A Response to David Gelernter’s Attack on Evolution (4 of 4)

A Response to David Gelernter’s Attack on Evolution (4 of 4) September 2, 2019

We’re considering a popular recent article in which David Gelernter (who’s not a biologist) attacks evolution. This critique begins with part 1.

Maverick explanations are sometimes right

Let’s take a brief interlude. This argument isn’t from Gelernter but from a Christian friend of mine. His argument is that sometimes the scientific outsider is eventually shown to be right. His favorite example is that of Dan Shechtman, a scientist who proposed the idea of quasicrystals (ordered but nonperiodic crystals).

Two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling made Schechtman’s life difficult. About his work, Pauling mocked, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

Shechtman prevailed and was eventually awarded his own Nobel Prize.

So here’s a case where a maverick scientific claim become the eventual consensus. Is there a parallel? Does quasicrystals vs. the consensus within materials science parallel Intelligent Design vs. the consensus within biology?

Nope. First, no one is surprised to learn that the scientific consensus can be wrong. The quasicrystal example teaches us nothing new here. And consider these additional differences.

  • Evolution is the organizing theory within biology. Quasicrystals aren’t core to chemistry or materials science or even crystallography. The knowledge of quasicrystals doesn’t topple (or even jostle) chemistry, but evolution is biology’s foundation.
  • Shechtman was a materials scientist doing work in that field. ID researchers are, almost without exception, not biologists. That is, Shechtman was an insider, and ID researchers are outsiders. Not only do the degrees tell you this, but ID researchers focus on laypeople. Any effort they make to publish research papers in mainstream scientific journals is trivial because they know they’ve lost that fight. Shechtman, by contrast, was exclusively focused on convincing fellow scientists.
  • The quasicrystals research was a scientific endeavor. It had no religious agenda. ID/Creationism is a science-y marionette manipulated by Christianity.

It’s true that quasicrystals was a persecuted maverick idea that eventually prevailed, but since ID is so poor a parallel with quasicrystals, this example offers no hope that ID as a persecuted maverick idea could similarly prevail.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The typical evangelical Christian thinks that “evolution explains how life developed” is false and “Jesus is a myth” is also false. They’re lined up against the consensus of biologists in the evolution case but lined up with the consensus of New Testament scholars in the Jesus mythicism case. How do we resolve these debates?

These Christians need an objective algorithm that will look at these maverick-vs.-consensus controversies within science and decide which one is likely to prevail. They can test it against past cases where a maverick idea prevailed (quasicrystals, continental drift, Relativity, germ theory) and cases where it didn’t (cold fusion, homeopathy, ESP, 6000-year-old earth). Without science backing their theory, they’re not David defeating Goliath but rather Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Darwin fanboy

Gelernter mentions Charles Darwin a lot. (He does know that Darwin is no longer a practicing biologist, right?) Here are a few of his references.

What if Darwin was wrong?

Meyer doesn’t only demolish Darwin . . .

Darwin himself had reservations about his theory.

Darwin himself was disturbed by [the absence of Cambrian fossils] from the fossil record.

The ever-expanding fossil archives don’t look good for Darwin.

I counted almost thirty instances of “Darwin” and the same number of the phrases Darwinian evolution, Darwin’s theory, Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism, and so on.

In understanding how evolution works or its impact on life today, biologists don’t refer to Darwin, consult what he thought, or even think about him. Darwin is important in the history of science, not present-day biology research.

Biologists don’t obsess over Darwin, but ID proponents and Creationists do. This is another clue that puts this article in with the other ID articles, not with the ones following the evidence.

Meyer fanboy

The name of Stephen Meyer (the Discovery Institute researcher to whom Gelernter is apparently an acolyte) appeared almost as often as Darwin’s. Maybe what Gelernter is promoting shouldn’t be called Intelligent Design but Meyerism.

Early in the article, we’re given the conclusion that evolution is finished. No speculation, no “here’s an idea you need to consider.” Nope, Meyerism is the new champ and evolution has fallen:

Fundamentalists and intellectuals might go on arguing these things forever. But normal people will want to come to grips with Meyer and the downfall of a beautiful idea.

The article starts with references to and recommendations for one of Meyer’s books as well as one book each from David Berlinski and David Klinghoffer. All three are senior fellows at the Discovery Institute, and all three books are presented, with Amazon links, at the top of the article. (Full disclosure: the Disco Institute is in Seattle, and I live in the Seattle area. On behalf of Seattle, I offer apologies to the rest of the world.)

Stephen Meyer’s thoughtful and meticulous Darwin’s Doubt (2013) convinced me that Darwin has failed.

After this praise, he went on to show that he had a thorough understanding of the theory that he was rejecting by listing the modern textbooks summarizing evolution that he had read by doing absolutely nothing. He gave no indication that he understood the glaring problem that neither he nor Meyer are biologists and yet were rejecting the scientific consensus in a field to which they were outsiders. He didn’t outline the evidence he’d need to see to falsify ID.

Whoops—there’s one more part. We’ll conclude in part 5 with a look at the unsavory agenda of the Discovery Institute.

The bad feeling based on truth
is better than a good feeling based on error.
— Norm Geisler, Christian theologian

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Image © Hans Hillewaert, CC license
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