Of Form over Substance: a review of Sermonti

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Note: This review is based on the Italian edition of Giuseppe Sermonti?s “Dimenticare Darwin” - “To forget Darwin” - (Il Cerchio, Rimini, 2003), about to be released in English by the Discovery Institute Press as “Why is a fly not a horse?”. An updated review of the translation, if necessary, will follow. - AB

The front cover of Giuseppe Sermonti?s Dimenticare Darwin sports the picture of a woman?s head made up of a twisting ribbon, through which a cloudy sky can be seen. It is a very fitting image for the main topic of the book, which focuses on the origin of form in living organisms, but even more for its quality: an empty shell practically devoid of meaningful content. Sermonti?s short work is neither a science book, nor a science-inspired philosophical reflection on natural history, but a long rhetorical argument whose purpose is to sway and manipulate the reader, not to inform or educate.

Since Sermonti is a new character on the American Creationist scene, it may be worth providing a little background on the man himself. Sermonti is a retired professor at the University of Perugia in Italy. He did some important work in bacterial genetics in the ?50s and early ?60s, but by the end of that decade he seemed to have become progressively disillusioned with the scientific enterprise. In 1971 he published a post-modernist, religiously inspired critique of modern science, Il crepuscolo dello Scientismo (The twilight of Scientism), filled with pessimistic reflections about the futility of science, and its exploitative and alienating nature. Sermonti’s first anti-Darwinian book (Dopo Darwin - After Darwin) appeared in 1980, and with a pattern common to many biologists-turned-Creationists, his publication record, as far as practical scientific work, had dried up by the mid ?80s. Since 1979 Sermonti has been editor of the Italian-published biology journal Rivista di Biologia ? Biology Forum. Under his guidance, this old and reputable journal has become a veritable haven for anti-evolutionary tracts by a motley crew of respectable structuralists, young-earth creationists, veritable cranks and Intelligent Design advocates (among them, some Discovery Institute fellows and acolytes), as well as for an assortment of fringe- and outright pseudo-science papers [1]. Also in the 1980s Sermonti became o a major contributor to the ?Group of Osaka?, a network of mostly structuralist biologists dissatisfied with mainstream evolutionary theory, who tried, largely unsuccessfully, to come up with a consensus critique to ?neo-Darwinism? and some alternative evolutionary framework. At the same time, and possibly as a result, Sermonti?s anti-scientific cynicism seems to have deepened: in his monthly column answering reader letters in the Italian astrology/New Age magazine Astra, where he lends his credentialed support and encouragement to what he calls ?other science?, which includes astrology, spoon-bending, holistic medicine, etc [2]. Most recently, Sermonti has made an appearance as an ?expert witness? at the Kansas Board of Education anti-evolution hearings.[3]

Despite Sermonti?s protestation that he is not a Creationist, but ?would only aspire to being a creature? [4], Dimenticare Darwin is very much an unabashedly Creationist work. As a Roman Catholic, Sermonti is not bound to Biblical literalism, and he makes it clear that he believes in a billion years-old Earth. The book however is riddled with religious references and images, not to mention repetitions of well-known Creationist arguments. It is hard to understand why anyone would feel so coy about the ?Creationist? appellation, while writing the following comment regarding the possibility of human evolution:

?The position of the Church [i.e. its acceptance of biological evolution of the human species] leaves open a large biological problem. If the Lord has instilled the soul in the human body, when He realized it was so well structured to be able to receive it, how did the organic evolution of Man proceed until the moment of the sacred benediction? How did a brain capable of [accepting] God form in a golem? How did the human body achieve gradually its similarity to Christ? The Church would not find itself in these contradictions, if it had avoided to adhere too rapidly to the idea that, in the history of life, a hominid walked the Darwinian path from monkey to the man of Leonardo, that it gradually stood up from its bent gait on knuckles to a straight back and its eye on the stars. Man ? we have argued ? was born suddenly, in one jump, that is, in a non-Darwinian fashion. The ontological leap was also a biological leap.?[5]

Going back to the topic of the book, Sermonti?s argument about the living form is essentially as old as Goethe?s idealistic Naturphilosophie, and despite the Italian blurb?s assurance that the book was written ?in the light of the most recent discoveries in the field of genetics?, it barely touches on current research. Of the ?essential bibliography? list (the book lacks, for the most part, proper citations in the text), only 11 of 86 items are post-1990, 24 are pre-1970, and exactly 1 is an actual research paper (from 1983). Oddly, but in perfect accordance to the book?s title, Redi?s 1668 and Spallanzani?s 1765 original works on spontaneous generation are on the ?essential? list (though they might be a bit hard to find at your local library!), but Darwin?s Origin of Species is not.

Sermonti pays allegiance to a structuralist approach, but in fact he argues against evolutionary theory from a viewpoint that is closer to a sort of lyrical mysticism than to scientific structuralism [6]. Overwrought, poetic descriptions of living organisms and their attributes pepper the text, often accompanied by aesthetical value judgments that would make even committed anthropomorphists cringe: tigers look fierce and powerful, squirrels inexpressive and plain, horses noble and fiery, donkeys stubborn and indolent, women and children graceful, men less so, and apes, sorry to say, downright repugnant. (Incidentally, I suspect many American readers will be offended by Sermonti’s patronizing descriptions of women, especially younger ones ? please believe me that this attitude is not as prevalent in Italian society as this book, and common stereotype, would suggest.)

By and large, the book consists of a string of loosely connected claims against modern evolutionary theory and the current mechanistic models of development, intermingled with poetic disquisitions that serve as continuing reminders that abstract form exists apart from, and precedes - indeed must precede - its physical ontogenetic and phylogenetic realization. There is no real logical thread along which the argument develops. Sermonti begins in chapter 1 discussing spontaneous generation and the continuity of living matter, and in chapter 2 moves on to early embryonic development. Chapter 3 bemoans the reductionistic/molecular approach to biology (probably to the surprise of those with financial investments in the biotechnology industry, Sermonti declares genetic engineering technology an unqualified failure), and then Sermonti goes back to attacking evolutionary theory in chapters 4 (natural selection as a purely conservative force), 5 (on natural features which supposedly have no selectable value, such as bird song melodies), 6 (the inability of genetics to explain morphology), 7 (on human “de-evolution” - see below) and 8 (on the necessity of pre-existing information for the existence of codes). Chapter 9 is perhaps the most interesting, on the origin of complex forms from simple natural rules (still, nothing that D’Arcy Thompson had not already said, much better, almost a century ago). It doesn’t last: the next 3 chapters make respectively a mess of the evolutionary genetics of development (ch.10), muddle up neurobiology by freely mixing up the concepts of neural activity, mind, consciousness and soul (ch.11) and infuse the concept of fractals and scale invariance with holistic mysticism (ch.12). Chapters 13 and 14 go back to the molecular level, discussing protein structure and the role of electromagnetic interactions and fluxes in biology, only to revert to Sheldrake’s metaphysical mumblings on the topic. Finally, chapters 15 and 16 are an almost comical discussion of paleontology (see also below). Whenever Sermonti tries to go into the specifics of his anti-evolution claims, his poor understanding of crucial issues and anti-scientific agenda become most apparent. To support his contentions, Sermonti uses the three approaches that constitute the backbone of most Creationist and pseudo-scientific literature: he cherry-picks data, ignores well-known counter-explanations and facts, and when everything fails or the evidence does not conform to his rhetorical aims, he simply invents stuff.

