David Gelernter Abandons Darwin

David Gelernter Abandons Darwin

July, 2019 David Read

David Hillel Gelernter (born March 5, 1955) is a professor of computer science at Yale, where he obtained his undergraduate degree. Gelernter is the son of a professor of computer science, Herbert Gelernter, who was a professor at SUNY Stonybrook, where David earned his Ph.D. David Gelernter is also an artist, writer, and public intellectual. He writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Los Angeles Times, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. David’s paintings have been exhibited in New Haven and Manhattan.

In 1993, Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” sent Gelernter a package bomb which detonated and almost killed him; he lost the use of his right hand, and his right eye was permanently damaged.

Gelernter recently read Stephen Mayer’s book, “Darwin’s Doubt” (2013) about the Cambrian explosion, as well as the compendium of controversy it produced, “Debating Darwin’s Doubt” (2015) and eccentric polymath David Berlinski’s book, “The Deniable Darwin” (2009). Gelernter is now convinced that Darwinism can explain small modifications in body plans—larger beaks, thicker fur, etc.—but as explanation for new species, Darwinism is dead. He reviewed the three books in the May edition of the Claremont Review of Books, in a piece entitled, “Giving up Darwin”:

“Stephen Meyer’s thoughtful and meticulous Darwin’s Doubt (2013) convinced me that Darwin has failed. He cannot answer the big question. Two other books are also essential: The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (2009), by David Berlinski, and Debating Darwin’s Doubt (2015), an anthology edited by David Klinghoffer, which collects some of the arguments Meyer’s book stirred up. These three form a fateful battle group that most people would rather ignore. Bringing to bear the work of many dozen scientists over many decades, Meyer, who after a stint as a geophysicist in Dallas earned a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge and now directs the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, disassembles the theory of evolution piece by piece. Darwin’s Doubt is one of the most important books in a generation. Few open-minded people will finish it with their faith in Darwin intact.”

Meyer’s first book, “Signature in the Cell,” (2010), was a discussion of the fact that DNA is a type of code or chemical language that conveys genetic information. Every other code—written language, musical notation, digital machine code, computer programs, etc.—is the product of intelligence. There is no exception to this rule; every time we find a code that conveys specified, functional information, there is an intelligent mind behind it. The DNA code is probably the nearest thing we have to a mathematical proof for the existence of the Creator God.

Meyer’s second book, “Darwin’s Doubt,” is about the Cambrian explosion. A host of different creatures with radically different body plans appear suddenly in the fossil record, more or less at the same geological time. These various Cambrian forms are not led up to by anything that could be interpreted as ancestor forms in the strata beneath the Cambrian, as Darwin’s theory would predict. Darwin was aware of this, and admitted, in “Origin of the Species,” that it was a serious problem:

“Consequently, if my theory be true, it is indisputable that before the lowest [Cambrian] stratum was deposited, long periods elapsed, as long as, or probably far longer than, the whole interval from the [Cambrian] age to the present day [over 500 million years]; and that during these vast, yet quite unknown, periods of time, the world swarmed with living creatures.” Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species, p. 313.

David Gelernter explains why the Cambrian explosion is so problematic for Darwin:

“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. Darwin himself was disturbed by their absence from the fossil record. He believed they would turn up eventually. Some of his contemporaries (such as the eminent Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz) held that the fossil record was clear enough already, and showed that Darwin’s theory was wrong. Perhaps only a few sites had been searched for fossils, but they had been searched straight down. The Cambrian explosion had been unearthed, and beneath those Cambrian creatures their Precambrian predecessors should have been waiting—and weren’t. In fact, the fossil record as a whole lacked the upward-branching structure Darwin predicted.”

The fossil record doesn’t support Darwin. Never has, never will. Although it doesn’t figure into Meyer’s discussion of the Cambrian explosion, this fossil pattern is a powerful argument in favor of Bible history: the Cambrian forms are a seafloor faunal assemblage that were buried suddenly by turbidity currents in the opening phases of the Genesis Flood. The fossil record is not a record of evolution over long ages, but a record of ecological zones being buried one-by-one, from lowest to highest, during the Genesis Flood.

But it is ultimately the math that dooms Darwin. The chance that random DNA mutations could ever specify a a useful protein—given such constraints as the assumed age of the universe and the earth, and the number of creatures that have ever lived on the earth—is essentially zero:

Douglas Axe did a series of experiments to estimate how many 150-long chains are capable of stable folds—of reaching the final step in the protein-creation process (the folding) and of holding their shapes long enough to be useful. . . . He estimated that, of all 150-link amino acid sequences, 1 in 10 to the 74th power will be capable of folding into a stable protein. To say that your chances are 1 in 10 to the 74th is no different, in practice, from saying that they are zero. It’s not surprising that your chances of hitting a stable protein that performs some useful function, and might therefore play a part in evolution, are even smaller. Axe puts them at 1 in 10 to the 77th power.

