Computer scientist David Gelernter drinks the academic Kool-Aid, buys into intelligent design

May 17, 2019 • 10:15 am

David Gelenrter is a well known computer scientist at Yale, famous for his innovations in parallel computing, and is also a writer and artist. He’s a religious Jew, a conservative, and—as of two years ago—a denier of anthropogenic global warming, a view at odds with his scientific background.  In 1993 he was also badly injured in the hand and eye by a mail bomb sent by Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

That was a horrible thing to happen to him, but it can neither explain nor excuse Gelenrter’s science denialism, now manifested in an article in the Claremont Review of Books in which Gelernter tells us that Darwinian evolution is dead, and that Intelligent Design is the happening thing. (Click on screenshot below.)  The article is being trumpeted all over Intelligent Design websites, and I’m baffled as to how someone of Gelernter’s intelligence could buy into thinly disguised creationism. Could it be his religion? I’d call him a “useful idiot” for the ID people, except he’s not an idiot.

My only explanation involves paraphrasing Steven Weinberg: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have smart people doing smart things and stupid people doing stupid things. But for smart people to do stupid things, that takes religion.”

Read and weep:

Wikipedia describes the Claremont Review of Books like this:

A typical issue consists of several book reviews and a selection of essays on topics of conservatism and political philosophy, history, and literature. The New York Times described the journal as a “conservative, if eclectic, answer to The New York Review of Books.”

So it’s the National Review of book appraisal. But never mind: the content of Gelernter’s review is disturbing. He begins by telling us that Darwinian evolution is not only wrong, but dead:

Darwinian evolution is a brilliant and beautiful scientific theory. Once it was a daring guess. Today it is basic to the credo that defines the modern worldview. Accepting the theory as settled truth—no more subject to debate than the earth being round or the sky blue or force being mass times acceleration—certifies that you are devoutly orthodox in your scientific views; which in turn is an essential first step towards being taken seriously in any part of modern intellectual life. But what if Darwin was wrong?

Like so many others, I grew up with Darwin’s theory, and had always believed it was true. I had heard doubts over the years from well-informed, sometimes brilliant people, but I had my hands full cultivating my garden, and it was easier to let biology take care of itself. But in recent years, reading and discussion have shut that road down for good.

This is sad. It is no victory of any sort for religion. It is a defeat for human ingenuity. It means one less beautiful idea in our world, and one more hugely difficult and important problem back on mankind’s to-do list. But we each need to make our peace with the facts, and not try to make life on earth simpler than it really is.

Gelenrter then goes on to parrot the familiar tropes of ID, the most prominent being that the Cambrian Explosion could not have been caused by evolution because there are no credible ancestors of the evolved taxa and that the whole thing simply took place too fast to be explained by neo-Darwinian processes. Here he leans heavily on Stephen Meyer’s ID book Darwin’s Doubt, which, says Gelenrter, “convinced me that Darwin has failed.” Presumably Meyer thinks that the Great Designer poofed the Cambrian Explosion into being, although Gelernter may see that designer as Yahweh.

But Meyer’s book has been unanimously criticized by paleontologists as uninformed and tendentious, and, as I wrote before about it:

Those familiar with Meyer’s “theories” of ID, contained in his two books Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, will see them trotted out in the video below. I won’t waste time showing how they’ve been rebutted, but will just give you some links to read (you can see other criticisms in the Wikipedia entry for Meyer). Some good rebuttals of Meyer’s creationism can be found herehereherehereherehere, and here.

I’ll note two more scathing reviews of the book that Gelernter touts so highly: one by Charles Marshall and the other (a long review on Amazon) by Don Prothero.

Gelernter also falls for many other discredited claims of ID. One is his assertion that “random mutation plus natural selection” are not sufficient to create new protein shapes, which is equivalent to the claim that these processes are not sufficient to create new protein sequences. He commits the same fallacies as do other IDers: assuming there is a pre-specified target protein that must be reached, multiplying probabilities together to convert a starting “gibberish protein” into one folded like a specified target. (By the way, evolution doesn’t start with “gibberish proteins”.) The fact is that there aren’t pre-specified target proteins: all that’s required for evolution to work is that a mutation changes a gene (and its protein product) in a way that that new gene leaves more copies than do other genes. It’s incremental form of improvement, not a narrowing-in on a specific target—a target that may not be reached because another adaptive target was reached instead.