In the introduction, he repeats the old canard that the second law of thermodynamics, which dictates a rise in disorder (entropy) of isolated systems, represents a major obstacle to naturalistic evolution. He then tries to pre-empt the known counter-argument with this paragraph:

?Other scholars have defended the plausibility of this climb of life during time, putting forward the idea that living organisms are not isolated systems, and therefore can disobey the entropy principle. This is an argument that could have been made by Darwin, but certainly cannot be accepted by modern neo-darwinists. The ?Central Dogma? of modern biology asserts the absolute isolation from the world of the repository of heredity, DNA. It [DNA] flows indifferent to the invitations of the environment, or to the seductions of the organism, in spite of Lamarck and, let?s say it, the real Darwin.? [7]

This is, frankly, either foolish or plain dishonest. Never mind that it is essentially every other scholar, not just ?other scholars?, who have pointed out the obvious fallacy of the thermodynamic objection to evolution - the ?Central Dogma? (that hereditary information flows from DNA and RNA to proteins, and not backwards) has nothing at all to do with the issue. If DNA were truly thermodynamically isolated it would indeed succumb to entropy. However, organisms expend significant amounts of energy to faithfully replicate and maintain the integrity of DNA, using very complex and metabolically costly quality control and damage repair mechanisms. I very much doubt that Sermonti, a geneticist, is unaware of this.

Another example: in order to depict the founders of neo-Darwinism as out-of-touch with the natural world, Sermonti characterizes them as geneticists and biochemists only interested in their laboratory experiments [8]. This is simply false. In fact, several of the fathers of the New Synthesis were accomplished naturalists. For instance, plant geneticist G. Ledyard Stebbins was also an excellent field botanist and ardent conservationist, and Theodosius Dobzhansky started his career as an entomologist, and although his best-known work was laboratory-based, he published several papers on the biogeography of Drosophila species and lady beetles. Ernst Mayr alone, of course, had enough ?hard-core? field experience in the jungles of New Guinea and Melanesia as an ornithologist and naturalist to put to shame Sermonti or, for that matter, every other notable anti-evolutionist I can think of. Other than out of a basic disregard for reality, it is incomprehensible to me why anyone would fabricate such an easily disprovable claim (that all neo-Darwinism founders were ignorant of natural history) merely to support the rather irrelevant and subjective point that they lacked a feeling for, or an interest in nature.

Sermonti?s view of paleontological evidence fares no better, and seems to have been taken straight out of lower-level Creationist pamphlets. He states in no uncertain terms that there are no known transitional fossil forms for cetaceans or for the origin of mammals, and that all animal phyla (including Protozoans!) appeared almost simultaneously in the Cambrian, and none went extinct since [9]. He also devotes significant space to argue for a sort of upside-down ?theory? of human evolution: that Homo sapiens is an archaic, essentially unevolved species, of which fossil Australopithecines and other hominids (including the great apes) represent ?degenerate? forms (ch. 7). This is based, apparently, on three lines of ?evidence?: lack of transitional non-human ape lineage fossils, the slow molecular clock in humans (in fact, the molecular clock is quite slow in all hominids, most likely because of their comparatively long generation time), and, bizarrely, what seems like a ?aeckelian view in which ontogenesis so closely recapitulates phylogenesis (to the likely dismay of the Discovery Institute, Sermonti agrees that early vertebrate embryos resemble each other) that it can be used backwards, as an interpretative tool for it. Sermonti therefore argues that neotenic organisms - in which juvenile traits persist into adulthood, e.g. gills in adult salamanders - must be archaic, because their features appear earlier in development. For instance, that the cranium of a baby gorilla resembles that of an adult human more than that of an adult gorilla indicates to him that we are primitive forms, and gorillas derived. The actual fossil record, with its unequivocal transitional series from older Australopithecus to more recent Homo species, be damned.

When he tries to offer some positive claim, as opposed to hackneyed attacks on evolutionary theory, Sermonti still shows a complete lack of interest for actual science. An early chapter on development waxes philosophical about morphogenetic fields from a long-abandoned vitalistic viewpoint, and one has to read all the way toward the end of the book to learn about their more mechanistic interpretations, as proposed for instance by Goodwin. Even these timid attempts to instill some empirical basis and testability to the morphogenetic field concept, however, seem too mechanical and unappealing to Sermonti?s idealistic esthetic, and do not escape his anti-scientific skepticism. [10]

Despite the fact that the book?s main argument revolves around developmental pathways and their evolution (or lack thereof), if one were only to judge from its pages the entire field of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) seems not to exist at all. In chapter 6, in an effort to argue that gene variation simply cannot be the source of morphological change, Sermonti relates studies showing that a cat gene involved in eye development can give rise to insect-like compound eyes in Drosophila, substituting for its homologous form (actually, to my knowledge these experiments have been conducted using mouse, not cat gene sequences [11], but anyway). Gloats Sermonti: what then makes a fly a fly and a cat a cat? If the same “eye gene” can be responsible such different eye forms, certainly the ?eye form? cannot reside in the gene. This argument is so intellectually and scientifically crude, any college student armed with an introductory developmental biology textbook would be able to debunk it. The fact is, there is no single ?eye gene? responsible for mammalian and insect eye morphology. Eyes are formed via long and complex developmental genetic networks/cascades, which we are only beginning to understand, and of which Pax6/eyeless (the gene in question, in mammals and Drosophila, respectively) merely constitutes one of the initial elements. The role of the Pax6 gene product in the process is simply to regulate other genes, some of which are even known, such as sine oculis, eyes absent and dachshund in Drosophila, and their counterparts in mammals, Six, Eya and Dach. These in turn regulate more genes, and so on, which eventually result in specific cellular responses and differentiation processes involved in eye morphology. As long as Pax6 from one species can successfully regulate its homologue?s targets in another, its role in eye development is accomplished, and its contribution to eye morphology is precisely nil (this conclusion is no foggy theorizing or evolutionary hand-waving: this is something we know experimentally). But, ever since Darwin far-sightedly (pardon the pun) chose it as the prototypical ?organ of extreme complexity?, the eye has found way after way to embarrassingly confound anti-evolutionists, and Sermonti is just one more name on the list.

One would think the evidence that highly conserved functional and genetic steps perform the same functions in morphologically different organisms would be an argument against Sermonti?s claim that living forms must be the manifestation of mysterious immaterial forces, but the thought never seems to dawn on him. Maddeningly, he does come inadvertently close to the answer, when he mentions that evolutionary and biochemical evidence shows that an elephant and its flea (or a fly and a horse!) are essentially the same (p. 129-130). This should be better stated as: a fly and a horse, an elephant and its flea are, to a limited but significant extent, variations of the same genetic and developmental theme, and their obvious morphological differences hide a long common phylogenetic history. Indeed, Darwin?s major insights, wholly vindicated by a century and a half of research, are the fundamental unity of life, and the transforming power of small changes. But as Sermonti himself tells us, he has actually forgotten Darwin.

