Evolution Icon Evolution
Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Jay Richards on Babel, Berlinski, and “Science After Darwin”

Image: Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons.

By now the authority of science has been thoroughly abused. For that, you can thank scientists themselves, their promoters in government bodies and in university PR departments, and the legions of loyal pilot fish in popular and social media. Something really came undone in the Covid era. Today, the phrase “science says” or “doctors say” prompts a smirk from about half the population, and rightly so.

To capture this reality, mathematician David Berlinski in his latest book, Science After Babel, evokes the image of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel — a bloated, vain enterprise, in denial of its own failings. The ancients saw science, and the other arts, as embodied by muses — beautiful young women. We may picture something more like Jabba the Hutt. As Jay Richards writes in a review for Religion & Liberty, Dr. Berlinski was just the right man to describe and skewer the situation.

Where Any Controversy Obtrudes

What were chances that science and medicine were corrupted in so many other of their branches, those where any hint of cultural controversy obtrudes — but in the study of the origins of biological complexity, NO! There, where the stakes are highest, evolutionary science is and always has been pure in its motives and cogent in its assessments! Berlinski has been explaining why that idea is bunk since the mid 1990s.

Dr. Richards recalls:

I remember the first Berlinski essay I read. “The Deniable Darwin” appeared in Commentary in 1996, just as my own doubts about Darwinism had started to harden. The essay provoked a lengthy back and forth between Berlinski and leading Darwinians in a later issue of the magazine.

Berlinski is worth reading for both his insights and his prose, which manages to be both crisp and florid. Science After Babel is no exception. The book gathers his essays, notes, excerpts from previous books, letters to the editor, and the like written over the past few decades on the scientific enterprise.

“Crisp” yet “florid” — yep, that’s the inimitable David Berlinski. Also, as Richards says, “epigrammatic and cryptic.” 

The Enigmatic Dr. Berlinski

One of the fascinating things about Berlinski is how hard it is to pin him down, as some interviewers who didn’t do their homework ahead of time have found to their frustration. What exactly does he think about Darwinism versus intelligent design? Richards summarizes well. From, “Questioning Science after Darwin.”

Berlinski brings the same sharp rapier to another child of materialism, namely Darwinism — a subject that occupies the first third of the book. Yes, Darwin’s mechanism — natural selection acting on random variations — explains some things, and very well. It can adjust the size of Galapagos finch beaks to take advantage of droughts and wet spells. It can give rise to a bevy of bacteria that resist some or another antibiotic. We may presume it accounts for fluctuations in the color of Peppered Moth populations, depending on local conditions.

But its reach is limited. Darwin’s disciples hoped, and hope, for far more. They imagined this designer substitute would explain all the adaptive complexity of the biological world — the peering eye, the pumping heart, the tiny, flailing flagella of bacteria. Indeed, it’s supposed to explain the origin of species — and for that matter, the origin of body plans, and phyla, and kingdoms.

There’s never been any evidence that Darwin’s tool has such sweeping power, and there’s plenty of evidence against it. Berlinski has for decades been willing to speak bluntly about this fact. And he has refused to be intimidated, even as many religious intellectuals found clever ways to accommodate Darwinism.

Indeed, none of his objections is religious. His thought on this subject resembles the work of two formidable French skeptics of the Darwinian faith — both of whom Berlinski discusses in this book. Marcel “Marco” Schützenberger, a mathematician and a doctor of medicine, was Berlinski’s friend and sometime collaborator. René Thom was a towering 20th-century mathematician who won a Fields Medal in 1958 — the highest honor for that profession. No honest person can read Berlinski’s treatment of Darwinian thought in these pages and dismiss it as religious prejudice.

Berlinski is at his best as an analyst and critic of complex and controversial ideas. When it comes to his own convictions on matters metaphysical, however, he tends toward the epigrammatic and cryptic. He is associated with the intelligent design movement, for instance. But his own position of the subject has always been agnostic.

My sense is that he suspects more than he’s willing to say. In the short conclusion, for instance, he observes that “life itself suggests a kind of intelligence evident nowhere else; reflective biologists have always known that in the end they would have to account for its fantastic and controlled complexity, its brilliant inventiveness and diversity, its sheer difference from anything else in this or any other world.”

David Berlinski “suspects more than he’s willing to say.” Again, that rings true about this wonderful writer, thinker, and personality. Read the rest here at the Acton Institute journal, Religion & Liberty.