Clueless in Wales

Every once in a while you encounter something that is so blindly oblivious, so … well … so pig-ignorant (there’s no more delicate way to put it), that you can only wonder what the purveyor of that ignorance is using to think with. An extraordinary example is provided by a benighted piece on the Social Affairs Unit, a British site primarily devoted to conservative political, economic, and cultural affairs. Like their American counterparts, the SAU folks seem to feel that they must weigh in on scientific issues about which they are supremely uninformed. From David Hadley via Pharyngula, we are pointed to a ludicrously bad piece by an historian titled The Theory of Evolution: Just a Theory?. (You can see it coming, can’t you?)

I submitted a lengthy comment to the SAU board fisking some of the specific points in the piece, but since my submitted remarks were on the vitriolic side and comments are moderated there, it appears that it won’t be published. So I’ll comment more generally here on PT, preserving the vitriol. Sometimes a spade is a goddam spade, and politely calling it a “digging implement” fails to capture just how much of a goddam spade it is.

The piece is by William D. Rubinstein, a professor at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Rubinstein holds a Ph.D. in modern history from Johns Hopkins, and apparently is an authority on British history and on the Holocaust whose major recent work is The Myth of Rescue, which argues

In this revisionist history Rubinstein (History/Univ. of Wales, Aberystwyth) sets out to debunk as “illogical and ahistorical” the work of several established historians who raise the question of Allied culpability during the Holocaust.

Rubinstein is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He tells us that

… I think I have as much common sense as the next man and probably more in the way of an independent viewpoint than most.

So the guy is seemingly not a lightweight, and in his own opinion at least is a common-sensical independent thinker.

In his ‘just a theory’ posting Rubinstein uses an interesting phrase that tells us he’s largely unaware of actual evolutionary biology. He opens his essay by saying he has “a desultory interest in many fields beyond my specialty, including the mysteries of science.” “Desultory”, in the sense of ‘wavering, unsteady, erratic’, connotes no particularly well-grounded knowledge about evolutionary biology, suggesting that perhaps Professor Rubinstein is not the best man to pontificate in public about it. The remainder of his piece confirms that suggestion. Judging by the content of the essay, “desultory” is an overstatement. “Non-existent” is more accurate.

The piece consists mainly of a list of some of the most uninformed misconceptions about what evolutionary theory says that it has been my misfortune to read in one place, and I’ve read Morris, Gish, Slusher, Parker, Behe, Johnson, and Dembski, among others. Rubinstein literally has no clue about evolutionary theory. None. Consider some of what Rubinstein deems to be “deep implausibilities” of evolutionary theory:

Evolution appears to be plainly impossible. Animals cannot “evolve” into new and different species. If one breeds cats for a thousand generations, they will still be cats, won’t they? They simply will not “evolve” into cats which look like kangaroos and are genetically different from felis domesticus. It simply won’t happen.

Observed instances I, Observed Instances II, and a couple in progress, salamanders and Rhagoletis pomonella.

Moreover, no one expects “evolution” to occur. If your pet cat gave birth to a litter of kittens, one of which had two tails, you wouldn’t exclaim, “Aha! Here is the next stage of feline evolution!”

What can one say except “Say whaaat?”

Even more importantly, to the best of my knowledge no one has ever seen an example of genuine evolution, that is, of one species producing an offspring which was clearly of another, different species. … people have been looking for evidence of evolution for nearly 150 years, and scientists would certainly be sensitive to the emergence of any new species, with the evidential value this would have for proving Darwin right.

See above, observed instances.

There are actually no “missing links” in the fossil record, a fact which, I understand, is continuously swept under the rug.

Synapsids to mammals, among hundreds of examples.

New organs in living bodies must appear fully-formed at once or they can serve no biological purpose and confer no advantage upon that creature. On the other hand, the complexity of most organs would seem to make this impossible.

A quite good overview of eye evolution by a British undergraduate. It doesn’t take an advanced degree. A more technical paper on genetic control and the evolution of eye types.

That’s a selection from Rubinstein’s longer list, but it captures his level of knowledge: abysmally low. He appears to be reading from Phil Johnson’s playbook.

From those and other “implausibilities” Rubinstein concludes

I simply do not know what all of this means, although the best inference which might be drawn is that new species apparently “evolve” suddenly and fully-formed, a concept, known as “saltation”, which has been advocated in the past, and which was recently revived, at least in part, in the late Stephen J. Gould’s theory of “punctuated equilibrium”.

What? What it means is that Rubinstein is pig-ignorant of biology, is what it means. He has not the slightest clue, and passes off his clueless “best inference”, grounded on false premises, as a statement about evolutionary theory when in fact it’s a statement about his ignorance of the theory he egregiously misrepresents.

I am less interested in the specific errors, misrepresentations, and plain dumb crap in Rubinstein’s piece than I am in the question of how a presumably intelligent person could bring himself to publicly display such breathtaking ignorance, when the resources necessary to rectify that ignorance are as readily available to his readers as to himself. I am frankly puzzled. Does he really think his readers are as ignorant as he is and that they can’t (or won’t) do a tiny bit of reading on their own? (Don’t answer that!)

Rubinstein writes

One reason for the failure of scientists to challenge Evolution is that the whole subject is tainted and pervaded by the religion vs. science question, such that anyone who questions Evolution is automatically dismissed as a “Creationist” who believes in the literal truth of the Bible and who is seen as having an agenda of religious fundamentalism behind his doubts. Let me make clear, then, that I am not a religious fundamentalist.

Be assured that I do not dismiss Professor Rubinstein’s remarks about evolution as being inspired by creationism. I dismiss them because they display an appalling ignorance of the theory he purports to criticize. He flat out doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If a first-year undergraduate turned in a paper as riddled with errors as Rubinstein’s essay it would receive a failing grade, not because it criticizes the theory of evolution but because it does not display the slightest effort to accurately represent the theory being criticized.

I’m sorry. I can’t go on. Both my irony meter and my bullshit detector (bought on sale after the last election) have burned out. One seldom sees such arrant nonsense slathered around in public, produced by a man with “Professor” in front of his name and “FRHS” after it, outside of the post-modernist movement. It’s an indication of the depths to which education in the West has sunk. I am (almost) ashamed to have been a professor for 20 years once upon a time.