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Pennock's Primer for Defending Science

Peter Bowler

Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism. Robert T. Pennock. 440 pp. MIT Press, 1999. $35.

Robert T. Pennock charts the transformation of creationism into a new movement that seeks not to set up a rival "creation science" but to undermine the credibility of the whole naturalistic methodology on which science itself is based. His book offers a useful survey of recent developments in the creationist movement and valuable advice for evolutionists trying to defend the credibility of their theory in public debates.

Pennock's title alludes to the Tower of Babel for two reasons. He uses a comparison between biological evolution and the evolution of languages to expose how the old-fashioned "young-earth creationism" is forced to deny the validity of a whole range of scientific disciplines. If the earth is less than 10,000 years old, then the vast array of human languages cannot have a natural origin (because there is not enough time for them to have diversified), and the creationists happily turn to a supernatural explanation in the form of God's imposition of language diversity in order to humble the builders of the Tower. Pennock offers a cornucopia of arguments against this and other creationist claims, so that his book will serve as an invaluable source for anyone seeking ammunition with which to attack creationists in public debate.

The other allusion to Babel arises from Pennock's detailed account of recent developments within the creationist camp, which have generated a multitude of competing creationist positions. Young-earth creationism has failed in its attempt to get "creation science" into the public schools because that description of the earth's origin is so obviously based on the Genesis story. The new generation of creationists, including law professor Phillip Johnson, now try to discredit evolutionism in the name of "intelligent design theory"—the claim that the only satisfactory explanation of complex structures such as living things is design by a supernatural creator. Once again, Pennock offers a detailed critique, pointing out the completely negative character of Johnson's arguments and the inability of his "theory" to offer any significant guide to research.

But the adversarial nature of Johnson's courtroom style all too easily allows him to convince the gullible that if there is something wrong with evolution, then creationism must be accepted as the only alternative. Pennock maintains, correctly in my view, that attack is the best means of defense when dealing with a lay audience; evolutionists should try to expose the weakness of the opposition instead of getting bogged down in technical arguments about biology.

Much of Pennock's book is devoted to exposing the philosophical and ideological underpinning of the new creationism. Instead of trying to offer "flood geology" as an alternative science, the exponents of intelligent-design theory seek to dismiss the whole naturalistic methodology of science as the product of a materialistic philosophy and value system. Johnson even tries to make common cause with those scholars who are trying to undermine the authority of science in the academic community by claiming that it is an ideological construct. For the creationists, however, the aim is to defend the values of the religious right. They believe that evolutionism is evil because it undermines the moral authority of the Bible—and has thus opened the way for a breakdown of traditional values. Since they have no philosophical arguments with which to sustain those values, the Bible remains the only foundation, and its authority must not be challenged even in areas related more to science than to ethics.

Pennock exposes the emotional insecurity on which this position is based. He also warns against continued efforts to get creationism into the public schools, pointing out that an attempt is now being made to bypass the constitutional prohibition against the teaching of religion. If these efforts succeed, America will end up with Fundamentalist Protestant schools—but presumably all other faiths will then be in a position to demand the same privilege. As a resident of Northern Ireland, where separate Protestant and Catholic schools have helped to sustain a sectarian divide with disastrous consequences, I offer heartfelt support for Pennock's warning against the dangers of going down this road.

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