A Response to David Gelernter’s Attack on Evolution

A Response to David Gelernter’s Attack on Evolution August 26, 2019

Let’s subtitle this story, “Guy who made his career in not-biology is convinced by other not-biologists that Biology’s core theory is wrong.”

David Gelernter is a Yale computer science professor. You may know him as one of the technologists who was injured (in 1993) by a bomb mailed by the Unabomber. My first career was in computer science, so I want to like what he writes.

This time, however, he’s writing to tell us that evolution is a failure (Giving Up Darwin, 5/1/19). His article has been trumpeted by a number of Christian sites that use an Argument from Authority to encourage the rest of us to follow this smart guy’s lead.

Unlike many of the evangelicals who imagine they’re dancing on evolution’s grave, Gelernter takes a sympathetic stance. It’s like he’s a reluctant doctor who must tell the family that the patient is dead. He’s not pleased about it and in fact calls evolution “a brilliant and beautiful scientific theory.”

The alert reader will wonder, however, at the first words of his article: “Darwinian evolution.” If you’re like me, ominous music begins. It gets louder with the article’s repeated attention to what Charles Darwin knew or thought. And we truly know that all is not what it seems when the author mentions his guides in this world of evolution denial, three senior fellows at the Discovery Institute (none of them biologists), in particular Stephen Meyer.

We’ll return to this, but let’s overview his arguments against evolution.

Evolution and design

Gelernter says,

Darwin’s mission was exactly to explain the flagrant appearance of design in nature.

Yes and no. Richard Dawkins said, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986). But if we’re taking this naïve view of life, let’s not imagine it’s all sunsets and puppy dogs. If we insist on finding design, we can see not just good design but also poor design (the recurrent laryngeal nerve, chronic pain, atavisms, and vestigial structures) and evil design (parasites, babirusa tusks that can penetrate their heads, and the Tomentella fungus that zombifies ants).

DNA is often cited as the biggest clue pointing to design, but DNA singlehandedly disproves the Design Hypothesis (that the world looks designed and therefore must have been designed). No competent designer would include junk in their work, but DNA has plenty.

  • Every cell in your body contains DNA with 20,000 nonworking genes (pseudogenes).
  • Viruses replicate by inserting their DNA into cells, and millions of years of this imperfect process has left nonworking viral junk comprising eight percent of human DNA.
  • Atavisms are archaic genes that are accidentally switched on, like human tails or dolphin hind limbs. Vestigial structures (such as eyes in cave fish or pelvises in whales) are flashbacks to body features from species in the distant past.
  • Onions have much more DNA than humans do, as do lots of other plants and animals and even protozoa. Do they need it all, or is much of it junk?

I expand on DNA as a rebuttal to the Design Hypothesis here and here.

It’s also a mixed bag when we move beyond DNA. Our environment has warm spring days but also tsunamis; laughing babies but also earthquakes; satisfaction with a job well done but also disease, famine, cancer, drought, and more. This imaginary “Designer” is closer to a six-year-old burning ants with a magnifying glass than an omni-benevolent deity.

Could it be . . . Intelligent Design??

Gelernter quotes Intelligent Design advocate Stephen Meyer:

Our uniform experience of cause and effect shows that intelligent design is the only known cause of the origin of large amounts of functionally specified digital information.

And I’ve just shown that DNA, your “specified digital information,” is unlike anything that any designer we know would create. The Design Hypothesis fails.

While we’re talking about “our uniform experience,” our uniform experience of designers is that they have physical brains. Keep that in mind if you hope to eventually point to a god as the Designer.

Gelernter moves on to what explains life’s apparent design:

[Intelligent Design is] the first and most obvious and intuitive [argument] that comes to mind.

Sure it is, just like the earth being flat was the first and most obvious and intuitive explanation. But, as with flat earth theory, we’ve moved on to a better understanding of why life is the way it is.

Unlike evolution, Intelligent Design (ID) isn’t falsifiable, so it’s not a scientific theory. Any point where it’s unnecessarily complicated or confusing or unexpected, the ID proponent can always say that the Designer is smarter than you and must’ve had good reasons.

ID is Creationism—“God did it”—with one small change. Now it’s “Someone whose name we don’t know did it,” with an implied “wink wink—I think you know who that is!” The decision of the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial agreed: “ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

Read Gelernter’s arguments, Cambrian explosion + protein synthesis, in part 2.

(h/t commenter Scooter for pointing out the article.)

The “Intelligent Designer”
is the fundamentalist Christians’ god
with the serial number filed off.
— commenter Michael Neville

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Image from Vassil – Alias Collections, CC license
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