I keep hearing that this somewhat well-known computer scientist, David Gelernter, has given up on Darwin. Dude. We moved on past Darwin over a hundred years ago. Just the fact that you think Darwin is still part of the science is revealing how little you know. We know where Darwin was wrong, and where he was heading in the right direction, and how much he didn’t know, and we recognize that he was important in setting us off on an interesting trail, but we’ve learned so much more since then.
So where did Gelernter get this wrong impression that it’s all about “Darwinism”? It’s because he read the wrong books.
Stephen Meyer’s thoughtful and meticulous Darwin’s Doubt (2013) convinced me that Darwin has failed. He cannot answer the big question. Two other books are also essential: The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (2009), by David Berlinski, and Debating Darwin’s Doubt (2015), an anthology edited by David Klinghoffer, which collects some of the arguments Meyer’s book stirred up. These three form a fateful battle group that most people would rather ignore. Bringing to bear the work of many dozen scientists over many decades, Meyer, who after a stint as a geophysicist in Dallas earned a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge and now directs the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, disassembles the theory of evolution piece by piece. Darwin’s Doubt is one of the most important books in a generation. Few open-minded people will finish it with their faith in Darwin intact.
Just once I’d like to read that one of these creationists started by taking a college-level course in evolutionary biology, and read core textbooks in the field, rather than that they jumped right in with clueless ideologues who don’t understand the science, but are sure it’s wrong, and have produced silly polemics that bamboozle the ignorant. The thing that Berlinski, Meyer, and Klinghoffer have in common isn’t that they understand the basics of evolutionary biology, it’s that they don’t…and they overcome their ignorance with remarkable pomposity and pretentiousness. I’ve read those books, and they’re terrible. The authors ooze self-regard and are remarkably oblivious of the subject they’re opining on.
I didn’t go into science with “faith in Darwin” in the first place, so there was nothing to dismantle. It’s telling that they think evolutionary biologists are engaged in a faith-based enterprise — it’s purest projection.
So what arguments impressed Gelernter? The usual creationist nonsense: the fossils are missing! (Yeah, we know — we never expected a flawless representation of every living creature in the fossil record, since we can see right now in the here and now that most dead things rot and leave no trace). And then he makes an argument from bad math. You would think a computer science guy would know about the Garbage In, Garbage Out principle, but his whole argument is based on trivial, simplistic notions of how molecular biology works, so of course it’s total trash. He makes the old creationist combinatorial argument.
It’s easy to see that the total number of possible sequences is immense. It’s easy to believe (although non-chemists must take their colleagues’ word for it) that the subset of useful sequences—sequences that create real, usable proteins—is, in comparison, tiny. But we must know how immense and how tiny.
The total count of possible 150-link chains, where each link is chosen separately from 20 amino acids, is 20150. In other words, many. 20150 roughly equals 10195, and there are only 1080 atoms in the universe.
Oh god. So tired. This is such a stupid argument. Yes, if you have a specific target string in mind, it’s remarkably unlikely that you’ll get it by pure chance. If you’re blindfolded and shoot a gun at the side of a barn, making a hole in it, it is unlikely that you’ll hit that same hole if you fire a second time. That is not an argument that it was impossible to put the first hole in that specific spot, however. It is not an argument that you can’t possibly shoot the side of a barn.
That attempt to argue that the number of possibilities is larger than the number of atoms in the universe is also silly. Here’s another string of 150 characters:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I…
Do you realize that there are more characters here than there are relevant amino acids — 26 letters, space, and some assorted punctuation? The total count of possibilities of putting that sentence together was more like 30150, or far more than the number of atoms in the universe, so I don’t understand how Melville could have put it together. Then there are those millions of other books, that each start with a different combination of 150 characters, as if there is a whole vast range of different possible combinations. I give up. Literature is clearly a lie. It never happened.
That’s so obviously a bullshit argument, yet Gelernter makes it, as if it is somehow trenchant. Hint: Only creationists think it’s meaningful. Evolutionary biologists see it as a non-problem, and that creationists who make it are notably ignorant, just as professors of literature will shoo away any crackpot who comes to their door with a bizarre claim about the numerology of Herman Melville’s paragraphs.
It’s also so much easier to see the variations extant in biological paragraphs, too. Pick a gene, any gene, and go into the molecular biology databases, and you can find different versions of the sequence in different species and even different individuals within the same species. We have a record of all kinds of random permutations of the equivalent of that introductory paragraph, and they’re all functional — it’s as if Melville published a typo-ridden edition of Moby Dick, and the typos varied in each subsequent edition, but they were all still readable, and no one complained at the sloppiness. As if the code was so slack that we could accept novel versions of the text and new readings could evolve from the differences.
This myth of fundamental errors in evolutionary theory persists in the creationist community, though, because creationists only read other creationists. Gelernter reads Meyer and Berlinski and Klinghoffer, and thinks he now understands evolutionary biology, despite never ever reading anything in the field. Now other people will read Gelernter and think, because he’s a big smart computer scientist, that they have learned something about real problems in the field, instead of the echoes of the same old bullshit plopping out of assholes for the last 60 years.
My recommendation to everyone is that if you think you have some insight to contribute, that you think you are well-informed enough to criticize the field, put Meyer’s awful book down and get down to the basics first. Read Futuyma’s Evolution textbook, or Herron and Freeman’s Evolutionary Analysis. They’re too expensive? (They are.) Get an old edition, that’s good enough, and the price plummets as you get further from the current edition, but the evidence is still solid. Still too expensive? Download Felsenstein’s Theoretical Evolutionary Genetics, it’s free.
None of them are a light read, but you must be a brilliant person if you think you’ve completely demolished evolutionary theory, so I’m sure you can cope with the real thing, rather than those misrepresentations pushed by the frauds at the Discovery Institute. You might be horrified to discover that they don’t anguish over missing fossils or build bogus arguments based on misunderstandings of probability theory, and your simple-minded critiques are totally irrelevant to the science.
In other words, fuck off, David Gelernter, you arrogant clown.