I don’t understand it, therefore nobody does

We’re going to see a wave of ignorance prompted by David Gelernter’s profession of foolishness, aren’t we? Every fool in the world who hears that guy’s nonsense is now inspired to spew out some nonsense of their own.

One example is Barbara Kay, who I’ve never heard of before, pontificating in the National Post that “there’s one mystery we still can’t explain”. Only one? I can think of lots. But the fact that there are still questions in the world does not mean that all the answers we have are wrong.

Her point is especially bad, because she singles out one thing that she thinks is false, and she is wrong about it.

The human brain and the power of speech put humans way beyond the boundaries of Darwin’s own three critical criteria for natural selection, which; i) may expand an animal’s power only to a point where it has survival advantage — and no further; ii) cannot produce changes that are “injurious” to the animal; and iii) cannot produce a “specially developed organ” that is useless to an animal at the time it develops. If a Neanderthal brain three times the size of any primate’s and a unique capacity for speech do not constitute “specially developed organs,” what does?

OK. Start with Darwin: he’s not our infallible prophet. He got a lot wrong, and remember, he was writing 150 years ago. You can demonstrate Darwin’s errors all you want, and modern scientists will just shrug and say, “So?”

Kay’s second error, though, is that she overlooked the meaning of her subject, natural selection. Evolution is not synonymous with natural selection, and showing that something could not have evolved by natural selection does not refute the idea that it evolved by some other mechanism. Even if we take those three points as given, it does not negate the idea of evolution.

Third error: she has not demonstrated that point (i) means natural selection could not have occurred. Where does the survival advantage of speech stop? It seems to me that the initiation of speech with grunts and crude vocalizations could only be improved, and improved continuously, by natural selection. Speech that enabled better hunting could lead to speech that is used for love poetry, or describing geography, or telling scary stories around the campfire, or expressing philosophical thoughts. She has not demonstrated any barrier which would impede the action of natural selection.

Fourth error: The brain isn’t that special (ii). All animals have one (well, we could call sponges and jellyfish exceptions). Our ancestors had one that could visualize the environment and the future, allow for sophisticated socialization, and permitted all kinds of communication shy of speech. Speech capability builds on structures that are already present in a multitude of animals.

Fifth error: brains that could process information in a complex way before speech evolved were not useless to our ancestors (iii), even if they couldn’t speak.

Sixth and biggest, most common error in creationists: the failure of their imaginations and ignorance of the evidence does not support their claim that the science is wrong. I can’t imagine how Barbara Kay manages to type words on a machine, but I think it’s clear that she did. Probably. I can’t rule out the possibility that an editor filtered the output of a monkey pounding on a keyboard, but it’s more likely that her essay was produced by a human being who simply knows nothing about biology.


  1. says

    Creationists also want to claim that the noises other animals are not speech. Of course it is not using the queen’s english, but when a dog starts barking an alarm, it is trying to communicate.

    I don’t think it is possible to have a social species without communication. If you buy that then we are arguing about vocabulary size and bandwidth.

  2. specialffrog says

    I see Barbara Kay as kind of the low budget Canadian version of Hoff-Summers, except without the thin veneer of academic credibility. She has also inflicted her son on the Canadian media scene.

  3. blf says

    Tom Wolfe’s idiotic book (The Kingdom of Speech) also fetishised speech, mangling both evolution and linguistics to prove he has no clew.

    From The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe — a bonfire of facts, reeking of vanity:

    [… Wolfe asserts] Chomsky ruthlessly dominated the field. Until, that is, a plucky, outdoorsy underdog called Daniel Everett spent some time with an Amazon tribe called the Pirahã and reported that their language lacks a certain feature (recursion, or nesting of ideas) that Chomsky had suggested might be universal, and so proved Chomsky wrong. The smoke cleared and the origin of language remained as elusive as ever.


    Wolfe insists, for example, that Darwin had no “evidence” for his theory of evolution by natural selection; in fact, as is well known, he adduced a lot of evidence at the time, including the geographical distribution of species, comparative anatomy, fossils and the existence of vestigial organs. Today, of course, evolution is observed in real time in the laboratory, among microbes or insects, a fact that Wolfe either doesn’t know or is mysteriously careful not to mention. Meanwhile, the argument between Chomsky and Everett is much more controversial than he allows. (Others point out that even if the Pirahã have no recursion in their language, which some deny, they are easily able to learn Portuguese, which does have it.) […]

    Poopyhead’s own description of the eejit, Tom Wolfe’s magic combo move: “[Wolfe’s] arguments are all about ‘proving’ his assumptions correct, no matter how false they are. And, most unfortunately, it leads him to conclude not that his understanding of linguistics is deficient, but that evolution must be false.”

