David Berlinski Writer, Thinker, and Raconteur

How David Berlinski Came to Doubt Darwin


ENV: When did you start thinking, as a critic, about Darwinian evolution? Did anything in your biography incline you to freethinking in that area?

DB: It was the fall of 1965. My graduate school roommate Daniel Messenger and I were ambling along Nassau Street in Princeton. We were munching the kind of wonderful Winesap apples that seem to have disappeared as a variety. I wonder why that is? Daniel’s girlfriend, Sandra Petersen, was there too. Daniel was a fine philosopher and Sandra was doing a degree in classical philosophy. We walked over to Darwin’s theory of evolution, living at the time in one of Princeton’s back alleys.

A back alley was the right place to look for Darwin. No one in the philosophy department at Princeton had ever introduced his name into a seminar, or thought to argue that his theory was relevant to our concerns.

At Columbia College I had been given a ten minute introduction to the theory of evolution in a class otherwise devoted to comparative anatomy. The impression conveyed was that Darwin’s theory was far less interesting than the details embedded in the anatomy of the Dogfish.

— Now if you will turn to your specimens, Gentlemen…

If I had had those ten minutes to count on, Daniel had more. At Brown, he had once read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This made him a considerable expert in my eyes. He knew what it was all about. I asked the obvious question: So is that it? 

Apparently it was.

Daniel shrugged his rounded shoulders. Someone, he said, had figured it all out.

As she always did, Sandra kept her counsel. She was fond of Daniel; she thought me an idiot.

A year later, I found myself promoted from east coast snow to west coast sunshine. And promoted to more, far more. I was an assistant professor at Stanford: That was more. And I had been given access to the splendor of northern California: That was far more. What is that wonderful line by Robert Lowell? All of life’s grandeur is something with a girl in summer.

One night I was having dinner with my great friend, Daniel Gallin. At the time, he lived in San Francisco, his Delmar Street apartment high above the city. We could see the fog roll in, Nassau Street Daniel emerging briefly to offer Delmar Street Daniel the same reprise of Darwin’s theory that he had once offered me. Delmar Street Daniel was doing a PhD at Berkeley with Dana Scott; he was an excellent mathematician, and an even better logician. He reserved his approval for mathematical model theory, and his admiration for Alfred Tarski.

“Can you imagine?” he would ask on reading something absurd. 

And Darwin?

Can you imagine!

At some time in the early 1970s, I came across the papers that Murray Eden and M.P. Schutzenberger had delivered to the 1966 Wistar Symposium, Mathematical Objections to Neo-Darwinism. I read them closely; I was impressed; and I discussed them at Columbia with Josh Kornberg, a molecular biologist, and George Pieczenik, a biochemist. Pieczenik had just finished his PhD, writing a thesis on the grammatical constraints embedded in the nucleic acids. Sympathetic to Murray’s position, he had discovered two facts: The first, that the nucleic acids contain internal terminator codons and the second, that they often express very long palindromes. Josh Kornberg, on the other hand, had no intellectual capital to invest in either Murray or Marco. Not a dime, he said. 

Who cares, he added?

For a while, I thought I might find a way to represent an evolutionary process in automata-theoretic terms. And for obvious reasons. The construction of a complex system demands some scheme of anticipation and deferral — anticipation to determine where things are going, deferral to keep intermediates in reserve for later use. Finite state automata will not do; push-down storage automata are needed. 

Sidney Morgenbesser accepted my paper for the Journal of Philosophywithout asking for revisions. That my paper had very little to do with philosophy, he regarded as nothing more than an inconvenience. “Stick the word ‘philosophy’ in the title somewhere,” he said. So I called my paper, “Philosophical Aspects of Molecular Biological Systems.” Everyone was well satisfied, the philosophers because I was writing about biology, and the biologists because I was writing about philosophy.

It was my introduction to irrelevance, the writer’s natural state. 

Somewhat later, Noam Chomsky gave me a letter of introduction that allowed me to meet Marco Schutzenberger in Paris. 

I’ve written about Chomsky and Marco in Black Mischief: Language, Life, Logic & Luck.

But this is the way it was. Darwin and I go back. He has long since moved from that scruffy back alley to something grand — near Lake Cuomo, I believe. Still, it is lucky that we met. I might have encountered Marx instead of Darwin on Nassau Street, another one of the back-alley boys, the fall of the Berlin Wall leaving me, like Roger Kimball, dancing with ghosts.