A Memory of William F. Buckley

February 29, 2008

Monkey Typing Shakespeare

When I think of William F. Buckley Jr., I think of a piece he wrote for the New York Times Op-Ed page a few years ago on Darwin and “Intelligent Design.” (I cannot find the piece in the Times archive online, and I’d be grateful for a link. I know my memory of it is correct, because Buckley refers to the piece himself elsewhere.) In that piece, he reprised an argument that he had used before, and that has been popular with religious anti-evolution critics since Darwin first published his theory.

Simply stated, the argument is that organisms are too complex and perfectly suited to their environments to have evolved by random mutation. To bring this home, Buckley and others employ, with various degrees of derision and sarcasm, the reductio ad absurdum of the room with ten monkeys and ten typewriters on which they bang away happily, and randomly. Could we expect this monkey business to produce Shakepeare’s Hamlet? Well…since the play has a finite number of words, and since the number of possible combinations of the letters in the text of the play is finite, albeit unfathomably large, it is possible if there were enough time provided for the (immortal) simians to do their work. Now, Darwin shivered at the colossal lengths of time his evolutionary scheme required, but that was as nothing compared to the duration we are contemplating here! Intelligent Design triumphs?

Of course, the entire argument is based on a complete misunderstanding, a profound ignorance of what Darwin’s theory entails. Evolution is not a random process. Genetic mutations occur randomly, but their selection and propagation is based on their survival value for the organism. As Ernst Mayr says, it’s a two-step process: mutation, then selection. Sort of as if those tapping monkeys had an editor in the room looking at their output, saving the good scraps of random prose, and somehow feeding that back into the process. Except, of course, the “editor” in evolution is not intelligent or active, but only the blind, crushing, indifferent force of the environment that leads to the disappearance by death or disuse of most mutations.

This fundamental ignorance is how I recall Buckley. He was clever and genial, and ever willing to evade a hard question. When verbal puffery wouldn’t do, he would employ snide humor, innuendo, or sarcasm. He was serenely confident of his opinions, bigotted and otherwise, and acted as though it was bizarre that anyone would question them. When an interviewer asked him if he had felt isolated from “real life” as a young man – he was home schooled – he replied that no, of course not. After all, you don’t need to experience things to understand them. He read a lot. Yes, true, reading is wonderful. But only a blockhead or someone uninterested in testing their ideas would be so confident that there is nothing more to know.


Anatomy of the “Dismal Science”

February 9, 2008


Reading Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution got me curious about him. A friend of liberty? He describes the epochal event in 700 close print pages of exciting narrative. A stormy, breathless, you-are-there quality, with dashes of sarcasm and much heavy irony, makes it fascinating reading. What did he mean by writing On Heroes and Hero-Worship? No, he was no friend of democracy, liberty, and the common man, though he did begin as a radical. In fact, he seems to have been a rather tortured intellect, maybe a tormented soul.

While thumbing through his life, however, I came upon this interesting tidbit about him and his coinage, perhaps his most famous, i.e., economics is “the dismal science.” It can easily be interpreted as a protest against the pessimistic, inhumane, and souless discipline of a “science” devoted to money. Well, think again…

Everyone knows that economics is the dismal science. And almost everyone knows that it was given this description by Thomas Carlyle who was inspired to coin the phrase by T. R. Malthus’s gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact—that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty—that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.”

The Secret History of the Dismal Science: Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century
by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart

The image at the top is a medallion produced by the abolitionist industrialist, Josiah Wedgewood. JW was good friends with that practitioner of the dismal science and fellow abolitionist, Adam Smith. (Darwin was married to one of JW’s family, and was also an abolitionist, as well as being about 100 years ahead of his time on the question of race. Not only was he against slavery, not only did he think that Africans were the same (species) as Europeans, but he was actually friends with some.) This children of The Enlightenment – that fearsomely evil, anti-moral, godless, soul-destroying ideology – seem like pretty good guys compared to Thomas Carlyle, romantic apologist for dictatorship and slavery.

Still, he was a pretty nice looking fellow, don’t you think?


Bumper Sticker Debate on Evolution & The 2nd Law

September 1, 2006

Some people who are irritated with the creationist/ID crowd have bumper stickers like this one, but I don’t want to get in peoples’ faces: I just want to get my views across, so I chose a bumper sticker that didn’t satirize or appropriate their religious symbols.  Here it is:


That’s all there is to say, I think. Surprising to me, I’ve gotten reaction. Two within the last year, which is not much, but how often do you get comments on your bumper stickers?

