An anonymous tipster sent me a note to let me know that on one of the Disco
Institute’s sites, my old pal David Berlinski has been arguing that all sorts of
famous mathematicians were really anti-evolution.
about Berlinski before. In my opinion, he’s one of the most pointlessly
arrogant pompous jackasses I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to deal with. He
practically redefines the phrase “full of himself”.
This latest spewing of him is quite typical. It is mostly content free –
it consists of a whole lot of name-dropping, giving Berlinski a chance to talk
about all of the wonderfully brilliant people he’s close personal
friends with. And, quite naturally, his close personal friends have told
him all sorts of things about what other famous mathematicians
really thought about evolution.
A typical taste of this is right at the start of the article. It’s set
up as an interview. Berlinski has been claiming that Jon von Neumann was very
skeptical of evolution. Naturally, lots of people have called bullshit on that. So the
“interviewer” asks him about how he knows what JvN thought of evolution, when he
never wrote anything about it. Berlinski’s answer:
How do I know? Here’s how:
I have been close to a number of mathematicians, and friends with others:
Daniel Gallin (who died before he could begin his career), M.P. Schutzenberger
(my great friend), René Thom (a friend as well), Gian-Carlo Rota (another
friend), Lipman Bers (who taught me complex analysis and with whom I briefly
shared a hospital room, he leaving as I was coming), Paul Halmos (a colleagues
in California), and Irving Segal (a friend by correspondence, embattled and
distraught). Some of these men I admired very much, and all of them I liked.
I had many other friends in the international mathematical community. We
exchanged views; I got around.
See, he very typically starts off with lots of name-dropping. What does this list
have to do with the question? Nothing, really. It’s just that Berlinski always
needs to make it clear just how special he is, how he knows lots
of famous people, and how truly smart and wonderfully connected he is.
(Remember that this is the guy who tells
the story about how he managed to make a bunch of mathematics
professors really understand limits for the first time. He’s got a
really amazing view of himself.)
Anyway… He goes on to explain how Professor Rota really wanted
to publish one of Berlinski’s anti-evolution screeds, but ended up deciding
not to, for fear of the political damage that would be done to Berlinski. Of
course, we’re supposed to take Berlinski’s word for this: that this famous
professor of mathematics is really a huge fan of Berlinski’s anti-evolution
rubbish, but has never admitted to it, because he has “very refined political
After a ridiculous additional amount of self-aggrandizing bullshit,
Berlinski finally gets to the point:
I now pass to the point of this exercise. Where did I get my
information? Let me tell you. I got my information about Von Neumann from the
horse’s mouth, the horse one step removed from the horse himself.
Quite obviously I did not know Von Neumann personally. He was too old and I
too young ever to have met. So what I know of views I know at second hand. I
know it from my friends.
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “Ah, this apparently is some entirely new
use of the term “from the horses mouth” of which I was previously unaware”.
Berlinski knows what Jon Von Neumann thought of the theory of evolution, because
he heard it from the horses mouth. By which he means that some of his friends who
might have spoken to JvN about it at some point in time allegedly passed
JvNs opinions on to Berlinski long after vN had died.
Now, vN did have some criticisms of the theory of evolution. If you
actually look at the things that he wrote about it, it’s pretty clear that he
was being a typical mathematician. That is, looked at mathematically, the
theory of evolution was under-defined. And he was, of course, right about
that. Remember that at the time von Neumann was writing, DNA had just been
discovered – but no one knew yet how it worked. No one knew how mutations
worked. No one knew much of anything about how genes functioned. No one had a
particularly good understanding of how the development of organisms from
reproductive cells really worked.
All of those things were holes in the completeness of a theory of
evolution: evolution could describe how populations change, how selection
works, but without being able to explain the mechanisms of inheritance and
mutation, the theory was incomplete. (Just like Newton’s theory of gravity is
incomplete: it can describe most of how gravity works, but it can’t explain
why; and it can’t explain some of the corner cases. It’s a damned good theory,
and it’s close to the truth, but it needs refinements to be accurate and to
explain why it works.) Some of those are still gaps in our knowledge: we still
don’t know a lot about how genes really work. Some we understand pretty well;
others we’re still completely clueless about.
But what did von Neumann really say? The primary documented quote from von
Neumann comes from a letter to George Gamow, a physicist who had some theories about
how the structure of DNA could be interpreted to describe proteins:
I still somewhat shudder at the thought that highly purposive
organizational elements, like the protein, should originate in a random
process. Yet many efficient and purposive media, e.g., language, or the
national economy, also look statistically controlled, when viewed from a
suitably limited aspect. On balance, I would therefore say that your argument
is quite strong.
Hardly a strong criticism, huh? But it gets worse. Berlinski represents
this as von Neumann being skeptical of the supposed randomness of evolution.
But this wasn’t part of a general argument about evolution. This was von
Neumann discussing Gamow’s theory of how DNA worked. Gamow had worked
out an idea of how proteins were formed from DNA. He started with a null
hypothesis of random distributions of amino acids in proteins. Then he
compared the results of looking at proteins with the result of what his model
predicted. His model was much better that the null hypothesis. The
correspondence with von Neumann was in relation to von Neumann working with
Gamow to develop a complete mathematical model of the random amino-acid
In other words, Gamow and von Neumann were discussing a hypothesis that
they were hoping to reject in favor of something that seemed to make
So, as usual, when you actually look at things in detail, Berlinski is
being his usual pompous self. He’s got nothing to support his
claims except some out-of-context quotes, and a bunch of supposed
“personal contacts” which refuse to publicly back him up because of their
fears of political retribution.
