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
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?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.
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.
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.