Friday, August 02, 2019

David Gelernter Makes a Fool of Himself Again

As academics age, some of them get cranky. I don't mean "cranky" in the sense of ill-tempered, although that's also true. I mean "cranky" in the sense of "being a crank", that is, being "a person who is obsessed by fringe ideas and beliefs". I've written about this before.

Some of them become 9/11-truthers. Some of them get cranky about anthropogenic global warming. One became cranky on the subject of Turing's proof of unsolvability of the halting problem.

One of the most popular crank topics is evolution, and that's the subject of today's blog. Yes, it's David Gelernter again. Prof. Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale, recently wrote a review for the far-right Claremont Review of Books entitled "Giving up Darwin". All the warning signs are there:

  • Gelernter is not a biologist and (to the best of my knowledge) has no advanced formal training in biology. That's typical: the crank rarely gets cranky in subjects of his own competence. (I say "his" because cranks are almost always male.)
  • Gelernter has basically done almost nothing in his own field for the last 20 years (according to DBLP, he's published only two papers in CS since 1998). That's also typical: intellectually-fulfilled academics are usually happy to contribute more to their own fields of competence, and don't have the time for bizarre detours into other fields.
  • Gelernter is also a devout theist, and has written books praising the wisdom of his particular religious sect. Nearly all the intellectual opposition to evolution comes from theists, who "find in the theory of evolution a disturbing and mysterious challenge to their values" (to quote Anthony West).
  • Gelernter pals around with other anti-evolution cranks, like Stephen Meyer and David Berlinski.
  • Gelernter, like most anti-evolutionists, is politically conservative and is obsessed with what he feels are the intellectual failings of liberals.
  • Gelernter's review was not published in a science journal, but in a politics journal run by a far-right think tank.
  • His review cites no scientific publications at all, and makes claims like "Many biologists agree" and "Most biologists think" without giving any supporting citations.
So, not surprisingly, the porcine Gelernter makes a fool of himself in his review, which resembles a "greatest hits" of creationist misconceptions and lies:
  • In the Cambrian explosion "a striking variety of new organisms—including the first-ever animals—pop up suddenly in the fossil record". Debunked here.
  • "most species enter the evolutionary order fully formed and then depart unchanged". What could it possibly mean for a species to appear not "fully formed"?
  • "no predecessors to the celebrity organisms of the Cambrian explosion": actually, some believe the Ediacaran biota were some of the ancestors of those of the Cambrian explosion, but you won't find the word "Ediacaran" anywhere in Gelernter's review.
  • the 10-77 figure of creationist Doug Axe for the improbability of obtaining a stable protein (Debunked here.)
  • the false claims of Stephen Meyer about "functionally specified digital information" (debunked here and here, among other places)
And there are lots of other problems in the review. Gelernter shows no sign of having read about, much less understood, basic facets of modern evolutionary biology, such as evo-devo and gene duplication, which are critical to understanding how it works.

Altogether, yet another embarrassing performance for Prof. Gelernter. And a cautionary note for aging professors: before you start attacking another field, make a little more effort learning about it. Unless you enjoy being a crank.


Gerry Myerson said...

"the porcine Gelernter"? Name-calling does nothing to strengthen your case. And, considering the man's religious beliefs, this particular epithet strikes me as highly inappropriate. The essay would be better without it.

jwaltos said...

Cranks are ubiquitous and their motivations categorize them. Recognizing a nascent crank is difficult. I was in New York in the mid 70's and Giuliani transformed he seems transformed. Here is a link which underscores this blog and the associated one on Hehner:

JimV said...

Re the 10^-77 calculation, it seems analogous to me to the (as I understand it) rough hand-calculation by an engineer of wing-lift-area vs. weight of a bumblebee which in popular legend convinced some people that bumblebee flight was impossible. That is, the most likely conclusion from such a calculation should be that you don't fully understand the process you are trying to model, not that some magic is keeping the bumblebee aloft.

I know that some people have the preconception that magic exists and are only trying to find evidence for it (so they stop when they think they have found some and don't look for alternate explanations or flaws), but from a broader perspective, it seems to me that their Intelligent Designer either works the way human design and intelligence works (by trial and error, so it has to check most of 10^77 possibilities--if that was the correct number, which it isn't--to find a successful protein), or by some unknown, un-demonstrated method which produces the desired effects with a snap of its infinity glove. In the former case, it is functionally equivalent to biological evolution but with unnecessary additional assumptions. In the latter case, why did it make DNA so susceptible to mutations and so many of them non-productive?

That is, if you assume there are only 1 in 10^77 ways to mutate a protein successfully, before assigning this as evidence for an ID, you also have to answer why the ID designed things this way, and at least add some epicycles to your hypothesis.

