Evolution is not a theory
The fossil record is “just bizzare”
Evolution is not a testable theory
We can’t do computer simulations
We don’t see evolution in a lab.
When most people hear and use the the word theory they imagine something flimsy. “My theory is the cat secretly hates me but loves my cat food”. This sort of flimsy definition is true in science as well. “My theory is that a virus stimulates immune activating chemicals in order to produce a large, but disordered immune response to infection.” The second example might be more sophisticated but it still amounts to an educated guess on the part of the scientist. Depending on how technical you want to get, this second example could also be considered a hypothesis. Theory though has a second larger meaning. It’s closer to what other people consider a paradigm. For example the Theory of Gravity, the Cell Theory, the Atomic Theory, and so on. A paradigm for which there is such overwhelming evidence that it represents the foundation for any scientific discourse. To describe the Theory of Evolution as a collection of anecdotes or a series of hunches is exceedingly disingenuous. The Theory of Evolution is nothing less than the foundation of biology. Everything in biology in some way relates to and supports the Theory of Evolution.
His assertion that the fossil record is “just bizarre” speaks to nothing except his own ignorance. I’m mystified that he would claim that it has no order, or no predictive value when there are libraries and textbooks on the subject. There are numerous well known examples in the fossil revealing detailed evolutionary processes. The horse is a well known example, whales are another. Plants are a third. Not only does the fossil record have descriptive value but it has predictive value as well. We can use the fossil record to line up important geological or biological events against other known historical markers such as coding in the DNA, changes in climate, radiological dating, sedimentary information, ice cores and more. When you have multiple independent lines of research in agreement then you typically say that they hypothesis is supported. The theory is valid. Are we discovering new things in the fossil record? absolutely. There’s no one that said that the process of discovery is finished. But here’s the rub. Every time we discover a new fossil it solidifies our understanding of the fossil record and evolutionary history. If it was mere chaos as Mr. Berlinski claim then it would generate more chaos. For example, the evolution of flight. It was a mystery for a long time. We knew roughly when and how flight might have developed but it wasn’t until the last few years that we discovered the fossils of early flying creatures and feathers that we got to see a picture of what early flight evolution looked like. It was consistent with what we knew before and it added to our understanding of evolution. Subsequent discoveries have also been consistent. Instead of random data points or anecdotes it points to a clear consistent picture.
I was also amused at his next example of Newton’s Theory of Gravity as a quintessential moment in science. Newton was famously wrong. Sure his theory was close. His theory works on a very superficial level but it’s been superseded by the theory of relativity for almost 100 years, and even that one is insufficient. It’s a good demonstration at how our understanding of the universe evolves. Even the theory of evolution is not a static thing but undergoes constant revision as we acquire and assimilate new data. But more importantly biologists do have equations to describe evolution. The simplest one is the Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium. We teach that one in freshman bio. It describes the allelic frequency of a population. Further statistical analysis is done with varying degrees of complexity the further along you get. We’ve even got supercomputers running some of them. I can’t tell you how many in silico experiments have been done using computers. Numerous experiments and observations about how complexity arises have been published. He’s right in one small area. Complexity isn’t generated from Natural Selection. The theory only states that the organism that can best adapt to it’s environment will replicate the most. Complexity doesn’t come into it. If a simpler organism can replicate the best then that set of genes will propagate the most. Complexity arises independent of natural selection and there are numerous ways that this can happen. His confusion on this fact indicates that he is probably not qualified to discuss evolution in a meaningful fashion.
His next two issues are gobbledygook. I’m not even sure how to interpret the question he’s asking. If I cared about being more polite I would say that this was an ill-formed question. How come we can’t model evolution on the computer? We can. Google “genetic algorithms”. There are many any number of algorithms and they can all model fairly simple genetic processes pretty easily. However, biology is unimaginably complex, programing “evolution” into a computer (whatever that means) will also be unimaginably complex. It’s not something that either our programing languages or our computers can realistically handle at the moment. But I’m still not clear what his primary objection is to evolution based on this line of reasoning. Is he asking us to take a primordial string of DNA and turn it into all the DNA we see around us? That’s not possible given our current understanding of biology and technological development. Is he asking how we can derive different phenotypes based on changes to the genetic code. Well we do that all the time. He keeps saying things are very simple. What things? simple how? I’m flummoxed by this notion that we can “program general relativity and quantum mechanics into a computer and see the consequences”. We can? since when? The initial experimental and theoretical parameters are only now just being developed. I’m not saying that he’s wrong here, only that he’s so vague that piecing together what he means is impossible for me. I believe him when he says that he can’t program anything on his own, but given his level of understanding of biology this doesn’t surprise me.
It is also very unclear about what he’s talking about when he talks about an inability to replicate evolution in a laboratory. “Dogs have always been dogs no matter how far back you look” And how far back are you looking? Because even a cursory glance into this reveals that Dogs go back about 500,000 years before they turn into wolves, and wolves go back further and further, until you get to the earliest mammals. Part of his problem may be that he’s ignoring the part of the “bizarre” fossil record that conveys this information. Is suggesting we try to turn dogs into something else? Same with bacteria. “And when we look at bacteria no matter what we do they stay bugs”. What are you imagining them to be? Dogs? Bacteria go through some pretty intense evolution in the lab. They can generate radically new metabolic pathways, sensory apparatuses, resistance genes, environmental adaptations, they’ve even evolved bacteria from single celled to a multicellular organism. Recently came out that they discovered some fungi that uses a common pigment to eat radiation. Deinococcus radiodurans is famous for living inside nuclear reactors. So it’s unclear exactly what his objection is. It’s very vaguely worded and hard to refute or acknowledge.
I guess that’s in it a nutshell. How to we evaluate people like Berlinski? Well do they have clear testable objections? No. “We should have far more plasticity far more flexibility in the lab and in nature”. How much more? what constitutes “plasticity” in a laboratory situation? and how would you measure it? Are they ignoring data? yes. “Small, cyclical, highly banded variation. Like Finch beaks in the Galapagos islands”. Really? This is the only example of variation that you can imagine? Not the trillions upon trillions of birds, and fish, and animals, and insects, that display huge variations? His statement is absolutely correct if you have a sufficiently narrow view to only those few birds in the Galapagos Islands. Are they appealing to their own ignorance? absolutely. “The fossil record is just bizarre”. Just because he can’t understand it doesn’t mean that no one can understand it, and truth be told, I’m not sure he’s trying very hard. Are they alleging conspiracy? you bet. “These are evidentiary points that need to be stressed openly and honestly but they never are, of course.” These are points that were openly and honestly discussed in the 1850s. The conversation has moved on.