligent Design and Creationist writers and activists – including the sponsors of the Discovery Institute Press, which published this book – and that fact leads the Darwinists to accuse him, in brief, of the thought-crime of religious faith. The maneuver conveniently relieves them from confronting his argument on its own terms, particularly his denial that the only logical alternatives to Darwinian evolution are Biblical literalism and its cousins. The most you can say about Berlinski’s argument on this score – the argument he actually makes as opposed to the one he’s frequently assumed to be making – is that it points, insistently, to obviously “design-like” aspects of the natural world that no biologist has been able to explain except by childlike inferences, circular reasoning, and “just-so” stories – how this, that, or the other biological peculiarity might/must have served a survival purpose – and by scandalously oversold pseudo-experiments.

It’s true that one expression for the goal-seeking-ness, design-like-ness of life and everything else might be “God,” but “God” is a word, and in some ways we know as little about words as we know about… most stuff.  A great lover of language once informed the world that the closer we look at a word, the further it recedes from view, and his wisdom seems to apply to biological processes, the origin of the universe, the human mind, and the divine, too.

For the non-scientist – as for some number of scientists, too – reaching a confident judgment on the underlying issues and disputes is impossible, but the responses of the Darwinists and other keepers of the faithless faiths tend to reinforce Berlinski’s argument: I’m happy to side provisionally with the debater who doesn’t rely on repetitious, ideologically rigid, churlishly defensive, and at times blatantly dishonest polemics. (Berlinski never touches on Climate Change, but the parallels with that debate are striking.) Maybe that’s a judgment from personal taste or political prejudice. Yet if we can’t really explain how the incredible yet inescapably fundamental complexity of a single functioning living cell arises and elaborates itself, armies of just-in-time enzymes translating intricately arranged protein instructions into vitality, then in the broad sense whatever else we know, or think we know, about the origins of higher organisms and ecosystems remains at root a narrative, a matter of taste or contingency, not a full-fledged theory in the same way that relativity and quantum mechanics are theories – good and tested to n decimals, as Berlinski likes to remind his readers.

If there are definitive answers or sets of answers to these questions that are both accessible to and discoverable by human beings, we don’t have them yet. We’re not really even close. By taking us step by step through our answerlessness, Berlinski restores wonder, mystery, and humility to the discussion – while pointing to whole continents of thought and knowledge hardly even visited, much less mapped and settled.

24 comments on “How little you know: The Deniable Darwin by David Berlinski

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  1. People don’t know how to read the Bible. As I said way back in November,
    The Bible tells us that there is water above the sky, that the mark of Cain was placed on him to warn others–at a time when there were no others except his parents–and that he found a wife. Later on in Genesis, there is the story of Jacob, who gets animals to bear offspring with spots on them by placing branches in front of their eyes while they are mating.
    The Bible is very beautiful. The stories relating to Creation are obviously not meant to be taken literally. Besides, as I wrote in COMMENTARY in a letter once cited by Colin, an intelligent Creator would certainly have wanted to make use of evolution in order to perfect His creation.
    We humans have always known how evolution works and have always made use of it. We are always indulging in selective breeding and generating new variants of animals. That’s probably what Jacob did in the story of placing the branches in front of the eyes. The branches had nothing to do with what happened. Jacob simply chose the animals he wanted to choose in order to get the offspring he wanted to see.
    Blind faith is a force that makes good people bad and smart people stupid. There are only two doctrines in the world today that people accept with unquestioning faith: Marxism and Islam. Islam is trying very hard nowadays to teach the world the meaning of unquestioned faith. Alas, nobody is learning.

  2. @ adam:
    First, just want to say, apologies for posting the review before having proofread it sufficiently.

