A Pseudolinguist Does Pseudobiology

BPSDBM.J. Harper has a book available in your friendly local Barnes and Borders-A-Million, entitled The Secret History of the English Language. The short version of the professional critique of his linguistic claims is that they’re garbage. However, just as garbage attracts flies, so too will one kind of pseudoscience find happy companionship with another. (It occurs to me that I’m being a little unkind to flies with this metaphor.) Take what Harper says about biological evolution, in which he dredges out the old and tiresome canard that evolution is unfalsifiable:

Take the exemplar of all modern academic paradigms, the Theory of Evolution. There’s no question that the theory is valuable in so far as it has led more or less directly to the creation of the modern Life Sciences, but, true or false, the theory no less certainly contains the seeds of its own infinite survival. Having adopted a properly scientific root-and-branch model of speciation in which ex hypothesi all species must be demonstrably linked to other species, it permits the indefinite opening of new categories whenever a species cannot be demonstrably linked to other species. This has the unavoidable corollary that nothing can ever discovered from now until the end of time that can ever call the model into question.

That sound you hear is the figurative ghost of J. B. S. Haldane screaming, “Fossil rabbits in the sodding Precambrian!”

The modern understanding of evolution has multiple components, all of which are supported by countless interlocking lines of evidence. Common descent is one of these components, as is the principle of natural selection. Evidence could force us to revise our understanding of common descent, while leaving natural selection largely untouched. Other lines of evidence could conceivably challenge natural selection and show that it hasn’t operated to a significant extent over the history of life, but that evidence, to put it mildly, hasn’t yet come to light. In short, each component is falsifiable, but Nature has not falsified them.

I don’t get it: first he says that the model demands all species be linked, and then he says that a species completely unlinked to all the others wouldn’t cause the slightest jog to our thinking. Hooray — it’s Bizarro Science! See, evidence would “call the model into question,” but the evidence gathered so far supports the model, and does it so well we upgrade the “model” to the status of theory, meaning it’s an idea with real teeth.

There are species of uncertain classification, and we don’t yet know exactly how, say, all the animal phyla are related. But all these species use DNA to carry their genetic information, and they all have the same genetic code for translating DNA information into protein chains; the regulatory systems which govern their growth and development share deep similarities. None of the unknowns are potent enough to unseat the principle of common descent, and postulating a “special creation” for the species in question doesn’t help you make any useful predictions. It’s a little like two fraternal twins, a brother and a sister, arguing over who was born first: the difference either way is only a few minutes, and anybody can see they’ve both got their mother’s eyes.

Harper is a creationist of linguistics. In reading the review H. J. Lomax wrote of The Secret History at Amazon, I was astonished at how familiar I found Lomax’s exasperation:

His argument is, of course, complete guff. It would take a book considerably longer than his to fully explain why every single point he makes is so wrong, although it mostly boils down to the matter of all the “bone-chilling evidence” that he chooses to ignore.

Yes, Harper’s book is just our old friend, the Gish gallop!

I realise the tone of this review is pretty confrontational, but to my mind, that is appropriate considering the shamelessly insulting attitude that M. J. Harper adopts towards anyone who might dare to challenge his piffle. His entire argument is based on defaming anyone with any understanding of the issues in question and caricaturing their views so that he can get away with saying anything he cares to dream up. That it comes in a smart edition, with so many positive testimonies gives the unfortunate impression that the book has some credibility. It doesn’t.

Wow. Isn’t that, like, the most familiar thing ever? Lomax dishes out to Harper what politeness prevents me from saying to Michael Behe:

Whilst reading this stupid, stupid book, it became clear within the first few paragraphs that M. J. Harper must at some time have been dreadfully wronged by academe and borne a grudge ever since. I can only imagine that historians ran over his childhood pet, or that his father abandoned his family to become an etymologist. Whatever its cause, the deep and burning resentment this man feels is palpable. One could almost feel sorry for him if it wasn’t for the overwhelming torrents of smug self-satisfaction that cascade from every page.

Replace “historians” with “geneticists,” read “entomologists” for “etymologists,” and you’d have a statement perfectly applicable to any of the crackpots at the Discovery Institute.

UPDATE: I just noticed some sage remarks from Language Hat:

Now, I have nothing against crackpots; throughout history they’ve provided harmless amusement for the rest of us. I don’t even blame the publishers who put out the stuff without a proper warning label—they’re just trying to make a buck, putting it all on the market and seeing if anyone will buy it. No, I blame the professional reviewers who take the nonsense seriously. […] If the book were claiming that Queen Elizabeth was the illegitimate son of Rasputin, or that mixing salt and sugar provides an inexhaustible source of energy that will replace oil and gas, no one would take it seriously; if it were reviewed at all, it would be as an example of how absolutely anything can get published. But equivalent nonsense about language is reviewed respectfully, and it makes me despair.

Welcome to my world, my friend.