More on my Quillette critique of David Gelernter

September 10, 2019 • 9:00 am

A while back I wrote a critique on this site of computer scientist David Gelernter’s attack on evolutionary theory, itself published in the conservative venue The Claremont Review of Books. Here’s a link to his original piece (click on screenshot):

My critique, as is usual with pieces on WEIT, was written quickly, so I didn’t bother to insert references to the many criticisms of Gelernter’s ideas, ideas that are taken without alteration from Intelligent-Design books by Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, and the usual suspects.

When Quillette asked me if I wanted to respond to Gelernter’s piece, I was a bit puzzled. First, I’d already written a response here, and second, Gelernter’s piece came out in May. It turns out that Quillette didn’t know I’d already addressed the piece, and the more recent interest in Gelernter’s piece was apparently because it got a fair amount of publicity from religious, conservative, and Intelligent Design websites, and was touted in a bizarre video featuring Gelernter discussing the fatal flaws of Darwinism with Meyer, David Berlinski, and Hoover Institute flack Peter Robinson.

You won’t learn anything new from the video; the most striking bit is Berlinski’s attire. Somewhat of a fop and always dressed impeccably, here Berlinski dresses like a biker, complete with jeans, a teeshirt, a cut-off jean jacket, boots, and a gold-headed cane (screenshot below). What gives?

Where’s my Harley?

Back to the narrative. I decided to accept Quillette‘s invite so I could rewrite the piece from scratch, linking to the many papers that rebut Gelernter’s claims about the sudden Cambrian “explosion”, the improbability of “early-development” genes evolving, the lack of evidence for “speciation” (a process that Gelernter apparently misunderstands), and so on.  And so my piece appeared yesterday (click on screenshot):

I don’t have anything to add to that piece, except that I left out a lot of references that could have been used as supplemental ammunition (one, for instance, is paleontologist Don Prothero’s scathing critique on Skepticblog of Stephen Meyer’s “Cambrian Explosion Proves ID” book, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design).

Here I want to address a few ancillary issues. The first is why Gelernter, who apparently has a high reputation in computer science, would drink the ID Kool-Aid. Seriously, his reputation, regardless of his previous achievements, will forever be tarred by his embracing of ID creationism. Perhaps he’ll join the Discovery Institute.  At any rate, it doesn’t add much to a rebuttal such as mine to speculate in detail about the motivations of someone like Gelernter. But his piece’s references to God and religion, and his own Judaism (apparently not he secular brand) made me think that he’s susceptible to ID because it supports a view of life that, if not explicitly creationist, is at least teleological.

Steve Pinker, in a tweet about my post, had another theory, which is his:

And Steve wrote me privately (quoted with permission):

In terms of why Gelernter took this path, I wouldn’t underestimate enemy-of-my-enemy-ism. People fed up with campus PC orthodoxy often lurch to whatever they think is the opposite — sometimes ideological libertarianism, sometimes Trumpism, sometimes ID. After all, they reason, campus leftists hate the Christian right; therefore the Christian right can’t be all bad. I’ve had non-leftist friends ask me hopefully if there is some major flaw in Darwinism, figuring that they have a non-PC ally, and they’re crushed when I say there isn’t.

Indeed, Gelernter has leaned strongly right and has also been a vocal critic of “PC orthodoxy”. Wikipedia says this about him:

Gelernter has critiqued what he perceives as cultural illiteracy among students. In 2015, he commented, “They [students] know nothing about art. They know nothing about history. They know nothing about philosophy. And because they have been raised as not even atheists, they don’t rise to the level of atheists, insofar as they’ve never thought about the existence or nonexistence of God. It has never occurred to them. They know nothing about the Bible.”  Time Magazine profiled Gelernter in 2016, describing him as a “stubbornly independent thinker. A conservative among mostly liberal Ivy League professors, a religious believer among the often disbelieving ranks of computer scientists.” In October 2016, he wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal endorsing Donald Trump for President, calling Hillary Clinton “as phony as a three-dollar bill,” and saying that Barack Obama “has governed like a third-rate tyrant.”  The Washington Post, profiling him in early 2017 as a potential science advisor to Donald Trump, called him “a vehement critic of modern academia” who has “condemned ‘belligerent leftists’ and blamed intellectualism for the disintegration of patriotism and traditional family values.” David Gelernter does not believe in anthropogenic climate change.[14] In July 2019, Gelernter challenged Darwin’s theories. According to Gelernter, “The origin of species is exactly what Darwin cannot explain”.