    Second, to reply to your comment: Until recently, well, until this book, I was an evolutionist who suspected that as yet dimly understood or inadequatley explored “design-like” or what you could term “cybernetic” (in the broad sense) forces might be involved within the natural selection model. As for Darwin himself, I assumed that his theories had withstood the test of time rather better than most of the great 19th century systems. Berlinski is rather convincing on the argument that raw natural selection + randomness, as defined by the Darwinists, is inadequate. So I have to move over to the skeptic camp: I’m an agnostic on Darwinian evolution, and I guess I believe that there’s something natural selection-like and intelligent design-like going on that, when better understood, may transform our understandings of all of the relevant terms of the discussion.

  3. George Jochnowitz wrote:

    We humans have always known how evolution works and have always made use of it. We are always indulging in selective breeding and generating new variants of animals.

    Genetics is not the same as evolution, GJ, and evolution is not the same as Darwinian Evolution, Darwinism, or Neo-Darwinism. I don’t believe that even “Young Earth Creationists” all dispute the evidence of “micro-evolution,” while other Creationists or quasi-Creationists – like Sarah Palin or William F Buckley – fully accept it and may additionally acknowledge the apparent age of the Earth, the fossil record of species development and extinction, and the evidence before our eyes of extinction and selection advantages. The problems start with the inability of Darwinists to explain how irreducibly complex forms of life, at the microscopic and organ system level, could arise by chance + selection as narrowly defined within evolutionary theory. There are severe logical, not to mention biochemical, mathematical, and other problems, with everything that has so far been proposed.

  4. @ CK MacLeod:
    Genetics is based on the same principal as evolution, and Darwinian evolution is the only kind there is. There certainbly are problems when it comes to explaining irreducibly complex forms of life, but they are nothing compared with the problems of creationism.
    The Bible is a beautiful, important, and historically informative set of writings. Taking it literally and using it as an argument against evolution cheapens it.

  5. @ George Jochnowitz:
    I have zero interest in using or in suggesting anyone should or could use the Bible as an argument.

    However, genetics – as in the inheritance of traits observable in animal breeding, which is what I believed you referred to – has nothing to do with Darwinian evolution other than to suggest a mechanism by which natural selection, one element of Darwinian evolution, might conceivably work. And Darwinian evolution is NOT the only kind of evolution there is. It’s one theory of evolution. Others existed before Darwin got up on his hind legs. The IDers have their own theories, and there are other schools out there examining other means by which evolution might be guided – not by a supernatural being, but by as yet undiscovered processes and forces that allow for teleological or quasi-teleological development. Lysenko never makes an appearance in Berlinski’s book, but some of the theories suggest he may be due for a revival of sorts…

  6. @ CK MacLeod:

    If you’re thinking of a revival of sorts of Lysenko’s theories, then you’re not at all in agreement with Berlinski. Berlinski is careful to avoid a discussion of faith, but his arguments are simply anti-evolution and not pro-anything else. He is silently pro-creationism without ever really facing the issue of why he opposes evolution. He is not interested in “as yet undiscovered processes.” He ignores important facts such as the deveopment of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics–an aspect of evolution that is happening in our own time.

  7. He ignores important facts such as the deveopment of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics–an aspect of evolution that is happening in our own time.

    George, you don’t seem to be processing the difference between micro-evolution and macro-evolution – speciation and also the theoretical origins of life itself and all living “systems” through strictly Darwinian processes. Calling Berlinski “silently pro-creationism” is your unjustified assumption, and the same as calling him a liar, since he explicitly claims to be non-creationist.

    We’re not obligated to adopt a theory just because we don’t have a better alternative. That Ptolemy’s contemporaries and centuries worth of followers didn’t have Copernicus around didn’t make their depiction of the geocentric universe accurate.

  8. Colin,
    In the June 1996 issue of COMMENTARY, Berlinski wrote, “God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let the fowl fly above the open firmament of heaven’ … And who on the basis of experience would be inclined to disagree? … An act of intelligence is required to bring even a thimble into being; why should the artifacts of life be different?”

