David Berlinski Writer, Thinker, and Raconteur

David Berlinski: Does Darwin Matter?


ENV: How do the scientific issues you write about affect the way we live? Why should the Darwin question matter to people who don’t normally concern themselves with scientific theories?

DB: I think of the Darwinian debate in the way that Dickens thought of Jardynce v Jarndyce in Bleak House. It is awfully easy to be sucked into it, and once suckered, awfully difficult to get out. I have seen it so often. A man wakes and because has read a book or scanned an essay, he is persuaded that he can make a contribution. He is eager to make it. He offers his opinion on the Internet and is gratified by the prospect of the congratulations that he is shortly to receive. No one pays the slightest attention. He then discovers that to be heard, it is necessary that he amplifies his level of abuse. He does that, referring to the Discovery Institute as the Dishonesty Institute. Repeating the phrase as he moves his bowels affords him an unexpected pleasure. As his influence remains insignificant, his indignation mounts. In the morning, he scuttles to his computer to check his own postings; satisfied when he finds them, and beside himself when he fails. His appetite for conflict sharpens. He becomes determined to exaggerate every issue; and to magnify trivialities. Sooner or later, his Internet presence seems real, and his real life unreal. He ends in the state achieved by almost every Internet blogger: He commences to gibber repetitively. Glen Davidson, who posts to David Klinghoffer’s blog, has recently entered the gibbering state.

It is all very sad. I have warned about the phenomenon many times.

Does Darwin matter? Yes, of course it matters. It matters a great deal. It matters whether the theory is true because for better or worse we value the truth and struggle to find it; but it would matter far more were we able to say once and for all that the theory is false. Darwinism involves a way of thought in biology, and were it to go, it would take a great many assumptions along with it. Just think of vitalism, for example. To say a word in its favor is at once to be accused of the cheapest kind of intellectual sentimentality. We know better and if we do not know better, they do. But hold on, please do. If by vitalism one means something like the 19th century idea of a vital fluid that informs living systems, then I am with them. That is so much sentimentality. But if by vitalism one means the thesis that living systems cannot be completely explained in terms of their physics or their chemistry — what then? Something must explain the difference, no? And if it is not a fluid, as naïve 19th-century biologists sometimes thought, it does not follow that it is nothing.

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

This remark is half right: Nothing in biology does make sense. It is for the biology of the future to start making sense of it. If that in the end involves religious ideas or even religious I, that’s fine with me. Let’s ask the questions first, and reject the wrong answers when we know that they are wrong.

David Berlinski

Writer, Thinker, Raconteur, and Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
David Berlinski received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University and was later a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Dr. Berlinski has authored works on systems analysis, differential topology, theoretical biology, analytic philosophy, and the philosophy of mathematics, as well as three novels. He has also taught philosophy, mathematics and English at such universities as Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York and the Universite de Paris. In addition, he has held research fellowships at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques (IHES) in France.