Regardless of Gelernter’s motives, his critique of evolution is absolutely dreadful, full of holes and misleading claims. He should be ashamed of himself.

At the outset of my piece, I asserted that I wasn’t criticizing Gelernter’s views because he hadn’t been trained in evolutionary biology or even biology (neither were Darwin and Mendel). In a post on his own website, Shtetl-Optimized, computer scientist Scott Aaronson does note the falling-away of Gelernter from even computer science “conservative punditry”:

Speaking of empiricism, if you check Gelernter’s publication list on DBLP and his Google Scholar page, you’ll find that he did influential work in programming languages, parallel computing, and other areas from 1981 through 1997, and then in the past 22 years published a grand total of … two papers in computer science. One with four coauthors, the other a review/perspective piece about his earlier work. So it seems fair to say that, some time after receiving tenure in a CS department, Gelernter pivoted (to put it mildly) away from CS and toward conservative punditry. His recent offerings, in case you’re curious, include the book America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats).

Some will claim that this case underscores what’s wrong with the tenure system itself, while others will reply that it’s precisely what tenure was designed for, even if in this instance you happen to disagree with what Gelernter uses his tenured freedom to say. The point I wanted to make is different, though. It’s that the question “what kind of a field is computer science, anyway, that a guy can do high-level CS research on Monday, and then on Tuesday reject Darwinism and unironically use the word ‘Obamacrat’?”—well, even if I accepted the immense weight this question places on one atypical example (which I don’t), and even if I dismissed the power of compartmentalization (which I again don’t), the question still wouldn’t arise in Gelernter’s case, since getting from “Monday” to “Tuesday” seems to have taken him 15+ years.

Finally, although the readers’ comments on my Quillette piece are only starting to accumulate, it’s already devolved into a free-for-all, with several readers making ridiculous claims about evolution’s flaws and a few others defending real science. This one—the very first comment—makes me (as the young folk say) “facepalm”:

This is complete nonsense. “jdfree49” not only gives no reason why microevolution has to “back up” before making the big leap to macroevolution, like a person jumping a gap, but also apparently knows nothing about the evolution of legs, which appear to have evolved from strong bony fins of lobe-finned fish. Has this person ever heard of Tiktaalik? It is this kind of blather, spouted without any apparent knowledge of the data we have, that infuriates me.

And there’s this one:

Note that “breathnumber” ignores the fact that my critique of Gelernter is about 90% discussion of the evidence, with a small bit of speculation of how someone as smart as Gelernter could jump the shark. This, I suspect, is how the Discovery Institute will dismiss my article: as a critique of religious motivations rather than of an argument. (They’ll also reiterate Meyer’s flawed arguments.) ID isn’t religious, they’ll say! But of course it is. Every creationist I’ve ever met (and I include IDers in that mix) has been motivated by religion, or at least is religious, with the possible exception of biker David Berlinski.

Like my previous pieces on Quillette, I find that the comments are often quite obtuse—something that surprised me given that Quillette is a more intellectual site than, say, Slate or Salon. Why are the readers so peeved about, and so ignorant of, evolution? Since Quillette often published anti-“PC” pieces, Perhaps Pinker is on to something.

71 thoughts on “More on my Quillette critique of David Gelernter

  1. “Why are the readers so peeved about, and so ignorant of, evolution? Since Quillette often published anti-“PC” pieces, Perhaps Pinker is on to something.”