Once, I was chugging along stuck in traffic and a guy in a van pulled up next to me, rolled down his window, and gestured with his thumb to the rear of my car. “How do you square that with the 2nd Law?” he shouted. I shouted back, “It’s not a closed system!” and we both drove off, after he waved away my response derisively. [Technical background on that below.]

A few days ago, I returned to my car in a parking lot and found a piece of paper wedged into the door handle, reading,

Nice bumper sticker. (…Evolution) They say it exists. But God and Evolution coexist. Big Bang says that something can come from nothing. It will be an interesting debate! Just don’t get arrogant. Have a good 1!

Cheery note from a creationist, I think. Well, what about this stuff?

The thermo argument is often made and it arises from complete ignorance of what the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics really means. Popularly, it is said to show that order cannot arise spontaneously out of disorder, and that the amount of disorder in the world – entropy – is always increasing. A teenager’s room will gradually degrade into a chaotic mess, almost on its own, but it won’t neaten itself up unless the guiding intelligence of a teen (parent) is applied. So, on the face of it, for complex forms of life to arise out of less complex ones would seem to be an increase of order (design) out of less order, without any intervention. QED, Darwin’s theory must be wrong. Well, not so fast…Let’s look at what the 2nd Law really says.

Imagine you have a box – a system – like the one shown below:
This box is divided into two compartments, and there is an opening in the partition that can be covered or opened by sliding a door up and down. There is also a min-turbine wheel just in front of the opening. The box is insulated so that no heat (energy) can get in or out of the box’s two compartments. This point is very important because it defines the system as closed, or separate from the rest of the world. Imagine also that the right compartment is heated up already (we won’t bother with how) and the left is more like room temperature.

This system, as we’ve decribed it, is highly ordered. It is neat and tidy. One half is hot with high energy, one side is cool with low energy. They are clearly separated, and it takes work to get it this way, like putting in some energy to the right to warm it up before everything is sealed for the experiment. Now, let’s imagine we activate a remote control to slide the partition door up and let the hot air move into the cool compartment. Of course, it will.

As the hot air rushes through the little hole, our turbine will turn and do work for us, like rotate a generating coil and produce electricity. But after all the hot air has rushed in and turned the wheel, then what? This is the key point!

The total amount of heat energy in the box (both sides, now connected as one, by the hole) will be the same as at the start of the experiment! No heat can get out because the box is insulated, a closed system. But, of course, the wheel will no longer turn! The energy will be diffused throughout the box, and the work was done only because the system was ordered, organized, with separate compartments that had vastly different energy levels. Once the door is opened, the temperature in the two sides will become equalized, and no more work (wheel turning) can be done. Thermo-people say that the entropy (disorder) of the system has increased.  It is obvious also that there is no way that the system will spontaneously re-order itself so that compartments have different temperatures again, allowing us to do more work. It’s like water running down a chute to turn a waterwheel: Once it’s down, it doesn’t spontaneously go up the hill again. It takes energy from sun to evaporate the oceans, make clouds in the mountains, then rain, then rivers, etc. And this brings me to my final point. 

God-talkers are wrong to equate this system illustrating the 2nd Law with our world and living creatures in it. The fact is, we do not live in a closed system. We live on a planet that is bombarded with energy from the sun that causes DNA to be mutated, moves water from the oceans to the mountains, and makes all terrestrial work possible. The energy inputs make the possibility of ordered systems arising out of disorder possible, and that’s just what happens.

It may be true that the universe as a whole is tending to a higher state of entropy, i. e.  a condition in which all energy is evenly dispersed throught the cosmos and nothing ever happens anywhere because entropy is at a maximum, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the local conditions now on our planet. It may not even be true…there are other cosmological considerations. 

And what of my anonymous debater who left me a note? Well, some people believe in God and accept evolution, it is true. My sticker says nothing at all about God. As for the Big Bang and creation from nothing, or ex nihilo as the theologians put it, what has that got to do with the issue? I don’t see how that’s relevant. Still, I’m glad to get such a good natured response.

Reason Triumphs!

December 21, 2005

Another pseudopod heard from!

