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.