Science After Babel by David Berlinski Reviewed

Science After Babel by David Berlinski Reviewed

David Berlinski is one of our best critics of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. He spends some time on this in his new book, which is a collection of pieces from hither and yon on a variety of subjects, all tied together on the theme of the philosophy of science—more or less.

That beasties, birdies, bacteria, and creepy crawlies of the land and sea of every sort occupy the planet, and that they all had to get here some how, everybody agrees.

Academia has coalesced around the idea that this how is “random” “incremental” changes that, they say, take place over a long time. But this is a bluff. It is a bluff because if they could prove this, they would. They cannot. Circular references to models do not count as proof.

It is therefore of some worth to explore rival theories. And, no, not the simplistic “And a miracle happened…then another…then another…then etc. etc.” variety, either. (Things like this.) Yet bruit theory exploration in front of academic biologists and you very quickly learn the meaning of sacrilege.

It’s always been obvious why neo-Darwinians are so rabid in their defense of “randomness”. Because they have concocted the idea that if “randomness” rules they have dispensed with God. Also, they like to feel picked on. Getting rid of God is absurd at least for the excellent, and true, reason that there has to be a reason why any life exists at all, and why the world is the way it is, including why “randomness” would work. Randomness tout court is an absurd answer to this.

About being picked on, Berlinski says, “Like other men [namely Francis Crick], molecular biologists evidently derive some satisfaction from imagining that the orthodoxy they espouse is ceaselessly under attack.” We honor and cherish Victims. Who doesn’t want to be one? Not all scientists. Johnny von Neumann, no cerebellar slouch, said, “I still somewhat shudder at the thought that highly efficient, purposive organizational elements, like the proteins, should originate in a random process.”

Berlinski and I differ on the nature of probability, I think, as evidenced by his commentary on “random” changes in genes and quantum mechanics. I say probability is entirely epistemological, and he hints it can be ontological. Give you the simplest example. Word ladders.

It is more likely that the word WORE changes to the word GORE than that it changes to the word DOOR. The first two words are closer to one another than either of them is to the third.

Yes, but only if changes to GORE are possible from WORE. There has to be a mechanism; there must be a cause. It could be that, because of the way the world works, you cannot get to GORE from WORE. The change can’t be caused. But you might, for whatever reason, get to THICK by one jump, skipping right over DOOR and a bunch of other words. Big weird jumps matches how organisms change better than minuscule vanishingly small incremental changes.

I cannot say it enough: nothing has a probability. Not word ladders, not genes, not electrons, not nothing. But every change—every actualization of a potential—has a cause. Whether you can know that cause, or whether Nature, even, blocks knowledge of that cause, that cause is always there. Probability is only used in absence of knowledge of cause. Probability is in the intellect, not in things.

Context is missing in some of the book’s essays. Some of Berlinski’s pieces are rebuttals to arguments made by some guy reviewing a Stephen Meyer book, but we don’t see what the guy said, and if you haven’t read Meyer you will be somewhat at sea.

There is a long, a very long, chapter on the usefulness of mathematical modeling and what it might mean with respect to Reality, which takes up a good chunk of the book. The going is rough and most of you will not like it, finding the equations indecipherable.

The topic is necessary all the same. Just how much of our math really exists out there? Hard to answer when most of the focus of science is only on those aspects of Reality that can be quantified. In an earlier essay he writes:

No one quite knows why mathematicians have been unable to settle even the simplest of questions about quantum field theory. What are the fields about?

They never will be able to answer, either, if they cannot let go of Democritian metaphysics. All is not atoms and void. Berlinski doesn’t offer the alternative metaphysics, but naturally I think a return to Aristotle is the key. We’ll leave that for another day. Except that to remark atomistic thinking leads us to bizarraries like the multi-verse.

And to the denial of free will. Best part of the book is his teasing of physicist Brian Greene’s many attempts to say that he, Greene, does not exist.

Having been persuaded that he has no say in the matter, Greene feels himself curiously obliged to keep saying so, and is pleased to trace the paternity of the least of his remarks backward to the throat of the Big Bang.

Berlinski is a clever writer, and funny, as that one brief snippet illustrates. Yet sometimes, just now and then, his prose can veer towards shades of plum, not to say purple. Anybody who writes for a living cannot resist these temptations, he said guiltily. We all remember Flaubert: “Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

There is more, like small bios on some past masters and a brief entry on Kolmogorov complexity, a subject which I want to return to later.

