Tuesday, March 07, 2006

David Berlinski vs. Goliath

This time Goliath wins

Intellectuals don't win too many popularity contests. The “smart kid” in class is often the target of bullies. Speaking as a former smart kid, I find it perplexing that we sometimes become bullies ourselves. We should know better, although it may be that some of us cannot resist taking a turn when circumstances change. Perhaps this is what happened to David Berlinski, a peculiar icon of the anti-evolution movement.

Berlinski is an intellectual bully, a trained mathematician who enjoys using his special status to confuse and abuse others. His biographical sketch on the website of the Discovery Institute notes that Berlinski earned a Ph.D. in mathematics philosophy from Princeton, no shabby accomplishment. His book A Tour of the Calculus was a very successful semi-popular account of the work of Newton and Leibniz and its consequences. The hardcover edition's book jacket includes a paragraph about the author on its back flap; it contains this sentence: “Having a tendency to lose academic positions with what he himself describes as an embarrassing urgency, Berlinski now devotes himself entirely to writing.” As is usually the case with someone who has failed to find himself an academic niche, Berlinski's fame rests on matters other than his research papers. These days he is more recognized as an anti-Darwin skeptic than as a mathematician.

Nevertheless, it is as a mathematician that Berlinski rides into combat against his evolutionary targets. What could be more natural for him than to hurl numbers at his opponents?
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?
The quote is from William F. Buckley's Firing Line on PBS. The installment on December 4, 1997, was devoted to a debate on the proposition, “Resolved: The evolutionists should acknowledge creation.” Berlinski's position among the creationists was ambiguous, since he purports to have no opinion on creation itself; he is simply making common cause with those who attack Darwin and evolution. His question on the evolution of the whale was aimed at Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, an organization dedicated to promoting sound science education and opposing creationism.

It was a theme to which Berlinski returned several times in his exchanges with the evolutionists on the Firing Line panel. He variously denounced natural selection as “Que sera, sera” and archly demanded to know whether Darwinism comprised any actual theory “that would be recognizable by any physicist or a mathematician.” Berlinski is particularly enamored of physics, which is highly mathematized and fraught with numbers. To the degree that evolution is not numerical, Berlinski appears to argue, it is not really a science. For him, science seems to be an absurdly all-or-nothing proposition. Witness this exchange between Berlinski and Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. (I have abridged the discussion to remove some of the repetitions and digressions. The full text is available here.)
DB: I do have a scientific question to ask you. Every significant paleontologist says that there are gaps in the fossil record. Do you have a particular reason for demurring?

BL: Of course it has gaps.

DB: Okay, so to that extent the evidence does not support Darwin's theory of evolution.

BL: No, that is absolutely wrong.

DB: It follows as the night the day.

BL: Of course not. How could you have a cell, for example, hundreds of millions of years old, that would leave a fossil record? It would disintegrate. It would quite literally not be able to be found in the fossil record.

DB: I never suggested that there may not be explanations of the gaps. But the fact [is] that the fossil record does not on its face support Darwin's theory of evolution.

BL: No, it does. And once again I say, how many times do we have to find those intermediate fossils?

DB: All I'm asking for is enlightenment on a significant point. Darwin's theory requires a multitude of continuous forms. We do not see that in the fossil record. In fact, major transitions are utterly incomplete. Would you accept that as an empirical fact?

BL: No, you sound like a guy who is writing a story about baseball, comes in in the fourth inning, and says, “Well, you know, I'm going to write about the fourth inning on; the first three innings didn't happen because I wasn't there to see them.”

DB: We can't find any of the major transitions between the fish and the amphibian.

BL: Of course we find them. It's just that when we find them, doctor, you say it's still not enough.
The method to Berlinski's madness is easily characterized: Darwin's theory requires continuity in transitional forms. No continuity, no evolution. Simple as that. Q.E.D. While no serious scientist would argue that the absence of mathematical continuity in a fragmentary fossil record would imply there was no continuity in the first place, Berlinski's non-serious approach is perfectly compatible with such an absurd conclusion. It might be helpful at this point to remind everyone that a single gap in a mathematical proof is enough to invalidate it. While this standard is a natural and necessary part of mathematics, where a partial proof is no proof at all, it is completely out of place in the observational sciences. Berlinski either does not know this, or pretends not to.

