Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Irving Kristol and Evolution

With all the hagiography going on for conservative "intellectual" Irving Kristol, who died on September 18, let's not forget one of his many idiotic statements: that Darwinism is on the way out because it "is really no longer accepted so easily by [many] biologists and scientists."

As Glenn Morton has exhaustively shown, the trope that "more and more scientists doubt evolution" is one of the oldest falsehoods in creationism. But then, Kristol believed that not all truths were suitable for all people, an echo of Martin Luther's view that lying for his god was acceptable.

Anti-evolution idiocy seemingly ran in the family. In 1959, Kristol's wife Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a terrible book, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, demonstrating a lack of understanding of biology and a warped view of Darwin's influence. One perceptive reviewer penned that Himmelfarb had "an advanced case of Darwinitis, a complaint that afflicts those of a literary bent and strong attachments to pre-scientific culture, who find in the theory of evolution a disturbing and mysterious challenge to their values". Kristol wrote a favorable review of Himmelfarb's book for Encounter, without bothering to mention that he was Himmelfarb's husband. So much for Kristol's ethics.

Kristol wrote a piece for the September 30 1986 New York Times about evolution. Here are a few excerpts:

Practically all biologists, when they engage in scientific discourse, assume that the earth's species were not created by divine command. As scientists, they could not make any other assumption. But they agree on little else - a fact which our textbooks are careful to ignore, lest it give encouragement to the religious. There is no doubt that most of our textbooks are still written as participants in the ''warfare'' between science and religion that is our heritage from the 19th century. And there is also little doubt that it is this pseudo-scientific dogmatism that has provoked the current religious reaction...

Though this theory [the neo-Darwinian synthesis] is usually taught as an established scientific truth, it is nothing of the sort. It has too many lacunae. Theological evidence does not provide us with the spectrum of intermediate species we would expect. Moreover, laboratory experiments reveal how close to impossible it is for one species to evolve into another, even allowing for selective breeding and some genetic mutation. There is unquestionably evolution within species: every animal breeder is engaged in exemplifying this enterprise. But the gradual transformation of the population of one species into another is a biological hypothesis, not a biological fact.

Moreover, today a significant minority of distinguished biologists and geneticists find this hypothesis incredible and insist that evolution must have proceeded by ''quantum jumps,'' caused by radical genetic mutation. This copes with some of the problems generated by neo-Darwinist orthodoxy, but only to create others. We just don't know of any such ''quantum jumps'' that create new species, since most genetic mutations work against the survival of the individual. So this is another hypothesis - no less plausible than the orthodox view, but still speculative.

And there are other speculations about evolution, some by Nobel prize-winning geneticists, that border on the bizarre - for example, that life on earth was produced by spermatozoa from outer space. In addition, many younger biologists (the so-called ''cladists'') are persuaded that the differences among species - including those that seem to be closely related -are such as to make the very concept of evolution questionable.

So ''evolution'' is no simple established scientific orthodoxy, and to teach it as such is an exercise in dogmatism...

I imagine we'll be seeing some biographies of Kristol coming out. I can only hope that any honest biographer will make space to assess Kristol's ignorance of biology and his arrogance in thinking that he understood it better than professional biologists.


John Farrell said...

Ron Bailey's piece, which I well recall when it came out, is particularly damning. It's one thing to not accept evolution. Lots of people don't ever understand it well anyway. It's quite another thing to promote a fake skepticism about it for fear of the affect it will allegedly have on those poor and ignorant people whose belief in God you do not even share.

SLC said...

It should be noted that the late and unlamented Mr. Kristols' neocon soulmate, Norman Podhoretz, has published several idiotic articles on evolution by fake mathematician, David Berlinski, in his magazine, Commentary. I have a suspicion that much of the neocon skepticism about evolution is nothing more then a policy of sucking up to religious conservatives because of their support for Israel. I seriously doubt that either Kristol or Podhoretz have the slightest understanding of evolution, or in fact, of any other scientific theory (Podhoretz also published an article in his magazine by Berlinski criticizing the big bang theory).

Jonathan Lubin said...

I liked your typing “Theological evidence” for “Geological evidence”!

JohnK said...