So, why would the Discovery Institute want to translate and publish this mess of a book? Hard to say. On the one hand, it may help give Intelligent Design anti-evolutionism some sort of ?international appeal?. It also adds one more credentialed scientist (a scarce commodity) to the ID roster. I doubt that the Discovery Institute is under the illusion that Sermonti is currently anything more that a fringe figure in Italian and European science and culture. Being a prominent European Creationist is as significant as being a good European quarterback, hardly enough to make it to the NFL: in Creationism as in American football, the Big Leagues are in the US. The final possibility is that Sermonti?s editorship of Rivista represents a highly valuable, possibly unique opportunity for ID advocates to publish, albeit via the back door, in the mainstream scientific literature. As such, it may be useful to keep Sermonti in the fold, even though his work fails the already low ID quality standards. It will be interesting to see how many of the numerous blunders in Sermonti?s book (and there are more than I could mention here) will survive translation and editing by Discovery Institute fellows. As for future ID papers in Rivista, we?ll have to wait, but my suspicion is that the flood gates are open.

Notes/References [1] Along with these, Rivista continues to publish low-level, but legitimate theoretical and experimental science. For a complete record of papers published in Rivista, go to the Pubmed database (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/[…]gi?db=PubMed) and search for ?Riv Biol [jo]?. Note the change in character of the articles before and after 1979, when Sermonti took over.

[2] See http://astraincontri.corriere.it/se[…]tera21.shtml and following pages. Accessed 6/15/05. In Italian.

[3] Unfortunately, Sermonti?s testimony was not transcribed by the court reporter, apparently due to his heavy Italian accent. Free audio files are however available from Audible (go to http://www.audible.com, and search for “Kansas hearings”). Sermonti?s testimony starts at time 3:40:00 of the day 1 recording.

[4]

?Per le riserve che nutro nei confronti dell?Evoluzionismo sono stato accusato di essere un ?creazionista?. Non lo sono: se me lo si permette, aspirerei soltanto ad essere una creatura.?

?For the reservations I harbor about Evolutionism, I have been accused of being a Creationist. I am not: if I am allowed, I would only aspire to being a creature.? Giuseppe Sermonti, ?Dimenticare Darwin?, Il Cerchio, Rimini, 2003, p. 10.

All translations here are mine.

[5]

?La posizione della Chiesa lascia aperto un grande problema biologico. Se il Signore ha immesso l?anima nel corpo umano, quando ha constatato che questo era cos젢en organizzato da poterla accogliere, come la evoluzione organica dell?uomo 蠰roceduta fino al momento della sacra benedizione? Come si 蠦ormato un cervello capace di Dio in un golem? Come il corpo humano ha raggiunto per gradi la simiglianza di Cristo? La Chiesa non si troverebbe in queste apor쥬 se avesse evitato di aderire troppo in fretta all?idea che, nella storia della vita, un ominide abbia percorso il cammino darwiniano dalla scimmia all?uomo di Leonardo, che si sia gradualmente eretto dal chino cammino sulle nocche alla schiena diritta e l?occhio alle stelle. L?uomo ? abbiamo sostenuto ? 蠮ato d?improvviso, d?un balzo, cio蠩n modo non darwiniano. Il salto ontologico 蠳tato anche un salto biologico.? Ibid. p.92.

[6] For instance:

?Io mi sento sopraffatto dall?innato che si svela, come da qualcosa di sublime e di unico, senza confronto ed assolutamente inarrivabile al mio giudizio. La bellezza del mondo è ³confinata e minuziosa a fronte dell?idiozia dissennata dei cicloni e delle bufere, o a fronte delle sgrammaticature nella recita della divina commedia dell?essere. E noi dovremmo credere che quegli sfoghi del caos e quelle sfilature siano il fassato che ci ha costruito, e le promesse del futuro? Il fiore sbocciato del mondo è µna cattedrale di cattedrali, e a noi non resta che toccare col ginocchio la terra e recitare domine, non sum dignus.? ?I feel overwhelmed by the innate that manifests itself, like something sublime and unique, incomparable and absolutely inaccessible to my reasoning. The beauty of the world is unbounded and detailed, compared to the senseless idiocy of cyclones and storms, or to the ungrammatical theater of the divine comedy of being. And we should believe that those outlets of chaos, those tears are the past that built us and the promises of our future? The blooming flower of the world is a cathedral of cathedrals, and all we can do is to touch the ground with our knee, and recite ?domine, non sum dignus? (?Lord, I am not worthy?).? Ibid. p. 48

[7]

?Altri studiosi hanni difeso la plausibilitࠤi questa risalita della vita nel tempo, avanzando l?idea che un vivente non 蠵n sistema isolato, e cos젰u򠤩sobbedire al pricipio dell?entropia. Questo 蠵n argomento che poteva essere addotto da Darwin, ma non pu򠣥rto essere accettato dai neo-darwinisti moderni. Il ?Dogma Centrale? della biologia moderna asserisce l?isolamento assoluto dal mondo del depositario della ereditଠil DNA. Esso trascorre indifferente agli inviti dell?ambiente o alle seduzioni dell?organismo, a dispetto di Lamarck e, diciamolo, del vero Darwin.? Ibid. p.7.

[8]

?Gli elaboratori della teoria, i ?neo-darwinisti? o ?selezionisti?, erano genetisti e biochimici, che della storia della terra poco sapevano o si interessavano. Il loro mondo se lo erano fatto nel laboratorio o nella provetta e pensavano pi?modo di trasformarlo che a capirlo. Come spesso fa la scienza, essi pretesero che le loro piccole astuzie di laboratorio fossero mezzi usati dalla intelligenza della Natura per costruire un a biosfera che essi giudicavano pletorica. Quasi si fanno vanto di non distinguere un abete da un larice, un capriolo da uno stambecco.?

?The devisers of the theory, the ?neo-darwinists? or ?selectionists?, were geneticists and biochemists, who knew little of, and were not interested in the history of the Earth [I think Sermonti means here ?natural history? rather than ?geology?]. They built their world in the laboratory or in the test tube, and thought more about changing it than about understanding it. As often science does, they pretended that their little laboratory tricks were the means used by the intelligence of Nature to build a biosphere that they judged too complex. They almost pride themselves of not being able to tell a larch from a fir, a roe buck from an ibex.? Ibid. p.123.

