Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stan the Man

His posthumous kidnapping

William Dembski must be lonely for company. As one of the leading lights of intelligent design creationism, he undoubtedly longs for more erudite colleagues than the motley array of intellectual back-benchers who populate the Discovery Institute and similar quasi-scientific organizations. Since today's real scholars are likely to kick, bite, and otherwise resist recruitment into the armies of the night, Dembski has cleverly decided to enlist a dead man as one of his allies. The victim of Dembski's grave-robbing is mathematician Stanislaw M. Ulam. On the creationist blog Uncommon Descent, Dembski quotes a “close colleague” as saying
Bohr and Ulam both believed that Darwinism was a false theory. If Darwinism is false, then it cannot be a fact. It can only be a theory.
Niels Bohr and Stan Ulam are two of the greatest intellects of the twentieth century. One sits up and takes notice at the startling revelation that they opposed evolution. What is the basis for Dembski's claim? He gives us some of Ulam's own words from the 1966 Wistar conference on “Mathematical challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis”:
[Darwinism] seems to require many thousands, perhaps millions, of successive mutations to produce even the easiest complexity we see in life now. It appears, naively at least, that no matter how large the probability of a single mutation is, should it be even as great as one-half, you would get this probability raised to a millionth power, which is so very close to zero that the chances of such a chain seem to be practically non-existent.
That's a mathematical challenge, all right, but to Ulam it could just as well have been a challenge needing an answer rather than a challenge demonstrating the falsity of the modern synthesis. Dembski, however, presents it as a clear demonstration of Ulam's opposition to evolution, evidence to edify his followers.

An ID acolyte at Uncommon Descent hastens to make obeisance:
I never knew that Bohr and Ulam were both anti-Darwinists. Excellent post, Dr. William Dembski. On this website you learn something new every day.
It's “something new,” all right, but does it have the additional characteristic of being true? Of course, truth has never been a prerequisite for assertions made by the ID crowd. Furthermore, Dembski and his fellow creationists are notorious quote-miners. PvM (Pim van Meurs) at The Panda's Thumb is, as usual, on the job and has taken the trouble to depict Ulam's views more fully. Surprise! When taken in the larger context of his life's work, Ulam doesn't turn out to be a creationist at all! PvM cites a 1970 paper in which Ulam poured some subzero water on the misinterpretations that had been placed on his 1966 remarks:
In this report, we shall present an abbreviated account of calculations performed by us in the mid 1960’s. These calculations were preliminary and intended merely as the zeroth approximation to the problem concerning rates of evolution—a process which we have here severely stylized and enormously oversimplified. A mention of the results of such calculations in progress at that time was made at a meeting in 1966 at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia by one of us. The discussion there, as reported in the proceedings of the meeting, was rather frequently misunderstood and the impression might have been left that the results somehow make it extremely improbable that the standard version of the survival-of-the-fittest mechanism leads to much too slow a progress.
Got that, Dembski? Ulam expressly said he was not claiming to have shown that natural selection was deficient as a mechanism for evolution. He was saying that mathematical models were still weak, as demonstrated by his use of “zeroth approximation” to describe his “preliminary” calculations.

Although not widely known today, Stan Ulam was rather famous in the 1960s as Edward Teller's opponent during the debate over the Kennedy administration's negotiations with the Soviet Union for a test-ban treaty. Both men were credited with having solved the problem of creating a thermonuclear explosion (the H-bomb). Ulam thought it was time to slow down the arms race, while Teller wanted free rein to continue unlimited atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. In this instance, the good guys won and the test-ban treaty was adopted.


Ulam was a polymath. His interests were broad and kept growing throughout his life. He was particularly intrigued by iteration and complexity, the notion that extremely simple rules could produce extremely complex results upon repeated application. Ulam was therefore quite curious about mathematical models for evolution and sought out opportunities to explore them.

In the late seventies, Ulam accepted a visiting-professor appointment at the University of California, Davis, where he conducted some seminars. Friends of mine who were graduate students at UC Davis were awed by the presence of Ulam in their midst, but he soon set everyone at ease with his natural friendliness and lack of pomposity. (His contrasts with Teller were many.) I was out of school at the time, but I was able to get up to Davis to attend some of Ulam's talks. I had read his autobiography, Adventures of a Mathematician, and Professor Ulam graciously signed my copy for me after one of the seminars. I dug out that book after reading about Dembski's attempt to co-opt Ulam for the ID cause and quickly found a telling paragraph that beautifully captures the author's endless curiosity and self-deprecating manner:
In 1954 Gamow and I happened to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the same time. I was telling him about some of my speculations on the problems of evolution and the possibilities of calculating the rate of evolution of life. One day he came to see me and said: “Let's go to Massachusetts General Hospital—there is an interesting biology seminar.” And we drove in his Mercedes. On the way I asked him who was talking. He said, “You are!” Apparently he had told the professors running the seminar that we would both talk about these speculations. And indeed we both did. On the way home I remarked, “Imagine, George, you and me trying to talk about biology! All these people, all these doctors in white smocks—they were ready to put us in straitjackets.”
No question about it. This sensible man would never fit into the self-important, pseudo-intellectual ranks of the ID creationism movement.

Rest in peace, Stan. We won't let them have you.

4 comments:

intrinsicallyknotted said...

"It appears, naively at least, that no matter how large the probability of a single mutation is…"

Don't the IDiots ever read what they quote? Whenever a scientist starts with a word like "naively", it's a sure sign they're about to completely demolish the argument.

Or…wait…maybe the problem is that creations don't understand the meaning of the word. To them, "naive" means intelligent, and "credulous" means critical-thinking.

King Aardvark said...

Ok, so what's the deal with Bohr, then?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm sure one of the *founders* of the field of dynamical systems had huge trouble with the concept of emergent complexity.

Sili said...

Wellllll ... Now I'm rather curious as to what Teller's stand on biology is.