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  1. JerryR

    I recently told a relative, that natural selection works but only for small things within a species.

    There is no evidence that it can or has changed anything but small things. Some of these small changes had major consequences for the species but not the big changes that the books say they did. These are all dreams at the moment. Most of the conclusions are at best extreme speculation.

    When experts in biology have to lie about it, what is one to think? If they had evidence, there would be an unending citing of it. Maybe it has worked for big changes but right now “poof” is a better explanation. Probably from free will.

    Aside: the focus on natural selection is on changes to one species when what supposedly has to happen are changes to many species and physical elements of the ecology in which the species lives. Natural selection should be ecology oriented not species oriented.

  2. Incitadus

    Julian Jaynes: “The sole vehicle of consciousness is language.”
    The Bible: “In the beginning there was the word and the word was with God.”
    When your playground is DNA anything is possible, every life form on the planet
    starts from the same DNA alphabet. Life then grows exponentially by consuming itself,
    It’s purpose much less intention remains elusive. Just like a key in a lock it’s higher forms
    are easily deceived with language.

  3. cdquarles

    For me, natural selection boils down to: 1. mutable things mutate, but most of those are neutral with a few being temporarily beneficial and a few being temporarily harmful; yet the physical world has no intellect with which to make decisions, so an intellect must exist to “make it so” with boundaries on the physical world’s properties, and 2. that which survives, survives. That being so, can bacteria change into mammals? Not on their own, I say, but can change from one strain of bacteria into another, but are still bacteria.

  4. Incitadus

    deceived or enlightened that is…

  5. hyportnex

    You wrote “I say probability is entirely epistemological, and he hints it can be ontological.” At the surface that seems to be the dividing line but I believe it only matters at very small probabilities. Let me give an example: to launch or not to launch a nuclear tipped ballistic missile a radar engineer may have to deal with the question as to what the appropriate level of false alarm per second may be allowed by the receiver’s own noise, should it be set at 1E-8, 1E-20, 1E-40? While we can all comprehend 1 in 100million (1E-8) events per second but does a number such as 1E-40 make any *sense* at all? This is a real question with real consequences. Maybe the only rational answer is that the threshold be set so low that it not matter anymore. OK, but which is that number when we are talking about total annihilation? There is no easy answer, and we have not even gotten to the philosophical question whether the number in question, a probability of something, is then epistemic or ontological. Would we be able set it differently if we knew? I tend to think on most days that Cournot and Bernoulli are right and events of small probabilities do not happen. For example in Ars Conjectandi. “Something is morally certain if its probability is so close to certainty that the shortfall is imperceptible. Something is morally impossible if its probability is no more than the amount by which moral certainty falls short of complete certainty.” See See also Borel: Sur les probabilites universellement negligeables, The point I am trying to make is that the philosophical question is important only for small probabilities and those are really naturally impossible events to which only a religious answer can be given logically.

  6. I have not read Berlinski so cannot comment on the review as such. However..

    1 – neo-darwwinism (random change hypothesis) isn’t accepted in [name_of_speciality]-biology anymore because widely falsified by every day experience: e.g. bacterial colonies adapt to food source change enmass and in only a few generations. People still talk as if this is a real hypothesis, but everyone knows it’s bs.

    2 – I have read Meyer – and all of those people make the same mistake: the chances of a physically impossible combo happening is 0 not 1/20; (should be 1/37 but..Meyer et al). So typically the number of possible ways to extend a string by 1 is usually <3 ; never 37. (or 20 either). see Speculations on my winface site.

    3 – quantum events have one outcome, not many – the confusion arises because you can treat a group of 1 or more concurrent events as having all possible outcomes while the event is indeterminate. Once it has happened (I know, lots of unresolved issues there but space etc ) there is only one outcome for each group member – meaning, among other things, that the Wheeler et al postulate the impossible.

  7. John M

    Please check out Engineered Adaptability and Continuous Environmental Tracking research being done at ICR.

    This research is part of supporting Intelligent Design by our Lord.

  8. You people just need to write some genetic algorithms. That’ll convince you that the mechanism works.

  9. Cary D Cotterman

    Flawed, incompletely evidenced Darwinian evolutionary theory is like Capitalism: it’s the worst system there is, except for all the others. The alternative is to make up a mythology to explain everything.

  10. C-Marie

    What would happen, or what would the “theys” write about, if they allowed that God is the Creator, and that all unfolds as is His will concerning all of creation. How much more the “theys” could know and understand if they consulted Him and with Him.

