David Gelernter is one of a small number of people in the world whom I would characterize as a genuine independent thinker. But then, I would say that, given that he’s one of the few conservatives on the faculty of Yale, where he is a professor of computer science. He has written widely, often outside his primary field, including on things like culture and art criticism. He was famously severely injured in 1993 by a bomb sent by the Unabomber. As an example of the extent to which he truly doesn’t care what his academic peers think of him, he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in October 2016 supporting Trump for President (or, perhaps more accurately, stating that the only way to protect the country from the disaster of Hillary was to vote for Trump).
In the Spring 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Gelernter steps on another super-high-voltage third rail — Darwinism. Moreover, he does it in the context of writing what is essentially a favorable review of a 2013 book titled “Darwin’s Doubt” by a guy named Stephen Meyer. Meyer is one of the leading promoters of the counter-theory to Darwinism called “intelligent design,” as can be seen in the subtitle of Meyer’s book: “The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design.” I doubt that there is any more reviled guy in the field of origin of species than Meyer. (First line of Meyer’s Wikipedia bio: “Stephen C. Meyer (born 1958) is an American advocate of the pseudoscientific principle of intelligent design.”) Nasty! So what has inspired Gelernter to take this one on?
Before getting to Gelernter’s comments on Darwinism, let me give some background on where this fits into the themes of this blog. “Science” (correctly understood) is the process by which we attempt to make sense of our world on its own terms, by what we can observe, test, and measure. Science starts from what is called a “falsifiable hypothesis,” and then proceeds through a process of experiment or empirical test to see if the hypothesis survives. Keep this up long enough, and eventually you figure out things like how to cure infectious disease, or how to make plastics out of petroleum. But there may be some things that can never be satisfactorily explained by the processes of science.
In this context, the Darwinian theory that species originate through a process of “natural selection” fits well into the rubric of “science.” The hypothesis is subject to invalidation; and much evidence going to the validity of the hypothesis has been collected. “intelligent design,” by contrast, is a classic example of a non-falsifiable hypothesis, and therefore is not science. Nothing that we can observe, test or measure can ever prove or disprove whether there is an intelligent being behind the scenes directing the results. That said, our world is filled with non-science things in which many people place credence. Astrology is a common example. Just because something is not science does not mean that it is wrong. As another example, I would say that the field of psychology is also rife with non-falsifiable hypotheses, at least non-falsifiable by any methodology currently available. As another example, the field of climate “science” aggressively claims the mantle of science, while simultaneously striving mightily to avoid ever articulating a falsifiable hypothesis. So-called “climate scientists” also engage in the anti-scientific exercise of rampant data alteration, but that’s another story.
In the line-drawing between science and non-science, Darwinism claims a special status. The defenders of Darwinism are the ones who famously stood up to the small-minded anti-science religious fundamentalists. As we were all taught back in high school, in the years after Darwin advanced his then-revolutionary hypothesis of natural selection, he was opposed by religious fanatics whose main objection was that Darwin’s hypothesis contradicted the Biblical origin story in Genesis. After the state of Tennessee banned teaching of Darwinian evolution in 1925, a teacher named Scopes defied the law, and got prosecuted by the state. And the small-minded rubes were then shown for the idiots they were by the brilliant Clarence Darrow. Or something like that. (In fact, Scopes was convicted at trial, but his punishment was reversed on appeal.)
Back to Gelernter. He begins his piece by correctly taking note that today, acceptance of the Darwinian hypothesis of evolution is tantamount to an entry key into polite society:
Darwinian evolution is a brilliant and beautiful scientific theory. Once it was a daring guess. Today it is basic to the credo that defines the modern worldview. Accepting the theory as settled truth—no more subject to debate than the earth being round or the sky blue or force being mass times acceleration—certifies that you are devoutly orthodox in your scientific views; which in turn is an essential first step towards being taken seriously in any part of modern intellectual life.
But the problem is that the Darwinian hypothesis is not just that “evolution occurred,” but rather that there is a specific mechanism — known as “natural selection” — by which new species have emerged from old and have proliferated, by which single-celled bacteria have gradually evolved into fish and birds and humans. And unfortunately, the ongoing accumulation of evidence, both from the fossil record and from molecular biology, has not been kind to the hypothesized mechanism of natural selection. First, as to the fossil record:
In the famous “Cambrian explosion” of around half a billion years ago, a striking variety of new organisms—including the first-ever animals—pop up suddenly in the fossil record over a mere 70-odd million years. This great outburst followed many hundreds of millions of years of slow growth and scanty fossils, mainly of single-celled organisms, dating back to the origins of life roughly three and half billion years ago. Darwin’s theory predicts that new life forms evolve gradually from old ones in a constantly branching, spreading tree of life. Those brave new Cambrian creatures must therefore have had Precambrian predecessors, similar but not quite as fancy and sophisticated. They could not have all blown out suddenly, like a bunch of geysers. Each must have had a closely related predecessor, which must have had its own predecessors: Darwinian evolution is gradual, step-by-step. All those predecessors must have come together, further back, into a series of branches leading down to the (long ago) trunk. But those predecessors of the Cambrian creatures are missing.
Over on the micro-biology side, Gelernter points out that research attempting to find gene mutations that could successfully change one type of animal body plan to another has come up completely dry.
To help create a brand new form of organism, a mutation must affect a gene that does its job early and controls the expression of other genes that come into play later on as the organism grows. But mutations to these early-acting “strategic” genes, which create the big body-plan changes required by macro-evolution, seem to be invariably fatal. They kill off the organism long before it can reproduce. . . . Evidently there are a total of no examples in the literature of mutations that affect early development and the body plan as a whole and are not fatal. . . . The philosopher of biology Paul Nelson summarizes the body-plan problem: “Research on animal development and macroevolution over the last thirty years—research done from within the neo-Darwinian framework—has shown that the neo-Darwinian explanation for the origin of new body plans is overwhelmingly likely to be false—and for reasons that Darwin himself would have understood.”
In other words, if you have come to believe that evolution according to the Darwinian hypothesis is firmly established in science, prepare to have your preconceptions shaken up. Live by the scientific method, die by the scientific method. Of course, just because Darwin’s hypothesized mechanism is falsified does not mean that Meyer’s alternative answer — “intelligent design” — must be accepted. As a non-scientific non-falsifiable hypothesis, “intelligent design” cannot be either proven or disproven. You can believe it or not, as you wish.
Is there another potential falsifiable hypothesis out there as to the mechanism by which all these species may have evolved from the bacteria? Not that I’m aware of. That does not mean that it won’t emerge, but a good century and a half after Darwin, there’s no sign of it.
There just may be some things that science is never going to explain. Origin of species may be one of them. Origin of the universe is likely to be another.