My Quillette piece criticizing the anti-evolution arguments of David Gelernter

September 9, 2019 • 2:02 pm

I’m off to have my post-operation inspection at the hospital, so I don’t have time now to write about my new piece in Quillette. The article pretty much stands on its own as a critique of a recent (and widely cited) article by well known computer scientist David Gelernter—a piece that recycled many familiar Intelligent Design arguments. And it wasn’t even wrong, as virtually every claim he makes in the service of dissing Darwinism is flawed.  Click on the screenshot to read it, and I’ll write a bit more about it tomorrow.

88 thoughts on “My Quillette piece criticizing the anti-evolution arguments of David Gelernter

      1. Do the expedition medics count your fillings too?
        When I was trying for the South with the BAS back in the 1980s, they were quite chary about people with too many metal fillings. In the cold air, the fillings could split teeth, or work loose. And a dental medivac from Antarctica is a major cost and logistics issue. It wasn’t a solid ban – for the right person with the wrong teeth, they’d pay a dentist to replace metal fillings with expansion-matched ceramic ones – but it was a significant consideration.

        1. From a post a year ago I gather JAC was looking forward to lecturing this year on a cruise to Antarctica [& the Falkland Islands]. JAC has done cruise lectures before, but not that far south as I understand it. Or JAC found a gig in actual Antarctica too on the Peninsular or something.

          1. Oh I know about the Antarctic gig, and I’m sure their requirements are much less strict than the BAS. For a start, they’ll be doing a “touch’n’go”, rather than an over-winter or two, back to back.
            Well, the main plan doesn’t include an over-winter. Probably. The over-winter plans probably don’t come in until the 3rd or 4th back-up. Or, if the boat does multiple rounds (to/ from Puerto Maldonado, or some such catalogue of delights), not until the 3rd or 4th round of the season.
            Jeanne d’Arc Basin (better known as the “Grand Banks”) was hard enough on the fall-back provisions, but dropping two wildcats into the Greenland-Canada strait made that look like a walk in the (national) park. The back-somersaults you have to go through, in quintuple, for taking tonnes of diesel and paying passengers into Antarctica make me cringe.
            Cruising twice through the Drake passage is going to be “interesting times” enough for most people.

    1. Agreed. Very thorough and on message and targeting the arguments put forward

      And even still the first and only comment is
      “People who hate ID can always be relied upon to shoot messengers, which is most of what this article spends its time on, but at the end of the day, it’s the only plausible theory in the world right now.”

      None so blind eh

      1. There seems to be some new kind of commenting system up at Quillette so there’s no ‘reply’ option, otherwise I’d have said something in response to the toffee-nosed creationist bullshitting of the first commenter.

        After a decade of reading evolution posts online it’s become quite easy to spot people who are bluffing, and Quillette is absolutely full of them.

        1. Let me know if you manage to “get an invite from an existing member”. Don’t know how t go about that. Some mad creationist is dominating the comments.

          1. Their message is a bit mixed on this. One place says you need to be invited by a member but another says you will gain access after donating and after review by a moderator. I just donated a little while ago and I’m waiting for my login credentials. I’m fully prepared for the circle to be empty.

            1. Ok, so you need to ‘donate’ first?

              I thought Quillette was a bastion of freethought?

              I’m not going to join any website that passive-aggressively forces me to ‘donate’ to it before I can comment, never mind a right-wing echo chamber like Quillette.

              1. “… right-wing echo chamber like Quillette”

                Really? Our host has written articles for Quillette. I can’t disagree more with this assessment. Or was this just sarcasm?

              2. No sarcasm. I’ve said it before; the quality of the articles isn’t the problem I personally have with it, they tend to be well-written, and Jerry’s are excellent. It’s the fact that pretty much all the political articles skew in one way in terms of the issues they address, ie. criticism of the left, of political correctness and of ‘SJWs’.

                The extent of its criticism of conservatism, right-wing populism, the alt-right, Trump, fascism – anything like that – is minuscule. It barely ever comes up. So it ends up being an echo-chamber. A good quality echo chamber is still an echo chamber.

              3. I disagree. Quillette’s lack of “criticism of conservatism, right-wing populism, the alt-right, Trump, fascism” is for the same reasons our host avoids (mostly) these topics. They are well covered elsewhere and there’s a more important job to do. Thinking members of the Left need to fight against the less rational elements of our own side. This is where Quillette starts and ends. You can see this by its editor and founder’s tweets.

