on 10 July 1999
Robert Pennock, who before this book was unknown to me, is now one of my personal favorite philosophers. There are other publishings exposing the problems with creationism, so at first glance this book might appear to be a mere reiteration of what has already been stated by other authors. Make no mistake, though - this book proves to be worth its weight in gold (which is about 2.3 pounds).
Previously, we have been treated to overall reviews of generic creationist claims. That's all fine and dandy, but a comprehensive assessment of specific claims to new authors (i.e. Johnson, Behe) is what the public has needed for some time now. Pennock's book points out the holes in the 'new creationism,' but mainly this is an expose of Phillip Johnson, and a welcome one at that. Johnson, leader of the "Intelligent Design Theory" (which is nothing more than creationism that does not explicitly refer to God), has caused quite a fracas with his psuedo-profound rhetoric about the nature of science. Before now, creationists tried to battle the "origins debate" out on science's home turf, only to lose desperatly at every turn. Johnson's new strategy is to denounce the whole methodology of scientific inquiry, and bullying readers by referring to science as "dogma" and other such substanceless potshots.
Pennock's book deals a devastaing blow to Johnson. His portrayal of creationism is helpful indeed, and the book ends not with the ruins of creationism in its wake, but with suggestions for helping creationists understand that this whole debate does not undermine the fundamental morals or values that Chistianity holds so dear. This is, after all, the prime motivation of creationists, for they fear that "dogmatic naturalism" and "scientific assumptions" destroy morality. This fear is radically misguided, and Pennock shows just how (and how to fix it) better than anyone is recent memory.
on 7 May 1999
Pennock's book is the first to respond to some of the newer arguments, tactics, and participants in the changing landscape of creationism. The book is so well-argued that it is difficult to imagine that another one could ever be needed.
Pennock's denounces the attempts to incorporate religious dogma into public education. It is the finest of several analogous efforts published over two decades. With penetrating insight, he presents the full range of Christian creationist ideologies, many self contradictory. He examines how slandering Darwin's concept of natural selection ["evolution"] goes beyond biology. The real issue, he assures us, is the curtailing of the liberalisation of American society. In well-crafted prose, the author maintains your interest in a subject at once hilarious and terrifying. He declares that the issue is greater than religion versus science. It is one striking at the very root of American ideals.
The book provides a general history of 20th Century "creationism", its programme and its proponents. The later "Intelligent Design" movement, which declares itself a "science" instead of a religious concept, Pennock declares a sham. Its influence is far too great, yet built from shoddy materials. Tracing the ideas and publications of such figures as Henry Morris and his followers, Pennock describes the propaganda techniques of the Institute for Creation Research and the recent wave material camouflaged under "scientific" or "legal" disguises. Pennock pores over their material, pinpointing their fallacies and exposing their tactics. He shows how evidence is ignored or twisted, explaining how ideology governs speeches, publications and strategy. Through it all, he shows how the Christians are as much at war with each other as they are with "materialism", the label they apply to Darwinian scholars.
Pennock adopts the unique method of showing how the evolution of languages repeats the biological pattern. From an original, lost language, modern tongues evolved in different environments. It continues to evolve today. It's a fitting analogy, one which teachers should note and apply in the classroom. It's appropriate that a scholar of Pennock's stature should thus ally science with the humanities. As he points out, much of the assault on biological evolution could easily be applied to farming, home life and law.
The author examines some of the renowned figures of the IDC cabal with a penetrating gaze. Pennock charitably skims over Michael Behe's ignorance of evolutionary process to focus on lawyer Phil Johnson. Johnson's legal training prompts him to address all questions in absolutes and to create straw men as easily demolished targets. Pennock simply dissects Johnson's writings to demonstrate not only false assumptions, but contradictions so severe as to inspire the reader to wonder how he maintains his academic position. According to Pennock, Johnson's works betray a messianic mentality from which he institutes a project to redeem American society. It's to Pennock's credit that the term "demagogue" doesn't appear in the text. One can only admire his forbearance.
Pennock's patience must have been stretched in undertaking the research to produce this book. He has debated Darwin's defamers, suffered through the morass of creationist publications and endured the assault on evidence unashamedly displayed at the creationists' museum. It can hardly be beaten as an exercise in mental self-flagellation. Yet, this book results in a mine of information, reasoned analysis and fine exposition. Every science or humanities teacher in North America would do well to consider keeping a copy close at hand. It's an invaluable resource. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 7 November 2003
The author has written a full defence of evolution in science and education - emphasizing its centrality to biological research, and also its appearance in linguistics and some moral theory. His defence is more of an assault on the "Intelligent Design" Creationists, especially Philip Johnson, and his brilliant exposure of Johnson is the centrepiece of the book.
