David Berlinski on evolution and the pretensions of scientific atheism

devils_delusionYesterday, I read The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski. It’s a polemical, savagely funny response to the new atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al., whose unlikely author is himself an agnostic and secular Jew. Why did he, of all people, write a book mostly for Christians like me? Because he noticed that no one else had written it! One’s soul can only withstand so much indignation, after all.

The book clarified my thinking on several ideas I’ve blogged about in the past, including Dawkins’s argument against God, necessary versus contingent things, the mulitverse (or “Landscape”), the universe’s apparent fine-tuning, and attempts by Stephen Hawking and others to explain it away using quantum cosmology. Of the latter he writes the following (which gives you a sense of his writing style):

The details may be found in Hawking’s best-selling A Brief History of Time, a book that was widely considered fascinating by those who did not read it, and incomprehensible by those who did. Their work will seem remarkably familiar to readers who grasp the principle behind pyramid schemes or magical acts in which women disappear into a box only to emerge as tigers shortly thereafter.[1]

After describing the work Hawking did to explain the origin of our universe, Berlinski says that the universe that Hawking found is, unsurprisingly, just the universe Hawking assumed he would find. “If what Hawking described is not quite a circle in thought, it does appear to suggest an oblate spheroid. ¶ The result is guaranteed—one hunnerd percent, as used-car salesmen say.[2]

Berlinski continually highlights the same problem with these guys that I’ve highlighted a few times on this blog. Even if what they say is true (which he doesn’t believe for a moment), they haven’t answered the question, “Why something and not nothing.”

That’s all well and good… What I wasn’t prepared for in this book was his frontal assault on something that I never talk about on this blog: evolution.

In part, I don’t talk about it because I don’t understand it. No one I know understands it. I mean, we may remember some things from our tenth-grade biology textbook, but nothing that would pass muster these days. When the average person says he believes in evolution, all he’s really saying is that he takes on faith that really smart people haven’t misled them on the subject. And none of us wants to appear to be stupid.

Or sometimes when people say they believe in evolution, they’re saying something about a God they no longer believe in, or a church whose doctrines they’ve long since abandoned.

Even before reading this book, I’ve wondered why it’s necessary to talk about “believing in” evolution in the first place? Either it happens or it doesn’t, like any other phenomenon in the realm of science. Why use religious language to describe one’s assent to its “doctrines.”

Berlinski has an idea: because the theory makes little sense, and it’s supported by little evidence.

If the facts are what they are, the past is what it is—profoundly enigmatic. The fossil record may be used to justify virtually any position, and often is. There are long eras in which nothing happens. The fire alarms of change then go off in the night. A detailed and continuous record of transition between species is missing, those neat sedimentary layers, as Gould noted time and again, never revealing precisely the phenomena that Darwin proposed to explain. It is hardly a matter on which paleontologists have been reticent. At the very beginning of his treatise Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, Robert Carroll observes quite correctly that “most of the fossil record does not support a strictly gradualistic account” of evolution. A “strictly gradualistic” account is precisely what Darwin’s theory demands: It is the heart and soul of the theory.

By the same token, there are no laboratory demonstrations of speciation either, millions of fruit flies coming and going while never once suggesting that they were destined to appear as anything other than fruit flies… If species have an essential nature that beyond limits cannot change, then random variations and natural selection cannot change them. We must look elsewhere for an account that does justice to their nature or to the facts.[3]

Berlinski also argues that computer simulations of Darwinian evolution fail “when they are honest and succeed when they are not.” When the results of one such simulation came in, a reporter for the New York Times wrote, “with solemn incomprehension, ‘the creatures mutated but showed only modest increases in complexity.’ Which is to say, they showed nothing of interest at all. This is natural selection at work but it is hardly work that has worked to intended effect… What these computer experiments do reveal is a principle far more penetrating than any that Darwin ever offered: ¶ There is a sucker born every minute.”[4]

In a recent paper published by an evolutionary biologist named Joel Kingsolver, the author said, “Important issues about selection remain unresolved.” “Of those important issues,” Berlinski writes, “I would mention prominently the question whether natural selection exists at all.”

Finally, I had a laugh at this:

Although Darwin’s theory is very often compared favorably to the great theories of mathematical physics on the grounds that evolution is as well established as gravity, very few physicists have been heard observing that gravity is as well established as evolution. They know better and they are not stupid.[5]

1. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 98.