              4. I’m not particularly interested in _why_ it ignores an entire, incredibly damaging swathe of the political spectrum, I’m interested in the fact that it does.

                And WEIT is one person, PCC has his own opinions about what is the most important avenue of attack. I understand that.

                Quillette OTOH is made up of hundreds of different writers, almost all of whom write about the same topic. Time after time it’s the same left-wing target, in spite of the huge number of different contributors.

                I also disagree that there’s a more important job to do. I do not consider the illiberal left and their obnoxious Tweets and deplatforming, and asshole identity politics, to be anywhere near as important as the suborning of democratic processes everywhere across the western world by right-wing populists.

                And the fact that criticism of the right is covered elsewhere isn’t an excuse either: the same argument applies to criticism of the left. There are veritable cottage industries – conservative websites and YouTube channels – that do nothing but aggregate stories about idiotic behaviour on the left, all day and all night. There are plenty of long-established, respected right-wing publications that do the same too.

                Finally, I see no reason why a website that has hundreds of different contributors shouldn’t at least be able to critique both sides.

                FYI, I’m not saying anyone who reads it is a baby-eating Nazi. I read it every now and then, and like I said some of the articles are by people I respect greatly. If I were in a less bullish mood I’d pick and choose the articles I like and dip into it every now and then. But it’s still an echo chamber, and I definitely won’t pay for the privilege of commenting there.

    2. Unlike the comment at Quillette to PCC(E)’s rebuttal. I can only guess that jdfree49 ignored everything PCC(E) wrote that he didn’t understand.

  1. Thank you Dr. Coyne! As is usually the case for me, a layman biology enthusiast, the clarity of PCC(E)’s explanations hit home. Please humour me while I make one tiny, nit-picky remark: Instead of calling Gertener(sp(?)) a garden variety creationist, perhaps he’s more of a weed patch creationist.

  2. There is a discussion on Youtube between Gelernter, Meyers and Belinski upon the impossibility of complex proteins developing by chance… and it is so interesting how the three pretend to be dispassionate scientists drawn to the inevitable conclusions of I D.
    Gelernter even evokes the monkeys and typewriters story. But what he doesn’t draw from the monkeys story is that words either have a popular currency, or they are nonsense. If a monkey accidently types the word duck, it has immediate practical usefulness, and is recognised, and therefore is influential in the real world. In the same way that the development of proteins and amino acids throw up stable intermediate states which have utility somewhere. And so their whole discussion is another howler comparable to that made my astronomer that life is akin to a tempest blowing through a junkyard making an airplane.

    1. In case we hoped it would be otherwise, then here we know that Galernter (not an easy name!)is as lost and clueless as the rest. No argument. No evidence. No amount of holding up transitional form fossils or education about evolutionary genetics will persuade him. This cake is burned.

      1. Gelernter. I keep thinking his name is a real word spelled backwards or something. Like if I record it then play it in reverse it’ll unleash the devil.

  3. But as we have built up an increasingly detailed picture of early life by unearthing more fossils from the Precambrian, even the concept of an explosion is disappearing, with paleontologists increasingly speaking of a “Cambrian diversification.”

    The Cambrian explosion, the Central Dogma, the selfish gene, the survival of the fittest (making people think of strongest & most aggressive instead of best suited to a habitat)… I wonder how much trouble could have been a voided if different terminology had have been used!

    1. On the Central Dogma, you can’t deny the wit, and selfish gene is an excellent term if you actually understand it. Survival of the fittest? Yeah, that one was trouble from the start, requiring people to rethink a word they thought they knew.

      1. Oh- I should have made it clear that I didn’t mean to criticise those who coined the terms, rather the vast squadrons of philosophers and creationists who didn’t bother reading beyond the title. And the randomness of it all. If natural selection had been called the God of Nature’s choice, Christians would all have become ardent Darwinists, like they all love Einstein for saying God doesn’t play dice.

  4. Great article Jerry. I could follow it pretty well, even though my knowledge of evolution is only what I’ve gleaned from WEIT, and Dawkins’ GSOE.

  5. All very good (well, Jerry, not Gelernter so much).
    On the mutations effecting development, there are many comparisons between species that show that one can have mutations of such genes without being fatal. Genes have a rather modular build to them, so there are mutations that effect one aspect of gene function without effecting other aspects of function. A good area for this lies in the regulatory regions of DNA that control expression of genes. Mutations in this region can alter rather specific details of gene expression without changing other features of expression. And since the mutation occurred at a regulatory region and not the coding region, the protein product that is made is not changed.
    But this is really undergraduate biology student stuff. Well outside of his pay grade, sad to say.

