The fringe dwellers

August 8, 1997

Will history vindicate three academics whose controversial views on Darwin and Einstein are scorned by the scientific community? Ayala Ochert investigates

If a literary expert were to suggest that Ulysses wasn't written by James Joyce, you would probably be surprised. If he or she then said that the novel was ultimately derived from Don Quixote, you would be intrigued. And if the expert were finally to reveal that Don Quixote had been transformed into Ulysses over centuries through a series of copying errors and language changes, and that each step in this process of Chinese whispers had produced another great work of western literature, you might think you were at the beginning of a fantastic new novel. The last thing you would do is take the idea seriously.

But, according novelist David Berlinski, a former academic mathematician, this is precisely the story Charles Darwin told of the origin of species. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has not only gained scientific validation, it has become the secular view of life on Earth.

According to Darwin's theory, just as farmers artificially select desirable traits in their livestock by allowing only the best animals to breed, so the natural environment acts on animals living in the wild. Only animals well suited to their environment survive to reproduce, passing on their "desirable" characteristics to their offspring. Small, random changes (spontaneous mutations in DNA) are responsible for the differences between individuals in a species. These differences accumulate over time, eventually resulting in separate species. Yet, says Berlinski, the idea that every species is descended from another by a process of happy accident is no less absurd than the idea that each great work of western literature is derived from a preceding work through mistakes in transcription.

It is no accident that Berlinski's parody of Darwinian reasoning is a literary one. In a famous demonstration, Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, natural selection's celebrated advocate, showed how monkeys sitting at typewriters might use the process of natural selection to generate the Shakespearean sentence "Methinks it is like a weasel". Berlinski is not the first to find this suggestion incredible. According to the example, the monkeys get to "keep" each letter that they correctly guess is in the Shakespearean sentence, but, says Berlinski, natural selection allows no such accumulation of "correct guesses". "If natural selection cannot discern a simple English sentence, what chance is there that it might have discovered the mammalian eye or the system by which glucose is regulated by the liver?".

Berlinski's analogy is thought-provoking, but can it really damage Darwinian thinking? Could thousands of scientists have overlooked such a basic criticism? It is tempting to dismiss Berlinski as an eccentric. But in his questioning of science's fundamental theories, he is one of a growing breed.

People have long argued against Darwinism for religious reasons, but this new band of ultra-sceptical scientists is not expressing philosophical qualms. They say that the theory of evolution by natural selection and the attempt to explain life using genes as the basic building blocks - is simply bad science.

Molecular genetics, for example, Berlinski describes as "a subject immersed in a prescientific latticework of metaphor, simile, hunch, words with no clear meaning, and a kind of covenant among geneticists that they will not ask penetrating questions at the margins of their inquiry". The idea of "genetic information" is one such meta-phor: "It's a deeply suspicious idea which geneticists use without critical scrutiny," Berlinski complains. "But we can't keep on talking of 'information' forever as if we really understood it. We can't keep on pretending that we understand what it would be for an information source uniquely to organise its own interpretation, as DNA is said to do. We couldn't design a computer programme that could construct the mechanism for its own interpretation, and yet a bacterial cell does exactly that."

The difficulty in explaining how individual organisms actually develop from the small package of data stored in their chromosomes is acknowledged by biologists, though most would disagree with Berlinski on the extent of the problem. He sees a fundamental obstacle blocking any Darwinian account of life - the DNA code itself, and the random variations it produces. "Randomness in language is the enemy of order," notes Berlinski. Mistakes in transcribing, for example, great works of literature do not produce yet more great works, just gibberish.

When Berlinski published his critique of Darwinism in the American journal Commentary, few biologists responding hid their annoyance. Some expressed open disdain, including Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, a strong defender of evolutionary theory. He called the piece "another hilarious demonstration that you can publish bull**** at will".