Being an American, Pennock does not explore why Creationism is so particularly American. Except for fundamentalist sects, it carries little or no weight outside the US, where even powerful politicians like Bush and Reagan have made fools of themselves with the "only a theory" escape clause. Another puzzle is why Catholicism has no truck with Creationism whatsoever. It is a pity that this is not explored some more. Clearly, it is related to the position of the Bible, which is less central to Catholic dogma as opposed to the authority of the Pope.
Another reason (which is more interesting) is the position of the Catholic religious orders in relation to science and education. Orders like the Jesuits and the Dominicians have always played a significant role in education (sometimes malignant!). Gregor Mendel, after all, was a Catholic monk. It would be interesting to see a more in-depth investigation of evolution in Catholic educational institutions like Notre Dame University. Catholicism is after all the largest single Christian church in the USA.
Besides that facet, this is an excellent book, and very good to learn about evolution, even if you don't have to defend your local school from rampant Creationists.
on 22 February 2016
TOWER OF BABEL is both an elegant history of creationism in the United States and a splendid rebuttal of creationism in all of its varieties, especially, intelligent design. Much to Pennock's credit he takes the novel approach of drawing analogies between linguistic and biological evolution. Not surprisingly, he notes that creationist critics of evolution are also quite critical of linguistics viewed from an evolutiuonary perspective. He notes how languages can be viewed as linguistic equivalents of species, with individual "subspecies" - dialects - gradually evolving into new languages. He also does an elegant job stating the evidence for evolution and why Darwin's theory of evolution via natural selection remains the great explanatory theory for biology.
Pennock makes a very persuasive case for the religious origins of "Intelligent Design" creationism, noting that its major proponents - Michael Behe, Willaim Dembski, and Phillip Johnson - are more interested in replacing "naturalistic" science with a theistic science that accepts Divine intervention than in determining the scientific validity - or lack thereof - of "Intelligent Design". Pennock states in the concluding chapter of TOWER OF BABEL that "intelligent-design creationists are wrong to say that evolution is just a 'loaded story" or assumed point of view; rather, it is as well confirmed by the scientific evidence as any of the great explanatory theories. More important, they are wrong to say that scientific naturalism is metaphysical dogma; rather, it is a methodology that is rationally justified and that is accessible to all." Like their biblical creationist kin, "Intelligent Design" creationists regard evolution as the source of all evils associated with modern American society, ranging from the spread of AIDS (For example, Pennock notes Johnson's support of a disreputable AIDS researcher who thinks AIDS is more the result of a degenerate homosexual lifestyle rather than its sexual transmission via HIV/AIDS viruses.) to liberalism.
Pennock concludes with an overview of ongoing battles between "Intelligent Design" advocates and scientists for control of the content of scientific learning in public school classrooms across the country. He notes that the injection of religious doctrine into classrooms through the introduction of "Intelligent Design" is a dangerous assault on American liberties and values, and one that should not be taken lightly by its adherents or potential supporters. Along with Kenneth Miller's FINDING DARWIN'S GOD and Philip Kitcher's ABUSING SCIENCE, this splendid book is one of the finest critiques of creationism and among the most eloquent defenses on behalf of not only biological evolution, but indeed, all of science.
on 28 May 2000
It's not often I read a non-fiction book from cover to cover in one sitting, but Pennock lays out his arguments so clearly and persuasively that I was engrossed, finishing finally at 2 a.m.! Pennock goes beyond the usual rebuttals to tackle the creationists' underlying problem with evolution - namely the fear that it both denies God and renders human lives meaningless. Pennock's sympathetic and genuine attempt to allay these fears is the best feature of the book.
on 16 January 2000
Philosopher Robert Pennock's book is a timely rebuttal of the new creationism ('intelligent design theory'): insightful, scholarly and thorough. It has been challenged (not always expertly) on various philosophical points and has inevitably received hostile comments from creationists and others with axes to grind, but Pennock has countered these objections very effectively. One feature of the book which does warrant comment is the linguistic focus; as the title suggests, Pennock exemplifies and discusses the failings of creationism (and the successes of evolutionary theory) chiefly in the context of language change, an area of study which is less 'charged' than biological evolution but is just as relevant to the issue.