    1. Yup, you’re right about undergraduate biology stuff being above others’ pay grades, and you use that as your “out” and talk down to others, as though we’re all supposed to bow down to you super-educated dolts. So, in my “un-educated” mind, let me see if I have this right. The big bang was an explosion of – what, again? And then, out of the primordial ooze slithered something onto the land and it “evolved” into whatever you scientists describe into all the iterations of man. You know what? That’s much harder to believe-in than God literally speaking the universe into existence and then following the steps as laid out in the Bible. But then, you – arrogant man – would have to acknowledge that you aren’t God. and therein lies the rub.

      1. Look, I never referred to him or anyone as being un-educated. That is a step too far. But I did not address your concern in my short comment, so here goes.
        I will have conversations with people who earnestly believe in literal interpretations from the Bible. They will likely also think that scientists somehow have it all wrong regarding the age of the universe or the age of the earth, or the nature of evolution. I would describe them (at first) as not as being dumb, but as being ignorant. That term may seem harsh, but it is simply direct. I freely (and happily) admit ignorance on how to fly a plane, so I would not presume to tell the pilot they are doing it wrong. I am ignorant about the Pelapenesian war. So you won’t hear from me a word or opinion on it.

        I have to leave it at that as I am called to dinner.
        Others may insert their opinions.

        1. Think that’s the “Peloponnesian” War, Mark. But you may as well be Thucydides compared to how little Mr. Squillante seems to know regarding evolutionary biology. 🙂

      2. Fred, your shiny new WordPress, The Harlot of Revelation is partly a platform for the book you’re “presently having published** (launch date not yet set)” & I suppose you’re trawling websites to drum up some interest, or just to have a go at us sinners.

        You’ll not convert anybody here by not addressing Mark’s specific points & referring to our type as “super-educated dolts”. Mark is not the “arrogant man” – it is you.

        Your 15 year old [or more] tiresome something-can’t-come-from-nothing argument will not wash here.

        ** Self published LOL e-book on Amazon perhaps?

      3. there are general levels of complexity to understanding material. It is analogous to the martial arts ranking by use of belts :

        … that article draws the opposite analogy – that the colored belt system of martial arts is like university degrees.

        however, unlike martial arts, those who are interested have access to enormous amounts of material and pursue their interest on their own, without having earned any degree. That is one thing – pointing to a level of complexity by using a university rank system is another.

        I don’t see anything personal here.

      4. Oh sweet Jebus, a creationist snuck in, and a rude one, too!

        There is no helping someone like this. Primordial ooze indeed–Mr. Squillante is stuck in 1920s creationism.

        Bye, rude man. Doesn’t your faith teach you to be nice?

      5. ‘The big bang was an explosion…’

        The Standard Model of Cosmology (Big Bang Model) is an essentially classical theory that is used to retrodict the properties of spacetime. Being classical, it does not apply in regions (Planck scale) where the quantum effects are significant. The matter in the current universe was there in the early universe. The Standard Model represents an expanding universe; a universe that was very small, dense, and hot about 13.8 billion years ago.

        Without a reliable theory of quantum gravity it is difficult to pose questions about the state of the universe ‘before’ the expansion as described in the Standard Model.

        That some people find Creation more plausible than the Standard Model of Cosmology is neither here nor there.

      6. “That’s much harder to believe-in than God”.
        Here’s how science works – it doesn’t look for the “easy to believe in” answers. It does all the hard stuff like gathering evidence, hypotheses testing etc, etc.
        Most of the “easy to believe in” stuff has been completely wrong.

      7. ‘Fred V Squillante’?

        Ok, so who won? Fred or Squillante? And why were they fighting in the first place? Is it a ‘Spy Vs Spy’ kind of thing?

  6. There is no end when you start down this road: how about “most favoured races”? And in cosmological origins, the Big Bang (which wasn’t such), and worst of all, the “god particle”.

    1. It could have been worse. Imagine if electricity had have been called Lucifericity or something. It would have been banned in most countries for fear of invoking el diablo.

        1. I remembered that from from my esoteric training, but come to think of it, according to Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy (the white supremacist version of Theosophy), it’s the ancient Persian deity Ahriman who is in charge of electricity, not Lucifer. My bad!

  7. What I want to know is, how can an obviously very bright guy with scientific training (Gelernter) put out such drivel? I’m sure he knows better.

