I don’t often strive to be snarky, but I can’t resist saying this: if you look up “pomposity” in the dictionary, you’ll find it illustrated with a picture of David Berlinski. Trained in philosophy, biology, and mathematics, Berlinski has debased his formidable mind and uncommon eloquence by putting them into the service of creationism. For Berlinski is a Senior Fellow of the creationist Discovery Institute, which is touting this 41-minute interview by Peter Robinson (sponsored by the conservative Hoover Institution) as some kind of intellectual tour de force.
Discovery Institute flack David Klinghoffer jumped the shark by asserting that “it would be hard to think of a living person more interesting than our Discovery Institute colleague David Berlinski.” That merely shows the limitation of Klinghoffer’s imagination—or perhaps the narrow scope of his knowledge.
But this interview isn’t a tour de force. It is a rehash, in fancy language, of all the talking points of intelligent design as well as the usual atheist-bashing tropes. Here you’ll find questioning of evolution because we don’t know how life began, the supposed problem of “irreducible complexity,” the claim that the episodic and jerky fossil record somehow disproves evolutionary theory, and the Stephen Meyer-ian argument that the Cambrian explosion disproves evolution. The last contention—as well as Berlinski’s assertion that “human powers and capacities” are so unique, and so “one-off,” that they must be explained by something other than natural selection—puzzles me, for the usual alternative explanation is God. Yet Berlinski says he’s a nonbeliever—a “secular Jew” like me. I read his 2008 book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, and found it infuriatingly assertive yet shallow.
One wonders why, if he’s a “secular Jew” yet doesn’t like atheism, what on Earth made Berlinski, the son of Jews, into a secular Jew. When I give talks that connect religion with creationism (a no-brainer except to rarified theologians), I often say that I know of only one evolution denialist who isn’t religious: David Berlinski. You can see Berlinski discuss atheism and his own agnosticism in the last five minutes of this interview.
Berlinski won’t assume the mantle of “atheist,” for he dislikes atheism, but his whole schtick is to cast doubt on everything (even intelligent design) while not proposing any theories of his own. Thus he says he’s an “agnostic”: the coward’s way out of the question of faith. (Is Berlinski an agnostic about leprechauns as well?) This modus operandus gives him a leg up on almost everybody, for he gets to pick holes in arguments—in the case of evolution, nonexistent holes—without floating any positive assertions about why life is here and why it’s like it is. Combine that with a William Buckley-an tendency to pontificate, snoot in the air, using fancy phrases and intellectual language, and you get a guy who’s managed to bamboozle a lot of people without making a positive contribution to intellectual discourse.
I was told that this wasn’t always the case. Before he jumped the rails, Berlinski wrote at least four books on science and math, including A Tour of the Calculus, which many regard highly (I haven’t read it). What a comedown that he’s spending his dotage throwing mud on one of the best-established theories in science. As H. L. Mencken wrote in his brilliant obituary of William Jennings Bryan, “He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. He was passing out a poor mountebank.”