2. Ibid., 106.

3. Ibid., 188-9.

4. Ibid., 190.

5. Ibid., 191.

26 thoughts on “David Berlinski on evolution and the pretensions of scientific atheism”

  1. I don’t know how honest you are, but Kingsolver, of course, did not imply that. He writes, I quote (“The strength of phenotypic selection in natural populations.”, p.13&14):

    “This review demonstrates that our information about the strength of phenotypic selection in natural populations has increased dramatically in the past 2 decades, but many important issues about selection remain unresolved [..] Second, we have abundant information about directional selection on morphological traits. By contrast, selection on quantitative behavioral and physiological traits remains largely unknown and should be the focus of future studies.”

    So, he doesn’t somehow doubt selection. He, like a good scientist should, acknowledges the fact that we, of course, don’t know everything yet. But that’s obvious. That’s like saying “important questions about gravity remain unsolved”. Yes, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that tomorrow all people will start levitating.

    So, sorry, but that’s all just a quite dishonest attempt of quote mining.

    1. Slow your roll, dude! Take it up with Berlinski. It’s his book, not mine!

      He wasn’t using the quote to say that Kingsolver doubted selection. He was using it as if to say, “That’s the understatement of the century!”

      1. I’m happy to roll with it. Your original comment indicates that you misunderstand the purpose for which the quote was used. Of course Berlinski isn’t suggesting that Kingsolver doubts natural selection. That wasn’t the point.

      2. Of course that’s what Berlinski wants to imply there. Come on, be at least honest about it. It’s like claiming that, because the world’s greatest physicist, whoever he may be, said “important questions about gravity remain unsolved”, we should ask, if is exists at all.

      3. Again with the questioning of my honesty? Maybe the nuances of the English language are lost on you? He’s using the quote ironically. Literally, it’s irony. The rhetorical effect is to say, “Yes, and Kingsolver doesn’t know how true those words are!”

        You’re saying that I’m saying that he’s saying that he does know how true those words are. That’s the opposite of what he’s saying.

        I don’t know biology, but I know English.

    1. While it’s hard to argue with your impeccable logic, the author of this book, Berlinski, isn’t a believer.

  2. Brent, I agree with Berlinski that, despite the constant castigation of “nonbelievers” in evolution as having “Bronze Age” mentalities, in fact there are big problems with evolution, and even evolutionists sometimes point that up with their admissions of “gaps in the fossil record,” etc.

    Personally, I would go further myself, and say that there are MANY “gaps” in evolutionary explanations of the universe and its contents, including the supposed spontaneous generation of life and the “ascent” of man from some species or another of the primates (apes, etc.). The fact is, observations in general tend more to undermine evolutionary theories than support them.

    1. Evolution is the explanation for the diversity of life, not the origins of life. And spontaneous generation is an idea that has not been taken seriously by scientists for like a few centuries. Creationists just use it as a strawman.

      1. Obviously I haven’t represented the whole book, but one small excerpt that is part of a larger argument. He’s very argumentative and polemical. In this part of the book, he’s not arguing for God, only against what he sees as the arrogance of some prominent evolutionary biologists who make make claims that (he believes strongly) the evidence doesn’t support.

        He’s a genuinely good writer, and funny. I would love to see him in a live debate with someone from your side. Seriously. I think it would be helpful to me.

      2. He IS someone from my side. You said it yourself, he doesn’t even believe the stuff he’s pretending to believe. And he’s not even being original, he’s just rephrasing old material from creationist websites.

      3. If you’re really interested, here’s someone from “your” side (a devout christian)who also happens to be an expert in cell biology tearing the ID movement a new one:

      4. Agmphilo and others, why are there NO (or, at the least, practically none) “intermediate” fossil forms? Surely if what Darwin himself taught was true, then we would expect to find thousands (millions) of such. “Punctuated equilibrium” is hardly some “small” twist–it refutes the theory of “gradual” modification of species due to “environmental” influences.

        I don’t have time to watch the one-hour special right now, but if evolution is supposed to occur due to “cellular” changes, how is that consistent with the supposed Darwinian mechanism?

        The point is, no matter have “different” the various “theories” are as to how evolution is theorized to have proceeded, it hardly matters to evolutionists, so long as each theorist continues to say the magic words, “I believe in evoution.”