    Yes, that’s right. Given that Quillette has criticised the woke left, it has attracted some readers who are religious, creationist, pro-Trump, climate-change deniers.

    There’s something similar in the (UK) Times this morning, by the religious writer Melanie Phillips, more or less blaming everything on a lack of Christianity (paywall).

    1. Quillette started out as a powerful independent nondoctrinal voice but changes have occurred in the editor’s views and it has become an almost psychotic sounding board for libertarians, anti environmentalists, “the commies are coming” fear-mongering, from commenters but also in the editorial cnoices that are dangerously anti environment.Rather than creationists, most of the rants come from neo cons and cronies of capitalism, all rabid deniers of climate change who rely on their neighbor’s garage science for their
      proof that climate change is a hoax. As for Melanie Phillips, the less aaid the better. She is Jewish but I have read articles by her and heard her at a lecture in NYC where she said that the only thing that could save Europe was a return to CHristianity. She has a very confused mind to say the least.

  2. I agree with Pinker. I’ve said for quite some time now that the main motivation of what passes for The Right these days, and of a sizable segment of Trumpism, is merely a recalcitrant desire to “own the Libs” and “melt the snowflakes” rather than any coherent ideological conservatism.

    1. Something similar is at play on the left as well but, strangely, it is aimed inwards, sometimes becoming a circular firing squad. One example – the insistence of only one preferred viewpoint else…NAZIs! Purity tests are of the same kind of motivations you mention and the left is ruining itself with them.

      1. Yeah, I think what you’re getting at here, Edward, is actually the obverse side of the coin: Among some on the Left, it takes the form of a factionalism in which anyone who fails to meet a specified purity standard on any issue is seen as being “as bad as the Right” — rather than an oppositional attitude toward the Right itself, since a principled conservatism to be in opposition to is thin on the ground (or at least in temporary tactical retreat) these days.

          1. “. . .since a principled conservatism to be in opposition to is thin on the ground (or at least in temporary tactical retreat) these days.”

            Good point, Ken, though I’m not so sure it’s in retreat so much as lost behind Trump’s smoke screen (not to say stink bomb). Mostly, I like that you acknowledge that there is (or was) such a thing as “a principled conservatism,” since I believe in preserving the tension between the principles of liberalism and conservatism.

            Myself, I tend to be a liberal about ends and a conservative about means, which is to say that I value continuity as much as I value change. A progressive I’m definitely not, but neither am I a libertarian. Someone once described me as a Romantic Classicist, which isn’t far off.

        1. True. But I personally think TDS has affected the right more than it has the left. They have become deranged by the catharsis of having their guy winning, and from having their guy sticking his fingers up at liberals, and mocking and humiliating all the people Trump supporters have always hated.

          The mania that comes over them in online exchanges reminds me of the energy that surges through you when you’re a kid and you’re about to get into a fight: there’s adrenaline pumping through you, you’re completely reactive, you’re in the moment, and all you’re thinking about is destroying the person opposite you. You’re slightly delirious, and you just blurt out the most hateful, furious stuff. Something takes over you.

          Take a short look at any comment section that touches on Trump and look at the comments from Trump supporters – and then ask yourself who seems most deranged by Trump’s presidency – his opponents or his supporters? I’ve still only had one conversation with an online Trump supporter that resembled normal human dialogue, and that was two years ago.

              1. As much as I like Hitchens and dislike religion, your less catchy rephrasing exposes a paradox – “religion poisons everything” is a dogmatic statement, and Hitchens defended it dogmatically.

              2. I would say it’s not dogmatic if it’s an evidence-based claim. But it depends on how you define “dogmatic”.

          1. Ha! Your fight analogy is a great one. You had my fists up and heart pounding. The suppressed are finally getting even for all those Obama years that made them feel lonely and afraid. Or something.

