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David Berlinski

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David Berlinski is an American philosopher and intelligent design advocate. He is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.[1] He has also written on mathematics, including a rather well-received introduction to calculus, though his books “Newton's Gift” and “The Advent of the Algorithm”, his only two books to be reviewed on MathSciNet, were criticized for containing historical and mathematical inaccuracies. It is worth noting that his books on mathematics are popular books. Although often referred to as a “mathematician”, Berlinski has done no research in mathematics.[2] He has also written several books of fiction - cynics would probably claim that he’s written more of these than he thinks - and has a PhD in philosophy from Princeton University.

He claims to be a secular Jew and agnostic, and denies that he is an advocate of intelligent design but rather claims to be a skeptic on the matter of evolution. However, his articles and books are filled with religiously-based creationist arguments.[3] Although he officially refuses to speculate about the origins of life, critics argue that he is pretty obviously a shill for intelligent design.[4] Berlinski is a signatory to A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.

Intelligent Design[edit]

In his 1996 article “The Deniable Darwin”, Berlinski lays out several reasons for his skepticism of evolution,[5]. These include

  • the appearance “at once” of an astonishing number of novel biological structures in the Cambrian explosion, to which Wesley Elsberry commented that “I personally like my 'at onces' to refer to events significantly shorter than ten million years.”
  • the lack of major transitional fossils and transitional sequences
  • the lack of recent significant evolution in sharks
  • the evolution of the eye, and (in his view)
  • the failure of evolutionary biology to explain a range of phenomena ranging from the sexual cannibalism of redback spiders to why women are not born with a tail. As Arthur Shapiro points out, Berlinski “wants evolutionary biologists to explain from first principles why one species of widow spider commits sexual suicide while another does not,” knowing perfectly well that “the chain of causes is too long, with too many opportunities for historical contingency to operate, for anyone with less than the omniscience of the deity to do that.”

The article elicited a number of responses from real scientists,[6] and was described by Daniel Dennett as “another hilarious demonstration that you can publish bullshit at will – just so long as you say what an editorial board wants to hear in a style it favors.” Eugenie Scott described Berlinski's arguments thus:

The content of David Berlinski's article does not differ from more traditional creation-science material, though his tone is more genteel and his writing a lot more literate […] But true to the creation-science genre, his approach consists of constructing strawmen, then knocking them down with misinterpreted, faulty, or nonexistent data as well as carefully selected quotations from evolutionary scientists.

In his appearance in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed he told Ben Stein that “Darwinism is not a sufficient condition for a phenomenon like Nazism but I think it's certainly a necessary one,” apparently because race-based genocide had never happened before The Origin of Species, which was, by the way, banned in Nazi Germany.

Berlinski, along with fellow Discovery Institute associates Michael Behe and William Dembski, tutored Ann Coulter on “science and evolution” for her book “Godless: The Church of Liberalism.” According to the credit section: “I couldn't have written about evolution without the generous tutoring of Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and William Dembski, all of whom are fabulous at translating complex ideas, unlike liberal arts types, who constantly force me to the dictionary to relearn the meaning of quotidian.” Of course, Coulter was in absolutely no position to write about science after their tutelage either.[7]

One of Berlinski’s main argument strategies is to name-drop people, in particular mathematicians, who were allegedly skeptical of evolution.[8] He is rarely able to document any skepticism of evolution from the people he mentions, but claims to have heard about their skepticism from his friends, who may have met some of them.

PZ Myers has summed up Berlinski as a bad case of delusional narcissism.[9]

The enumerative “cows cannot evolve into whales” argument[edit]

One of Berlinski’s most celebrated anti-evolution arguments is his calculation that at least 50,000 changes were required to change a cow into a whale (he stopped counting). Of course, since even if he was capable of listing out these differences at an implausibly fast average rate of one every ten seconds, it would still take more than 5 days of non-stop 24h-hour activity to accomplish this, few believe that he actually did what he claimed to have done.[10] Berlinski does not, of course, know anything about the evolution of whales, missing such rather central details as the fact that cows did not evolve into whales.[11]

Anti-evolution books by David Berlinski[edit]

  • The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky (2003), which compares astrological and evolutionary accounts of human behavior.
  • The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions (2008), which is a defense of religion asserting that atheists misrepresent science, that an objective morality requires a religious foundation, that mathematical theories attempting to bring together quantum mechanics and relativity amount to pseudoscience, and that evolutionary theory is doubtful. It's filled with ad hominems and strawman arguments, without even a single citation.
  • Deniable Darwin & Other Essays (2009)

References[edit]

  1. David Berlinski, Senior Fellow - CSC
  2. Mark Perakh, “The assault of ID advocates on Professor Gross's essay is poorly substantiated,” part of Scientists Respond to the Orchestrated Assault of IDists on Professor Gross, December 4, 2003.
  3. Denying Darwin
  4. Ronald Numbers (1998). Darwinism Comes to America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 20
  5. Berlinski (1996), the article in pdf version.
  6. Letters from Readers in response to “Denying Darwin”].
  7. She called the theory of evolution "the flatulent raccoon theory", and failed to exhibit even the most cursory understanding of it. Some of her points are discussed in this post, Pharyngula, post from June 18, 2006.
  8. Good math, Bad math, Post from November 9, 2009
  9. Pharyngula, Blogpost from July 3, 2007
  10. The Bad Idea Blog, post from August 29, 2007
  11. Sandwalk, Post from August, 2007.