    1. He is a computer scientist. At Yale, admittedly, but still its possible to be very educated (and I suppose bright) in one area while being poorly educated in others. But then the Dunning-Kruger effect kicks in and voila’! This article. We know for example how physicists can go online, wave around their credentials, and then make a total hash out of basic biology.

      1. Look at William Dembski. By all accounts a decent mathematician before he went down that road.

        And of course it’s a selection effect: the only ID advocates who get famous are the ones who have CVs of sufficient credibility that their creationist followers can highlight them at every opportunity when parroting their arguments.

        1. Look no further than Ben Carson, educated at Yale and the University of Michigan med school, and an acclaimed surgeon at Johns Hopkins, but by all appearances pig-ignorant regarding every other topic upon which he ventures to open his mouth, including the workings of the Department of Housing and Urban Development over which he serves as Donald Trump’s cabinet Secretary.

    2. By the accounts I have seen, he did some good computer stuff in the 90’s, then got tenure, and hasn’t don’t anything useful since. The stuff he did back then helped get the ball rolling back then, but is irrelevant today.

      The ID route is appealing because you don’t have to study much or do any real work, and you get to sit in a comfy armchair and pontificate.

  8. Nicely done. For an honest-to-modern-synthesis expert such as you, this must’ve seemed like shooting muscle-clad cnidarians in a pre-Cambrian puddle.

  9. Don’t you get macroevolution when two populations stop breeding with each other long enough? [Whether due to geographical factors or just because they decide the other population is ugly. . .]

    Eventually you get enough divergence that even if they come back together, its hybridization at that point (like with early humans and other hominid).

  10. PCC(E) must get a bit fed up with having to make these very straightforward points over and over again. The responses of the nutjob creationist in the comments shows that some people are impervious to evidence, reason and argument. Plenty more are prepared to listen and understand, however, and the article itself will of course be available to be cited and copied for at least as long as Quillette continues to exist. Many thanks Jerry.

  11. A very thorough, yet civil, take down. Will any IDers read it? I’d like to see someone try a rebuttal. Maybe on Quillette? I didn’t look at any comments there.

    I had a chuckle when I saw that your contact information gave your tw*tter handle to follow you. Don’t think that’s very good advice knowing how little you use the platform.

  12. Good article. The first comment by jdfree49 demonstrates another common misconception about macroevolution.

    It claims that for a legless animal species to evolve into one with legs, a mutation would have to occur in which an individual had at least tiny legs. First, such a mutation is hard to believe as it is sort of just-so mutation. Second, the commenter claims that this creature would not be advantageously selected as it would be less fit than its legless competitors.

    This is all so wrong that I wish someone could give them a firm, learned response. I would have commented but I’m probably not the best one for the task and it won’t let me as I don’t belong to the “Quillette Circle”. I think I have to pay or perhaps be invited by some other member.

    1. Jebus, did the guy never hear of Tiktaalik???
      Limbs evolved from fins!

      It is this kind of confident ignorance that really riles me up. And it’s why I rarely read comments and never respond to them except on this site.

      1. Jebus, did the guy never hear of Tiktaalik???

        If the Good Lard were a betting ham, he’d have his money on ‘no!’. Confident, deliberate ignorance is rampant within creationist circles.

  13. Thank you for explaining science so clearly, Dr. Coyne, and for taking on the IDers, in fact, demolishing their arguments so thoroughly.
    The comments to your article are quite depressing, as usual.

  14. I think most of Gelerntr’s arguments could be summarized as a lack of conviction that accumulated random mutation alone could provide the source material for the diversity of life as we know it. But, so far as I understand it, if one feels firmly convinced that this needs further explanation, there are various nonreligious – highly speculative, but nonreligious – paths one could go down to resolve this (a quick Google gives me genomic hotspots and quantum evolution, for example.)

    People who study evolution may have all kinds of criticism of any of these explanations as well, of course, or even consider them downright quackery. But, to my mind if you are genuinely but resolutely convinced of a specific criticism in evolutionary theory, what follows is that you will add some kind of explanation to said theory to specifically account for those areas. Saying “I have specific questions ergo I think this whole theory should be junked in favor of the idea that God created the world,” just doesn’t follow unless you were pretty much waiting for an excuse to say just that anyways.

    1. Here’s the way I think about it: Derived directly from Richard Dawkins, if I remember correctly.

      The configuration of a living thing resides at a point in configuration space (I would say “design space” but that would be misleading). This configuration space has a huge number of dimensions (for each salient feature of the living thing).

