Top positive review
8 people found this helpful
Many Things, But Never Dull
on December 31, 2014
David Berlinski has training both in science and philosophy and he writes like a modern polymath. He positions himself as a historian and critic of science. He likes science; he understands science; he reads science, but he is offended by scientific pretense and he is quick to label it as such. Because he highlights the areas of science in which our knowledge is shaky or highly tentative he is frequently accused of being a believer in intelligent design. He hastens to point out that he is not committed to intelligent design and that far from being a Christian fundamentalist (though intelligent design people are not necessarily Christian fundamentalists), he is actually an agnostic Jew.
He is fond of applying Occam’s razor and when he sees scientific explanations which stretch credulity and stretch the known facts he will point out that the simplest and most economical explanation may well be that God did it. Like many physicists, he is skeptical of biology as a science, reminding biologists that the phenomena which they study must be reduced, ultimately, to the realities of physics. This helps position him as a critic of Darwin. On the one hand you have the mathematics of quantum mechanics working out to a dozen+ decimal places, on the other gaps in the fossil record, the Cambrian explosion, and other underminers of confidence. The fact that contemporary atheists like Dawkins and Dennett lean heavily on Darwin (and have personality traits which offend Berlinski) make them a special target of his ire.
The book consists of a series of essays which principally appeared in Commentary (an unscientific, non peer-reviewed journal, his critics are quick to add). Some (including “The Deniable Darwin” and “Has Darwin Met His Match?”) have elicited a flood of strong, critical rejoinders. The book reprints them and then includes Berlinski’s response to his critics. The book is fascinating if for no other reason than that it provides an insight into the nature of scientific discourse and the fact that it can reduce to ad hominem attack just as easily as it can concern points of fact.
I must confess that I am unable to offer a professional judgment on much of the book. While trained in the history of science I lack the mathematics (one chapter, e.g., is almost completely mathematical) to follow Berlinski’s arguments, though they nearly always contain humorous elements, as when he positions monkeys at typewriters and provides the actual statistical possibilities that they could write six English words in sequence, much less write a Shakespearean sonnet.
As surprising as this might sound, the book has an internal rhythm to it which is captivating. There are narrative arcs and bona fide suspense everywhere. Though it consists of over 550 pp. and is filled with technical material I could really not put it down. The book will be maddening to some, reassuring to others. The one thing it will not be is dull.