Finally, Gelernter shows his profound ignorance of biology by making the tired old claim that there may be microevolution (changes within “kinds,” whatever they are) but there’s no evidence for macroevolution. And by macroevolution he means not just the emergence of drastically different forms of organisms, but “the emergence of new species”. As he says, “The origin of species is exactly what Darwin cannot explain.”

Well, as I show in my book Speciation with Allen Orr, and in my popular book Why Evolution is True, we do have ample evidence for the origin of new species by evolutionary processes. We’ve even seen new species form within a human lifetime. (True, Darwin himself didn’t explain speciation because his species concept was wonky, but we’ve come a long way since then; we don’t need Darwin as a buttress for all evolutionary facts.)

And we also have evidence for really big macroevolution, for we have transitional forms between early fish and amphibians, between early amphibians and reptiles, between early reptiles and birds, between early reptiles and mammals, and, of course, between our early hairy and knuckle-walking ancestors and modern H. sapiens. We don’t know which genes were involved in most of these transitions, but that’s a red herring brandished by Gelernter. The fact is that we can see in the fossil record the gradual evolution of mammals from reptiles, and so on, showing that macroevolution did indeed take place. Does Gelernter think that the Designer was behind this macroevolution, producing the needed mutations at the right time? If that’s the case, why did the Designer screw up when making dinosaurs and a gazillion other species that went extinct because they didn’t get the right mutations?

At the end, Gelernter pulls back a bit and says that ID does have problems, including a lack of mechanism. He suggests his own mechanism, but it’s an unspecified form of teleology, one that, I suspect, goes by the name Yahweh:

If Meyer were invoking a single intervention by an intelligent designer at the invention of life, or of consciousness, or rationality, or self-aware consciousness, the idea might seem more natural. But then we still haven’t explained the Cambrian explosion. An intelligent designer who interferes repeatedly, on the other hand, poses an even harder problem of explaining why he chose to act when he did. Such a cause would necessarily have some sense of the big picture of life on earth. What was his strategy? How did he manage to back himself into so many corners, wasting energy on so many doomed organisms? Granted, they might each have contributed genes to our common stockpile—but could hardly have done so in the most efficient way. What was his purpose? And why did he do such an awfully slipshod job? Why are we so disease prone, heartbreak prone, and so on? An intelligent designer makes perfect sense in the abstract. The real challenge is how to fit this designer into life as we know it. Intelligent design might well be the ultimate answer. But as a theory, it would seem to have a long way to go.

. . . I might, myself, expect to find the answer in a phenomenon that acts as if it were a new and (thus far) unknown force or field associated with consciousness. I’d expect complex biochemistry to be consistently biased in the direction that leads closer to consciousness, as gravitation biases motion towards massive objects. I have no evidence for this idea. It’s just the way biology seems to work.

No, Dr. Gelernter, that’s not the way it “seems to work”. Maybe it does to you through your Old-Testament goggles, but there’s no evidence for a directionality, much less a teleology, in evolution.

So ID might not be the final answer, but, says Gelernter, evolution certainly isn’t, either:

[Stephen Meyer] now poses a final challenge. Whether biology will rise to this last one as well as it did to the first, when his theory upset every apple cart, remains to be seen. How cleanly and quickly can the field get over Darwin, and move on?—with due allowance for every Darwinist’s having to study all the evidence for himself? There is one of most important questions facing science in the 21st century.

I’ve pondered at great length how a man can be apparently as intelligent as Gelernter, yet so susceptible to the blandishments of Intelligent Design—and so ignorant of the evidence that refutes it. All I can think of is religion. I may certainly be wrong here, but there’s some mental block that the man has against evidence that has convinced nearly every biologist alive.

Gelenrter has no formal training in biology, and I suppose I could say he doesn’t have the credibility to even attack evolution (he does seem ignorant of the fossil record). But I hate to pull rank and use arguments based on authority. All I can say is that his ignorance is both woeful and harmful, and he is serving as a useful idiot-manqué for the Intelligent Design Creationist movement.

David Gelernter. (Source)

76 thoughts on “Computer scientist David Gelernter drinks the academic Kool-Aid, buys into intelligent design

  1. As Jerry makes clear, Gelernter’s article simply buys into Stephen Meyer’s arguments in Darwin’s Doubt, plus arguments by Douglas Axe. Gelernter is a well-known computer scientist. That would give him the background necessary to look into the mathematical arguments made by William Dembski and Robert Marks that purport to establish that a Design Intervention is needed to explain how biological organisms can achieve high fitnesses. I’ve looked into their arguments, and as far as I can see all those arguments actually don’t do the job. Gelernter has the skills to look into this, and defend those arguments, if they are at all defensible. And to do so comprehensibly, for a lay audience. He doesn’t do anything like that.

