I know of no critic of evolution—perhaps save the late William F. Buckley, Jr.—who is at once so eloquent and so ignorant as David Berlinski. The man has spent years attacking evolutionary biology and defending intelligent design (ID), and is, to my knowledge, the only living creationist who is not religious. (He claims to be an agnostic, though I have trouble believing that.) He’s also a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, a position reserved for only the Highest Poo-Bahs of Ignorance.
Yesterday, at the Discovery Institute’s News and Views site, Berlinski wrote “Majestic Ascent: Berlinski on Darwin on Trial,” a post apparently designed to fête the twentieth anniversary of Phillip Johnson’s execrable Darwin on Trial: the book that launched the ID movement. Johnson’s book is full of inaccuracies and lies (I use the word deliberately, because no honest scholar could make the claims that he did). And, sure enough, Berlinksi’s post is full of lies as well. I’m not going to analyze it in detail, but here are a few blatant misrepresentations.
First, a specimen of how incredibly pompous and awkward Berlinski’s writing is. Do not write like this! I think he’s trying to ape Gould’s style, possessed with a big vocabulary but lacking Gould’s wit and erudition.
Comments such as these [Michael Ghiselin's withering criticism of Darwin on Trial] had the effect of raw meat dropped carelessly among carnivores. A scramble ensued to get the first bite. No one bothered to attack the preposterous Ghiselin. It was Richard Dawkins who had waggled his tempting rear end, and behind Dawkins, fesse à fesse [buttock to buttock] Charles Darwin. With the publication in 1991 of Darwin on Trial Phil Johnson did what carnivores so often do: He took a bite.
This metaphor is neither apposite nor appetizing. At any rate, here’s what Berlinski says. The first thing he gets dead wrong is the fossil record:
Every paleontologist writing since Darwin published his masterpiece in 1859, has known that the fossil record does not support Darwin’s theory. The theory predicted a continuum of biological forms, so much so that from the right perspective, species would themselves be seen as taxonomic artifacts, like the classification of certain sizes in men’s suiting as husky. Questions about the origin of species were resolved in the best possible way: There are no species and so there is no problem. Inasmuch as the historical record suggested a discrete progression of fixed biological forms, it was fatal to Darwin’s project. All the more reason, Darwin argued, to discount the evidence in favor of the theory. “I do not pretend,” he wrote, “that I should ever have suspected how poor a record of the mutations of life, the best preserved geological section presented, had not the difficulty of our not discovering innumerable transitional links between the species which appeared at the commencement and close of each formation, pressed so hardly on my theory.”
This is, as Johnson noted, self-serving gibberish.
Self-serving gibberish my butt! Darwin recognized full well that he didn’t have enough fossils to confirm his theory, and at least he admitted it. Would that the idiots at the Discovery Institute were intellectually courageous enough to write a chapter on “difficulties on theory,” as did Darwin! Since when has an IDer admitted any problem with that theory?
But Darwin didn’t need evidence from fossils to support his theory: he had enough evidence from biogeography, from vestigial organs, from embryology, from the hierarchical arrangement of life, from evidence of heritable variation and from the efficacy of artificial selection—to convince people of evolution even if there had been no fossils. And convince thinking people he did.
Of course, since Darwin’s time the “missing” fossil evidence has appeared—in spades. It’s all detailed in my book, and you can find it online, too. We have intermediates between early fish and amphibians, early amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and birds, and reptiles and early mammals. We have lineages, especially of marine microfossils, but also of larger animals like horses, showing gradual change that accumulates into what can only be seen as macroevolution.
We have the once-missing intermediates between terrestrial artiodactyls and whales: a fine fossil series. And, of course, we have all those fossils in the hominin family tree, from early australopithecines with apelike skulls and more modern human-like postcranial skeletons to more modern forms that closely resemble modern humans in nearly every feature. None of these were known in Darwin’s time.
For Berlinski to pretend that the fossil evidence doesn’t support Darwin, when every bloody fossilized tooth, bone, leaf, and integument cries out “evolution”, is the height of stupidity. Or, since I don’t think Berlinski is stupid, let’s say the height of intellectual dishonesty. Berlinkski knows of the fossil record, and pretends it doesn’t exist. He’s a liar.
He also lies about whether Darwin (or modern biologists) think there are species. Berlinski implies that Darwin denied the existence of species. He didn’t, though he was at times confused about what they represented. Modern biologists, of course (at least most of them, with the exception of a few botanist or systematist miscreants), also realize that species are real units of nature, and most of us understand that they are reproductive units, separated from other such units by genetic barriers to interbreeding.