  3. In the spirit of fools rush in. . . noting the ambiguity of “Darwinism” versus the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, focusing on the second, its a long way from Newton’s Law of Gravity.

    It’s not quantitative, it’s not predictive (at least in the same sense as Newtonian physics), and an appeal to randomness is really a non-explanation.

    Much of the ID literature is the claim that there must be an explanation, so it is easy to score rhetorical points, because most people will prefer an explanation that is flawed to a non-explanation that is sound, especially since the underlying theory does not remotely approach a theory in physics. [The best proponents of ID seem to be lawyers and conservative pundits and ministers, that is to say, orators who know their business.]

  4. Gelernter has critiqued what he perceives as cultural illiteracy among students. In 2015, he commented, “They [students] know nothing about art. They know nothing about history. They know nothing about philosophy.”

    Nothing new there. Allan Bloom was strumming those same chords back in the Eighties with his The Closing of the American Mind.

  5. When I’ve visited Quillette to read the comments under PCC’s posts on evolution, the only non-creationists I could identify were literally all from this website. 🙂

    Commenting policy seems to have changed, and now you apparently have to be either ‘invited’ first, or you have to ‘donate’ and become a member or something. Is this common? I’ve not come across it elsewhere.

    1. To be fair, if you look at the visible comments now, there is plenty of pushback against the religious nuts.

      Quillette certainly has rightists and religionists among the commenters, but not exclusively so.

  6. I don’t know what the policy is at Quillette, but I hope PCC gets remunerated for swatting away creationist drivel like this.

    1. This fact recognized by Pinker is better than money:

      Jerry Coyne refutes David Gelernter’s new anti-Darwin book. Coyne deserves our admiration for never saying “Aw, gee, do I have to refute this AGAIN?” He has the discipline & dedication to take on bad arguments however many times it takes.

      1. That’s a good tweet. Having to wheel out the same arguments time and time again, refuting the same misunderstandings, must be mind-numbing.

        That’s why I mildly prefer(prefer being a strong word) debating young earth creationists – they come out with the most insane arguments, stuff you’ve never heard before, all the time.

        Eg. the way marsupials got to Australia from the ark’s landing point in Turkey(?) is by being fired there by volcanic eruptions.

        I enjoyed that one in spite of myself.

    2. Yes, only very rarely do I write for other websites without getting paid. Quillette does offer emoluments, though, like all journalistic venues, freelancers don’t get muh.

      See what you all get for free?

      1. It’s a deeply impressive achievement(unimaginable to someone as chaotic as myself), to run this website by yourself for so long – with only a handful of people ready to step in if you’re not available – and post interesting stuff, day in day out, without fail.

  7. The commenter who is suspicious about how legs evolved commits a common anti-evolution error, which I will call the “evolution-ex-nihilo’ fallacy.

    The commenter imagines that legs evolved from no legs, from nothing, and presumably that any feature of an oganism evolved from no previous structure, when, as we know, it doesn’t have to work like that, and often doesn’t by building on previously existing structures, like the bony fins that PCC(E) mentions.

    1. Also the notion that such evolutionary events have to happen over and over, rather than just a few times. Once an early worm sprouted some dangly bits that provided traction that assisted its slimy wiggle movement, all other limbs in the animal kingdom could in principle evolve from those.

    2. The premise of commenter ‘jdfree49’, to the effect that imperfect legs are universally worse than no legs at all, is refuted by walking catfish that, despite their limitations, are able to invade temporary ponds where they profitably feed on unexploited resources.

  8. I believe most of them are just pissed that you hit the nail on the head. Not only do you have the evidence, the science to unwind this terrible article by Gelernter, you do a pretty good job of understanding why he does this. The battle against Darwin is nearly always about religion and the religious hate to be reminded of it. They can make up crap about evolution because they have great experience making up crap to justify the faith.

  9. Enemy-of-my-enemy-ism is as good an explanation as any for why Gelernter is siding with ID.
    It’s too bad for many reasons. One is that I would like to point out conservatives in academia and say “See? They do exist, and they can hold up their side in discussions about important issues!”
    I know such beings do exist, but Gelernter has jumped the shark, and so is not one of them.