In other words: immense is so big, and tiny is so small, that neo-Darwinian evolution is—so far—a dead loss. Try to mutate your way from 150 links of gibberish to a working, useful protein and you are guaranteed to fail. Try it with ten mutations, a thousand, a million—you fail. The odds bury you. It can’t be done.

The math does not add up. Evolution by random genetic mutations is a non-starter.

When confronted with mathematical arguments of this sort, Darwinists usually reply that we, the plants, and the animals are all here, so the odds must somehow have been surmounted—an argument that implicitly denies the possibility of intelligent design or creation as an alternative theory of how the living world came to be. Anyone who dares calls their bluff by noting that there is an alternative outside the naturalistic paradigm is dismissed as a Bible-thumping bumpkin who does not understand science. It is only this resort to naturalism as an untouchable absolute that prevents Darwinism being taken off the ventilator and allowed to die. It is this assumption of naturalism that intelligent design theory challenges.

Although he has rejected Darwinism as unworkable, Gelernter is not ready to embrace intelligent design, because of the inscrutability of the designer:

If Meyer were invoking a single intervention by an intelligent designer at the invention of life, or of consciousness, or rationality, or self-aware consciousness, the idea might seem more natural. But then we still haven’t explained the Cambrian explosion. An intelligent designer who interferes repeatedly, on the other hand, poses an even harder problem of explaining why he chose to act when he did. Such a cause would necessarily have some sense of the big picture of life on earth. What was his strategy? How did he manage to back himself into so many corners, wasting energy on so many doomed organisms? Granted, they might each have contributed genes to our common stockpile—but could hardly have done so in the most efficient way. What was his purpose? And why did he do such an awfully slipshod job? Why are we so disease prone, heartbreak prone, and so on? An intelligent designer makes perfect sense in the abstract. The real challenge is how to fit this designer into life as we know it. Intelligent design might well be the ultimate answer. But as a theory, it would seem to have a long way to go.

This is an unintentionally ironic critique of intelligent design; Gelernter is criticizing intelligent design for not being religion, with the back-story and theodicy that religion includes. But the whole point of ID as an apologetical strategy is precisely that it is not religion, and does not require anyone to believe in a special creation in six days, the Adam and Eve story, the Fall of man and the resulting corruption of the creation, and the worldwide Genesis Flood (which explains the burial of the sea-floor fauna we see in the Cambrian explosion). If you want an explanation as to “why we are so disease prone, heartbreak prone and so on,” the answers lie with religion, which is what ID was designed not to be.

Be that as it may, the convincing of David Gelernter that Darwinism has failed is clearly a very significant win for Stephen Meyer, the Discovery Institute, and the Intelligent Design movement. Especially given how fond Gelernter was of Darwin’s theory, repeatedly calling it “beautiful.”

Below is a video of the Hoover Institution’s Peter Robinson interviewing Gelernter, Berlinksi, and Stephen Meyer earlier this summer in Italy. Stephen Meyer comes across as the polished and articulate voice of reason. Gelernter and Berlinski come across as somewhat crotchety Jewish intellectuals.

At the 34 minute mark, Gelernter says he would give the world a failing grade, and notes that in the famous, ongoing debate between two Jewish sages who lived in the time of Christ, Hillel and Shammai, the only thing they agreed on was that the universe should never have been created! How’s that for pessimism?

Meyer then interjects that yes, there is evidence of design and also evidence of decay, and the Christian religious tradition would expect to find both. “So my theological perspective does inform my ability to answer that question about the things in nature that don’t look so well.” He points out that the virulent bacteria are invariably the product of loss of genetic information due to mutations. “For me, the evidence of design is powerful, it is ubiquitous in both life and at the level of physics, with things like the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of physics. So I see a very powerful signal of design, but I don’t deny the decay and suffering in the world, and I have a theological way of understanding that.”

After eliciting this from Meyer, Robinson comes back to Gelernter and asks, “what are two of the great Jewish minds in history doing saying the creation is bad when the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures is ‘God saw that it was good’.” Gelernter says, yes, it is true that “God saw that it was good,” but then people came along and immediately screwed it up. Importantly, he added this:

“But I want to say, I have no theological argument with Steve. My argument is with people who dismiss intelligent design without considering, it seems to me, it is widely dismissed in my world of academia as some sort of theological put up job. It is an absolutely serious intellectual, scientific argument . . . It has got to be dealt with intellectually, not by the bigotry, the anti-religious bigotry which is one of the most important facts of the intellectual world in the United States and the West generally.”

Berlinski, who is an agnostic and appears to have opposed Darwinism more out of perverse contrarianism than any religious or philosophical reason, appears especially eccentric when he denies that human self-consciousness and self-awareness—the phenomenon of the mind transcending the brain—is clearly an evidence of divine creation. Gelernter is much more candid, saying that the origins of consciousness are just as unexplained and inexplicable to science as is the origin of life itself.

It is a fascinating discussion and well worthwhile to listen to.