  4. blf says

    RationalWiki on Barbara Kay:

    “Barbara Kay is defending a CEO caught kicking a puppy. The universe is unfolding as it should.”
       — Ivor Tossell

    Kay is an anti-feminist and MRA cut from the same cloth as Phyllis Schlafly. She has written pieces decrying all the requisite targets: oral contraception, abortion, and women not eschewing education and careers in favor of prolific maternity. Of course, it’s not complete without a good shot of denying rape culture. Oh, and the whole Quebecistan thing. […]

  5. unclefrogy says

    the thing I find so difficult to get past is it seems that all the deniers of reality be it creationists or climate change deniers if that is the current word or even those who claim that the space program is fake use the same form of argument they make statements, that can and have been restated as questions, as if no one ever thought of that before. I really do not know what to say when confronted with that I kind of am stunned by it and left speechless.
    This “women’s” statements have all been questions investigated by researchers and have been subjects of published papers. They just do not seem to be able to grasp how questioning scientific inquiry is or how curious scientists are. there are no things that are exempt from questions. the answers are the answers and always lead to more questions.
    uncle frogy

  6. PaulBC says

    In the context of human society, language ability has a clear survival advantage as well as reproductive advantage and the advantage in providing resources to offspring. I’m baffled that anyone engaged in persuasive writing would claim that speech confers no practical survival advantage.

    No, it won’t help you very much as a hermit setting out traps for squirrels, or whatever it is that hermits do to support themselves, but the vast majority of Homo sapiens, not to mention our ancestral species, have never lived like that. Obviously, crafty speech confers an enormous advantage. Chimps don’t live like that either. Other creatures have other niches, because the cost of a large brain is high, but in context, the advantage is very clear.

  7. Steve Cameron says

    Barbara Kay is mother to Quillette’s “senior editor” Jonathan Kay, so pompous pontificating is a bit of a family business.

  8. whywhywhy says

    What I continue to learn: The ability to construct self-consistent arguments that build on each other and reflect reality is a skill that is not required for reproduction by homo sapiens.

    (Seems important for the long-term survival of our species for in the short term doesn’t seem to matter.)

  9. PaulBC says

    Not the Jonathan Kay I knew in grad school (whew!) but coincidentally pretty close in age.

    I had another comment on ” may expand an animal’s power only to a point where it has survival advantage — and no further”. Whether or not this is a reasonable assertion, it rings true in terms of cognitive ability. Any human of normal intelligence can express basic facts about needs, physical and otherwise, intents, social connections, etc. without even being conscious of where the words are coming from. These are not simple cognitive tasks, but they have practical use for functioning in society. Comparatively simple abstract tasks with little utility require substantially more effort, such as most mathematics beyond counting, logic puzzles with multiple logical inversions, or visualizing the corners of a cube stood on its diagonal. Even if you train your brain for these tasks, it is rare to gain the level of fluency most of us have with language. This doesn’t rule out prodigies of various kinds, and indeed the brain is versatile enough that it’s hard to come down one way or the other of what is really a “natural” cognitive skill.

    But the point seems borne out that cognitive capacity for most living human beings extends exactly to those tasks that confer a survival advantage within the kind of human society we’ve inhabited for 100,000 years or more.

  10. says

    The National Post is owned by Postmedia, and Postmedia has been in the news itself lately after the papers they own were told to be more reliably conservative. Bad understanding of science? Seems like that was taken to heart.

    The comments on that story though. There is one that appears to be blatant satire, but this person keeps replying to people about this… (They could be a very persistent troll though.)

    Reading Barbra Kay’s beautiful article on why Darwin is wrong brings back nostalgic memories of when I myself believed in the bearded old fraud and was disabused in a drastic manner.

    This was in rural Alberta, several decades ago, when I lived on a sheep farm. I got fascinated with Darwin’s theory. One day, ruminating over his dictum that animal and human organs are the outcome of evolution caused by the environment, it struck me that this meant I could save myself a lot of daily work.

    A lot of my time went in cooking mutton, a staple of our diet out there. But if Darwin was right – and in those primitive days it never occurred to me to doubt he was, it was before I had the inestimable benefit of reading Barbara Kay – the mutton would not need cooking. You don’t find it cooked in the environment. So we humans should be able to eat it raw as a daily diet.

    I ate a whole huge plateful of fresh uncooked mutton. It was delicious. You ought to try it sometime. Meat is spoiled rotten by cooking.

    But soon I got a most violent stomach ache. They took me to the local doctor. He was worried when he saw me. I explained it was an experiment to test Darwin. He exploded. It was a hurricane of curses. Instead of being impressed by my intelligence as I expected he roared that a bigger idiot had never come his way. Doctors could behave like that in rural Alberta in those days. At length he cooled down and gave me a medicine. It proved to be a powerful emetic. I have been like Barbara Kay ever since. If the human stomach could not eat raw meat daily it was not the result of environmental evolution. It must have been created just like that, by the Good Lord up there, complete with a requirement for steaks not too rare.