So although I am not a biologist, I was very confident that the 10^-77 number was wrong. Because the bumblebee does fly, and so does the evidence for biological evolution.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Gerry: It's a running joke, somewhat akin to the "wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky" used by Calvin Trillin.

William Oughtred said...


It seems that every time I see your name come up, you are spitting your disdain at someone. I am wondering, have you ever (ever) actually addressed the inference you rail against in its strong form, or do you always use your priors commitments to protect yourself from science?

As an example, it is a matter of recorded scientific history that a quiescent description (separate from construction) was famously predicted to be at the very core of any self-replicating organism with evolutionary potential. This would simultaneously require a set of physical constraints to establish the description and a dissipative process that would cause the description to be read and successfully actualized. In turn, this is exactly what was found by Crick, Watson, Brenner, Hoagland, Zamecnik, etc., etc. These are recorded historical facts that cannot be rationally denied by anyone, regardless of their prior beliefs.

Why is it that you never actually deal head-on with the empirical observations and recorded history at hand? Have you ever acquainted yourself with the actual physical conditions required of such systems? Those condition are well documented in the scientific literature. Do you have any idea whatsoever what they are? In other words, is it simply enough, in your case, to be a 60 year old mathematician with a history of clever one-liners, transparent maneuvers, and an overflowing bucket of spittle?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thanks for your support, William Oughtred! I am glad my blog is such a source of delight for you.

jwaltos said...

"LOL" regarding the last two entries..

Was Oliver Heaviside a crank? I've tried to reconcile certain belief systems and rationality (such as Euler and Calvinism, Ramanujan and Namagiri) relative to culture, neurophysiology and psychology (ie. Einstein's brain). Stretching the point, are some forms of Autism construed as crankishness?

MSEE said...

What most laypersons have is common sense, and this is why the vast majority of the population worldwide reject Darwinian Evolution (Darwinism) aka neo-Darwinism aka the modern synthesis, no matter how many band-aids have been applied to it from population genetics or whatever else. No many how many times the word "debunked" is fired off, people find the theory and its metaphysical assumptions incredible. For example no amount of "debunking" will work to explain this necessarily historical science when it comes to metamorphosis and how that came into being by slight modification and selective advantage as pronounced by the figurehead himself:

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.”

The man I guess used the term "organ" as an out for this conundrum where in the case of metamorphosis, whatever "organ" orchestrates this astonishing, mind boggling, complex phenomenon has not been identified and so there's no problem hee hee.

And then you get shoddy logic, like right in the title of the supposed "debunk" going like this: "Why Metamorphosis Does Not Disprove Evolution" { } without even getting the joke that what they offer is certainly no proof itself because as said before this is a historical science, akin to sociology and as such is unfalsifiable. As is the converse: any refutation of Darwinian evolution is unfalsifiable.

So that is the conundrum for Darwinian Evolution: astounding violations of its own tenets (just where is that organ?) together with violations of common sense (i.e. a Darwinian styled partially formed metamorphosis destroys the organism) that any adult can understand. And the media/academia priesthood will not (at least publicly).

And so all those "debunks" end up looking like special pleading.

And that doesn't even begin to explore the common sense violations of the metaphysical assumptions built into the theory. Which of many, one of which is the so-called "purposelessness" of life and the world. If those working in the field took the metaphysics dead seriously then a big time biologist could do an experiment: (s)he could tell all the lab workers employed: "Hey what we do has no purpose, therefore no meaning, therefore none of you mean s___ to me." Then see how much quality work gets done that day until an apology hopefully comes.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Your "argument" (I am using the term generously) seems to be that any theory that contradicts "common sense" must be wrong.

"Common sense" contradicts the theory that the earth is not flat. "Common sense" contradicts quantum mechanics.

So I assume you don't believe either of those, either. Sad.

Actually, to those who have studied evolution, the theory becomes more and more compelling the more you know about it. As James Watson once said, "evolution is an accepted fact for everyone but a fundamentalist minority, whose objections are not based on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles."

JimV said...

What the average layperson has is an IQ of 100, which while fine for most daily activities, will not get them through a calculus class (and only through an algebra class with some difficulty) so there are many things they will never understand, including the Theory of Evolution.

Evolution does not explain specifically how metamorphosis developed (although most life starts with a metamorphosis, from egg to adult, so that a second metamorphosis could occur is not a miracle), just as statistics does not explain specifically how you got heads, tails, tails, tails, heads in a series of coin-flips. Rather it explains how trial and error can search through possible results and promote those which contribute to survival and reproduction. A second metamorphosis turns out to be a possible result which confers some advantages. I suppose this is surprising to those of us who do not undergo a second metamorphosis, but the universe does not care about what surprises us. It should make us humble that the universe is bigger and more varied that we could have conceived of, but instead some prefer to think that magic, which no one could understand so no one's intellect is at fault, must be responsible.

Unknown said...

Electrical engineer... no surprises there (MSEE).