Someone at the New York Times Wasn't Being Sufficiently Vigilant About Stealth "Creationism" When This One Got Through
That there are serious shortcomings to orthodox Darwinian theory is not a fact you'd expect to see candidly acknowledged in the New York Times, or even hinted at. Indeed, last time we checked in on the Times, the newspaper of record had published what amounted to an advertorial for the National Center for Science Education. John West critiqued Motoko Rich's September 28 article, "Creationists on Texas Panel for Biology Textbooks", here. So did Terry Mattingly.
Yet check out the September 30 review (just two days later!) of Leslie Valiant's book Probably Approximately Correct, by the great UC Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel, which frankly discusses the observation that evolution seems to run on algorithms -- and would not work if did not. Valiant is a computer scientist at Harvard. Clearly, someone at the New York Times was not being sufficiently vigilant when this article was approved for publication.
The evolution of species, as Darwin taught us, relies on natural selection. But Dr. Valiant argues that if all the mutations that drive evolution were simply random and equally distributed, it would proceed at an impossibly slow and inefficient pace.
Darwin's theory "has the gaping gap that it can make no quantitative predictions as far as the number of generations needed for the evolution of a behavior of a certain complexity," he writes. "We need to explain how evolution is possible at all, how we got from no life, or from very simple life, to life as complex as we find it on earth today. This is the BIG question."
Dr. Valiant proposes that natural selection is supplemented by ecorithms, which enable organisms to learn and adapt more efficiently. Not all mutations are realized with equal probability; those that are more beneficial are more likely to occur. In other words, evolution is accelerated by computation.
This is an ambitious proposal, sure to ignite controversy. But what I find so appealing about this discussion, and the book in general, is that Dr. Valiant fearlessly goes to the heart of the "BIG" questions....He passionately argues his case, but is also first to point out the parts of his theory that are incomplete, eager to anticipate and confront possible counterarguments. This is science at its best, driven not by dogma and blind belief, but by the desire to understand, intellectual integrity and reliance on facts. [Emphasis added.]
So here we have one distinguished scientist congratulating another for writing a book reflecting the practice of "science at its best," "driven not by dogma and blind belief," but by "intellectual integrity," that analyzes a "gaping gap" in "Darwin's theory," namely that natural selection operating on random mutations would be an "impossibly slow and inefficient" mechanism for explaining the development of complex life, suggesting instead that "computation," "algorithms," play a necessary role.
Needless to say, the formulation of algorithms is an activity associated with intention and intelligence. Dr. Frenkel writes:
Our daily lives are growing ever more dependent on algorithms, those omnipresent computational procedures that run programs on our laptops, our smartphones, our GPS devices and much else. Algorithms influence our decisions, too: when we choose a movie on Netflix or a book on Amazon, we are presented with recommendations churned out by sophisticated algorithms that take into account our past choices and those of other users determined (by still other algorithms) to be similar to us.
This is exactly the kind of criticism of Darwinian theory that, in any other context, the New York Times and approved advocacy groups like the NCSE would condemn as stealth "creationism." Indeed, that's just what Motoko Rich says in her recent article about science education in Texas:
Four years ago, a conservative bloc on the state school board pushed through amendments to science standards that call for students to "analyze and evaluate" some of the basic principles of evolution. Science educators and advocates worry that this language can be used as a back door for teaching creationism.
In fact, the suggestion that evolution proceeds by the application of computation and algorithm goes beyond a mere criticism of Darwinian theory. It suggests an alternative ripe with design implications. Our "laptops, our smartphones, our GPS devices" did not, after all, arise by any unguided, unintelligent process of blind churning.
No, I'm not saying that Valiant or Frenkel is an advocate of intelligent design, but...well, just read what they say.