  2. I have two hypotheses to explain such a strange character. 1) He’s hooked on being controversial. I think it’s probably addictive to have people write angry reviews of you latest defiance of what’s considered current wisdom. 2) He’s autistic and helpless when it comes to taking an evenhanded perspective. Many high end math-types tend to be narrowly focused.

    1. Or maybe he’s a believer or a believer in belief. If there is a “science” that is less in touch with the natural world than computer science, I don’t know what it is.

      1. Less in touch might be pure math. But then, some of that gets pealed off every once in a while in areas like particle physics and cosmology. It doesn’t get any natural world than that.

  3. The Claremont Review is a publication for those conservatives who fancy themselves intellectuals. I sometimes read their articles to get the right wing perspective enunciated by non-lunatics. Some on this site may like a current article entitled “The Menace of Political Correctness” by Joseph Epstein. It seems to me that it has gotten more Trumpy over the last few years. Still, publication of an article attacking evolution means that Claremont has gone over the deep end. It has capitulated to the religious right.

  4. Why does a scientist make such claims and way outside his own field? Weinberg has the answer. Thanks for all the information on this story.

    1. I don’t think Gelernter is a physical scientist. “Computer scientist” is often just a title given to very (very) accomplished programmers.

      1. Ideally, “computer scientist” is one who practices the applied science (rather than the technologies) of computing. (Rarer, it *could* be someone who does the basic science of computing, i.e., the theory of computation, but …)

        1. My point is not so much about what computer science is, it’s that it isn’t physical (or natural) science.

      2. Yes, there seems to be an educational void in that department. Wikipedia says: Gelernter received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in classical Hebrew literature from Yale University in 1976 and his Ph.D. from S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook in 1982.

  5. It’s probably because the entire universe was created for David Gelertner. “All roads lead to Rome David Gelertner.”

    1. From what I’ve seen, that’s especially true when such people have developed illogical presuppositions early in life, around which they’ve gone on to erect a wall impermeable to reason and evidence.

  6. Intelligent design, climate-change denialism? It’s one thing to drink the kool-aid, man; it’s another to snort it straight outta the packet.

  7. You’d figure a computer scientist in particular would be intellectually suited to understand digital codes and math… I.e. DNA, genetics, reproduction, probability, statistics, time, scale, finite-resource-exhaustion, etc.

    1. But he does’t even try to understand whether the mathematical arguments against evolution are valid. In a discussion we have had at the Panda’s Thumb blog of Gelernter’s article, Neil Rickert pointed out to me that Gelernter has a 2014 article in Commentary (here) in which he argues that much of science is wrong because it isn’t holistic enough. So his latest article is more along those lines.

    2. Or just the background to avoid mindless combinatorics calculations. (Permutations and combinations are often taught as part of “discrete math” to computer science and software development/engineering sophomores!)

        1. I taught perms and combs (among other things) to 12th graders for a number of years. Not my favorite kind of math (that would be calculus), but worth being exposed to.

  8. Gelertner is a brilliant iconoclast who seems to like to question anything he considers “the orthodoxy.” Anything except his own orthodox religion. Strange.

        1. Dr Coyne, knowing German, will also have realised – but he did not mention it – that the name “Gelernter”, in German means capable, clever. Apparently this applies well to the author’s knowledge in his field. But not in biology, as we can learn from this interesting criticism.

    1. I am not aware of anything brilliant about him. An academic is just educated in their field, and that is about all there is to being an academic. Meanwhile he falls for ID and climate change denial. This is not a good sign.

      1. Gelernter is more than just educated in his field, he’s done some important original work in computer science.

        His inability to discern the fatal flaws in ID is truly curious.

    2. It happens that I met him many years ago (in a hotel dining room in U.K., 36 years ago). At least I think it was him. If it was him, the only insight I have from that is that the man does really like to hear himself talk and to be the center of attention.

  9. As with John Lennox, so here: computer programmers, like mathematicians, are not scientists. They are capable of highly abstracted thought, but those skills do not give them any headstart on the rest of us when it comes to the evidence-based reasoning that is at the heart of science.