    I cited this very creationist-sounding quotation in a letter to the editor that was published in the September 2001 issue of COMMENTARY in response to a different Berlinski article. He replied, “I regard Darwin’s theories AND various theories of design as inadequate; I have no replacement for either.” You say the same thing, Colin. But the segment that I quoted first sounds unambiguously creationist. Perhaps Berlinski doesn’t understand what his opinions are.

  9. The questions were obviously offered to raise the seemingly common-sensical objections to pure Darwinism. It would be like beginning a an essay on Galileo by saying, “Heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Who on the basis of observation and intuition would be inclined to disagree?”

    I’m surprised that a man of your learning, experience, and sensitivity is unable to understand the simple, commonplace rhetorical device. An avowal of belief, or even a serious argument in favor of it, would look much different.

    Throughout the book, he refuses to pre-judge Intelligent Design and Creationist approaches, and seeks to correct the common, merely ideological acceptance of Darwinism. He deserves the same consideration that you or I deserve of having what he actually says discussed, rather than what it suits us to think he would like to have said.

  10. As far as I a decided non-expert can see, natural selection explains all the transformations in species that we can observe; but a lot is left unexplained when we try to account for the emergence of new species.

    I will also say, that on one crucial issue, the emergence of humanity, the Biblical account has one enormous advantage over evolutionism: the Bible recognizes that the human must have emerged in an event, an event that involved the instantaneous elevation of one type of being into another. As a believer in what Eric Gans calls the “originary hypothesis,” I believe that event to have been the issuance of an originary sign, an “aborted gesture of appropriation,” in the midst of a crisis in which the group was threatened with self-destruction in the collective rush to appropriate some central object. In other words, the first sign, or representation, involved the deferral of violence. Humans became a species governed by the exchange of signs, rather than a pecking order. And that central object, which “withheld” itself from our ancestors’ grasp, and resisted their desire, was the first “God.”

    In that sense, “creationism” is closer to the truth than evolution theory (which is not to say that the originary hypothesis is incompatible with Darwin–just that nothing in “natural selection” will get you to it).

  11. it’s stuff like this that inspires poets and frustrates philosophers.
    adam, that’s very lovely sounding.

    define “human”.

  12. ‘The creator, if he exists, has an inordinate fondness for beatles’

    And, he’s surely capable of arranging the evidence in such a way as to lead us to whatever conclusion he wants us to draw.

  13. adam wrote:

    the human must have emerged in an event, an event that involved the instantaneous elevation of one type of being into another.

    How literally is that meant? A single historical event among some pack of hominids rummaging their way across the plains? Or do we imagine a latent capacity brought to the surface, a reaction to conditions and circumstances that could be repeated in isolated instances, each time as though for the first time, in different places, until it finally caught on and rapidly became generalized? Or do we imagine that it needs only to have taken place once, before rapidly overtaking and re-forming all (formerly) pre-human populations with which it came into contact?

    Seems like the opposite of the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY Big Black Monolith fable that I found myself recounting somewhere else today. In that one, of course, the great advantage is primarily instrumental and objective, not social and subjective, and expressed first through violence, not a deferral of violence.

  14. Yes, it’s meant quite literally: before the event, there were no signs, which is to say no gestures (or sound, or even marking, we can be agnostic on what the first sign actually was, although gesture makes more sense to me) which could serve to organize the attention of the group in a repeatable and therefore predictable way. How, then, it spread, changed, and dramatically transformed the groups which adopted it is not part of the hypothesis (we do assume that it gave those groups possessing the sign enormous advantages over those that didn’t). In a sense, the hypothesis is based an an assumption about what (human) signs are–they could not have been pieced together gradually: either they “mean” or they don’t. There’s no “partial” meaning. And, yes, I believe is is the opposite of the (cynical) view put forward in “2001.”

    According to the originary hypothesis, the human is that being who poses a greater danger to itself than is posed to it by any external danger.

    Google “Anthropoetics” for the website.