[9]

?Nessuno ha mai trovato il semipipistrello o la quasibalena e nessuno e? mai riuscito ad immaginare l?ascendente comune del bestiario fantastico costituito dagli ordini mammiferini? ?No one has ever found the semi-bat or the quasi-whale, and no one has ever managed to envision the common ancestor of the fantastic bestiary of mammalian orders.? Ibid. p.124.

and

?In un periodo geologicamente breve, per incanto, le forme della vita sono apparse l?una di fianco all?altra, in tutti i ?tipi? morfologici ? o phyla ? che hanno in seguito popolato la terra. Si calcola che ci򠳩a accaduto un mezzo miliardo di anni fa. Da quel tempo dei tempi nessun ?tipo? e pi?parso e nessuno 蠳comparso. Protozoi, poriferi (spugne), celenterati (idre ed anaemoni di mare), molluschi, anellidi (vermi), artropodi (insetti, crostacei), echinodermi (ricci e stelle di mare) e, poco dopo, cordati (il nostro phylum) e altri tipi minori sono apparsi agli albori del periodo cambriano. Sotto di loro nessun fossile che potesse averli generati.? ?In a geologically brief period, as if by magic, the forms of life appeared one next to the other, in all morphological ?types? ? or phyla ? which later populated the Earth. It is calculated that this occurred a half billion years ago. Since those ancient times no new ?type? has appeared, and not one has disappeared. Protozoa, Porifera (sponges), Coelenterates (hydras and sea anemones), Mollusks, Anellids (worms), Arthropoda (insects, crustaceans), Echinoderms (sea urchins and starfish) and, shortly thereafter, Chordates (our phylum) and other minor types appeared at the dawn of the Cambrian period. Below them, no fossil that could have generated them.? Ibid. p. 122

In fact, transitional cetacean and basal mammalian fossils are known, and pre-Cambrian fossil evidence exists for unicellular eukaryotes, sponges, cnidarians (Coelenterates), various kinds of worms and, arguably, primitive arthropods. Phyla for which only post-Cambrian fossil evidence exists include, among others, Bryozoans, Nematodes, Nemertines and Rotifers (the scientific consesus is that most of these phyla may have originated earlier than their fossil record indicates, but since “no pre-Cambrian precursors” arguments like Sermonti’s are based on the purported lack of fossil evidence, its proponents should at least apply the standard consistently). Finally, at least 20, and possibly up to 70 phyla are estimated to have become extinct since their appearance in the Cambrian. To learn more about transitional cetaceans see Hans Thewissen’s paper in Nature 413, 277-281, 2001, and his great lab web site. The literature regarding mammalian paleontology is vast, see Cifelli, J Paleontol 75, 1214-1226, 2001 for a review, or talkorigins specifically for the synapsid to mammal transition. Finally, see Valentine, Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 30, 285-306, 2002, and Conway-Morris, Int J Dev Biol 47, 505-515, 2003 for opinionated, but comprehensive reviews of the Cambrian and pre-Cambrian fossil faunas. The web site Palaeos is also a very useful and accurate (as far as I can tell!) source for paleontological info.

[10]

?Penso che qualcuno possa chiedersi perch鬠dopo aver adottato ipotesi macroscopiche e metaforici campi morfici, che sfidano la logica della causa-effetto e persino la freccia del tempo, io sia ripiegato, in questi due ultimi capitoli, sull?interpretazione moleculare, sia pure per dare una nuova dignitࠧenetica alle proteine. Me lo sono chiesto anch?io: naturalmente non lo ho fatto con alcuna premeditazione. Soltanto voglio commentare che il legame che consente alle proteine di confidarsi il loro stato e di trasmetterlo ereditariamente non risulta di natura meccanica e causale. Ƞuna solidarietࠤi orientamento, una ?risonanza morfica? (Rupert Sheldrake?) per cui ogni elemento di un sistema coerente 蠡ssoggettato a una forza, e quella stessa forza esprime. Ai sistemi naturali 蠩nerente una memoria collettiva, che rende coerenti le molecole, i cristalli, le cellule, le colonie delle termiti, gli sciami delle libellule, gli stormi degli uccelli, i miti degli uomini. ?Le cose sono come sono, perch頥rano come erano?, scrive Sheldrake.? ?I think someone may wonder why, after I adopted macroscopic hypotheses and metaphorical morphic fields which challenge the logic of cause and effect and the very arrow of time, I have retreated, in these last two chapters, to a molecular interpretation, even if only to give new genetic dignity to proteins. I have wondered this myself: of course, I did not do it with premeditation. I just want to comment that the bind that allows proteins to confide to each other their status, and to transmit it hereditarily [Sermonti is referring to cooperative effects on protein folding, as in prions], is not of a mechanical and causal nature. It?s a solidarity of orientation, a ?morphic resonance? (Rupert Sheldrake) according to which every element of a coherent system is subject to a force, and that force it expresses. Natural systems have an inherent collective memory, which lends coherence to molecules, crystals, cells, termite colonies, swarms of dragonflies, flocks of birds and human myths. ?Things are as they are, because they were as they were?, writes Sheldrake.? Ibid. p. 113.

[11] Halder et al, Science 267, 1788-92, 1995.

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Over at the Thumb, Andrea gives a fine analysis of Sermonti's Dimenticare Darwin (Il Cerchio, Rimini, 2003) which will soon be published by the Discovery Institute as Why is a fly not a horse?. Andrea ends with: So, why would the Discovery Institute wa... Read More

48 Comments

Châpeau to you, Andrea, for: a) reading through that *crap*. Damn, that must have been one rough, ugly, dumbening ride. b) writing such an excelent review in what I assume is not your first language. I doubt I would dare to do as much, not given the bar against which I’d be measured in PT, but you’ve not only coped, but raised it.

I am sincerely impressed.

Grey Wolf

Sermonti declares genetic engineering technology an unqualified failure), and then Sermonti goes back to attacking evolutionary theory in chapters 4 (natural selection as a purely conservative force), 5 (on natural features which supposedly have no selectable value, such as bird song melodies)

Anything in there about male nipples?

[Father’s Day joke]

I’m just a lurker here, but its worth pointing out that the cover you mentioned is a piece by M.C. Escher. Escher is famous for his convoluted illustrations that are incapable of having substance in real life.

Grey Wolf: you’re very kind, however I’ve been in the US for 14+ years, and I’ve been writing papers in English for a few more. At this point, I often have more problems making sense of Italian syntax than with English.

A Rat: I thought it was Escher’s, but there was no attribution anywhere in the book. I just went back to the official Escher web site and indeed here it is. The guy sure was amazing. Thank you for the info.

Sorry, wrong link. Escher’s original is here.

A Rat said:

“Escher is famous for his convoluted illustrations that are incapable of having substance in real life.”

I like that observation.

BTW, I just wanted to comment that Italian is a beautiful language. I’m gradually learning spanish. It’s a good language, aesthetically, and part of my calculation was the usefulness, so spanish obviously scores very high on that measure. But i would love it, if Italian were spoken by so many people, so that I would learn that instead. Then I could read these DiVinci notebook collections I have.

Comment #35739

Posted by Apesnake on June 19, 2005 08:37 PM (e) (s)

A Rat said:

“Escher is famous for his convoluted illustrations that are incapable of having substance in real life.”

I like that observation.

Me too, but a perfect graphic for ID, would be a hand waving.

Grazie Andrea, (se ancora capisci l’italiano 8-) come ti hanno detto, hai avuto un coraggio da leone a leggere una vera mappazza indigesta.

Anyway, much more could be said of Sermonti and his “career” as an “anti-evolutionist” (let’s grant him his status as a non-creationist), but this is clearly the most authoritative and brilliant review of his work. As an aside, I suspect there are sermontians in italian academe, but they’re well hidden, and the influence of the man is not nil.