Why does anybody still listen to Berlinski? Is he a smooth talker?
Even if Berlinski were right, I’d have to say “so what?”
It would be roughly on par with claiming that all sorts of famous biologists don’t believe in Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.
There’s something very sad in the words of a scholar like Von Neumann being so badly distorted, by someone with a graduate degree, either through dishonesty or complete failure at reading comprehension.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many famous biologists weren’t that familiar with Godel’s theorems. But if many famous biologists were declaring that Godel’s theorems were wrong, then I’d be concerned about the state of biology.
Wow. I hadn’t seen that thing about Berlinski and limits before.
Even if von Neumann did have a problem with evolution he wasn’t a biologist and was working 60 years ago. The notion that his opinion is at all relevant is so incredibly stupid it isn’t funny.
David Berlinski is a mathematician — to people who aren’t mathematicians. He needs to be seen rubbing up against real mathematicians so that the peasants will admire him to the degree he thinks is his due.
It’s really quite disgusting.
Sounds like he could give Kwok a run for his money. Was Berlinski the guy who interviewed himself a few years ago? Sounds like something he would do. I do think he’s like a balloon – when rubbed on something you can get static cling, and maybe he thinks that by being next to these people, he will learn by osmosis or something.
That or he’s a name dropping fool who wants to claim their authority for his own wacko ideas….
Conveniently, all of them dead, so one can’t ask them if they actually know this guy.
Also, conveniently, he doesn’t mention any alive mathematician of the same generation.
In other news: water still wet, etc., etc. Though Berlinski is more fun to make fun of.
Dear Mark, a propos mathematicians who are wrong: I don’t exactly know what happened to W. Dembski’s and R. Marks’s article The Search for a Search, which was claimed by Dembski to be in the last stage of its peer-review in Oct 2009.
Could it be that there were some problems?
You can’t get the draft for the article at R. Marks’s site any longer…
Were you a real cool head?
Makin’ lots of bread?
Berlinski isn’t the only mathematical grave robber. Dembski similarly tried to co-opt the late Stan Ulam for the cause of intelligent design. And he is similarly ridiculous.
Actually, this type of logic could have all sorts of uses. For instance:
The Phillies were the winners of the world series, on step removed from the winners themselves.
Officer, I was too driving my car at the speed limit, the speed limit 15 mph removed from the speed limit itself.
Berlinski demonstrates a firm grip on reality, the reality one step removed from reality itself.
As a mere Mathematics graduate, with a Masters, I am happy to say that I have never heard of Berlinski. Is he the Berlinski of “Auch ich bin ein Berlinski”?
Any relation of “apres-ski”?
Worrying that a so-called mathematician should be so incapable of using anything related to the Scientific Method, let alone the Laws of Logic.
But perhaps things are different in your great country compared to the UK.
i dont know who is berlinski, just know from from your post
There’s a saying that the kids are using these days; pictures, or it didn’t happen. If Berlinski really was friends with all these people, surely he’s got some pictures with them either at his home or at their homes.
Without those pictures, I’m going to agree with everyone and call bullshit 😉
You know… last time I helped someone move into a hospital room, the subject of vN’s views on evolution never came up with the outgoing resident of that room… how odd.
Mark, you are too kind.
One big step – all the way to the far end of the horse’s digestive system.
Wah wa ooo
Zeno brought up Stan Ulam. As it happens, Stan Ulam and John von Neumann co-invented Cellular Automata, developed a well-known Mathematical proof for how reproduction is possible, and outlined the evolution of ever more complex Celular Automata. Hence JvN’s opinion on Evolution does matter, but bears no connection to what David Berlinski attributes to him. “very skeptical of evolution”? No, quite the reverse, JvN co-developed the abstraction capable for studying evolution in a new and more precise way!
Rene Thom, inventor of catastrophe theory, pushed it beyond what could be tested in the 60s in biological “applications”. He published some seriously stupid stuff. This was mentioned in Panda’s Thumb when Sermonti’s nutcase biology book was glowingly praised by Behe.
Berlinksi quoting Thom to pointless ends has happened in this blog before: google yourself Mark!
I don’t know if Thom is to be blamed for the following: Ezra Pound, Rene Thom, and the Experience of Poetry. Grzegorczyk FAIL!
There’s something about Berlinski that makes me think of all the current ‘fellows’ at the DI, he’s the most likely candidate, when the time and offer are right, to jump ship and write a kiss and tell book about the whole outfit.
Certainly a sleasy argument by Berlinski. It proves nothing. Science is based on testing, not hero worship. However, I would like to point out one little slip up in the post. You said,
Science never answers the question why, just how. To answer the why question you need a purpose. A purpose in the laws of physics implies a creator. I’m sure you meant ‘how,’ but I kinda cringed when I read it.
BTW, If you type ‘good math’ in google you get 36.5 million hits. If you type ‘uncommon descent’ you get 175,000 hits. Therefore, by yourself you are 208.5714 times more popular then the many bloggers at UD.
So “from the horse’s mouth” turns into the classic urban legend source, a FOAF.
“i dont know who is berlinski, just know from from your post”
He has a couple of pop math books in the shops. I was going to read one until I saw on the back cover that he used his membership in DiscoToot as a brag point. If he thinks that’s relevant to any mathematical topic at all then I suspect there’s not much to the book.