    ” 27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? 31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts.”
    1 Corinthians 12: 27-31.

    What if Christ’s Church exercised those gifts as Jesus would have His Church do?? Whatever would the doubting scientists and more, think and do then?? Hopefully, they would believe Him.

    God bless, C-Marie

  11. Flann O'B'rien

    “You people just need to write some genetic algorithms. That’ll convince you that the mechanism works.”

    Genetic algorithms require a God (designer), of the mathematical goal.

  12. Tom Welsh

    “Getting rid of God is absurd at least for the excellent, and true, reason that there has to be a reason why any life exists at all, and why the world is the way it is, including why “randomness” would work”.

    I completely disagree; and I suggest that it’s really a question of emotional set. Apparently you feel that “there has to be a reason”; I don’t. “Reasons” and “causes” are ideas in the human mind, not objective things in the physical universe.

  13. Johnno

    I completely disagree; and I suggest that it’s really a question of emotional set. Apparently you feel that “there has to be a reason”; I don’t.

    So you admit it Tom, that atheism is emotionally driven, and is not actually rationally derived from the objective facts, which DOES IN FACT have to do with the presence of physical things.

    You are logically contradicting basic reality in order to preserve the “feelings” you want to hold on to, which also exist due to some personal cause or reasons you personally hold, which for some reason and cause you possess.

    There is no escape from this fact. Despite the lengths you will go to convince yourself.

  14. The past few years have demonstrated beyond doubt that all official science is politically formulated lies and not different in quality and character from haruspicy. It is only coincident with reality by happenstance and then likely only temporarily. The evolution by natural selection myth is in service of the global banking cartel in some occult way. That’s where the real science lies, understanding the mind control regimen that is used to enslave humanity. We must determine the form of the forest whilst methodically chopping down the trees.

  15. @Flann O’B’rien
    > Genetic algorithms require a God (designer), of the mathematical goal.

    I’m not going to dispute that. There are infinitely many ways in which the axioms of the Universe COULD have been different, but aren’t. Clearly, somebody outside the Universe CHOSE which axioms are going to hold and which are not. This includes also those axioms that govern Heaven, which a part of Universe.

    What I do have beef with is when or if people say the axioms include “and all these animals are going to spring into existence already formed”. 🙂 I say it’s more sensible to say axioms state “all these animals will arise through a long and convoluted process”, because it’s more in conformance with little details discovered in nature, such as the phylogeny that can be traced through fossils.

  16. Johnno

    What I do have beef with is when or if people say the axioms include “and all these animals are going to spring into existence already formed”. ? I say it’s more sensible to say axioms state “all these animals will arise through a long and convoluted process”, because it’s more in conformance with little details discovered in nature, such as the phylogeny that can be traced through fossils.

    That phylogeny can be traced through fossils, does not exclude that the prime ancestor animals were sprung into existence already formed. In fact every ongoing process and phylogeny demonstrates devolution, not evolution, so present day creatures, while diverse, are a shadow of the original forms that once were. The same for humans, blacky, brownie, or whitey. That we can screw each other and reproduce is the key.

  17. C-Marie

    Perhaps read Ecclesiasticus Chapter 16: 24-31. Yes, it is considered a part of the Apocrypha. but even so, is worth a read for its wisdom. Talks about when God first created creatures and Chapter 17 tells about when He created us.

    Will find it in Catholic Bibles. The Holy Bible translated by Ronald Knox is very faithful and good. It can be found at

    God bless, C-Marie

  18. @C-Marie: This is that awkward moment when there’s a book called Ecclesiastes and a book called Sirach and for some unfathomable reason churchpeople decided to call Sirach Ecclesiasticus thus creating many centuries of confusion. I’ve even had a guy check my Bible because I kept refering to “The Book of the Preacher” (Ecclesiastes) and he thought I was talking about “The Book of the Preacher” (Ecclesiasticus) and not finding my quotes so he thought I was using a heretical Bible. Disaster.

    Anyway… verses 26-28 describe spirits (AKA angels) and verses 29 (30 in the version at and beyond animals. Verse 28 (“nor, for all time, can any of them infringe upon its neighbour’s rights”) is CLEARY violated by predators that eat their prey. If not, then why does pray run away when chased? Of course. I know. The correct answer is “but the prey doesn’t have the right to not be eaten”. Of course. But if one were to plug their head out of the place it’s at currently, one would see that angels fulfil that verse completely whereas animals only fulfil it by very creative and imaginative interpretation. They also fulfil the previous verse completely: “To each, for all time, its own office is assigned, nor lack they, nor tire they, nor cease they from work,” I propose Cheetahs tire from running after their prey, which is the reason the prey is able to run away in the first place. 🙂 Angels, on the other hand, don’t tire.