Marco

P. S. I could not get Sermonti’s testimony from Audible. But I’m trying. Did you listened to it?

* sigh * Always so sad to see scientists reduce themselves to this kind of drivel. My nightmare scenario for humanity involves human civilization doing what Sermonti has done: throwing away scepticism and reason for psychological reasons, descending into a sea of subjectivity, and inviting a perpetual middle-ages of religious wars, alchemy, and astrology.

Chi e’ sto signor Sermonti? peggio di zichichi in qualche passaggio, almeno zichichi sa di cosa parla quando parla di fisica… Io voto x fare una colletta x portarli a scopare… tutti e due… possibilmente non tra loro.

Ernst Mayr alone, of course, had enough “hard-core” field experience in the jungles of New Guinea and Melanesia as an ornithologist and naturalist to put to shame Sermonti or, for that matter, every other notable anti-evolutionist I can think of.

Should be, “ … all other notable anti-evolutionists … combined.”

IMHO, of course. But is there any creationist with significant field experience?

“Sermonti pays allegiance to a structuralist approach … “. But what exactly is a “Structuralist approach”? I confess that I’ve never really understood this view. I read Rick Sternberg’s explanation but was non the wiser, and I once tried to read some of Brian Goodwin’s stuff, but just found it full of techno-mumble. So can anyone tell me what the Structuralists actually believe? For example, Structuralist analysis is generally said to be “ahistorical”, but what does this mean? Are they denying that living organisms have an evolutionary history? In which case, why are they different from the Creationists? Perhaps they accept evolution but don’t find it very interesting or important. But that seems a very narrow and blinkered view. Brian Goodwin in particular twitters a lot about uncovering ‘Laws of Form’. Have they found them? More precisely, have they provided any insights into development that have not been possible using a more conventional evolutionary paradigm? How is their approach more fruitful than the work being carried out by the Evo-Devo crowd? I’m just curious. If they read this blog, I’d genuinely appreciate it if Sermonti, Strernberg, Goodwin or any other Structuralists would give me a straight answer.

Of the cover illustration, Dr. Bottaro wrote

I thought it was Escher’s, but there was no attribution anywhere in the book.

So creationists now take even the cover art for their books without attribution?

Concordo in pieno con le tesi anti evoluzioniste del grande Sermonti, un personaggio da sempre boicottato dalla mafia accademica filo darwinista

I refer completely with the reasons anti evolutionism of the great professor Giuseppe Sermonti,a man by the time adversed by the academic mafia pro Darwin

Gianfraco

And apart from spewing this pointless “me-too” about Sermonti, and trying to trigger a knee-jerk reaction by using the word mafia to refer to 99.99% of biologists who happen to understand the Theory of Evolution…

…have you got anything meaningful to say, Gianfranco?

It was already painfully apparent that Italy has its own share of kooks and amateur teleologists, thank you very much.

Rat: “Escher is famous for his convoluted illustrations that are incapable of having substance in real life.”

It’s not totally true. Look at the work of Shigeo Fukuda ( http://neuro.caltech.edu/~seckel/mod/fukuda.htm ) for example. Escher’s work still has more substance than creationnists/IDeists’ work: it’s based on observations about how we see the world, not how the world should be twisted to accommodate our “observations

Desnes

Ooo, the “academic mafia.” When they send you to “sleep with the icthi,” you usually wake up next to an aquarium.…

Or next to some fossil ones if it’s a sleep-over at the Natural History Museum in London. :-D

It’s like that superb Ray Mummert quote: “We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture.” … the obvious punch-line being: “and they want us to be less ignorant and more rational”. How terrible a threat that must be to some people.

Marco: I am sure there are other structuralists in Italy - some degree of sympathy for structuralism is certainly more common in Europe than in the US (though still “fringey”). However, I doubt Sermonti holds any real influence, other than that as the editor of Rivista - if you check through ISI, his papers and books are barely cited if at all, even by other structuralists.

Ed: I am not sure if Escher’s work is still under copyright at this point, nor what the rules are in Italy for publishing artwork. At the very least, common courtesy would suggest proper attribution, but this book actually seems thrown together rather haphazardly. It is supposed to be a revised edition, put out by a small publisher, of an earlier version by the same name by a much larger publishing house (Rusconi, 1999), but never is the original edition mentioned in the introduction or text, or even in the copyright page. Another example: the index is so bad, it sometimes sends you to pages that aren’t in the book, or are blank! Embarassing.

T. Jackson: Ah, those are hard question, and I am honestly not very qualified to answer them. First of all, there are probably as many interpretations of structuralism as there are structuralists - because so much of it is philosophical, it is very hard to pin down a view as “the” view. As you say, in general structuralists believe that some/many/most of the morphological features of living organisms arise not from genetic hereditary programs, but from more basic intrinsic mechanisms. These can be utterly metaphysical, like Sermonti’s, or more physically based.

For instance, one could imagine a fertilized egg as having some intrinsic structural properties, dependent on its chemical composition, distribution of components, and developmental history, which may determine the pattern of early cell division, and thereby influence embryonic development in a cascade of events that may not be genetically determined (and as such may escape, to some extent, darwinian mechanisms). Also, one could imagine that slight changes in the initial conditions of the fertilized egg (a rotation of the axis, changes in relative densities/distributions of components) may lead to major morphological changes later on, along somewhat “predisposed” lines (like changes in the initial crystallization conditions may lead to formation of very different types of crystals by the same substance).

Although I do not find this perspective particularly appealing or convincing, I think that it is fine to entertain it - whether right or wrong, and to whatever extent - as long as it leads to some testable predictions and explanatory interpretations. Unfortunately, as you note most structuralists have failed to come up with anything resembling a coherent research program (let alone the answers!), preferring instead to retreat in philosophical disquisitions, and seem content to just point out purported problems with current models. Not very useful, so far - I think there was a significant disillusionment when even the Osaka Group, which was supposed to allow some genuine progress by bringing together all the major proponents of the theory, pretty much failed at the task.

Gianfranco: thanks for your input. Now, if you don’t mind, please follow the burly gentlemen at your door - they are just taking you for a short limo ride.

It’s not totally true. Look at the work of Shigeo Fukuda ( http://neuro.caltech.edu/~seckel/mod/fukuda.htm … ) for example. Escher’s work still has more substance than creationists/IDeists’ work: it’s based on observations about how we see the world, not how the world should be twisted to accommodate our “observations

Another difference is that Escher’s work is enjoyable to look at.

Andrea Bottaro Wrote:

one could imagine a fertilized egg as having some intrinsic structural properties, dependent on its chemical composition, distribution of components, and developmental history

More than just imagine…

There’s some scientific evidence from X0 individuals that preconditioning of the chromosomes by parents matters, ie it’s not just the raw DNA but the environment applied to that. That’s a more subtle case than the example of expressing a gene from one organism in the cellular environment of another which interprets the genetic code slightly differently.

There’s also scientific evidence that the hormonal environment of the womb matters to the development of the offspring, ie subtle things such as emotional insecurity of a baby as well as unsubtle things such as spina bifida through folic acid deficiency. Further evidence comes from the grandchildren of those near the atomic bomb detonations where the womb environment of the first generation children affected the second generation outcomes without apparent genetic mutation.

