A Review of Robert T
Pennock's Tower of Babel:
the evidence against the new creationism
Cambridge MA: Bradford/MIT Press, hardback 1999; paperback 2000. xviii, 429
by John Wilkins, History and Philosophy of Science, The University of Melbourne
Forthcoming in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, July 2001 - unedited version
Pennock's book is a lively, readable and current account of the ideas and recent history of creationism, or "creation science". It is comprehensive in its scope and provides an excellent introduction to the issues and events of modern anti-Darwinism. Yet, there have been many books dealing with creationism, notably Philip Kitcher's Abusing Science, Michael Ruse's Darwinism Defended, and Ronald Numbers' The Creationists. Surely, one might think, the topic has been sufficiently covered; why do we need another text? Pennock's book has three virtues that justify its publication now: he brings the subject up to date (although it was published before the recent decisions in Kansas and Oklahoma to make creationism respectable in classrooms); he provides another way to deal with anti-evolutionism through a nice discussion of the evolution of languages; and more than any other book, he deals with the "Intelligent Design" movement that is currently having some success resurrecting Paleyesque arguments from design in the intellectual arena in America. Increasingly, that influence is being felt elsewhere, particularly in Catholic circles.
Pennock classifies all anti-Darwinians of a Christian bent as creationists - there are Young Earth Creationists (YECs), Old Earth Creationists (OECs), Evolutionary Creationists (ECs), Progressive Creationists (PCs), and the primary target of his book, the Intelligent Design Creationists (IDCs). Initially I thought it was rather unfair to lump these often-warring tribes under one general banner, but Pennock's arguments and documentation are persuasive. These distinct movements group themselves, sometimes in the name of expediency to dislodge Darwinism, and at other times from intellectual consonance. The internecine battles within the creationist movement, which superficially appears to be uniform and grass roots, are brought to the fore and given a good historical and social context, updating Numbers' account. Pennock describes how creationism is using the Internet to good advantage. A web search on "evolution", for example, will bring up many more creationist pages than evolutionist ones unless your search engine is weighted in favour of academic sites. Many of these reiterate the half-truths, misunderstandings and outright fabrications of creationist books and pamphlets, or articles published in creation-only journals that mimic peer-reviewed academic publications. Pennock discusses and debunks the most egregious and common ones, up to and including the infamous "Lady Hope" hoax of Darwin's so-called "deathbed conversion and recantation".
Then, Pennock takes an unusual tack. Rather than trying, yet again, to explain Darwinian theory in biology and its implications and uses, he chooses instead to discuss another story from Genesis, from which the book gets its name. The biblical etiology of language at the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 immediately follows the Noachian flood stories that figure so prominently in creationist accounts. The parallels are instructive. Languages were realised to be the result of an evolutionary process of common descent long before Darwin, when "homological" words showed the affinity of Sanskrit to modern European languages. A "higher taxon" was diagnosed, the Indo-European family of languages, and its discoverer, Sir William Jones, supposed in 1786 that the best explanation was that all had evolved from a common ancestral tongue, which he called Indo-European, thus founding comparative linguistics. Like species and higher biological taxa, languages blur at the edges, and like them too, there are sub-taxon variants, dialects. And like biological evolution, linguistic evolution contradicts the biblical account, and has been similarly attacked by biblical literalists. Pennock uses August Schleicher's elaboration of Jones' hypothesis to illustrate common difficulties some have with evolution such as the "missing link" objection and the heuristic issues of a science dealing with past events, particularly the lack of direct observation and the status of (linguistic) evolution as both factual and theoretical, the latter being an explanation of the former.
The language example is illuminating of evolutionary accounts both in terms of taxonomy (it is said, for example, that French and Italian grade into each other via successive regional dialects, akin to a ring species), and phylogeny, and of course it is interesting in itself. It illustrates how the "Unity of Type" Darwin spoke of is represented by the hierarchical inclusion of unit taxa (languages) in higher taxa (language families, such as Romance languages), and those higher taxa in even higher ones (Romance and Cyrillic languages in the Indo-European family, and that in Proto-Indo European, and so on). Unlike many parallels used to illustrate phylogeny, this one is not artificial and exhibits the same difficulties as the biological: loss of phylogenetic signal through extinction, incomplete preservation, convergence, and horizontal transfer (borrowings and mergings).
Creationists often claim that evolutionary theory is "just a faith", uncannily echoing the views of postmodern critics of science. Indeed, the more erudite creationists often cite Kuhn and, more rarely but more appropriately, Feyerabend. Pennock discusses the "faith objection", but I would have liked to see creationism placed in the broader context of late twentieth century anti-science reaction. One point he does make is that what distinguishes postmodern and relativistic sociological accounts of science from creationism is that the latter is ultimately absolutist. They do not think, as Feyerabend does, that a thousand flowers should bloom. They think that they have it right - their faith is the True Faith and all else, particularly evolution, is Bad Faith. But apart from this, the similarities are instructive. Both rely upon textual discourse in preference to empirical data, both exhibit ahistorical interpretation of texts, both deny that unaided human cognitive enterprise can approach the truth. Still, is it fair to place the "new creationists", the IDCs, in the same boat as the rest? Here we have respectable philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Paul Nelson and William Dembski, along with scientists like Michael Behe, and a professor of law at Berkeley, Philip Johnson, all arguing a sophisticated line based on a seemingly good knowledge of history, probability theory, and epistemology, biochemistry, information theory and many other fields. Pennock amply demonstrates that they are in that boat, and how their arguments swerve from being philosophical to explicitly or implicitly theological.