The analogy between linguistic and biological evolution is not entirely precise. Pennock (who makes very few mistakes about linguistics) is well aware of this, but might perhaps have been slightly more explicit on this front; I myself initially misperceived his thrust here. Language change (or at least specific changes of the kind normally observed) involves features coded and transmitted culturally rather than genetically, and thus acquired during the user's lifetime rather than inherited. In addition, many changes are not adaptive (the main exceptions are some obviously adaptive vocabulary changes, as exemplified by Pennock). Furthermore, all known languages seem to be of approximately the same type and order of complexity. There are no surviving relics of earlier evolutionary stages.
As this last point suggests, the initial development of human language may well have differed in these respects. However, we have little direct evidence of that period; and in any event it is easy to overstate these differences - for instance, some languages ARE (somewhat) more complex than others. And, at the level Pennock intends, his case against creationism is in no way compromised by the distinctive nature of linguistic change.
I thoroughly recommend this book.
I only rated this book as one star because the author's comments on the evolution of language are so obviously flawed. He states that language is a 'jerry-built jumble' where changes occur in an evolutionary way at random. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shifts in vowels and consonants follow well established rules and are easy to catalogue. He also states that 'What we know from evolutionary mechanisms is that speciation occurs in isolated populations' - but the exact opposite occurs in language. English and German, for example, come from the same origin but developed into different 'species' despite not being isolated.
Viking [Scandinavian] words were assimilated into English and the Scandinavian languages changed over time. However, Icelandic, which was isolated remained largely unchanged proving at odds with Pennock's theory.
And this common feature of languages borrowing words from other languages creates massive cross-currents which are totally unlike the biological family tree of gradual divergence.
In addition, language does not develop in a 'chronological' way as does biological evolution. In the 11th Century many Norman French words were assimilated into English, followed in the 13th Century by Parisian French words. It wasn't until the 15th Century that many more Latin words became incorporated into English and Latin, of course, is the earlier language from which French developed. In evolutionary terms, this is entirely on its head! There are many other points, such as the almost instantaneous change in languages through the mechanism of learned transmission, and so on.
An interesting feature he doesn't comment on is how language 'degrades' over time. Comparing Classical Latin with Vulgar Latin, Classical Greek with Koine Greek and modern Greek and, even, Old English with modern English shows that grammar becomes less complex over time. Which raises the very interesting question of how the early Proto-Indo-European family of language could have evolved from, presumably, a series of grunts into a very complex language and then start to degrade into less complex forms? This certainly argues against the concept of evolutionary mechanisms operating in language. The only area where language 'grows' is in vocabulary where new words are needed, for example, to describe new technologies and systems.
All in all, Pennock is completely at odds with the facts in this area - and obviously so to anyone who does even minimal research into language development.
on 10 October 2012
I was hoping this book might actually cover something that already hasn't been publicly rebuked by the creationist movements. However, it seems that sadly, the author is stuck in the same mindset as every other writer in this field that shares his worldview... he can't get his head around the arguments being presented, and is too swept up in his own self-absorbed pre-suppositions that he fails to deal with any evidence he brings to the table in an objective light.
This book has made me realise just how much credibility the likes of Arthur Francis Green, John C Lennox and Allistair McGrath have when they speak with authority on the issues presented, including critical arguments that directly offshoot from the main argument which science is, as many atheist PhDs agree, UNQUALIFIED to answer, because science doesn't answer 'why' questions... it deals with 'how' questions.
The author obviously misunderstands the idea that just because science can identify how something functions, that it explains its existence. It is also obvious that the use of literary techniques chosen to write the book is more important than the evidence available to the author to put forward. I would suggest the author read books like 'When Fables Fall' and a number of John C Lennox' books before making another attempt at trying to dispell creationist theory. It is a much larger and better evidenced argument than he would lead us to believe from the biblical scholars' point of view.
on 13 August 1999
Pennock is to be praised for his defense of the truth of evolution against the attacks of the fundamentalists on science. However his defense his far from being complete as he does not defend evolution in politics. I could forgive him if he was a scientist, but being a philosopher he should have defended evolution in politics against the fundamentalist anti-evolutionary and anti-scientific laws that are leading this country towards a genetic catastroph. I recommend reading books defending evolution against fundamentalism, for example: Why Race matters (by Michael Levin), Mein Kampf, The Real American Dilemma: Race, Immigration, and the Future of America (by Jared Taylor.)