      5. There are thousands of intermediate fossil forms. Everything in the fossil record is intermediate. We have intermediates between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles, between reptiles and mammals, between mammals and primates, and between other primates and humans. Darwin specifically predicted we would find fossils like early birds with separate digits in their wings (something that had never been found before and must exist if birds evolved from land animals and their wings were modified from arms with five digits). Two years after he made the prediction archeopteryx was discovered. I just read a book “your inner fish” (very interesting btw, I recommend it) by a paleontologist chronicling, among other things, the discovery of tiktaalik and transitional fossils showing how reptile teeth changed to mammalian teeth, something which seemed impossible. What is especially interesting about this is the fact that both times they were specifically looking for those fossils – they predicted what environment they would be found in, how old they would be, what geological strata they would be found in etc, all with the theory of evolution. This is what sets real science apart from pseudo-science, the ability to predict discoveries before they’re made. Scientists don’t dig up fossils then begin speculating about them, they say “if our model is correct these thousand things must be in the fossil record and these thousand things can’t be in the fossil record – then dig up the fossils and let the chips fall where they may.

      6. I read not too long ago that archeopteryx was, in fact, NOT an intermediate form between dinosaurs and birds, according to some Chinese scientists.

        I am not sure what you are referring to as to the “thousands” of intermediate fossil forms. Aside from the dubious “monkeys to man” line, where are, for example, the “dog” line of fossils (from what to dogs?), or the elephant line, or giraffe, etc., etc. If evolution were actually true, you would have to explain ALL life forms as evolving from the majestic protozoa which supposedly was the starting point (which entify, of course, is highly complex to begin with and hardly something which could result from “primordial ooze,” or whatever in the world is supposed to have happened to “get the ball rolling”). Where are all these “lines”?

      7. “I read not too long ago that archeopteryx was, in fact, NOT an intermediate form between dinosaurs and birds, according to some Chinese scientists.”

        It’s a dinosaur with feathered wings, you tell me if that’s intermediate between birds and dinosaurs. Since then 24 species of dinosaurs have been found that had feathers, including btw, velociraptors which are grossly mis-portrayed by hollywood (in reality they were 3 feet tall).

        “I am not sure what you are referring to as to the “thousands” of intermediate fossil forms.”

        Everything in the fossil record is intermediate between what came earlier and what comes after. Every fossil is intermediate. When scientists speak of transitional forms they sometimes mean something else, a fossil that has the characteristics of more than one modern group and thus could be an ancestor (or more likely a cousin to an ancestor since it’s not a straight line) of both groups. We have loads of these two, and I mentioned many of them in my last comment.

        “Aside from the dubious “monkeys to man” line,”

        Humans and other primates share a common ancestry. We are both cousins to one another, they are not our ancestors, nor is any modern species the ancestor of any other modern species any more than I am your great great great grandfather, or visa versa. As for “dubious” fossils, they’re fossils. What is dubious about them?


        “where are, for example, the “dog” line of fossils (from what to dogs?),”

        Dogs are domesticated wolves, the grey wolf to be specific. They have only existed for thousands of years and have not even differentiated into a distinct species yet, the idea of fossils of different species of them is not applicable.

        “or the elephant line, or giraffe, etc., etc.”



        “If evolution were actually true, you would have to explain ALL life forms as evolving from the majestic protozoa which supposedly was the starting point (which entify, of course, is highly complex to begin with and hardly something which could result from “primordial ooze,” or whatever in the world is supposed to have happened to “get the ball rolling”). Where are all these “lines”?”

        First of all how life evolves (as it observably does to this day) is a separate question to how life began. We know it evolves, whether it was created or not. Second, the idea that unless we know everything about something we therefore know nothing is like saying that unless we know the name of every soldier who died in every battle in the US civil war, that that proves the civil war did not happen. It proves exactly nothing. What we don’t know does not invalidate what we do know. And yes, some things are either undiscovered or lost to the sands of time. We a) have not excavated the entire planet, that would require digging up a grand canyon-like hole a mile under every building and city in the world. What we have comes from mostly areas where erosion and other geological processes have done the work for us, And b) if you were right and everything was created as it is now, there would be no intermediate forms at all. There would be dogs and giraffes and bats in the cambrian period and in every geological period. But there aren’t.