Judge Jones, a conservative, a republican, appointed by George Bush, Sr., has issued a sweeping ruling that places the claims of the Intelligent Design science-bashers into the dustbin where they belong. From his ruling, as reported in the NY Times, emphasis added:

It is notable that defense experts’ own mission, which mirrors that of the IDM itself, is to change the ground rules of science to allow supernatural causation of the natural world, which the Supreme Court in Edwards and the court in McLean correctly recognized as an inherently religious concept… First, defense expert Professor Fuller agreed that ID aspires to “change the ground rules” of science and lead defense expert Professor Behe admitted that his broadened definition of science, which encompasses ID, would also embrace astrology. Moreover, defense expert Professor Minnich acknowledged that for ID to be considered science, the ground rules of science have to be broadened to allow consideration of supernatural forces.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of anactivist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which
has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

Evolution or …Nothing

November 18, 2005

Darwin, the most in-depth exhibition ever mounted on this highly original thinker, botanist, geologist, and naturalist and his theory of evolution will open at the Museum on November 19, 2005, and remain on view through May 29, 2006. This exhibition continues a series of exhibitions the Museum has developed on great thinkers, explorers, and scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Ernest Shackleton, Albert Einstein, and now Charles Darwin.

Design De-Signed

February 7, 2005

The intellectual confusion that is at the core of the so-called Intelligent Design Theory was on display once again in this mornings’ NYTimes in the opinion piece, “Design for Living” by Michael J. Behe. Let’s do him the favor of assuming he’s honest, and not some stooge for the religious right, and examine his ‘arguments’ such as they are.Okay, so according to him, the proponents of ID do not doubt that evolution and natural selection occur, simply that they are not sufficient to explain the organisms we see. Lets say right off that that ends the argument. If they can show that current theories are inadequate, and they can propose a new one that can be proved to fill in the gaps, good for them! But what does that have to do with ID? Asserting that complexity theory or the permutations of cellular automata may be a crucial element in explaining evolution does not contradict Darwin’s theory (if the assertions are ever proved) any more than Mendellian genetics did. And it certainly does not support the notion of ID.

At the core of his position is a deep prejudice which he makes clear with his statement, “…we often recognize the effects of design in nature.” NO! That was precisely what Darwin showed to be false. Are we back in the 18th century when we must listen to pontificating natural theologians rambling on…”Notice, we have two feet, perfect for shoes, and noses, perfect to hold our glasses…” I suggest that an alien visiting earth from another galaxy (where are those guys when you need them?) might have difficulty recognizing Mt. Rushmore as ‘designed’, especially if their life forms were radically different from ours. Anthropologists often have trouble distinguishing ancient tools from randomly chipped shards found in their digs – is design really so obvious? I think not, unless you have already decided it is prevalent.

Mr. Behe never explains what design is, because he doesn’t know or care. It just explains everything he can’t easily explain now. Sounds like a religious idea to me. If you stop assuming design is present everywhere, you stop seeing it…if you have another explanation, which we do have.

I truly enjoyed his comment that scientists are probably gritting their teeth and muttering, “It wasn’t designed, not really,” despite their ‘common sense’ knowledge that it ‘obviously’ is designed. Yes, reminds me of a Polish astronomer I once knew who looked at the heavens and said, “It’s not really spinning around the earth, not really. It goes around the Sun.” He said that even though his eyes suggested that the solar system did revolve around the earth. Hadn’t people noticed it for centuries? We have to believe our eyes, but we also have to know that sometimes we just don’t know what we’re looking at. Alas, the world may look like the toy ground on the lathe of the Great Toymaker in the sky, but it ain’t.

Some of Behe’s arguments are simply rehashes of anti-Darwin screeds from the 19th century, such as his claim that “no research studies indcate that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.” Seems to me that the entire thrust of biological research over the last hundred years, including micro-biology and physiology, all of which employ Darwin as a foundation element, are just that. There is nothing so far that CANNOT be explained with Darwinian mechanisms. We are back, once again, to the Bishop Wilberforce pseudo-arguments about the eye being too complex for it to be the product of ‘random’ evolution. (Of course, we know that evolution is not random.)

The circular arguments of this pathetic exposition are capped by his fourth argument in which Behe asserts that the “strong appearance of design” is a simple and strong argument in favor of ID. That which we desire to prove is the proof of what we desire to prove. Great logic! And I have to disagree that Darwin was “laboring to explain” the profound appearance of design in biological life. He was working to explain how species came about, and the resolution of the false appearance of design is simply an after affect. And how do species come about, Mr. Behe?