    Mr Darwin, he was wrong. The Bible is right !

    I swear I used to be able to spot satire a mile away, but recently I suspect the last few years have completely fried this ability.

  11. unclefrogy says

    I’m not sure about cognitive capacity for most human beings being innately limited not sure what you mean anyway.
    Humans are kind of lazy, I speak from experience here, and like to do only as little or as much as they feel they want to do. They do not like to have to learn new things about what they already know very much. They only want to learn what they need to do to survive and have a little fun not much more. The ability is likely greater than the use what is lacking is motivation.
    uncle frogy

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    “there’s one mystery we still can’t explain”.

    Jimmy Hoffa’s family will be relieved to hear it.

  13. answersingenitals says

    Elephants brains are four times the size of homo sapiens and sperm whales six times as large. Bees have a very complex and sophisticated “language” in their waggle dance, but a brain that is certantly no larger than the bee. So which one is in God’s image? I’m still betting on the aardvark.

  14. marcoli says

    Her argument is indeed demonstrably wrong and counter to known facts.
    1. There is a pretty good fossil record that shows that brain sizes of hominins (bipedal apes) gradually increased over the last 2 million years. So there is literally a chronological record of evolution of larger brains. Larger brains evolved, much like how walking legs evolved from fish fins, or wings evolved from front legs in dinosaurs. The fossils tell us this.
    2. While bigger brains appeared, we see stone tools and these tools gradually improve in their sophistication and they increase in variety.
    3. Meanwhile, hominins with smaller brains disappeared. They died out as bigger brained species appear. That is a pretty clear sign that this was a process of natural selection.

    A competent high school student could describe this, once they are apprised of these known facts.

  15. PaulBC says

    “I’m not sure about cognitive capacity for most human beings being innately limited not sure what you mean anyway.”

    Well, I thought I gave reasonably good examples. The one about the corners of a cube is from something I read in an old AI textbook. It’s not too hard when you realize the layers in corners in between top and bottom are arranged as two equilateral triangles, but it’s not the visualization most people come up with first. The difficulty people have with multiple logical inversions is also uncontroversial.

    Cognitive capacity is surely limited. Why wouldn’t it be? We have a finite number of neurons. They have a limited number of quantum states and are noisy by nature (BTW, I don’t claim the brain is equivalent to a digital computer, just that it has limits).

    It’s not just a matter of work. I have worked hard to understand certain concepts that are not that complex but don’t map well to natural human needs. Give me, for instance, a piece of computer code to trace by hand. It’s not that I haven’t spent many hours looking at code to figure out what it does. It’s clearly not a difficult task, since a fairly simple processor can do it flawlessly (even one from decades ago). Or just some function definitions like this.

    f(a,b,c) = g(c, a, b)
    g(a, b, c) = h(c, b, c, a)
    h(a, b, c, d) = b – a – d – c

    What’s f(1, 2, 3)? Can you do that in your head? With some scratch work, it’s not hard. f(1,2,3) = g(3, 1, 2) = h(2, 1, 2, 3) = 2 – 1 – 2 – 3 = -6? But the scratch work is an algorithm performed outside my brain. My brain finds this very difficult despite the fact that it should not require all that much working memory to keep track of the mapping between variable names.

    It’s also trivial to solve on a computer. People who are better at symbolic reasoning would have an advantage over me, but nobody is as likely to follow all the symbolic remapping as well in their head as a very simple digital computer.

    On the other hand, most people who have watched a few movies could sit down together and watch a movie and agree on the broad outline of the plot (for a movie with a traditional plot line). This is because the brain is innately suited for certain comparatively difficult cognitive tasks like social awareness and requires significant training even to limp through very simple tasks. Am I just too lazy? I have spent more time writing computer programs in my life than I have watching movies.

    Anyway, you don’t have to agree with me. I thought my point was clear and uncontroversial. I think I have argued it up to about the point I am able.

  16. unclefrogy says

    It’s a quibble at best. You said people who are better at symbolic reasoning would have a advantage over you, my thinking on that would put more or at the least equal emphasis on learning over innate ability. though it might be an innate ability to learn a new thing as much as the innate ability to do things that is the difference
    uncle frogy.

  17. anat says

    Marcus Ranum @1:

    Not just vocabulary size and bandwidth. A major leap was the invention of syntax, allowing one to differentiate between X did A to Y and Y did A to X.

  18. Will Pollard says

    “Natural selection may expand an animal’s power only to a point where it has survival advantage — and no further”

    mantis shrimp have 16 different types of photoreceptive cells in their beady little eyes. One variety of the little crustaceans creates plasma.

    contrary to Kay’s statement, it really seems that natural selection will go to absurd extremes, that so long as continued exaggerations on a trait are not actively detrimental to an organism’s ability to reproduce, absurd extremities will continue to be exaggerated by hte process.