Posts Tagged ‘David Berlinski’

David Berlinski on evolution and the pretensions of scientific atheism

December 21, 2013

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.