Finally he appeals to a vox populi argument: most people don’t accept Darwin’s theory, therefore it’s justified to discard it. We won’t settle the issue by arguing over definitions – especially when he won’t define any of his terms. And science should “keep looking for another explanation in case one is out there.” Yup, go to it, Mr. Behe. Do your theorizing, publish your experimental results, and good luck to you. If you can disprove Darwin, you will be hailed as a great man, but the fact that you are on your quixotic quest for ID does not prove that it is valid.

Mr. Behe says it doesn’t seem useful to search for non-design explanations of Mt. Rushmore. He takes the humanly created and the natural world to be all of a piece, no distinctions. Ah, yes, those Alps, so beautifully designed, surely there must be a supreme artist…The marvelous thing about culture is that it is created by us, the thinking ones. Do we have evidence that the raw material of the world was similarly created, other than an intellectual weakness to assume that what’s good for the goose is always good for the gander?

But, you know, I’m tired of this. I give up. Let’s grant Mr. Behe his argument. Intelligent Design rules! Yahooo! Now, please explain to me: who or what is the intelligent designer; if it’s not a superhuman god, then how is it different from unintelligent design? If you don’t know, what on earth does your theory add to our knowledge of the world?

Much of the confusion and delusion of this piece stems from one basic idea. ID advocates think that because Darwinians have not explained every element of every complex organism of interest, they cannot explain anything. But when they do attempt to explain organisms’ evolution, they succeed. But to explain the details of complex organisms that have evolved over tremendous reaches of time…that’s a work in progress. But there is only one path to the end as of now, and each small step it takes is solid. This explains the confusion, but it doesn’t excuse it. Fact is, Newton’s laws of gravitational attraction are pretty simple and straighforward, but last I heard, it still isn’t possible to accurately solve for the motion of three bodies that are mutually attracting one another simultaneously. It’s too difficult for us now. Does that mean Newton was wrong?

Ape Men

February 5, 2005

Darwin is long gone, and now, Ernst Mayr is dead at 100. He was the most prominent evolutionary biologist, perhaps the most prominent biologist, of the 20th century. Author of hundreds of papers, scores of books, a ground breaking researcher, brilliant and devoted ornithologist, and the guiding intellect of the great synthesis of modern genetics and Darwinian theory, he was a towering figure. (Recall, Darwin knew nothing of genetics, even after Mendel’s work, because it was not published!) One of his latest books, What is Evolution? is a wonderfully lucid exposition for laymen that even a creationist could read, should read, but perhaps, alas, cannot understand. I never met Mayr, nor heard him speak, so I don’t know what this brilliant and scholarly gentleman thought of popular culture, let alone rock n’ roll, nor have I any idea of what his sense of humour was, but I like to think he might have chuckled at this, one of my favorite songs by The Kinks:

Ape Man

I think I’m sophisticated
’cos I’m living my life like a good homosapien
But all around me everybody’s multiplying
Till they’re walking round like flies man
So I’m no better than the animals sitting in their cages
In the zoo man
’cos compared to the flowers and the birds and the trees
I am an ape man

I think I’m so educated and I’m so civilized
’cos I’m a strict vegetarian
But with the over-population and inflation and starvation
And the crazy politicians
I don’t feel safe in this world no more
I don’t want to die in a nuclear war
I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an ape man

I’m an ape man, I’m an ape ape man
I’m an ape man I’m a king kong man I’m ape ape man
I’m an ape man
’cos compared to the sun that sits in the sky
Compared to the clouds as they roll by
Compared to the bugs and the spiders and flies
I am an ape man

In man’s evolution he has created the cities and
The motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance
And I’d be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle
’cos the only time that I feel at ease
Is swinging up and down in a coconut tree
Oh what a life of luxury to be like an ape man
I’m an ape, I’m an ape ape man, I’m an ape man
I’m a king kong man, I’m a voo-doo man
I’m an ape man
I look out my window, but I can’t see the sky
’cos the air pollution is fogging up my eyes
I want to get out of this city alive
And make like an ape man

Come and love me, be my ape man girl
And we will be so happy in my ape man world
I’m an ape man, I’m an ape ape man, I’m an ape man
I’m a king kong man, I’m a voo-doo man
I’m an ape man
I’ll be your tarzan, you’ll be my jane
I’ll keep you warm and you’ll keep me sane
And we’ll sit in the trees and eat bananas all day
Just like an ape man

I’m an ape man, I’m an ape ape man, I’m an ape man
I’m a king kong man, I’m a voo-doo man
I’m an ape man.
I don’t feel safe in this world no more
I don’t want to die in a nuclear war
I want to sail away to a distant shore
And make like an ape man.