This response, which Berlinski likened to "the attack of a squid as it squirts ink at its opponent" is not what one might expect from scientists. They are forbidden from becoming emotionally involved with their theories, but with a theory as attractive as Darwin's, the temptation may be too strong.

"(Darwinism) is an article of belief, a theological conviction, because most biologists regard the alternative as an abyss of creationism. So they have attached their conviction to a theory that is intellectually deficient because they are terribly frightened of the alternative. It's not a rational response," says Berlinski.

Against the popular image of the rational scientist, these modern critics present a different picture. Scientists, they say, are not scientific enough. When biochemist Michael Behe, associate professor at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, published his book Darwin's Black Box, explaining why he believed the theory of evolution to be wrong, it got much the same reception from the biological community as Berlinski's critique.

The "black box" Behe refers to is the biological cell, of which nothing was known in Darwin's time. "Darwin assumed that everything would be simple at the fundamental level, but we see extreme complexity in the cell," Behe explains. This led him to question whether natural selection was really up to the job of producing systems of such complexity.

Behe describes biochemical systems as "irreducibly complex" - take one part away and the whole system fails to operate. He argues that they could not have been produced by the gradual accumulation of changes required by natural selection. Small changes to a biochemical system could not produce the incremental advantages sought by evolution, says Behe.

Though unsurprised by the reaction to his argument, Behe finds it "curious" that most objections focus not on the scientific questions he raises, but on "philosophical" scruples. Reviews of his book concentrated on Behe's religious beliefs, but he emphasises that his problems with Darwinism were motivated by his lab work. "I was a Roman Catholic before I criticised Darwin," he counters. "I was taught that (natural selection) was God's way of creating life. It was only when I started to think about the scientific problems that I became critical." For Behe, the alternative to Darwin is to take seriously the notion of "intelligent design" in nature, while Berlinski prefers "intelligent uncertainty".

Finding creationist accounts "as vexing as the accounts they are meant to supplant", Berlinski agrees that personal beliefs should not enter into the debate. "We should be able to deal with the arguments without worrying about the religious agenda. We should be able to address Dawkins' arguments without fear."

If this is a case of biologists behaving badly, do their colleagues in physics behave any differently? Howard Hayden, professor of physics at the University of Connecticut, is to Einstein what Behe is to Darwin. He says that only rarely has he experienced downright hostility. More frustratingly, perhaps, he feels that colleagues have ignored his work. Following in the footsteps of the late Petr Beckman, Hayden argues that an alternative to Einstein's relativity is needed. He cites lesser-known experiments that run counter to the predictions of relativity theory, and asserts that many central tenets remain unconfirmed.

Relativity's most counterintuitive elements he regards as unnecessary inconveniences brought about by Einstein's "redefining the undefinable". But physicists have not taken seriously Beckmann's alternative despite its ability to do away with many of relativity's apparent "effects without causes".

Hayden's gripe is the way fellow physicists have allowed relativity to take on the character of a religion. "People believe in it. You shouldn't do that in science," Hayden says. "People adopted relativity theory because of its mathematical cleanliness - it was consistent, beautiful, loaded with symmetry. But these are essentially religious reasons. All that symmetry that they fell in love with has never been confirmed."

"There have always been scientists on the margins who get ignored until a scientific paradigm undergoes a crisis," says Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Durham University, and an expert on the work of influential historian Thomas Kuhn, who argued that periods of "normal science" continue until they get overturned by a scientific revolution. "The scientists we now regard as revolutionaries were typically marginalised scientists who nevertheless knew what they were talking about."

So, are Berlinski, Behe and Hayden revolutionaries or merely mavericks? The process of peer review determines which ideas end up in the textbooks. But, says Fuller, "the peer review system is increasingly regarded as self-serving and not the most efficient way to generate new ideas". In an increasingly competitive research environment, scientists' "resistance to criticism comes from an understandable reluctance to write your own ticket out of a job". But John Maddox, former editor of Nature disagrees. "Punch drunk as they are, scientists are perfectly willing to accept criticism," he says.

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