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“The Vampire’s Heart” – A Response by David Berlinski to James Downard

Casey Luskin

Has a pathway been demonstrated for the evolution of the eye? Today David Berlinski asked me to post his first response to James Downard. It is regarding Mr. Downard’s response to Ann Coulter (the first 3 of which are found here, here, and here).

Berlinski’s response to Mr. Downard is a fascinating read, and I wholeheartedly agree with Berlinski when he reminds everyone that “evidence, like courtesy, must be displayed if it is to be believed.” Be sure to read the full response as well (the full version of The Vampire’s Heart has a technical response to Mr. Downard regarding the evolution of the eye).

The Vampire’s Heart

David Berlinski

1) James Downard has recently posted a critique of Ann Coulter’s Godless to Talk Reason. Entitled ‘Secondary Addiction,’ it is an exercise remarkable both in its indignation and the length required fully to express it.

Although it is Ann Coulter’s book that is under discussion, I note that it is my views that from time to time are under attack.

“Berlinski is a special case,” Downard writes (addressing readers of Talk Reason). “I happen to know that he is theoretically aware of much of the information you are about to read. And the reason I know this is because, a few years ago, I sent it to him — at his specific request. That none of these data filtered through to Coulter suggests two pedagogical possibilities (not mutually exclusive): that Berlinski has no skill at retaining or communicating relevant subject matter, and Coulter is one pretty dull student.”

Now these, I must observe, are uncharitable remarks, the more so since they divulge part of a private correspondence without ever indicating the whole. As it happens, I did read James Downard’s unpublished manuscript, and I thought that if edited it could very easily become a commendable contribution to the literature. I have not in any way changed my opinion. Downard and I worked together toward this end for six months. As an MIT author, I then asked the MIT Press for an expedited reading. The manuscript was turned down, and turned down again at the Princeton University Press. I showed the manuscript to my New York publishers, only to be told — reasonably, I think — that its commercial prospects were negligible. I also asked contributors to Talk Reason for help in placing the manuscript. I received no response.

With these facts in mind, I am minded to observe that James Downard thought rather more of my “skill at retaining or communicating relevant subject matter,” when he believed that he might derive some benefit from my acquaintance than he does now.

2) Having on a number of occasions driven a stake through the heart of Nilsson & Pelger’s well-known essay about the formation of the eye, I have recently been alarmed by twitches in the resulting corpse, most obviously in Downard’s essay.1

This note will thus serve as a follow-up stake.

The facts: Nilsson & Pelger’s study, which was widely considered a computer simulation, contained no computer simulation whatsoever. It contained, in fact, no computer analysis at all, perhaps because it contained no analysis at all. It was Richard Dawkins who conveyed the widespread impression to the contrary, writing about a computer simulation that did not exist with the excitement of a man persuaded that he had seen a digital vision. As, indeed, he had. Commentators at the time came to Dawkins defense with a gratifyingly prompt display of personal generosity, so that what was, in fact, a complete fabrication took on the aspects of an understandable but trivial error. Any man, after all, might mistake nothing for something.

James Downard is now prepared to accommodate the obvious: “True, a ‘computer’ wasn’t involved in these calculations,” he writes, “so let’s all slap Richie Dawkins for being a bad student.”

Now I yield to no man in my eagerness to see Richard Dawkins slapped, but Downard’s remark, although true in essence, is also both misleading and tasteless.

Misleading because: 1 it suggests by means of scare quotes that the word computer has been given an unusual denotation; and 2 because the issue at hand is not a computer calculation but a computer simulation; and 3 because fabricating data is hardly a schoolboy error, like flubbing the declension of a Latin verb.

And tasteless because: So long as my fingers are hovering over the keyboard, Richard Dawkins is and will remain Richard Dawkins.

In my original <i.Commentary essay, I drew attention to the fact that Nilsson & Pelger’s study contained no defense whatsoever of its chief assertion, namely that 1829 steps are required to transform a light-sensitive patch into a functioning eye:

Moreover, Nilsson and Pelger do not calculate the “visual acuity” of any structure, and certainly not over the full 1,829 steps of their sequence. They suggest that various calculations have been made, but they do not show how they were made or tell us where they might be found. At the very best, they have made such calculations for a handful of data points, and then joined those points by a continuous curve.

The calculations to which Nilsson & Pelger appeal are neither in their paper, nor in their footnotes, nor in a technical appendix, nor are they available on their website. In the twelve years since their paper was published, they have never appeared in any public forum.

In responding to my observation — no data, no evidence, no calculations, and thus no reason to assent — James Downard has now managed inadvertently to confirm the alarming currency of Dawkins’ urban legend: “When I wrote Nilsson to check up on these matters, I did ask about his data set, and he readily supplied a neat summary of the ten variables involved in the simulation and the stages of their acquisition,” (emphasis added).

It is a great merit of Nilsson & Pelger’s study that based as it is on a non-existent simulation, it can be defended on that basis as well.

Downard is nonetheless still persuaded that had I pursued the matter more diligently, I might have discovered at least the raw data missing from Nilsson & Pelger’s original paper. “I confirmed with Nilsson that Berlinski had never even bothered to request the original data summary, let alone establish that there was anything biologically unjustifiable about it.”2
This is correct. I never bothered. If James Downard were to claim possession of a flying pig, it is presumably not my responsibility to inquire after the particulars. It is his responsibility to make those particulars plain. By the same token, serious scientists making an historically important claim have an obligation to publish their evidence, or in the age of the Internet, to make it publicly available on-line. This Nilsson and Pelger did not do, and this they have never done.

It is astonishing to me that in a long essay in which he affirms his own partiality to the methods of science, James Downard does not once consider the completely uncontroversial principle that evidence, like courtesy, must be displayed if it is to be believed.

1. “A Pessimistic Estimate of the Time Required for an Eye to Evolve,” Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B (1994) 256, 53-58, and hereinafter, Nilsson & Pelger. My critique, ‘A Scientific Scandal,’ together with the letters it elicited and my responses, may be found on the Discovery Institute website.
2. The data set that Downard claims to have received from Nilsson is reprinted in my appendix; it was posted originally on Talk Reason. Three obvious comments. Despite Downard’s claim that he is able to discern 1,829 steps in this list, I myself can see only 41, the missing steps swallowed in a grand etcetera. 2 The list describing these steps is incomprehensible. And 3, there is no indication at all as to how these steps were derived, or from what.
(…continued in full, here)

This was only part of Berlinski’s response to Mr. Downard. Be sure to read the full complete response, The Vampire’s Heart, where Berlinski gives technical analysis of Mr. Downard’s claims.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



David BerlinskiJames Downard