I watched the Firing Line debate when it was originally broadcast in 1997. Somewhere around here I have a videotape of the whole two hours. Reading the on-line transcript reminded me how much is lost in the translation from video to text. The page does not fully convey Berlinski's supercilious manner as he combines spurious arguments with intellectual disdain. He was going to browbeat his opponents into submission with the immensity of his mathematical knowledge and he oozed contempt for their counter-arguments.

I learned a valuable and frightening lesson watching Berlinski in action. Please never let me lapse into behavior like his! And the bullies who beat the snot out of him in school have a lot to answer for.

12 comments:

Jay Matthews said...

Berlinski does not seem bullying at all. Why wouldn't the correct answer by Lynn be "Yes, the gaps in the fossil record are evidence against evolution." One gap does not make the "proof" fail in the same way a mathematical proof fails, but if you are weighing the evidence, gaps go in the "no" column. When a gap is closed, it goes in the yes column.

It just seems that current Darwinism seems to require an exemption from conventional reason.

Zeno said...

Good luck getting Berlinski to agree with you. Your take on gaps in the fossil record is much more nuanced than his, in case you didn't notice. He says there are gaps, so the fossil record is against evolution. He dismisses Barry Lynn's perfectly reasonable rejoinder that the gaps are expected and not dispositive because he wishes to preclude discussion. Berlinski is not making entries in "no" and "yes" columns. He says gaps are anti-evolution and stops there. You may see that kind of pontificating as conventional reason, but I don't. You may not see that as bullying, but I do.

Thanks for the comment.

Jay Matthews said...

I see. So in context, Berlinski is not saying that on balance gaps weigh against evolution. He tends to argue a gap (a single gap, to carry it to an extreme) makes the fossil record as a whole "evidence against evolution." That won't do. But I often feel like Darwinists deal themselves whatever cards they need (logic-wise) by the concept of gaps. What is basically a lack of evidence (in a particular instance) is defined as a yet-unfilled gap. What one wishes for is a falsifiable prediction about today's forms (not just what we may find in the fossil record) that can be tested by experiment today. Otherwise, it seems Darwinism today is a description of what we are finding, adapting the theory to fit the facts. It's about randomness. What aspect of the evidence proves that the change over time we observe is random?

Zeno said...

I am pleased that you grasped the point about Berlinski. In return, I will acknowledge your point that evolutionary evidence is potentially subject to post hoc jusifications. I'm sure that this has occurred in practice, since scientists are subject to the same flaws as other humans. Nevertheless, evolutionary theorists have not been shy about forecasting what they expect to find in some of the gaps in the fossil record. Success in these efforts strengthens the argument that existing gaps may be regarded as merely yet-unfilled. One case worthy of extended study is that of the whale's descent from four-legged ancestors. A compelling account can be found at talkorigins.org. The wide gaps in that evolutionary sequence have been dramatically reduced as paleontologists have found the species they predicted would occupy some of the intermediate stages.

As for randomness, this is an argument that is often misunderstood. Genetic variation and mutations may have random elements, but natural selection is decidedly not a random process. Evolution is the result of a filtering process, not merely the shaking of a set of dice.

Jay Matthews said...

By my wording I meant to exclude predictions about what we will find in the fossil record. What would be intellectually fulfilling is more falsifiable and tested predictions with the living systems available today.

Yes, I have seen a bit about the whale/cow stuff. That is an interesting line of study and discussion. I've not followed it for long or in depth, but it occurred to me the other day that one can almost picture a manatee as a floating cow. But then I considered a deer and thought, "That's kind of a skinny fast cow." I want more about the actual DNA picture. I mean, it is not plausible to me that hooves independently arose in more than one line. So to me, the idea that all hoofed animals have a common ancestor is the starting point (even non-cloven , horses, even pigs). Yet as I understand it some of the DNA science teaches away from this.

As to randomness, I fully understand that natural selection is not stated to be random. But randomness coupled with natural selection is the essence of Darwinism. And randomness is really the heart of the discussion. How many times have you heard someone that thinks of themselves as "believing" in evolution (whatever that means) say "but I believe God guided the process." (Or some variation of that idea). You just gutted the whole thing! You're an ID proponent and don't even realize it.

So I guess what I'm saying is the fascinating part of the discussion these days is about the random increase in order and information. And the ID crowd (not Berlinski that I am aware of) is making some pretty falsifiable claims. I want Darwinists to get their chin strap on discuss more, disparage less.

Zeno said...