  10. In October 2016, he [Gelernter] wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal endorsing Donald Trump for President, calling Hillary Clinton “as phony as a three-dollar bill,” and saying that Barack Obama “has governed like a third-rate tyrant.”

    I’ve never been a big fan of Hillary or her husband. And there were policies of Barack Obama’s that were open to legitimate criticism. But for Gelernter to level these charges in support of the candidacy of Donald Trump is the height of absurdity.

    For the better part of four decades, Donald Trump was widely regarded as the biggest phony in New York (which, perforce, put him in the running for biggest phony worldwide). Hell, to cop a line from a snarky Brit novel, he’s so phony that even his hair, which looks to be a wig, isn’t.

    And only the purblind could fail to perceive in Trump’s demagoguery from the hustings — in his plangent populist appeals to fear and anger and resentment — a plain predilection for the tyrannous.

  11. The Hoover Institute has put out a number of science denial videos (search for “Hoover Institute evolution” or “Hoover Institute climate” on youtube). That recent one with Meyer, (biker) Berlinski, and Gelernter is quite a doozy.

  12. Darwinian explanations by competent biologists tend to be detailed, specific, based on a lot of data. Rumsfeld-[ike, they could also list a bunch of known unknowns that are being investigated. But where are ID explanations of natural phenomena that are detailed, specific, data-based? Seems to me that simply saying “it must have been designed” explains nothing at all! Details, please! What was the design process like??

    1. It occurs to me that one “critical question” (beyond the “have you actually read the literature on this?”) to IDers might be the following. They claim to be agnostic on the details of the designer, so ask: “What *discipline* should further investigate the properties of the designer to learn more about how things came to be?”

  13. I don’t really know anything about biology or evolution but I am very happy to read in Jerry’s Quillette piece that the Cambrian “explosion” is now being referred to as a “diversification,” because I think the reason most people can’t accept evolution is that they simply can’t grasp the scale of the time that it takes for different species to branch off. It’s added to that problem, I suspect, when scientists refer to something that occurred over the course of 20 million years as an “explosion.”

    As far as Gelenter’s attire — it’s a no from me 🙂

    1. It would be a shame if we can no longer call the Cambrian diversification an explosion. Even if it happened slower than was believed earlier, it still happened quickly in the geological time scale. I am no expert but isn’t it likely that something happened that resulted in evolution “experimenting” with a lot of different multi-cellular body styles? Perhaps it was the “invention” of predation, which Jerry mentioned. Does it not represent a sort of evolutionary phase change?

      We have gone through another phase change with humans communicating abstract ideas between individuals. It is selection operating in a whole new arena. Perhaps we will go through another one with robots and AI.

      1. I don’t believe [my opinion] there was an increase in “multi-cellular body styles” in the Cambrian. There’s really only three topological options I can think of:

        The plate & the ball – absorbing nutrients & expelling waste throughout the whole environmental interface [the skin]. This can evolve into specialised regions such as roots at one end & wrinkling the skin to increase absorption as water passes by.

        This can transform into the bell – food in & out the same orifice.

        This can transform into the tube – in one end out the other.

        All the above plans were around a long time before the Cambrian explosion – the humble worm is the tip top topology in the form of the tube, there isn’t a more efficient way of ‘designing’ an engine, which is what organisms are. I think the interesting development was ‘worm’ segmentation developed into specialisms per segment with appropriate tools attached for movement, manipulation & sensing. The modular architecture I mention existed in the Ediacaran long before the Cambrian. It isn’t known if the modular path arose once or a few times.

        The ideas that attract me re Cambrian explosion evolution is there was an up tick in oxygen & chalk in the water allowing animals to grow larger & more armoured/weaponed & I believe the water became clearer around the Cambrian making eyes a more useful option – eyes probably initiated the proposed arms race, but also being bigger means your segments can now bear a variety of tools not possible when tiny.

