Top positive review
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Not easy to find fault with
on March 25, 2010
It almost makes me feel guilty not to give Dr. Berlinski all the five stars. It is merely because I find some of his views somewhat misleading and in need of some criticism. He is of course, as other reviewers testified, an outstanding writer, of irresistible wit, and of unquestionable intelligence that often stifles the opposition.
In the essay of the title repeated for the book, he notes the improbability that random changes in DNA be usable for evolution. His argument is in the book outlined in a response by H. Allen Orr (pp.66-7): "His worry...is this: DNA is...a...language of A's, T's, G's, and C's that somehow encodes all the designs we find in organisms. But how can random perturbations in such a language yield usable material for evolution? In every other language we know of, Mr. Berlinski writes, 'randomness...is the enemy of order.' Random changes in English yield gibberish... And so, he argues, look what Darwinism really asks of us: it demands we believe that selection uses random changes in DNA, when--by analogy with any other...language--such changes should yield mere gibberish, hopelessly 'jamming' organisms."
This argument, that random changes in organisms cannot be expected to yield the probabilistically virtually impossible usefulness required, appears quite convincing. And see how Dr. Orr responds: "Mr. Berlinski's objection is one of those beautiful theories that gets killed by an ugly fact. The fact is: whether or not random DNA changes should invariably jam organisms, they do not... The existence of subtle, functional, usable mutations in DNA is a simple fact that no amount of analogizing...can make go away". But Dr. Orr! This is a ridiculous question-begging argument! We all know the fact that the changes in organisms are functional, useful! The very question is, can these changes occur randomly? And Dr. Berlinski convincingly argues they cannot.
Another argument by Dr. Berlinski that Dr. Orr responds to is that evolution has not been observed: "Examples are a dime a dozen. When antibiotics were first introduced, most bacteria were susceptible. ...now, many bacteria are resistant. And...when we threw DDT at insects: they evolved insecticide resistance". This is to demonstrate Darwinian, undirected, evolution. And here is a point where I may depart even from Dr. Berlinski.
Developing resistance needn't at all be attributed to Darwinian processes. We know very well that through inoculation we develop resistance to various diseases. And we know equally well that this is owing to the body's directed, not undirected, action toward self-preservation. This is a fundamental distinction overlooked in the debates about whether or not organisms were designed.
Dr. Berlinski devotes considerable space to William Paley's 19th-century argument in which the functionality of organisms was compared to that of human artifacts, with the contention that organisms likewise imply design. Dr. Berlinski's assessment of the argument is slightly gloomy. He ends a pertinent essay with (p.309): "And Paley, poor Paley? Dead at last, or at least not very vigorously alive". But the design argument is not only alive, but it can be improved upon, going beyond mere analogy, to demonstration. Left out in the comparison of organisms to human artifacts was the decisive difference that organisms are alive. As live beings, compared to deceased ones, they are in constant pursuit of the goal of self-preservation. The existence of such a goal, of purpose, in organisms is denied by Darwinism, focused narrowly on the organism's structure, in the tradition of Paley. It is, however, an easy step from finding that live organisms aim at the purpose of self-preservation, to inferring that their adaptation to circumstances, ascribed by Darwinism to purposeless natural forces, is part of that purpose.
One other subject where I depart from Dr. Berlinski is on the significance he assigns to logicians Kurt Gödel and, to a lesser degree, Alfred Tarski. He mentions them in connection with "meta-theory", devised in hope of a solution to logical paradoxes, and illustrated by "Tarski's theorem on the indefinability of truth" (p.543).
This purported theorem was spurred by the ancient "Liar" paradox, which states: "This statement is false". As easily confirmed, if the statement is true then, by its content, it is false, and if false then, by that content, it is true. It was accordingly decided that truth must be defined in a "meta-language", not "within any language in which it is expressed" (p.157). Although this is held demonstrated, it isn't by any means. Any dictionary defines truth by its own language, and we are at liberty to include and define any word in any chosen language, there being no restriction to such choices.
It seems this review is not the place for more on these matters. I go into details in other reviews and elsewhere. I only wish to say that I see Gödel's theorem and related contentions as false, counting as "A Scientific Scandal", an expression Dr. Berlinski used concerning evolutionary claims.
Let me though emphasize that I would recommend this book for its overall brilliance.