There's an obvious problem in hoping to see evolution at work in living organisms because we are short-lived creatures relative to the time scale on which evolution delivers big changes. Nevertheless, there are some readily observable cases that scientists have examined. Bacteria and viruses go through their generations very quickly and these micro-organisms adapt rapidly to their environments, including developing resistance to antibiotics and antivirals. Some bacteria have even evolved the ability to eat nylon, which is obviously something that had not been readily available as a potential food product until recent times.

As for prediction and verification, we have a nice instance when it comes to comparing chimpanzees and humans. While it's commonly reported that chimp and human DNA are very close to each other, folks might not know that the two species have different numbers of chromosomes. Humans have fewer. How can humans and chimps share a common ancestor if the chromosomes don't match in number? The evolutionary answer is that human chromosomes must be spliced together somehow relative to chimp chromosomes (or, vice versa, some chimp chromosomes are split versions of human chromosomes). When scientists were able to decode chromosomes in detail, it was confirmed that there is a human chromosome that matches two chimp chromosomes stuck end to end. See here for a cool picture of the splice (it's number 2). This is a very neat case of finding predicted evolutionary artifacts in living creatures once the technology allowed us to peek inside chromosomes.

I don't know anything about hooves, although I find it interesting that you think the hoof is such an amazing development that it could not arise more than once. Scientists have identified several different eye designs in the animal kingdom, suggesting that the eye has evolved more than once, despite the complexity of its various forms. Hooves should be easy by comparison.

I entirely agree with you about "theistic evolution": If God "guides the process" then it's no different from Intelligent Design. A scientist who believes that "evolution is God's way of creating species" ceases to be a scientist the moment he or she posits that God had to divinely intervene for some development to occur. We're back at the classic Sidney Harris cartoon with two scientists at a blackboard on which one of them has written "Then a miracle occurs." That's not science, although it could be ID.

Your thoughtful comments make it clear that you have not drunk deeply of the ID Kool-Aid, but you do appear to be under the illusion that the ID camp has made actual contributions to the fields of complexity or information theory. Dembski is one of the few IDers with the mathematical chops to fully grasp information theory, but even he has not been able to establish his vaunted explanatory filter with any rigor. It's long past time that he and the other ID theoreticians give us solid definitions for "complex specified information", but they have been unable to do this. We await word from the Discovery Institute of some breakthrough in this area, but it's pretty quiet over there.

My background is in math rather than in biology, but even I know that it takes no miracle for the information in a genome to increase. The simplest method is duplication. Of what use is a doubled gene? Well, one of them can continue to do the work which it was already doing, while the other is a redundancy whose mutation is unlikely to harm the carrier species. If the mutation turns out to have any useful aspect, then natural selection will work to preserve it: a gene with a new function. That's new information, even if it was originally spun off as an inadvertent duplicate.

In closing, I'll make the additional point that ID supporters and other creationists have developed a fondness for information theory that vastly outstrips their knowledge of it. While arguments from authority are irksome and alienating, it must be said that sometimes you need more than a handful of vocabulary words in order to enter into a meaningful discussion. Creationists talk about "entropy" as if Claude Shannon's definition and the physics definition are one and the same, but they're not. If an ID aficionado tells you that information theory supports intelligent design versus evolution, ask the IDer how informational entropy is defined and why it's usually expressed in terms of base-2 logarithms. (It has to do with a preference for binary representations of information: strings of 0's and 1's.) If they can't give you a good answer, it would be prudent to have reservations about their supposed theoretical insights.

Thanks for your intelligent and thoughtful comments. I appreciate the trouble you took to express your views and I hope that my responses are to the point and not unduly brusque in tone. I welcome your visits.

Jay Matthews said...

Interesting info, but you ended up talking more about ID proponents than anything else. Don't you detect a fallacy when you lapse into that type of discussion?

Most of what you have written applies as if you were proving adaptive change over time of living systems. Is that what you believe is disputed in most discussions?

ID is not Kool-Aid. It should give you great pause when that's how you view one of the most fascinating discussions of all time (and which, in my view, will never end).

The science establishment has a priori science to exclude investigation of the possibility of intelligent causes. Is it any wonder that the critics or skeptics of this position occupy an ostracized position, or practice more philosophy than science?

Just for a single moment, hyphothesize an intelligent cause that is not natural (not of this universe). So we would not observe natural cause and effect type of evidence of a non-natural entity. We would have to be very careful not to describe the mere modes and forms that the intelligence took and conclude (prematurely) we had determined a natural cause.

