Monday, September 05, 2005

Accepting Berlinski's Challenge

Since David Berlinski's essay The Deniable Darwin is readily available online, I decided to take him up on the challenge I quoted in the previous post:

You could, if you wished, line up Darwin on Trial or my own “The Deniable Darwin” and compare it to the remarkably frank admission and ask yourself just what the hell Coyne and Dawkins are not saying that we did not say long before them?

Were Coyne and Dawkins simply parroting criticisms of evolution already offered by Berlinski himself? Let's take a look.

Moving through Berlinski's essay from beginning to end, I found the following general criticisms of evolution:

  1. There are gaps in the fossil record.

  2. The Cambrian Explosion.

  3. Natural selection is a meaningless tautology.

  4. It is implausible that complex systems evolved graudally.

  5. Evolution is vacuous becuase it can potentially explain any set of data.

  6. Evolution relies too heavily on chance.

  7. There is the implication, though no outright assertion, that evolution runs afoul of the second law of thermodynamics.

  8. The argument from design is intuitively satisfying.

  9. The connection between genotype and phenotype is poorly understood.

  10. A chance-driven process could not locate useful proteins within the vast space of possible proteins.

  11. Natural selection has no foresight.

  12. Dawkins' “weasel” experiment is unrealistic.

  13. Evolutionists tell adaptationist just-so stories.

These points range from bad to laughable, and all of them are made in Berlinski's trademark “Look how clever I am!” writing style. But that is not the subject for today.

To remind you, here is the list of genuine controversies mentioned by Dawkins and Coyne:

Among the controversies that students of evolution commonly face, these are genuinely challenging and of great educational value: neutralism versus selectionism in molecular evolution; adaptationism; group selection; punctuated equilibrium; cladism; “evo-devo” the “Cambrian Explosion” mass extinctions; interspecies competition; sympatric speciation; sexual selection; the evolution of sex itself; evolutionary psychology; Darwinian medicine and so on.

For some of these they even provided a helpful paragraph at the end of the article describing the nature of the controversy.

Berlinski's list contains 13 points; the one from Dawkins and Coyne contains 14. Despite this, I count only two points of intersection between Berlinski's list and that of Dawkins and Coyne.

The first point of intersection involves the Cambrian explosion. Here, in it's entirety, is what Berlinski says about it:

Before the Cambrian era, a brief 600 million years ago, very little is inscribed in the fossil record; but then, signaled by what I imagine as a spectral puff of smoke and a deafening ta-da!, an astonishing number of novel biological structures come into creation, and they come into creation at once.

And here is what Dawkins and Coyne say:

Although the fossil record shows that the first multicellular animals lived about 640m years ago, the diversity of species was low until about 530m years ago. At that time there was a sudden explosion of many diverse marine species, including the first appearance of molluscs, arthropods, echinoderms and vertebrates. “Sudden” here is used in the geological sense; the “explosion” occurred over a period of 10m to 30m years, which is, after all, comparable to the time taken to evolve most of the great radiations of mammals. This rapid diversification raises fascinating questions; explanations include the evolution of organisms with hard parts (which aid fossilisation), the evolutionary “discovery” of eyes, and the development of new genes that allowed parts of organisms to evolve independently.

As I've said before, the Cambrian explosion is a problem for evolution only in the sense that there are many possible explanations for it, but insufficient data for deciding between those explanations.

So, in a brief paragraph at the end of an op-ed, Dawkins and Coyne manage to give a good description of what the Cambrian explosion is, and toss of three possible explanations for it. Meanwhile, in a 7500 word essay, Berlinski provides a single (run-on) sentence on the subject, in which he gives a preposterously oversimplified description of the issue, and does not mention any of the perfectly plausible explanations for it.

Is that what Berlinski had in mind when he said we should chortle at Dawkins and Coyne's frank admission of critical problems with evolution that he had pointed out previously?

The other point of intersection is the one about adaptionism. Dawkins and Coyne do not elaborate on this one, but they have in mind the difficulty, in many cases, of determining whether a given trait of an organism is an adaptation formed by natural selection or a chance byproduct of some other process. The controversy involves the overapplication, in the opinion of some biologists, of a style of reasoning that everyone agrees is perfectly reasonable in many cases.