  15. @ adam:
    The decisive moment in the appearance of humanity is told figuratively in the Genesis story of the Tree of Knowledge. Humans decided to explore the question of Good and Evil, and in doing so, discovered they were mortal, invented division of labor, and committed themselves to an artificial world in order to make up for their lack of claws and fangs.
    Here are my thoughts, in the title chaper of my book.

  16. @ George Jochnowitz:
    I agree–but what is portrayed “figuratively” must have happened “literally,” in some way, at some point. The originary hypothesis is an attempt–in my view, far better than any I know of or could imagine–to construct, in minimal terms (assuming no more than absolutely necessary), an account of what that way might have been.

  17. @Rex: I am not a Social Darwinist, nor do I imagine many Darwin skeptics are, but I’m pretty sure Alcee Hastings is, along with his friends.

  18. I don’t think Social Darwinism as originally conceived and elaborated has much currency – and even in its heyday it was used to justify radically contradictory approaches to politics and governance – but if you think of Darwinism in somewhat the same way that the Darwinists do, as a secular faith that replaces naive beliefs in a creator or designer, and when you consider that it is and has been mandatory teaching in all of our public schools for generations, then there’s good reason to suspect it influences society in many ways, informing the unconscious presumptions of public discussion and opinion. I wonder, for instance, if the resiliency of belief in free markets isn’t partly explained by a widespread belief, instilled from childhood, that competition inevitably produces improvement, by law of nature. In this way, the liberal intelligentsia’s affection for Darwin may undermine their own political objectives and underlying moral positions. I’m not saying you’d have to reject the free market if you reject Darwinism, or that, conversely, Darwinism couldn’t frighten people who feel unprepared for competition into seeking protection in the loving arms of the nanny state, but it would be strange if Darwinism didn’t affect us significantly, if sometimes in contradictory ways.

  19. Chairman Mao rejected science, closed colleges, and got high school kids to beat up their teachers. Marxism is a system that demands absolute faith.
    Darwinism can be modified, rejected in part, or reconsidered in the face of new evidence. The alternative, for most conservatives today, is not honing or modifying Darwinism but replacing it with creationism. Creationism can never be questioned or modified. Faith is faith. Mao, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials are all the result of faith–the sin of faith.
    Dogs are the result of genetic engineering, done long before the word was invented. Darwinism can be questioned, but it can’t be separated from what we know about aspects of evolution. Darwin, as far as I know, never tried to explain how life came into existence. His work is based on studies of real species, both living and extinct. The greatness of science is that it can be questioned and broadened. The evil of faith is that it is immutable.

  20. @CKM: You think we had to be brainwashed as children to find virtue in competition? I relished being number one or close to it in classes and in extracurricular activities ( at least until I developed more than a touch of depression). But it never occurred to me to vote Republican until I noticed that most of the people I disliked were Democrats. I bet if I’d grown up in Texas I’d be a flaming liberal.

  21. @ Seth Halpern:
    Not brainwashed to find virtue in competition – or at least in winning – for oneself, but perhaps to believe that survival of the fittest is a natural and “progressive” process. Just a stray thought, but it’s not a universal perception among human communities that it’s good and natural for society to embrace strife, conflict, competition, dynamic mobility, etc.

  22. @CKM: On reflection, and under the influence of my new anxiety medication, I tend to think that people on average are more naturally competitive and even progressive (in the sense of believing that competition yields technical improvement though not necessarily virtue) than various leadership castes and classes have cared to admit or indulge. So, for example, politicians (and intellectuals even more so) are notoriously self-aggrandizing even as they impose their altruistic schemes on the rest of us. The trick is finding a way to channel both instincts productively. I think democratic limited government offers the best environment for permitting the kind of experimentation conducive to a satisfactory working arrangement. In such an environment people’s natural affinities can manifest themselves and attain an equilibrium with the least possible need for overt indoctrination, capitalist or otherwise. Maintaining the balance of government is the key in my view. But as I say, that could be the Bupropion talking.

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