Hooves. Really? The intellectual allure of evolution is the similarities we observe in living systems. It seems the theory takes full evidentiary advantage (in the weighing sense) of similarities (i.e. all vertebrates have a common ancestor because a random mutation produced the improvement). But when the evidence teaches away from common descent of a particular item (but of course would be consistent with common design), the conclusion shifts to the idea that what has evolved is so optimal that it has spontaneously arisen more than once. Of course, any system seen as non-optimal is seen as evidence against an intelligent cause, based on the unproven statement that any intelligent cause must be omnipotent.

Entropy. Ah yes. Truly the one where brain power and education limit most of us from participating. I note that the informational definition you linked to assumed randomness in the definition, so it would not apply, for example, to me arranging the magnet letters on my refrigerator. As to the physics realm, I've never heard a satisfactory answer I could understand.

On our planet, it is undisputed that atoms have arranged themselves into computers and television sets. How can that be squared with the 2d Law?

By the way, most folks roll their eyes and say something about our planet not being a closed system, and the sun's energy, and act as if you have to be stupid to even think it presents a problem. You wouldn't have done that, but just want to skip that as much as possible.

From what I remember, any defined system boundary will satisfy the 2d law. Only order/disorder imported through the boundary would affect the equation, not the importation of energy through the boundary. So it seems the answer would have to involve the exportation of entropy (by us) to the rest of the universe to bring the equation into balance.

Dustin said...

Just FYI, that book on differential topology that the DI credits him with is a completely popular account -- the DI does their best to make it sound like it's a textbook.

One of these days, this rampant dishonesty is going to make my head explode.

Zeno said...

Interesting info, but you ended up talking more about ID proponents than anything else. Don't you detect a fallacy when you lapse into that type of discussion?

In a word, no. Perhaps you could explain what “fallacy” you think you perceive.

Most of what you have written applies as if you were proving adaptive change over time of living systems. Is that what you believe is disputed in most discussions?

That's what evolution is: adaptive change over time of living systems. Some people confuse it with the origin of life, but Darwin wrote The Origin of Species. He did not devise a theory for the origin of life, but rather one to explain its diversification.

ID is not Kool-Aid. It should give you great pause when that's how you view one of the most fascinating discussions of all time (and which, in my view, will never end).

Kool-Aid is weak stuff, but it's still more nourishing than ID. I'll agree with you that the discussion of living things will never end, but ID has never lived up to its advance billing as a new theoretical paradigm for scientific investigations in the field of biology. The Discovery Institute used to say that ID-based research would soon be making a major impact on science, but one can say "soon" for only so many years before it gets old.

The science establishment has a priori science to exclude investigation of the possibility of intelligent causes. Is it any wonder that the critics or skeptics of this position occupy an ostracized position, or practice more philosophy than science?

Just for a single moment, hyphothesize an intelligent cause that is not natural (not of this universe). So we would not observe natural cause and effect type of evidence of a non-natural entity. We would have to be very careful not to describe the mere modes and forms that the intelligence took and conclude (prematurely) we had determined a natural cause.

If someone could come up with a good description of the consequences of a non-natural cause, there might be something to talk about. But Behe's irreducibility complexity and Dembski's application of the No Free Lunch theorem have not fared well as theoretical constructs.

Hooves. Really? The intellectual allure of evolution is the similarities we observe in living systems. It seems the theory takes full evidentiary advantage (in the weighing sense) of similarities (i.e. all vertebrates have a common ancestor because a random mutation produced the improvement). But when the evidence teaches away from common descent of a particular item (but of course would be consistent with common design), the conclusion shifts to the idea that what has evolved is so optimal that it has spontaneously arisen more than once. Of course, any system seen as non-optimal is seen as evidence against an intelligent cause, based on the unproven statement that any intelligent cause must be omnipotent.

I don't think most biologists believe in a parsimonious tree of life. Stephen Jay Gould liked to talk about its “bushiness” and profligacy. By that token, it's not surprising that similar solutions arise in similar circumstances even if the creatures in those circumstances came from different lines of descent. Evolution doesn't require that all hooved creatures be close cousins.

Entropy. Ah yes. Truly the one where brain power and education limit most of us from participating. I note that the informational definition you linked to assumed randomness in the definition, so it would not apply, for example, to me arranging the magnet letters on my refrigerator. As to the physics realm, I've never heard a satisfactory answer I could understand.

On our planet, it is undisputed that atoms have arranged themselves into computers and television sets. How can that be squared with the 2d Law?

And plants grow. The usual misunderstanding of the second law suggests that that should be impossible, too. Rearrange the letters on your refrigerator without fear that you may be violating a fundamental law of physics.