    @Johnno: an amusing hypothesis. I could be made to work, perhaps, if the OG set of animals were all single-celled. I’ll leave the hypotesis open. 🙂

  19. C- Marie

    Ecclesiasticus …

    Chapter 16

    24 Wilt thou but listen to me, my son, thou shalt learn a wiser lesson. Give me thy heart’s heeding,
    25 and instruction thou shalt have in full measure, wisdom both profound and clear. Give me thy heart’s heeding, and thou shalt share with me knowledge of the wonderful endowments God gave his creatures when first he made them; all the lore I have shall be truly told thee.
    26 From the first, all God’s creatures are at his beck and call; to each, when he first made it, he gave its own turn of service, the principle that determines its own nature.
    27 To each, for all time, its own office is assigned, nor lack they, nor tire they, nor cease they from work,
    28 nor, for all time, can any of them infringe upon its neighbour’s rights;
    29 his word there is no gainsaying.?

    Note in the Bible text … That is, according to the Greek text, the forces of nature are bound to obey it; the Latin version represents it as a warning against human disobedience.

    30 This done, on earth he let fall his regard, and filled earth with his blessings;
    31 covered the face of it? with the living things that breathe there, and into its bosom bade them return.

    Chapter 17

    1 Man, too, God created out of the earth, fashioning him after his own likeness,
    2 and gave him, too, earth to be his burying-place, for all the divine power that clothed him;
    3 man, too, should have his allotted toll of years, his season of maturity, and should have power over all else on earth;
    4 no living thing, beast or bird, that should not live in awe of him and be subject to his rule.
    5 To him and to that partner of his, created like himself and out of himself, God gave will and speech and sight and hearing; gave them a heart to reason with, and filled them with power of discernment;
    6 spirit itself should be within their ken, their hearts should be all sagacity. What evil was, what good, he made plain to them;
    7 gave them his own eyes to see with, so that they should keep his marvellous acts in view,
    8 praise that holy name of his, boast of his wonders, tell the story of his renowned deeds.
    9 Warnings, too, he gave them; the law that brings life should be a cherished heirloom;
    10 and so he made a covenant with them which should last for ever; claim and award of his he would make known to them.
    11 Their eyes should see him in visible majesty, their ears catch the echo of his majestic voice. Keep your hands clear, he told them, of all wrong-doing,
    12 and gave each man a duty towards his neighbour.
    13 Ever before his eyes their doings are; nothing is hidden from his scrutiny.
    14 To every Gentile people he has given a ruler of its own;
    15 Israel alone is exempt, marked down as God’s patrimony.

    Creatures means His creatures in Chapter 16 ….. “Man too, God made…” means human beings …

    God bless, C-Marie

  20. Dear Mr Briggs,

    I have to admit to be disappointed by the mix between “History/Babel” and “Darwinism/Evolution”.

    It remind me the too-oftenly thesis of a lot of protestant Christians : the confusion between the 6 days and the Human history.

    By this confusion, they make Christian history weak, because they feel needed to include dinosaurs/appearance of Himalaya/etc. inside 6000 years (they are also wrong on chronology, because Adam was expelled from Eden 7700 years ago, than the masoretic scam…).

    It is obvious now than the Universe and Earth were created very far before Afam. Yom in Hebrew can means “a certain amount of time” and not necessarily a 24h day. (and Why God would wait 23h59s. between two acts of creation?).

    But people which agreed with the pov above are too oftenly Darwinists.

    I founded only on XIXth century books some people which agree with my own pov : millions of years for the universe +7700 years for Human history.

    Is there are some alive writers which also agreed on that? As French, I’m not very aware about publications on that matter (and there is literally no books in french on that topic. Not. A. Single. One.)

  21. cdquarles

    We do not know how old the physical universe is. I say that doesn’t matter much anyway, for we appear rather late in it. I thought day in English was just an easy to grasp metaphor for epoch. I can see where yom fits that. Six periods for creation of the physical universe and the things in it. One period of resting, as in no more work needed to set the foundation in place and let things work as they will, according to His Will.

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