Johnson, for example, announced to a gathering of postmodern critics that he was as postmodern as they. So, of course, have proevolutionists such as Gould or Lewontin, although in a qualified manner - they at least give priority to empirical data, and although they accept that culturally relative values influence theoretical development, they draw the edge of the cultural Sorites heap before one gets to core theories of common descent and natural selection. Not so the IDCs. All scientific theories are postmodern constructions to them. Hence, the critical demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable science is for them not Popperian (although like all creationists they will adduce Popper to "prove" that undirected evolution is "unscientific"), but whether the theory in question is open to interpretations of design or not, and "design" is, of course, the politically correct way to refer to God, as IDCs privately admit. Pennock slyly shows that this does not follow by presenting the views of panspermists such as the RaŽlian cult, who believe that life on earth was designed by an ancient group of aliens who had reached the necessary scientific and technological level. The arguments for divine design and ET-design are identical, except that the latter is entirely natural.
The issue here is whether science must be "naturalistic", ruling out explanations in terms of the supernatural or investigations of the supernatural. Johnson is the primary exponent of the view that only an atheistic science can exclude the supernatural. Pennock shows that a science that did admit miracles would be useless as a way of knowing. He exposes Johnson's (deliberate?) conflation of ontological naturalism (in other words, physicalism) with methodological naturalism. If any attempt to know the world through empirical data may at any point be interrupted through divine agency, which is formally unpredictable (as Job tells us, who can know the ways of God?), then the heuristic value of empirical data is correspondingly reduced. Since we cannot know by how much or when empirical data is devalued (because we do not know how or when God will act or has acted), empiricism is useless as a way to know the world, and science is impossible. From being a "god of the gaps" approach as most "scientific" creationism is, ID would make a "science of the gaps", ever reducing what science could in principle explain. But, as Pennock observes, as have others such as Stephen Jay Gould, science does not prohibit there being a supernatural realm of objects or properties. It is just that no science could empirically investigate that realm, since the ontology of science derives from theoretical elements required in explanation, and no non-empirical acausal objects appear in scientific theories. Science is both necessarily methodologically naturalistic, and necessarily agnostic about the existence of the of the non-empirical.
Recent claims by Behe that systems that are "irreducibly complex" cannot evolve through Darwinian processes have generated rebuttals from biologists and philosophers alike. Pennock's treatment is clear, although not as sophisticated as theirs, but he reworks one of Behe's parables to good effect. Behe illustrates his views by the probability that a groundhog would mate across an eight-lane highway (rebutting speciation and adaptation). Pennock's version memorably demolishes Behe's, substituting a population of groundhogs, some of whom make it to lane dividers and reproduce before tackling the next lane, illustrating Darwinian processes admirably. Behe's claims are then related to Dembski's notion of "complex specified information" (CSI) which is a reiteration of Aquinas' argument from design and attempts to turn information theory against Darwin. Pennock aims at explaining what is wrong with CSI without overwhelming the reader with calculus or technical terms.
The political aspect of creationism in America is crucial to understanding it, and here Pennock is at his best. The various manoeuvres creationists use to avoid being seen as pushing a theological agenda rather than a scientific one are exposed in detail. This is vital for them in the United States, where school boards are democratically elected, not appointed, and have control over the curriculum standards of a state, and where the constitution and several higher court rulings prohibit publicly-funded state schools from favouring a particular religious position. Again and again Pennock shows how the arguments used against science by the creationists resolve to reliance upon biblical hermeneutics or a disavowal of scientific methodology or justification. Elsewhere in the world creationists find this strategy less effective, for example in Australia or Europe, and there their influence is restricted to media exposure or - as in Queensland in the 1980s - personal influence with a government comprised of Protestant conservatives.
If the book has a fault, it seems to lack a single target audience. Creationists are unlikely to read it because it is too detailed and likely to offend them unless they read its disclaimers (of not being anti-theistic) carefully. Anti-creationists will find it useful as a reference work, but that is preaching to the choir. I think its primary target use is as a text from which to explore issues of the public and philosophical aspects of science in undergraduate classes, and in that role it would make an excellent tutorial starter. Pennock challenges folk intuitions and invites a broader exposure to the nature of science and evolutionary theory.
Pennock's endnotes are sparse, although that is something of a virtue in this sort of publication. Details relevant to the narrative should appear in the text. One major lacuna, however, is the omission of some relevant Internet URLs. Much of the material he is discussing can be found on the Internet, such as Behe's arguments, Dembski's papers, and so on, which might otherwise be inaccessible. One of those sites is the Talk.Origins Archive which presents rebuttals to the IDC and other creationist arguments (to declare my interest, I am a contributor to that site) and has an extensive set of links to creationist pages. Pennock mentions it and its newsgroup home, but doesn't give the link. Although a decent search engine could locate these sites easily if you know the keywords to use, Pennock could have improved the utility of his book as an instructional text with those URLs.
The creationist movement, and in particular the ID movement, represents a general decline of trust in science and support for it in the western world. Tower of Babel is an excellent documentation of one noisy strand of that decline. Philosophers and historians of science will find it replete with anecdotes and examples illustrating the misuse and abuse of science by the general public and intellectuals alike.