David Gelernter Makes a Fool of Himself Again


As academics age, some of them get cranky. I don’t mean “cranky” in the sense of ill-tempered, although that’s also true. I mean “cranky” in the sense of “being a crank”, that is, being “a person who is obsessed by fringe ideas and beliefs”. I’ve written about this before.

Some of them become 9/11-truthers. Some of them get cranky about anthropogenic global warming. One became cranky on the subject of Turing’s proof of unsolvability of the halting problem.

One of the most popular crank topics is evolution, and that’s the subject of today’s blog. Yes, it’s David Gelernter again. Prof. Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale, recently wrote a review for the far-right Claremont Review of Books entitled “Giving up Darwin”. All the warning signs are there:

  • Gelernter is not a biologist and (to the best of my knowledge) has no advanced formal training in biology. That’s typical: the crank rarely gets cranky in subjects of his own competence. (I say “his” because cranks are almost always male.)
  • Gelernter has basically done almost nothing in his own field for the last 20 years (according to DBLP, he’s published only two papers in CS since 1998). That’s also typical: intellectually-fulfilled academics are usually happy to contribute more to their own fields of competence, and don’t have the time for bizarre detours into other fields.
  • Gelernter is also a devout theist, and has written books praising the wisdom of his particular religious sect. Nearly all the intellectual opposition to evolution comes from theists, who “find in the theory of evolution a disturbing and mysterious challenge to their values” (to quote Anthony West).
  • Gelernter pals around with other anti-evolution cranks, like Stephen Meyer and David Berlinski.
  • Gelernter, like most anti-evolutionists, is politically conservative and is obsessed with what he feels are the intellectual failings of liberals.
  • Gelernter’s review was not published in a science journal, but in a politics journal run by a far-right think tank.
  • His review cites no scientific publications at all, and makes claims like “Many biologists agree” and “Most biologists think” without giving any supporting citations.

So, not surprisingly, the porcine Gelernter makes a fool of himself in his review, which resembles a “greatest hits” of creationist misconceptions and lies:

  • In the Cambrian explosion “a striking variety of new organisms—including the first-ever animals—pop up suddenly in the fossil record”. Debunked here.
  • “most species enter the evolutionary order fully formed and then depart unchanged”. What could it possibly mean for a species to appear not “fully formed”?
  • “no predecessors to the celebrity organisms of the Cambrian explosion”: actually, some believethe Ediacaran biota were some of the ancestors of those of the Cambrian explosion, but you won’t find the word “Ediacaran” anywhere in Gelernter’s review.
  • the 10-77 figure of creationist Doug Axe for the improbability of obtaining a stable protein (Debunked here.)
  • the false claims of Stephen Meyer about “functionally specified digital information” (debunked here and here, among other places)

And there are lots of other problems in the review. Gelernter shows no sign of having read about, much less understood, basic facets of modern evolutionary biology, such as evo-devo and gene duplication, which are critical to understanding how it works.

Altogether, yet another embarrassing performance for Prof. Gelernter. And a cautionary note for aging professors: before you start attacking another field, make a little more effort learning about it. Unless you enjoy being a crank.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    David Gelernter fans won’t want to miss A Dramatic Mathematical Challenge? at Panda’s Thumb, including a discussion video recorded at Stanford’s Hoover Institute(?!) featuring DG and a trio of Discotute boffins presenting concepts that leave evolutionary biologists scratching their heads and muttering vile imprecations.

  2. Badland says

    Dumb and wrong. Palaentologists use the evolution of foraminifera to date sediments to within a few hundred thousand years. We can see the damn things evolving.

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