After handily disposing of evolution, Berlinski takes out after natural selection:
Few serious biologists are today willing to defend the position that Dawkins expressed in The Blind Watchmaker. The metaphor remains stunning and so the watchmaker remains blind, but he is now deaf and dumb as well. With a few more impediments, he may as well be dead. The publication in 1983 of Motoo Kimura’s The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution consolidated ideas that Kimura had introduced in the late 1960s. On the molecular level, evolution is entirely stochastic, and if it proceeds at all, it proceeds by drift along a leaves-and-current model. Kimura’s theories left the emergence of complex biological structures an enigma, but they played an important role in the local economy of belief.
What Berlinski is saying here is twofold. First, that there is no evidence for natural selection, either on genes or organisms. That’s palpable nonsense. We have by now accumulated hundreds of cases of natural selection acting in real time on traits, not to mention evidence for a). the efficacy of artificial selection and b). the presence of pervasive genetic variation in natural populations, both of which indicate that fitness differentials in nature will lead perforce to evolutionary change.
Second, Berlinski implies that Kimura’s neutral theory nullifies natural selection. It doesn’t. Kimura’s theory was a big advance in the field, suggesting and working out the consequences of genetic variants that don’t affect fitness. And, indeed, much of molecular evolution (and an unknown amount of phenotypic evolution) may have been affected by drift. But even Kimura didn’t deny that natural selection was an important evolutionary force, and the only known evolutionary force that can produce adaptations. To say that the neutral theory left the emergence of complex biological features “an emigma” is simply a misrepresentation of what the neutral theory was about.
Further, population geneticists are starting to realize that evolution on the molecular level is NOT “entirely stochastic”. First, we have the obviously adaptive and maladaptive molecular substitutions in coding positions in DNA: both the good ones, like mutations for insecticide resistance in insects, and the deleterious ones, like the molecular mutation in the beta chain of hemoglobin that causes sickle-cell anemia.
Further, recent sequencing work is beginning to show that many substitutions in DNA that were once thought to be “entirely stochastic”—due to the substitution of nucleotides that made no difference in fitness—actually do have effects on fitness, and so are not neutral. These include many substitutions in the “third” or noncoding positons of DNA. Substitutions there, while they may not affect the sequence of the protein ultimately produced by that stretch of DNA, can have a fitness effect by drawing on pools of “transfer” RNA or nucleotide bases that are more or less abundant.
The “stochasticity” of molecular evolution is an unsettled issue, but it’s already clear that much of DNA evolution does not adhere strictly to Kimura’s neutral theory. Berlinski belies his ignorance here; he’s obviously not kept in touch with the literature. Or perhaps he has, but is lying again.
Those are the two main factual claims in Berlinski’s piece (three if you count the “nonexistence” of species), and he’s wrong on both counts. The rest is his usual pompous lucubrations about Gould, theistic evolution, the materialism of science, and so on. And a slur slung our way as well:
That much is at stake explains a good deal about the rhetoric of discussion in the United States, its vile tone. Biologists such as Jerry Coyne, Donald Prothero, Larry Moran or P.Z. Myers are of the opinion that if they cannot win the argument, they had better not lose it, and what better way not to lose an argument than to abuse one’s antagonist? If necessary, the biological establishment has been quite willing to demand of the Federal Courts that they do what it has been unable to do in the court of public opinion.
Sorry, David, but I didn’t abuse my antagonists, but tried to correct them by writing a calm, non-strident book about the evidence for evolution, one that has done pretty well. Yes, I’ll sometimes abuse morons like you, but only because you know that evidence and yet deliberately lie to the undereducated to keep them in the state of ignorance that religions prefer.
And yes, we do demand that Federal courts enforce the law, because we won’t have religious dogma insinuating itself into our children’s science classes. Or would you prefer to have science determined by the majority whim of the electorate? If so, then be prepared to have homeopathy and spiritual healing taught in medical schools, astrology in psychology classes, and alchemy in chemistry classes.
The reason why the “court of public opinion” doesn’t like evolution has nothing to do with its truth, and everything to do with its supposedly unsavory implications. It tells us that we’re neither the products of a special design by God, nor imbued by a deity with some celestial purpose and meaning. People don’t like these implications and so they reject the theory. It has nothing to do with them having learned the evidence for evolution and found it insufficient.
I have news for you, David: you’re going to die in a few decades. You probably don’t like that fact, either (I’m not comfortable with my own mortality, either), but it’s true. Deal with it.
Oh, and you can haz: Berlinski’s own video highlighting how awesome he is on his website. Note the trendy Frenchiness: