The Incorrigible Dr. Berlinski
DVD Review by Gord Wilson

"I should not feel myself overwhelmed by the onward rush of a new world which had not considered any science later than Darwin," British author G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1935. On the other hand, biologist Daniel Dennet recently wrote an article for a popular science magazine comparing Darwinism to an acid which eats away all other explanatory theories. Darwin's 200th birthday falls on 12 January, 2009, and two centuries later the controversy generated by the author of The Origin of Species shows no signs of abating. The most recent salvo was fired in Ben Stein's 2008 documentary, Expelled, which charged that scholars and scientists with differing views were being silenced by the Darwinian Orthodoxy. That film also introduced the world to an articulate mathematician  more widely known for numerous popular science books including A Tour of the Calculus, and Newton's Gift, Dr. David Berlinski.

The Incorrigible Dr. Berlinski is a 55 minute interview on DVD. It's all middle shots of Berlinski. There are none of the bells and whistles that made Expelled so engrossing. But it's not really about the same subject either. In this DVD the Dr. is interviewed by the producers of a DVD called Icons of Evolution, also from ColdWater Media and, at present more widely available. This video answers the objection, "Where's the science in Intelligent Design", but only provisionally. Berlinski is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, a major thinktank on Intelligent Design, but he does not claim to be presenting the case for ID. The subtitle on the screen is: "A Rebellious Intellectual Defies Darwin", but a more accurate tag might be "Doubts About Darwin". But it will do until a real subtitle comes along.

The DVD begins with a synopsis from Berlinsk's vita on the screen, and is divided into 23 searchable titles. I list the titles below and comment on some of them. The rough quotes give an idea of the sections. To cite anymore I'd have to transcribe the entire DVD. Oddly enough, the discussion starts on a higher level than it ends. About half way through, around section 11, the discussion shifts to a lighter discussion of the scientific establishment, which might interest a larger share of the Expelled audience. Some of the last chapter titles (put in by the producers) are quotable quotes, perhaps meant to start discussions. At any rate, this DVD will prove engaging to anyone with a background in science, or who wants to pursue further some of the topics in Expelled.

1. Unanswered Questions.

Berlinski recounts how he began to have doubts about Darwinism (not yet defined) while at Columbia University. In the 60s and 70s, he notes, there was much more willingness to examine "whether any of this could possibly be true".

2.  Head Scratching Mathematician.

Critics have tagged Berlinski as a "Creationist", inaccurate in his case, he notes, as he is neither "a fundamentalist or a Christian".

3. What is Evolution and Why Does it Remain Controversial?

Berlinski differentiates between three meanings for the word "evolution". The first infers that there is a common pattern to life, which he also holds, and which is the least controversial. The second infers common descent. This is slightly more controversial, but Berlinski doesn't have a strong position on that. The third, and most controversial, views evolution as referring to a "specific mechanism-- and engine capable of producing the effects we see around us". That view, Berlinski says, "I think is overwhelmingly false."

4. Life Sent from Outer Space?

Regarding the scientific establishment, Berlinski maintains that "the political price of questioning Darwinian theory is high; the incentive is low." He refers to Francis Crick, who with Watson discovered the structure of DNA, saying that the "cumulative improbabilities are so staggering" that Crick concluded it more likely that life was sent here from outer space, a view called "directed panspermia".

5. Dogs Stay Dogs, Bacteria Stay Bugs.

The fossil record, Berlinski maintains, is "simply mystifying". In contrast with physics, he notes, we have never been able to examine the central Darwinian claim. Fifty years after the computer revolution we have a splendid tool with which to assess Darwinian theory. There seems to be an inherent species limitation (bounded variation), as with the example of the Finch beaks in the Galapagos Islands, permitting only small variations.

6. Finch Beaks and Nutty Journalists.

Finch beaks seem to change with the seasons, despite the overreaching claims of nutty journalists. "We need a whole lot more evidence".

7. Transitional Sequences?

There are plenty of things in the fossil record that look like transitional sequences. This strengthens the idea of an evolutionary sequence. However, one must ask what are the predicted properties of such changes? What might one expect to find? To go from a land to a sea dwelling creature, Berlinski estimates, an organism would require roughly 50,000 morphological changes. If changes are incremental, where are they in the fossil record? What part of the story is not being told?

8.  You Can Lead a Cow to Water.

What would it take to change a car into a submarine? What would be needed to change a cow into a whale? These are both engineering problems.

9. Is Similarity in Structure in Animals (or Homology) Evidence for Evolution from a Common Ancestor?

Berlinski notes that in this area it's difficult to avoid circular reasoning.

10. Good Good Good Good Mutations.

Almost all mutations are deletereous. Arbitrary or random events introduced into writing a book or a computer code tend to "screw it up".

11. Sheer Dumb Luck.

In one of the best sections, Berlinski talks about randomness, and his skepticism that "these extraordinary, ineffably beautiful structures arise from a random process (Berlinski goes more into the combination of randomness and deterministic process posited in views of natural selection in his book on logic and probability, Black Mischief).

12. Can Don Quixote Evolve into War and Peace?

Questions the claim that given enough time, monkeys will type out Shakespeare.

13. Self-critical Science and Other Myths.

"Scientists are no more self-critical than anyone else," Berlinski maintains. "They hate criticism. Me too."

14. A Rebel Without a Clue.

Very short transition between parts 13 and 15.

15. Going 98 in a School Zone.

Berlinski maintains that there have been 100 years of fraudulent drawings. "Just what I'd expect from biologists struggling to maintain their position". Think of your last traffic ticket as an example.

16. Power Corrupts but Absolute Power is Kind of Neat Though.

Berlinski further comments on the position of scientists, saying "no one wants to be identified with the side at which intellectuals are going to snicker".

17. Amusing Anecdotes or Marxist Conspiracy?

The lively section title notwithstanding, Berlinski notes that there has to be some consensus in some points of view in science. However, he says, "let's open the discussion and present some countervailing views".

18. Progress Might Have Been Alright Once but It Has Gone On Too Long. -Ogden Nash.

It's not clear that science is progressing, Berlinski considers. It may be moving in a circular fashion.

19. Profound Ignorance.

"I think we're hundreds of years away from having the same kind of understanding of living systems that we have in parts of physics" -Berlinski.

20. Freedom of the Press is Limited to Those Who Have One. -H.L. Mencken.

"We've lost something in this country because we've become afraid of controversy," Berlinski maintains. "The fact that we have to justify an attack on Darwinian theory is a very sad commentary on the health of American society."

21. Regnant Priests of a Powerful Orthodoxy.

"When people haven't been criticized for a long time they react with a great deal of indignation when criticized for the first time." Berlinski is referring to Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet, the "priests" of the section title. "I think science needs a whole lot more name calling".

22. Never Let School Interfere with Your Education. -Mark Twain.

"If someone is going to get discouraged in high school because he's dealing with a muttonhead as his biology teacher, he shouldn't go into science at all," Berlinski insists. "It really is a tough field. There's a lot of abuse. You shouldn't be discouraged easily."

23. Let's Win One for the Gipper.

"I remember myself as a high school student," Berlinski recalls, "dumb as a post, incapable of reading." "But certainly the idea of a high school as an enlarged locker room where only the coach's pep talk is considered reasonable-- that should be repugnant. Let's give high school students the benefit of the doubt." "What do we risk? Just what do we risk if some of the profound, exciting, deeply perplexing, vexing issues of biology are presented honestly?"

Books by David Berlinski in the Living Dog Store

Expelled Interview
Expelled Review
Living Dog Store