Kristol himself was the first editor of Commentary.
Then "professor of Social Thought" in a business department, making him eminently qualified to ramble on uncomprehendingly about, say, cladism circa.1986.
His "Nobel prize-winning geneticist" allegedly advocating space-spermatozoa must be Crick, whose ideas Kristol misrepresents, employing the usual shoddy scholarship known and loved by connoisseurs of anti-evolution.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Jonathan -

It's not my typing - it's what was in the original NYT article, believe it or not!

Robert Crowther said...

Love him or hate him, David Berlinski is a mathematician. And he's a skeptic above all else, both a challenger of Darwin and a challenger of intelligent design. As well as challenging lots of other things. His book The Devil's Delusion has just been rereleased this week, along with a website with more information.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Robert Crowther:

Good of you to stop by.

Berlinski is, frankly, not much of a mathematician. I discussed his oeuvre here. Briefly: as far as I can tell, he does not have an advanced degree in mathematics; he does not seem to have a single real peer-reviewed paper in mathematics, although he does have some papers that I would describe more as philosophy than mathematics. His paper "Gödel's question" is utterly laughable. Berlinski's mathematical record would not earn him tenure in a mathematics department at any reasonable university.

But the hard-core cultural warriors, of which the DI forms a part, love to elevate qualifications of the mediocre. It is one of the ways they pretend to be doing valid intellectual work.

I'm not fooled.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

No discussion of Berlinski is complete without an appearance of the word supercilious, so I'll get that out of the way.


Francis Crick did indeed write a book about panspermia (bizarrely morphed into "spermatozoa from outer space" by Kristol), Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature, which was published in 1981. In that book he cited as motivation the failure of science to find catalytic RNA. That failure was remedied early in the 1980s - even before Kristol's 1986 piece in the NYTimes, and resulted in a Nobel prize to Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech in 1989.

SLC said...

Re Jeffrey Shalit & Robert Crowther

Dr. Berlinski does not, repeat does not, have a PhD in mathematics. His PhD is in philosophy from Princeton, Un. In the past, the good doctor has misrepresented his credentials and only owned up to not being a mathematician when I called him on it several years ago over at Jason Rosenhouses' blog (Prof. Rosenhouse is a real mathematician with a PhD from Dartmouth, a number of peer reviewed publications, and is an associate professor of mathematics at James Madison Un.)

As Prof. Shalit points out, Berlinski has no publications on mathematics in any peer reviewed mathematics journal, although to be fair, he has apparently taught beginning calculus at several reputable universities as a non-tenure track lecturer.

As Richard Dawkins once said, after listening to a lecture by Berlinski, "anyone who denies the theory of evolution is either ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked (but I don't want to consider that). Berlinski is neither ignorant, stupid, or insane."

Dr. Berlinski is all to representative of the folks who hang out at the Dishonesty Institute.

H.H. said...

I love that any description of Berlinski always includes the detail that he "lives in Paris." Apparently the fact that he lives in a fabled city known for its artists and intellectuals is supposed to confer some of that romantic aura onto him somehow. Would Berlinski's argument be any less appealing if he "lived in Cleveland?"

Erasmus, FCD said...

I suppose that makes ME a mathematician as well. Tomorrow, the world!

RBH said...

Jeffrey wrote

But the hard-core cultural warriors, of which the DI forms a part, love to elevate qualifications of the mediocre. It is one of the ways they pretend to be doing valid intellectual work.

Crowther's comment is a lovely instance of inflationary credentialism, one of the criteria for diagnosing pseudoscience.

D. L. Yonge-Mallo said...

"Theological evidence does not provide us with the spectrum of intermediate species we would expect."

What, exactly, constitutes "theological evidence" for the "spectrum of intermediate species"? In fact, what constitutes "theological evidence" for anything?

-- davinci

oleg said...

In the make-believe world of ID, David Berlinski is a mathematician, Casey Luskin is a published geological researcher, and Bill Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory.

In real life, Berlinski is a crackpot railing against mainstream cosmology and statistical physics, Luskin writes press releases at the Discovery Institute, and Dembski is celebrating his first article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

What an impressive bunch!

Alex said...

Any credibility SLC ever had was shot when he stupidly wrote: "I have a suspicion that much of the neocon skepticism about evolution is nothing more then a policy of sucking up to religious conservatives because of their support for Israel."