    1. It’s true that some computer scientists would be better described as brilliant programmers. However, I believe Gelernter knows his theory. However, real computer science is more like mathematics than science. Similarly, programming is more like engineering than science. That all said, I don’t see how any of this should let Gelernter off the hook for his odd beliefs.

      1. It’s strange that the bogus information theory and “complex specified information” nonsense promoted by IDers (Dembski?) doesn’t raise red flags in Gelernter’s mind.

        1. Exactly, and that’s an example of what I was getting at in my earlier response: There’s a whole lot of mental faculties that a “computer science” person would have to ignore/deny to be so trapped in the ID quagmire.

          UNDOUBTEDLY Gerlernter is aware of the concept and application of “evolutionary algorithms”. He HAS to have thought about this stuff in these terms…

          In my view, DNA is a bridge between the natural and digital worlds. A purely digital code, running in the “machine” of physics and constrained only by incident matter and energy. Given billions of years, “just right” levels of energy, and abundant and diverse (but finite) habitat and material to work with, what exactly (aside from planetary-scale disaster) is there to STOP a “runaway DNA program”?

          Something is nipping his thought process in the bud… That thing is religion, and it’s FORCING him to “seek alternate routes.”

      2. Computer science also has roots in formal language theory. It could be considered 1/3 engineering, 1/3 mathematics and 1/3 linguistics. A strange discipline.

  10. So it’s the National Review of book appraisal.

    More like (an as-yet unmoribund) The Public Interest or Commentary of book appraisal, I’d say, but that’s probably puttin’ too fine a point on it.

  11. Here is a gem: ‘An intelligent designer makes perfect sense in the abstract.’

    Now that we have established that… 🙂

  12. “He commits the same fallacies as do other IDers: assuming there is a pre-specified target protein that must be reached…” In part this misconception can be blamed on Richard Dawkins’ “weasel”. In “The Blind Watchmaker” he popularized a model of evolution by selection in which a random string of letters was repeatedly jumbled, and variants selected by computer each time for closeness to the sequence “methinks it is like a weasel”. The string “evolved” in this way impressively quickly. This was a very fine demonstration of the power of selection. But it was indeed selection toward a pre-specified target sequence, thus bringing teleology into the whole process. Relatively sophisticated IDers have perhaps been misled by or glommed onto this misstep on Dawkins’ part.

    1. Judicious remark. But evolution can indeed be apparently teleologic – I would prefer directional. For example, as we have seen here, selection on a rail species landing on a small island would probably induce flightlessness.

    2. Jon, a small correction: the Weasel algorithm does not scramble the sequence of letters, it has them undergo mutations to other letters in the alphabet. Also, I don’t think that the Weasel simulation was a misstep. It was intended simply as a teaching example to refute those creationists who tell their audiences that biological evolution is change purely at random. It succeeded brilliantly at that — creationists have been obsessed with disproving it ever since. But it was never intended to address the issue of where biological information comes from. Creationists are always misstating what the Weasel was supposed to show, so that they can dismiss it.

  13. Now that the balance in the Supreme Court seems to be shifting, is there a Supreme Court ruling that creationists may want overturned? Or is the shift in balance not relevant to the creationism issue?

    1. Edwards v. Aguillard, in which SCOTUS struck down the teaching of “creation science” in Louisiana by a 7-2 margin, is the leading case. It was decided in 1987; there’s been a complete turnover in Court personnel since then.

    1. Trauma, maybe. But I think his educational background in Hebrew literature might also be at fault. I’m guessing he absorbed a lot of illogical ideas early on.

  14. From Gelernter’s Cleremont piece:

    When the Bible gives us two different versions of one story, it stands to reason that the facts on which they disagree are without basic religious significance. The facts on which they agree are the ones that matter …

    Now there’s an ipse dixit in search of some support, if ever a one I saw.

    Even the bellman in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark required that something be said thrice before it was accepted as true.

  15. I note that he mainly bases himself on the utterly debunked “Darwin’s Doubt”, by Mr Meyer.
    Apart from the many references of debunking by professionals Jerry gives, even non professional, but well informed, laymen have debunked it thoroughly (such a ‘Smilodon’s Retreat). Which means that you don’t even need to be an evolutionary biologist to see through Steve Meyer’s falsehoods, just a well informed layman.
    But Gelernter does not. He does not live up to his name (learned one), it seems.

  16. Gelernter again: “. . . I might, myself, expect to find the answer in a phenomenon that acts as if it were a new and (thus far) unknown force or field associated with consciousness.”