  3. The steven J Gould quote is an example of quote-mining as well, an old one. Gould considered evolution a well established fact and was arguing for punctuated equilibrium, darwinian evolution with a small twist. His qoutes attempting to distinguish the darwinian model with his are often mis-used to claim scientific “dissent from darwin”. The idea that evolutionary stasis is a “problem” for evolution is also ridiculous – I just finished reading Origin Of Species and in the very first chapter darwin makes clear that his theory is BETTER than other competing theories because it does not necessitate all forms of life to be constantly changing or improving and has the power to explain why there are “higher” and “lower” organisms. He spends a great deal of time explaining why this is.

    An atheist wrote a disingenous book intended to make a truck load of money hood-winking anxious christians eager (if not desperate) to say “ha ha, look, even atheists think evolution is stupid!” The same way countless disingenous evangelists make similar materials which casually misrepresent the facts.

    It’s also worth noting that half of this blog is ad hominem, which of course is a fallacy.

  4. To be frank, the book is frustrating in its misrepresentation of evolution and “A Brief History of Time”, and fails to even get the fundamentals correct.

    I won’t repeat comments that I have made elsewhere in this blog, because I don’t have to. This book is deeply problematic for simple reasons that require only a shallow wading into the subject matter.

    Hawking’s latest book, the Grand Design, is sloppily written, but A Brief History of Time is a very precise book that is largely irrelevant the the debate of whether or not there is a God. It is answering a completely different question. Classically speaking, relativity predicts a singularity that cannot be described mathematically. It was a point where our physical descriptions broke down. Hawking showed that this singularity may not necessarily exist if quantum physics is considered, and therefore there is not necessarily any feature of the topology of the universe that evades physical description. I am not even sure why Berlinski felt the book was an attack against his theism.

    Regarding Evolution: Berlinski’s comments on the fossil record are even more exasperating. He wheels out the old canard about “strict gradualism” and paleontologists like Gould remarking on “gaps” in the fossil record. This is a tired objection that has been addressed many times. To quote the late Gould himself:

    “Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists — whether through design or stupidity, I do not know — as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. The punctuations occur at the level of species; directional trends (on the staircase model) are rife at the higher level of transitions within major groups.”

    I.e. Transitional forms are numerous on the macroevolutionary scale spanning the history of life. They are less numerous (but still exist) on the smaller, microevoltionary scale. (This is the exact opposite of what “microevolution within kinds” creationism would predict.) If you watched an old silent film that were 16 frames per second as opposed to the standard 24, would you say the movie was incoherent? Furthermore, there are plenty of ways the fossil record could contradict evolution (E.g. Being inconsistent with genetic or geographic distributions of life), but no such contradictions have been observed.

    I could go on, but needless to say I would be repeating what others have said more elegantly countless times.

    Incidentally, I am a physicist and I will acknowledge that the theory of gravity is as well established as Darwinian evolution without hesitation.

    1. Thanks, Morbert. We have no way of knowing if he’s telling the truth, of course, but he says he isn’t a theist.

  5. Agnophilo, I believe the Chinese discovery was that there were no “feathers” on archeopteryx. In any event, clearly there is not unanimous consent among scientists that this creature is an “intermediate form.”

    I am curious as to your statement: “Everything in the fossil record is intermediate between what came earlier and what comes after. Every fossil is intermediate.” What does that mean? Do you mean that if I find an elephant fossil, I am to conclude that an elephant is “on its way” to becoming something else? Where is the proof of that? My point about intermediates is that there is nothing which is “half something and half something else”; i.e., exactly as the term suggests, “intermediate.” You can’t just “jump” from an amoeba to an elephant and have the “gradual changes in response to environment” that Darwin claimed and predicted. Again, ultimately if such gradual evolution were true, we would find “intermediates” leading up to the “fully formed” entities that we have today–even roses and lillies and coconuts and peaches and giraffes and rabbits and, and, etc. Your comment that “we just have not unearthed enough yet” is not very helpful. If there are no such fossils “yet,” then you are proceeding on supposition rather than observation or the scientific method. Also, already millions of fossils have been unearthed, and yet no intermediates. (I submit that the few fossils which are sometimes claimed as intermediates can be explained as anomolies or even simply clearly part of the same species.)

  6. Oh how Dr Berlinski inspires them! What he has revealed philosophically is no less important than what Dr James Tour has revealed chemically. That while every technology is growing by leaps and bounds, Origin of Life studies have not advanced one millimeter (here is one place I don’t mind speaking in metric) since Miller/Urey.

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