That’s probably not the sort of detail to concern the type of structuralists to which you refer though if they prefer unevidenced philosophical quibbles.

“I am sure there are other structuralists in Italy - some degree of sympathy for structuralism is certainly more common in Europe than in the US (though still “fringey”).”

Ah yes, the “continent” is as well known for its production of pseudo-intellectuals as the New World is for its mindless Evangelicals.

Structuralism: So far, a mismash of incoherent blabberings – An idea in search of a phenomenon. And Sternberg hasn’t a clue.

What is interesting is that so many people with a new idea seem to think that it’s just so good that all previous theories must be completely wrong. But if research into biology has taught us anything it’s that there are a plethora of perfectly compatible mechanisms available and that no single route applies in all cases or at all times. Darwinism & Structuralism are not necessarily incompatible as evolutionary mechanisms.

Some of what the structuralists talk about is similar to what you can read in books like Odling-Smee’s Niche Construction; but you don’t have to believe in morphic resonance to think that the activities of the organism have something to do with phylogenetic change and you don’t have into buy Lamarck either. I expect that a lot of the difference between the Italian guys and Odling-Smee et. al. is a matter of sociology rather than substance. I think Niche Construction is a very important notion, for example, but it would have never occured to me to write about it under the rubric of “Darwin Forgotten.” Extensions of evolutionary theory don’t necessarily contradict what they elaborate. As it has for several thousand years now, science moves further and further away from common sense all the time. I expect that evolutionary thinking will continue this pattern. Continued research may arrive at some mighty strange conclusions, but I doubt if they will represent a return to Romantic Biology since the ruling pattern here is the drunkard’s walk.

Lots of fairly well educated people are aware that evolutionary theorizing didn’t end with Ernst Mayr, thought they only see what’s going on out of the corner of their eye. If somebody tells ‘em that the ferment has something to do with traditional spiritualism, they’re likely to believe it, just as any new piece of physics is likely to be asimilated to some sort of vague but edifying holism (The Tao of Quantum Mechanics). Since middle-brow opinion is a signficant source of support for ID, it makes sense to reach out to these folks.

Andrea, I’d like to send you a couple of observations about Sermonti and his influence on italian evolution Weltanschauung. May I mail them to you directly, without annoying our american friends here at PT? If it doesn’t bother you, send me a yes at my e-mail address. If not, I’ll read you here.

Marco

Re “But, ever since Darwin far-sightedly (pardon the pun)”

Why? I like puns! :)

Andrea,

Just a note of thanks. My college-age daughter is majoring in English Literature and Italian (there is a connection) and I copied your quotations as translation exercises for her.

unsympathetic reader Wrote:

Ah yes, the “continent” is as well known for its production of pseudo-intellectuals as the New World is for its mindless Evangelicals.

Lucky bastards… If only we could trade in our mindless Evangelicals for pseudo-intellectuals.…

steve Wrote:

BTW, I just wanted to comment that Italian is a beautiful language. I’m gradually learning spanish. It’s a good language, aesthetically, and part of my calculation was the usefulness, so spanish obviously scores very high on that measure.

Steve, a few off-topic opinions from an Italophile :

1) Learning Italiain is very practical. For me it serves as a poor-man’s Latin, where I get a lot of insight into the origin of English words and expressions without having to suffer through years of tedious Latin grammar.

2) If you do learn Italian, you pretty much have to visit Italy – no other choices. Lucky you !

3) Only in the original can you capture the subtle beauty of masters like Dante, Manzoni, Sermonti, …

Well, Jeff, why don’t you try to read Cavalli-Sforza (yes, he’s italian) in his original language? I think you’ll find him fascinating. Much more than Sermonti’s babbling.

Marco

SEF: That’s not actually structuralism you are talking about. The role of environmental cues in development is widely accepted, and so is the existence of epigenetic gene-regulatory mechanisms.

Structuralism is more about the development of complex forms according to basic natural principles and rules which are not genetically/epigenetically encoded, but may reside in the structural organization of the organism itself (or in case of Sermonti, in some sort of metaphysical force that manifests itself in creative acts - read God).

Marco: I sent you a direct message.

Well, Jeff, why don’t you try to read Cavalli-Sforza (yes, he’s italian) in his original language? I think you’ll find him fascinating. Much more than Sermonti’s babbling.

Just don’t take what Cavalli-Sforza says about the prehistory of language too seriously…

Marco Wrote:

Well, Jeff, why don’t you try to read Cavalli-Sforza (yes, he’s italian) in his original language? I think you’ll find him fascinating. Much more than Sermonti’s babbling.

Coincidentally, Cavalli-Sforza was a major stepping-stone on my path to studying (strictly armchair-level) molecular biology. I saw a show on PBS (a soon-to-be-extinct television network…) featuring Spencer Wells using DNA “typos” to trace patterns of human migration. Man ! Was I fascinated ! Having a background in physics, and lots of computer experience, the idea of DNA as a historical record sent me for a loop. Way, way cooler IMO than, say, pot shards and spear points. I found that Wells was connected to Cavalli-Sforza and read his “Genes, Peoples, and Languages” (edizione Inglese, per vergogna…). Amazing stuff. Anyway, that made me want to learn more about DNA, and I mooched an old edition of a molecular biology text from a colleage, and again was quite humbled to learn that people other than physicists have some pretty cool science going on…

And I hope you know I’m joking when I include Sermonti in the same group as Dante and Manzoni…

Andrea Bottaro Wrote:

SEF: That’s not actually structuralism you are talking about.

Hence my saying so at the end of the post (which probably needed more of a sarcasm warning). I was pointing out that your description (accidentally) matched reality whereas you intended to emphasise the unreality of the position taken by the structuralists.

JeffS: “Lucky bastards … If only we could trade in our mindless Evangelicals for pseudo-intellectuals . …”

Yeah, at least with the pseudos, there’s more drinking and fornication. But their downside is smoking, a penchant for greasy, black berets and a smug bearing that only spinster Quaker librarians can rival. Thank god the term “paradigm shift” seems to be leaving their vocabulary.

Arden, good point. But I was talking about just his literary merit. I haven’t read his last book on evolution of culture (have you? - maybe there’s no english edition, dunno) but a friend told me it is not worth much. Genetics is his very own field, and I think he should stick to it. Unless he wants to write something like the dreaded Consilience. Jeff, I got it. And it wasn’t bad (I went a classical high school, and to tell the truth, after that -30 years ago!- I’m fed up with Manzoni)

Marco

Arden, good point. But I was talking about just his literary merit. I haven’t read his last book on evolution of culture (have you? - maybe there’s no english edition, dunno) but a friend told me it is not worth much. Genetics is his very own field, and I think he should stick to it. Unless he wants to write something like the dreaded Consilience.

No, I admittedly have not read C-S’s latest book. So I don’t know where he stands now. But I can make some statements about his past approach to linguistics, which is that he has an unfortunate habit of embracing crackpot fringe linguists when they support his genetic theories, and nastily attacking responsible, mainstream linguists when they fail to provide support for his theories. Considering that C-S is by no means a linguist, it’s rather nervy to say the least.