By the way, most folks roll their eyes and say something about our planet not being a closed system, and the sun's energy, and act as if you have to be stupid to even think it presents a problem. You wouldn't have done that, but just want to skip that as much as possible.

If entropy decreases in one location, it must be at the expense of an increase at another location. Plants grow because they borrow energy from their environment. But that environmental energy comes from the sun. Our planet is nowhere close to being a closed system, given the energy that the sun pumps into it. If you look at our entire solar system, you'd be much closer to a closed system, although even there we get bombarded with energy from distant stars; that energy, however, pales in comparison to what we get from the sun.

From what I remember, any defined system boundary will satisfy the 2d law. Only order/disorder imported through the boundary would affect the equation, not the importation of energy through the boundary. So it seems the answer would have to involve the exportation of entropy (by us) to the rest of the universe to bring the equation into balance.

When scientists talk about the eventual “heat death” of the universe, they mean that the energy it contains eventually spreads out uniformly through the universe's entire volume and becomes incapable of doing any work. Just as a steam engine becomes incapable of generating any activity once the heat in its boiler has dissipated throughout the entire engine, many mechanisms in the physical world are driven by differentials in temperature. As those differentials damp out, as they tend to do over time, the work capability vanishes. But that's a very long-term consequence of the second law and is not a contraindication for all the forms of growth, development, and evolution we see on earth.

Shygetz said...

The science establishment has a priori science to exclude investigation of the possibility of intelligent causes.

False. I direct you to the entire fields of forensics and anthropology, not to mention psychology and sociology. We have a priori discarded supernatural explanations as untestable, but intelligent interference can be tested for.

From what I remember, any defined system boundary will satisfy the 2d law. Only order/disorder imported through the boundary would affect the equation, not the importation of energy through the boundary. So it seems the answer would have to involve the exportation of entropy (by us) to the rest of the universe to bring the equation into balance.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics requires a fully isolated system; one that does not interact in any way. Any system that has heat to flow beyond its boundary will shuffle entropy in and out of that system via heat, as roughly speaking thermodynamic entropy is a gauge of energy dispersal. Entropy and energy are intertwined, in that entropy is a measure of the availability of energy to do work. The sun sets up an energy gradient (lower entropy) on Earth that can be used to do work (photosynthesis) in exchange for a higher entropy in the sun itself.

Also, you need to disabuse yourself of the notion that entropy=disorder. This is not true in the colloquial sense, as disorder is often in the eyes of the beholder.

Mark Iredell said...


From what I remember, any defined system boundary will satisfy the 2d law. Only order/disorder imported through the boundary would affect the equation, not the importation of energy through the boundary. So it seems the answer would have to involve the exportation of entropy (by us) to the rest of the universe to bring the equation into balance.

Our planet does indeed export entropy to the rest of the universe. We absorb high-energy low-entropy photons from the sun and emit low-energy high-entropy photons back out to space. Over the long haul, the net energy exchange is nearly neutral but the net entropy exchange is negative. Life and other processes like weather make ample use of this supply of negative entropy.

Michael said...

I know you wrote this more than 4 years ago, but I just came upon it via a Google search - and I would like to offer my take...

If I may say so, I think you misunderstand the point that David Berlinski is trying to make. As I understand it (based on other points he made in the debate and elsewhere, Mr. Berlinski is trying to say something like the following:

What the theory of evolution needs to do is determine what overall pattern we would expect to find in the fossil record. Finding a variety of fossils which look like transitional fossils is not sufficient for the theory - the mechanism predicts much more than that. It predicts a multitude of transitional fossils which should be found in abundance in the fossil record.

His fascination with numbers is that they help us to determine whether or not we are on the right track. Offering explanations for why fossils are not there is fine, but one needs to recognize why that explanation needs to be made AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, determine how much explaining needs to be done.

If the issue is of finding one fossil of a cell - then an explanation doesn't seem so far fetched. If, however, the issue is of finding millions of transitional forms, then an explanation seems extremely far-fetched.

So, the question is - which is closer to the truth - one missing fossil or millions of missing fossils?

To answer that question - one needs to FIRST make a clear, specific prediction of what one should find and why - and then see if the evidence supports the prediction.

This is what Mr. Berlinski is calling for and this is what we don't find.

I personally think that he is 100% on - and it was an eye-opener for me.


As a final point, I think it's interesting to note that I have seen documentaries which talk about finding fossil evidence for early cellular life on Earth.