      It’s much (much, much) easier to be wrong about living than right. (There is a near infinity of non-living configurations of matter for every living one.)

      This means, for any change in this configuration space (mutation), the bigger jump it is in the configuration space, the more likely it is to be wrong.

      But think a moment: As the changes get smaller and smaller, the likelihood of a 50/50 chance of good/bad (or right/wrong, improvement/decrement) is attained. All that’s needed is for the 50/50 level (or something like a 50/50 level, the exact number isn’t important) to be large enough to affect fitness (along with time and reproduction/replication) and you will have evolution by natural selection — inevitably, inexorably.

      And it seems (to me) obvious that the 50/50 level must be large enough to affect fitness — it has a 50% chance of making things worse.

      1. But the configuration space is not per creature or per species. It includes all species together as well as the environment. T suspect most of the evolution deniers have a hard time imagining the incredibly complexity and dynamism of this space. When they think about a species adapting, they mentally hold everything else constant just to get their head around it. But that’s an oversimplified model.

      1. Ha ha, I wanted a quick example of other avenues one could go down and that was what came up when I Googled something like “Evolution alternatives to random mutation”. It’s a confusing term because looking at it again today, there is an older version of ‘quantum evolution’ that I believe is much more mainstream where the word ‘quantum’ does not mean ‘quantum mechanics’, and then there is the more new age version.

        At any rate, my thinking is that if the statistics of evolution are truly what bothers a person (and Gelerntr sounds like a purely numbers kind of guy, so maybe that is the case,) it seems to me that your first move in resolving such an issue would be to say “Perhaps there’s an as-of-yet-undiscovered component to the random mutation side of things then, making it less random than it initially appears.” Given that the history of scientific inquiry moves almost 100% in the direction of “there are still things, that we will know later, that we don’t know now,” that is a very vanilla, “appeal to common sense” leap in logic, to my mind. (And I’m not talking about sneaking in the supernatural here, I think one’s first assumption would be that whatever we discover will be biochemical, mathematical, etc.) Whereas saying “Well, I don’t like the statistics here, ergo I’m pretty sure God designed the world,” is a huge leap.

        Just from a human understanding / psychology point of view, I’d actually be very curious to hear Gelerntr say how he got from Point A to Point Z on that one. He doesn’t really say in this article. I watched part of the Youtube video he’s in, in a more recent post, but so far have only heard him allude to something along the lines of seeing the hand of a designer in this or that. If, for example, he posited that the intelligent designer was actually aliens, I think he’d assume a high burden of proof in proposing such a thing. So my guess is that he’s pretty religious at heart, and was looking for a way to default to that paradigm.

        1. In 1993 he was blown up by the Unabomber, losing his right hand & the sight in his right eye – just a side note to contemplate.

          Gelernter did influential work in programming languages, parallel computing & other areas from 1981 through 1997 & then in the following 22 years to today he’s published “two papers in computer science. One with four co-authors, the other a review/perspective piece about his earlier work” SOURCE

          Some time AFTER receiving tenure in a CS dept, Gelernter pivoted away from CS and toward conservative punditry & also ditched dealing in an honest discourse.

          He knows full well that his argument [that probability does not permit random mutations + natural selection alone to be the drivers of evolution] is fatally flawed – he has been told so many times, but he has never addressed the flaw – this is what creationists do and/or he has invested [intellectually, reputation etc] too much in his position to retreat from it.

          It is not unusual for pundit types to stick to their guns through thick & thin because their proclamations define them – many are absolutely impervious to evidence pointing in another direction. That is who Gelernter is.

          1. Oh my gosh, that’s so awful!! Well, that is definitely something to consider and makes me feel much more sympathetically towards him in general. Knowing that a targeting yet random malicious actor spent time scheming and planning with the sole purpose of harming you and causing you pain and suffering would, I assume, be extremely traumatic.

  15. A useful counter to ID is to be found in the growing of crystals. If you tie a tiny crystal of alum (Aluminium Potassium sulphate – a common household chemical)in a rich solution of alum, after a few days it grows into a duck-sized crystal with crystalline structure, and some surprising flat faces.(Any mention of ducks is a plus!) The large crystal is of course a reflection of the molecular structure. It is a brilliant example of something inorganic growing into a recognisable shape by natural processes. Unless, of course, there is a god called Alum who presides over it.

  16. Oh, well done Jerry! I read that with interest and enjoyment. I’m glad you noted how tedious rebutting this kind of nonsense (again and again) is.

    That left a mark on Gelernter! 🙂

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