This touches on a topic we’ve seen time and again here, of scientists who are extremely smart in one field becoming convinced later in their careers that they’re omniscient and thus qualified to make big pronouncements in ANY field. Someone should write a book on that whole sociological phenomenon…

Arden, I see. Being uninformed on linguistic, I cannot help but believing you. Who are the linguists C-S dislikes, and attacked? And what about the crackpot fringe linguists he use the theories of? As far as Sermonti is concerned, I finally got hold of is testimony, and I have the (big) file of it (10 Mb). I really don’t think the accent is too heavy not to be understandable. But his ideas are so muddled as to be impossible to follow. From “morphogenetic fields” to fly and horse trasformation, THIS man is a real crakpot. Andrea, did you follow his testimony?

Marco

OK, this is related only a little to some earlier comments, but I thought the following story on National Public Radio this morning was interesting:

The rate of males being born has been going down, and the scientist theorized that this might be connected to a rise in single mothers. He said that because male children, being larger and using more calories, typically require more resources than female children do, and a male mate (especially in hunter/gatherer times) might be the source of those extra resources, perhaps having female children in the absence of a mate is an adaptation.

I argued with a friend that, while this sounds kind of wacky, it’s far from impossible. Human sperm count increases when the male sees the woman with whom he has pair-bonded, and some species of fish and frogs can change sex, even after reaching sexual maturity, in response to a gender imbalance. My friend said this explanation sounded “Lamarckian” to him, and I also think there might be another explanation, but in principle this sort of genetic population change in response to an environmental pressure is plausible, isn’t it?

Arden, I see. Being uninformed on linguistic, I cannot help but believing you. Who are the linguists C-S dislikes, and attacked? And what about the crackpot fringe linguists he use the theories of?

It’s much easier to list the linguists C-S likes, rather than those he dislikes.

The linguists C-S likes are primarily Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen, both of Stanford. Greenberg started out very well back in the 1950’s with a groundbreaking classification of the languages of Africa that for the most part has stood up pretty well. However, in the 1980’s JG tackled the project of grouping the indigenous languages of the Americas and came up with some genuinely horrible books that set the whole cause of historical linguistic methodology back about 150 years. His conclusion was that almost all the languages of the New World (Except for 2 families mostly found in the Arctic and Subarctic) were all related in one huge language family, which he called ‘Amerind’. His methodology for proving this was so lax as to basically be unfalsifiable. JG’s work was the topic of some extremely lively debate in the late 80’s/early 90’s. The dust has now long since settled, and the upshot is that JG’s notions have been rejected as unsupported by the virtually all linguists working within Amerindian linguistics.

Merritt Ruhlen is a student of JG’s, and essentially his apologist. He took JG’s whole research program and non-methodology many steps further and started coming up with all sorts of supergroupings of the World’s languages which are not accepted by the vast majority of scholars specializing in those languages. Ruhlen’s books are very popular among laypeople with no training in linguistics.

Greenberg passed away a few years ago but Ruhlen continues his whole agenda. Ruhlen has developed an unfortunate habit of attacking his opponents in print and insinuating that they’re idiots for resisting his ideas. Meanwhile, certain scholars from outside linguistics have approvingly picked up on JG & MR’s ideas, generally because they support the historical/genetic theories they’re working on. Sad to say, C-S is in this category. Obviously C-S knows that the JG/MR school of linguistic supergrouping is not accepted by the vast majority of linguists, since he has made some very caustic remarks in his books about linguists who aren’t getting with the Greenberg/Ruhlen program, implying that they’re stupid, backwards, etc.

This has had the effect of making JG & MR’s ideas even more popular among laypeople, unfortunately. If you look at the reviews of some of their books on Amazon, you can see various nonscholar types going on about how wonderful their ideas are and how great it is that they’re fighting against those stodgy, square, reactionaries of ‘old fashioned’ linguistics. These same folks also sometimes claim that JG & MR’s ideas have also found ‘wide acceptance’ within linguistics, which is about on the same truth level as saying that there is a ‘crisis’ within evolutionary theory and that many evolutionary biologists now secretly ascribe to Creationism.

Lot of parallels, the more I think about it…

Re “perhaps having female children in the absence of a mate is an adaptation.” Would the proposed adaptation be in the male (producing more sperm of that sex) or in the female (somehow picking out the female sperm from the swarm)?

Henry

Henry, perhaps your question is facetious, and I certainly can’t claim to know, but it strikes me that one possible mechanism would be for the female to have some sort of “antibody” against an XY zygote which would decrease its probability of implanting. As I wrote, I’m sure there are other possible explanations, including a simple statistical anomaly. But the fact that the relative number of males has gone down in recent decades is not controversial in itself, so some explanation seems called for.

Mi dispiace fare questi punti, Andrea, ma si bisogno indirezzare i miei problemi. (Anche, di dove hai presso il tuo libro di Sermonti?)

Andrea Bottaro Wrote:

If DNA were truly thermodynamically isolated it would indeed succumb to entropy. However, organisms expend significant amounts of energy to faithfully replicate and maintain the integrity of DNA, using very complex and metabolically costly quality control and damage repair mechanisms. I very much doubt that Sermonti, a geneticist, is unaware of this.

But this presupposes organisms, i.e., cell “life.” The cell might be an open system, but how did it form in the first place? Proteins are required. Where did the energy come from to transcribe the RNA into proteins before the cell architecture existed?

Andrea Bottaro Wrote:

2.) Another example: in order to depict the founders of neo-Darwinism as out-of-touch with the natural world, Sermonti characterizes them as geneticists and biochemists only interested in their laboratory experiments.

You mention Stebbins, Dobzhansky, and Mayr; but I’m sure Sermonti was talking about Fisher, Haldane and Morgan. when it comes to this criticism of Sermonti, you have to admit these guys are fair game.

Andrea Bottaro Wrote:

3.) Sermonti relates studies showing that a cat gene involved in eye development can give rise to insect-like compound eyes in Drosophila, substituting for its homologous form (actually, to my knowledge these experiments have been conducted using mouse, not cat gene sequences [11], but anyway). Gloats Sermonti: what then makes a fly a fly and a cat a cat? If the same “eye gene” can be responsible such different eye forms, certainly the “eye form” cannot reside in the gene. This argument is so intellectually and scientifically crude, any college student armed with an introductory developmental biology textbook would be able to debunk it.

But if the “college student” answers that the “eye” is the result of an interaction of a number of genes, then the question nevertheless remains, how does natural selection manage to coordinate the interaction in the first place? Is it possible that we are facing an IC situation here?

Andrea Bottaro Wrote:

Maddeningly, he does come inadvertently close to the answer, when he mentions that evolutionary and biochemical evidence shows an elephant and its flea (or a fly and a horse!) are essentially the same (p. 129-130). This should be better stated as: a fly and a horse, an elephant and its flea are, to a limited but significant extent, variations of the same genetic and developmental theme, and their obvious morphological differences hide a long common phylogenetic history. Indeed, Darwin’s major insights, wholly vindicated by a century and a half of research, are the fundamental unity of life, and the transforming power of small changes. But as Sermonti himself tells us, he has actually forgotten Darwin.