    Might wanna do a read through of Sean Carroll’s series of pieces “The Laws Underlying the Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood”, Dr. Gelernter. Were there a “force or field”-like phenomenon capable of having an effect upon “consciousness” (much less upon the development of life on this planet) we would have discovered it by now, at the Large Hadron Collider operated by CERN, if not even earlier.

  17. It’s strange, or perhaps a better description is telling, that critics of evolution refer to ‘Darwinism’ as a form of disparagement. I suspect it’s an attempt to associate evolutionary theory with something that is old, and was inevitably fairly immature and limited. When it comes to gravity, however, an analogous scientific phenomenon, nobody ever refers to ‘Newtonism’. Of course, denial of gravity is pretty loopy even for creationists.

    1. A term which refers to a person (Darwinism) rather than a theory (evolutionism or just evolution) attempts to make it about hero worship rather than science. We know these people are not above playing these games to gain advantage.

  18. I invite Gelenrter to assist me next time I have to treat an impaction colic, and then he can tell me whether he believes a horse’s gut was intelligently designed.

  19. I do not know why well credentialed people find it appropriate to pontificate in subject matter outside of their area of expertise. A paragon of this behavior is andrew hacker, an expert political scientist who a couple of years ago wrote the terribly misguided book, “The Math Myth”. In this book he showed a woeful ignorance of math, physics, and engineering including the critical and nuanced interrelationships between them often subsumed as the subject area of applied math. (A critical review of hacker’s book available from me on request). Because in part of hacker’s academic cred, and often with little or no real subject matter expertise themselves, math educators (k-12) might rely on his opinions to make new policy that would surely be detrimental to our children. On the other hand, a proper approach is provided by Lisa randell, a theoretical physicist, writing on a possible connection between between extinction events and dark matter concentrations, appears to have relied on jerry for evolutionary biology facts. She did not assume she knew things not in her areas of expertise.

    1. It is good in these days of narrow specialization when researchers can “go outside their lanes” and/or wildly speculate. However, they must expect scrutiny from those in in the other fields and be prepared to do battle. As you suggest, there’s a right way and a wrong way.

  20. I wonder if there’s a feeling that, ID being anti-atheism, that all religions have an obligation to get behind it. This setup would help the view that evolution is an ideology, in a battle with religion – another ideology.

  21. Based on what I can google, this article is about the full extent of Gelernter’s involvement with biology.

    He is first and foremost an ideas person, not a data person. His contribution to distributed programming in the 90’s and 2000’s was based on big ideas, not data. Most of it was useful at the time, but has gone by the wayside today.

    His is a useful kind of mind to have around, but he does not have the patience to appreciate science that is based on accumulated data. Evolution is almost entirely based on a very large collection of accumulated data, from fossils to DNA sequences. It’s really just not his kind of thing.

    It is a bit worrisome that he is being considered for science advisor to the president. Otherwise, though, it is fine with me if he wants to toss his big ideas into the ring. They won’t be much use in biology, but he may yet have another good idea on some subject.

    1. Exactly. He is the kind of guy with many big ideas but doesn’t work out whether they entirely make sense. As someone once said, ideas are easy, execution is hard.

      I thought Trump already has a science advisor.

  22. “I’d call him a “useful idiot” for the ID people, except he’s not an idiot”
    I’m in no way in a position to call him that, a “useful idiot” and it hasn’t stopped me in the past but when you forfeit your own intelligence for religion, you’re an idiot by design.

  23. I thought that maybe Gerlenter is bucking for a Templeton prize, but Templeton is about the compatibility of science and religion, and Gerlenter seems to be implying that the evolutionary sciences are not even wrong.

  24. If one is going to promote the idea of an intelligent designer it would help a bit if the design were actually intelligent. So as counter evidence I give you the epiglottis, the prostate gland and its siting, the nerve in the neck of the giraffe. I am sure anyone who has the slightest knowledge of physiology can think of many more examples. But then physiology wasn’t on the curriculum when I took a Computer Science major.

  25. Ignore any academic, qua academic, with 35 years at a rich famous university having a low rating in his general subject, with only one successful Ph.D. student ever, from decades ago, and with apparently not a single publication this century in his field. A mini-nova 35 years ago which faded fast to obscurity, as articles, e.g. recommending Trump, in Wall Street Journal, became the center of his ‘intellectual life’, once tenure was obtained.

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