Berlinski uses this to suggest that the willingness of people like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and H. Allen Orr to criticize certain overextensions of adaptationist reasoning represents an unravelling of evolutionary theory itself. This is, in itself, a giant overextension, but it is a moot point anyway. Criticizing adaptionist reasoning has nothing to do with the validity of evolution generally. It simply reflects the paucity of data from which we can extract evolutionary conclusions. That adaptionist stories are often hard to test as a practical matter, and are often just one of several possible explanations for a given trait, has nothing to do with whether those stories are right or wrong.

And, incidentally, we should point out again that Berlinski bases his argument on the prior writings of Gould, Lewontin and Orr. Given that, it's a bit rich for him to turn around now and say evolutionists should acknowledge their debt to him for raising these points first.

So, once again, we have caught Berlinski making stuff up. There is almost no intersection at all between Berlinski's points and those made by Dawkins and Coyne, and where there is overlap the latter had a far different points in mind than the former. But then, if they didn't resort to total fiction the anti-evolutionists would have nothing to say at all.


At 8:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Dr. Rosenhouse. Berlinski's response should be interesting -- in his characteristic style of evasion.

I've a second mission regarding Berlinski for you that, as a professional mathematician, would be right up your alley.

In ID's mid-'90's manifesto, Mere Creation, Berlinski authors an entire chapter devoted to attempting to put Behe's "irreducible complexity is almost impossible to evolve" on a rigorous mathematical foundation. It is an extremely enlightening document -- enlightening into Berlinski's duplicity.

(As an aside, it is filled with, as you say, Berlinski's trademark "Look how clever I am!" as his metaphorical allusions appear for a paragraph or two after every equation, making the thing quite a treat to wade through.)

As it nears the end, it simply peters out, lost in a ever growing mass of verbiage whose major purpose seems to be to disguise from the reader Berlinski's failure and the reasons for it. After reading through it many times, I could see that all the failures of IC (change of function, loss of redundant parts, degree of "well-matchedness" required, etc.) are there staring Berlinski right in the face. Someone as competent as he certainly must have seen the implications of his little model and would have outlined them, had he actually been looking for the truth rather acting as an apologist who dare not blow the whistle.

In short, you could demonstrate that an intellectually honest Berlinski was in a position in '96 to blow the conceptual whistle on "IC => almost unevolvable" but (because he was perhap$ then a nonDiscovery Institute fellow?) chose to leave that task to ID's opponents.

At 5:35 AM, Blogger MichaelBains said...

# The connection between genotype and phenotype is poorly understood.

LOL! Well, there is the recent Lamarkian redux going on. Science allows those who use it to discard ideas and go back to them when evidence suggests a Reason to do so.

ID proponents decry Reason as a being useless even as their "scientists" claim to use it. The ID concept needs to be refuted to the ignorant (no insult intended) Public. Its proselytants are beyond hope.

{sigh} If only it was that easy. Good job as always sir.

At 7:44 AM, Blogger RPM said...

The other point of intersection is the one about adaptionism. Dawkins and Coyne do not elaborate on this one, but they have in mind the difficulty, in many cases, of determining whether a given trait of an organism is an adaptation formed by natural selection or a chance byproduct of some other process.

Could they be talking not about the role selection plays in shaping traits, but about selection and speciation? Coyne (and Orr) ardently believe that speciation cannot occur without different selective forces in seperate populations, but this view is definitely not unanimous.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Jason said...


As it happens, I addressed part of Berlinski's essay from Mere Creation in an essay of mine entitled How Anti-Evolutionists Abuse Mathematics. It's available online here:

The relevant portion is section three.


I think the controversy you describe fits more comfortably under punctuated equilibrium, or sympatric speciation on the list Dawkins and Coyne provided. The term “adaptationism” immediately conjures up images of Gould's and Lewontin's spandrels paper, so I'm pretty sure I interpreted them correctly.

Then again, perhaps not.

At 8:33 AM, Blogger RPM said...


That's not quite what I was talking about. Sympatric speciation is a hotly debated topic, and I don't know of any models (instantaneous chromosomal speciation notwithstanding) that don't include some form of selection.

I was speaking of speciation in general, and the role selection plays in the process. Coyne and Orr argue that all speciation events -- both allopatric and sympatric -- require divergent selection in the seperate populations/groups, and the molecular data support their claim. This, however, is hardly the universal viewpoint.

You're probably right about what they mean by adaptationism, but I thought I suggest an alternative given the lack of a clarification by Dawkins and Coyne.

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