David Berlinski Writer, Thinker, and Raconteur

David Berlinski on the Darwinian Guild


ENV: Darwinism is fiercely guarded by a scientific guild. What does the guild have at stake in this? Prestige? Money? To some observers, the defense seems impermeable. Do you see cracks in the fortress wall opening up?

DB: Fiercely guarded, but not, mind you, effectively guarded. If the Darwinian Guild, to adapt your phrase (since science has nothing to do with it), was interested in rational self promotion, the Guild would have never allowed its members to display in public their characteristic attitude of invincible arrogance and sheep-like stupidity. Just listen to them as they limber up in the insult room: Dumbski, Little Mikey Behe, Stevie Meyer (a regression to school yard taunts irresistible at both the Panda’s Thumb and Talk Reason), the creationist playbook, creationist pablum, creationism in a cheap tuxedo, tired creationist canards, creationist cranks, ID’iots, creotards, creos, sky fairies, liars for Jesus. I’ve even seen Disco’Tute, this the invention of an elderly fellow at the Panda’s Thumb who, like Polonius, imagines that he is the soul of wit. One lunatic named Quick or Quack — or is that simply the sound of his posts? — has become fond of the phrase mendacious intellectual pornography and has so overused it that his fellow bloggers have taken to attacking him. When they do, Quick as a Quack responds that they are guilty of mendacious intellectual pornography. The gabble is as unedifying as it is unending.

What is wonderful, I think, is the way in which membership in the Guild so runs to type, P.Z. Myers, to take the loudest case, reveling in his role as the hearty American rustic, a man prepared as circumstances demand either to desecrate the Catholic wafer or at dinner to immerse his feet in a platter of boeuf bourguignon. If in public he now refrains from withdrawing long spools of lint from his navel and examining them studiously that is because Richard Dawkins has advised him that at Oxford, it is no longer done. 

When it is late at night and my old war wounds ache, I very much enjoy chasing down discussions on the Panda’s Thumb in which members of the Guild begin to abuse one another, their indignation discharging itself in a series of menopausal hot flashes, the discussion skipping from disagreement to disgruntlement to peevishness and finally to insult, until at last someone stands accused of being a lying scum for Jesus.

I offer nothing as invention. I have made nothing up.

What I find most remarkable about the Darwinian Guild is what is least remarked. There is not a single first rate intelligence in the bunch. 

Not one.

Let’s go back. At some time in the late 1980s or so, Darwin found himself promoted from the back alley to the Big Tent, where he very profitably employed himself in peddling a universal acid, one said to cure warts as well as it explained speciation. A world view was in prospect. And cheap, too. Academics who had grown weary of being foxes were delighted to become hedgehogs. They turned to radical Darwinism and Richard Dawkins because they could find no other place to turn. Stephen Jay Gould had already straddled so many fences, after all, that friends were concerned for the integrity of his genitals. His supporters were never quite clear whether NOMA designated a position in thought or a wing of the Museum of Modern Art. There was no turning to him.

How much better Darwin’s theory; once it had passed through the Dawkins mangler it emerged radical, simple, scientific, easy to grasp, and, of course, free of large wrinkles. 

Academics who ten minutes before had been occupied in affirming their allegiance to Mao, and before Mao to Freud, affirmed their allegiance to Darwin. They had sworn — sworn! — never to be swept off their feet again. Darwin swept them up anyway. 

Love is like that.

But still, trend setters tend to drop trends the very moment that trends become trendy. If you have taken the trouble to evacuate Cannes in order to become a radical Darwinist in Toulon, the last thing you would wish to see at that darling little restaurant on the Quai is Barbara Forrest preparing herself to barge right in, and my goodness that woman positively honks.

There is a sense, then, that so far as radical Darwinism goes, the tide is beginning to move out. Even David Brooks at the New York Times is persuaded that if someone like Susan Blackmore is now babbling about memes and genes, it really may be time to cough discreetly and withdraw. There is a difference, after all, between favoring the latest fad and indulging the feeble-minded. A number of academics — Tom Nagel and Jerry Fodor come to mind — say now that they knew it all along. 

Perhaps this is so.

Is there more in all this than fashion? A little more. It is good for the cause that evolutionary psychology flamed and went. It revealed the gap that haunts all of evolutionary thought, and that is the gap between what life is and what the theory explains. Ideological systems do not crumble from the center; it is the margins that are the first to go.

This sense of a withdrawal from commitment is hardly unique to Darwinism. A retreat from theory is general. For more than thirty years now, bright physicists have very diligently attempted to unify the Standard Model of Particle Physics and General Relativity. The result has been string theory. The hoped-for unification still seems far away.

Peter Woit and Lee Smolin have both made the case to the general pubic. Although physicists were indignant, those with a certain kind of sensitivity began to hedge their bets. Just recently, Steven Weinberg gave a fascinating talk at CERN. A great physicist, Weinberg had during the 1990s offered string theory his support, and using the anthropic principle, he had correctly predicted the positive value of the cosmological constant. At CERN, he was more tentative. Perhaps the world required no more than General Relativity and the Standard Model.

This sort of thing cannot be learned. It is a gift. Some men are born knowing how to tip-toe across the lawn at night, shoes in hand. Leonard Susskind, on the other hand, is not one of them. Just recently, he has proposed uniting the implausible in physics with the absurd in biology, writing dreamily about Universal Darwinism, its role in cosmology, the subordination of chance to the multiplication of possibilities, the anthropic principle, the Landscape.

The physicists who discovered Toulon when it was just a dreary fishing village have already made plans to move on. 

Rumor has it that Edward Witten and Steven Weinberg are thinking of Port au Prince.

They believe it is the coming thing.