          1. Thanks that was a good read from Helen Sullivan who I don’t know – some tangential cultural references thrown in very well to lighten the load.

            She’s an Aussie

            I think there are at least three other post-extinction diversifications that should be labelled “explosion” or we remove “explosion” altogether:

            Plants/animals colonising the land
            Invention of flowers
            Invention of grass

            1. Sullivan seems quite an interesting person.

              I think the idea of explosions, like punctuated equilibrium, may be a product of misreading the fossil record. A better way of demarking key events is to focus on the start of new forms of life. Your list is a good example. Others have started with earlier key events:

              Cellular life
              Multicellular life
              Oxygen atmosphere
              and so on.

  14. jdfree49’s “back up” remark suggests that he is thinking of state-space search algorithms in computer science, which involve backing up to a previous decision point and going a different direction to escape from a local hilltop or rut in a “fitness landscape”. This obviously makes no sense in biology. However there are other mechanisms than backing up, even in CS, which achieve the same effect of enabling the search to arrive at a globally optimal solution. Evolutionary algorithms in CS, based loosely on biological evolution, have proven very effective at this and have many practical applications.

    No need for the ID crowd to remain stuck in this suboptimal and misinformed belief about evolution. I don’t know the solution, however.

    1. Yes, I agree. The backup in computer science search algorithms only makes sense when considering serial processing. With parallel processing, as in evolution and biology, the space is searched in many areas simultaneously. Those individuals that reach a dead-end (creatures, species, proteins, etc.) simply disappear. Movement is always forward and if something new matches the past, it is purely accidental.

  15. David Gelernter, Stephen Meyer, William Dembski – “If we haven’t seen as far as evolutionary scientists, it is because we are standing on the toes of Giants.”

    1. Or ‘because giants were standing on our shoulders. . .’
      Giants such as Charles Darwin. . .
      Hence the resentment always implicit and sometimes explicit in their anti-evolution statements.

  16. Gelernter reminds me a bit of Jacques Loeb, another famous anti-Darwinist in the early years of the 20th century. An article describing his reasons for rejecting Darwin appeared in the July, 1925 issue of Mencken’s “American Mercury.”

    According to the author, Paul de Kruif, Loeb was an atheist, and the only good thing he had to say about Darwin was that he, “…rendered a similar service (referring to Galileo and Copernicus) by his insistence that accidental and not purposeful variations gave rise to the variety of organisms.” He rejected evolution because, “…We cannot consider any theory of evolution as proved unless it permits us to transform at desire one species into another, and this has not yet been accomplished.”

    Loeb was the model for the hero scientist Max Gottlieb in Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Arrowsmith.” De Kruif was actually a co-author, and received 25% of the royalties. You can actually see the similarities in style in the Mercury article. There de Kruif described Loeb’s hatred of college presidents, noting that, “…he did not belong to that class of great men who smile carefully and laugh in a 4-4 rhythm.” In “Arrowsmith” such worthies are described as “men of measured merriment.”

      1. I’m not sure about that, but it’s too bad he didn’t succeed. Think of how amusing it would be if you could turn yourself into a chimpanzee and back again at parties. In my case it should be fairly simple.

  17. I’m late to this whole tempest, dang it! Gelernter just trots out the usual “tornado in a junkyard” and “we’re not saying it was God” arguments in slightly new clothes – nothing new. And the comments from the Quillette piece – not even wrong is the operative phrase.
    What’s interesting is that we’re again surprised that a really, really smart scientist has trotted out something really dumb. But, should we be surprised? Pauling, Hoyle, Flew, Heimlich come to mind immediately and I’m sure there are more. Is there something about the exceptionally intelligent but iconoclastic scientist that is a risk for being seduced by pseudoscience (pseu-duced?). As I typed that last sentence, I recalled Watson as well.

Leave a Reply