Even if you disagree with Sermonti that the gorilla did not descend from a human, but, instead, a human from a gorilla, it’s evident that Sermonti is not denying common descent. One can easily grant common descent without swallowing Darwinism hook, line and sinker.

One can easily grant common descent without swallowing Darwinism hook, line and sinker.

I see. And your alternative scientific theory of ID was what, again . … . ?

Marco: Sermonti did not express himself clearly in Kansas, but I think the most important point is that he did not speak the ID lingo, and got Calvert totally puzzled. I thought it was particularly hilarious when Sermonti showed D’Arcy Thompson’s milk drop “crown” to explain how complex forms can arise from simple laws of nature, when the IDists have been religiously repeating the line that complex (detailed arrangement of parts) + independently specified (looks like a crown) is a hallmark of design. At that point, I could almost hear Calvert’s brain gear grind to a halt and his alarm bells ringing.

Blast: I bought Sermonti’s book from an Italian online bookstore: www.libreriauniversitaria.it. Waste of money, really, but since I was buying other books, at least I didn’t have to pay additional shipment costs (that’s what kills you when ordering books abroad).

As for your objections: 1. That’s not the point Sermonti was making - he was talking about evolution in general. Even so, the original replicators during abiogenesis were not thermodynamically isolated either. Entropy can decline in any system, including non-living ones, as long as there is an input of energy from the environment.

2. Then he should have talked about “some” of the founders of neo-darwinism, not “the” founders. Of course, then his argument would have made even less sense.

3. I think I am clearly on the record as stating that IC is no problem for evolution. IC systems can evolve, step by step, through a variety of mechanisms. Here is one example how that can happen.

4. Actually, Sermonti says that humans appeared in one single biological and ontological leap - he never says they “descended” from anything. That’s not common descent, not in any meaningful sense anyway.

As for your last comment, I am sorry but anyone seriously accusing tens of thousands of biologists (essentially, the entire field) of “swallowing Darwinism hook, line and sinker” is likely to have swallowed a pretty large lump of stinking propaganda themselves. That you find it appropriate to repeat that mindless line in defense of someone who seriously proposes that humans came out of nowhere and devolved into australopithecines and apes, while leaving for some reason a fossil and molecular record that goes the opposite way, just doesn’t help your case either.

Greg, Re “perhaps your question is facetious, and I certainly can’t claim to know,”

Well, I was listing the only two avenues that came to mind to explain a change in the ratio of genders. To me a difference at the production end sounds more plausible than a filter of some kind at the receiving end, but I’m not a biologist so I don’t really know.

Henry

Thanks a lot for your presentation to the American audience of the insubstantial evolutionary thought of Sermonti that is not representative of italian scientific thought. Others are true evolutionary scientists like Montalenti, Omodeo, Minelli.…. We have forwarded your post in our italian web sites (http://darwininitalia.blogspot.com and http://www.eversincedarwin.org in which we show, archive, publish a lot of information concerning the evolutionary thought; a tentative to make less provincial the italian knowledge of evolution theory. Thanks again! Paolo Coccia

In every scientific discipline there are opposite fractions, and this is probably valid for the linguistic, too (unfortunatly, I’m not involved in this science-as you can clearly read-I’m sorry!). As regards what Arden states, Cavalli-Sforza is on the opposite-and apparently wrong-site of the barricade. But apart from the problem of Amerindian languages, the other C-S’s statements of language story are perhaps accettable for Arden, too-or not? And I don’t think it is the case to accuse C.S to be a know-it-all (I think to hear a certain irritation because of an invasion of the pitch by an expert on another science- a medical doctor showing interest in linguistic? C-S, turn back to count your genes and don’t take care of linguistic-non mettere la lingua sulla linguistica). C-S has got a great merit instead: The observations of several disciplines (linguistic, anthroplogy, genetic)that formerly didn’t compare theirselves properly, were converged in a clear vision. But..wasn’t perhaps “our beloved” Stephen Jay Gould a structuralist? On Sermonti’s same site? I don’t really think so! Rather, I think that if J.G. could read Sermonti, surely he had a guffaw! But Sermonti boast that he known him personally (see La rivista di Biologia, 2004, you can find the article in www.eversicedarwin.org -omaggio a Gould-Invito alla lettura) I don’t believe “our” SJG had Sermonti’s odd ideas. Don’t waste your time with Sermonti, if you really want to read an Italian book, read Telmo Pievani’s “Homo sapiens e altre catastrofi”. It has not the Sermonti’s book pseudolyric -but unbearable-style, but it is a extraordinarily interesting work! Francesco

I know this thread is almost extinct, but nevertheless:

In every scientific discipline there are opposite fractions, and this is probably valid for the linguistic, too (unfortunatly, I’m not involved in this science-as you can clearly read-I’m sorry!). As regards what Arden states, Cavalli-Sforza is on the opposite-and apparently wrong-site of the barricade. But apart from the problem of Amerindian languages,

Well, Amerindian languages were just the first battleground where the super-groupers like Ruhlen and Greenberg went off on their own tangents. Ruhlen has since gone on to extend the same methodology to languages of the Old World as well, with equally dubious results.

the other C-S’s statements of language story are perhaps accettable for Arden, too-or not?

Not really.

And I don’t think it is the case to accuse C.S to be a know-it-all (I think to hear a certain irritation because of an invasion of the pitch by an expert on another science- a medical doctor showing interest in linguistic? C-S, turn back to count your genes and don’t take care of linguistic-non mettere la lingua sulla linguistica).

I have no problems with a medical doctor showing interest in linguistics at all – what I find annoying is a medical doctor choosing linguistic theories based on how well they support his nonlinguistic theories, which is what C-S is basically doing. If I decided to go off into genetics, I’m sure I would probably go badly astray with it, even if I spent a couple years doing nothing but studying it (which C-S has not done). The methodology of historical linguistics developed for a reason – replacing it with a methodology that cannot be falsified, and which can basically prove anything, benefits no one.

Bottom line, the consensus of the vast majority of historical linguists working on language families all over the world is that MR’s & JG’s conclusions (and C-S’s use of them) are simply not supportable. This doesn’t mean that CS’s larger conclusions on population genetics are wrong – it simply means that linguistics doesn’t help him.

C-S has got a great merit instead: The observations of several disciplines (linguistic, anthroplogy, genetic)that formerly didn’t compare theirselves properly, were converged in a clear vision.

I don’t understand genetics well enough to make any statement on that aspect of C-S’s conclusions. But I think C-S essentially came to linguistics with his mind already made up, and he chose whatever arguments supported him best. As it turned out, this means he had to cast his lot with some very marginal, inept linguists. This would be bad enough, but it’s even worse when C-S insults people who actually have training in historical linguistics, for not supporting his theory. That’s dishonest, and doesn’t qualify as a ‘clear vision’ to me. Arrogance and ignorance seems a lot closer.

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This page contains a single entry by Andrea Bottaro published on June 19, 2005 5:40 PM.

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