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Intelligent Design Creationism
and Its Critics
general information | our review | links | about the editor
- Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives
- With contributions by Pennock, Barbara Forrest, Phillip Johnson, Alvin Plantinga, Michael Behe, Philip Kitcher, Michael Ruse, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and others
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-- : exhaustive and surprisingly limited back-and-forth -- but a lot about this bizarre debate
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
American intellectual debate ranges far and wide, on subjects of great importance and on some that seem largely trivial.
Modern science has livened things up in certain areas, as for example genetic engineering has become a much-debated and controversial topic.
In the distance, cropping up every so often (usually at your local school board meeting), remains another -- perhaps the oddest preoccupation of a select few: the opposition to evolution.
It usually takes the form of opposing the teaching of "evolution" (in some Darwinian sense) in schools.
It is an almost uniquely American concern, and even there highly localized, among Protestant groups.
The reason they oppose evolution ... well, they now say it is because evolution is unproven (it's just a "theory", after all) and there are other plausible explanations for how man came about.
The true reason, of course, is that they take the bible literally and find Darwinian-type evolution irreconcilable with their notion of their god.
Quite recently such anti-evolutionists were known as "Creationists" (along with a few exceptions who are adherents of other inventive evolutionary alternatives), believing as they did in the idea of creation as "documented" in their guiding text (the bible).
Unfortunately, harping on biblical truth over scientific fact led only to small successes (local school boards were swayed, only to find themselves receiving lots of undesirable press coverage and a quick course-revision).
So they decided to dress up their ideas in scientific garb.
The idea of "intelligent design" was born !
"Intelligent design" is Creationism without the god -- except, of course, that the god (and, yes, specifically that god, their one and only) is implicit in everything about it.
But since the god-part is set aside (for a brief moment) these people try to pass off "intelligent design" as a viable and truly "scientific theory".
Oh what fun !
Robert Pennock offered an excellent overview of the creationism-evolution debate in his Tower of Babel (see our review).
In this volume he presides as editor and offers something quite different.
The focus is more narrow: essentially entirely on "intelligent design".
Pennock offers essays by partisans from each camp (the IDs and the ... Evos ?), including a lot of replies to specific essays (and charges).
All the major players are represented.
In one corner: Johnson, Plantinga, Behe, Dembski, and cohorts.
In the other: Ruse, Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Pennock, and others.
A 797 page fun-packed slugfest !
Oh, it is mind-numbing stuff in part.
And yet perversely fascinating too.
Pennock divides the book up nicely, covering (or at least addressing) most of the relevant issues.
Beginning with a discussion of the "Wedge strategy", to the question whether it is "a theological conflict", the claims of "intelligent design theory", the "intelligent design" notion of information, and the question of what should be taught in schools, Pennock covers most of the bases.
In each section the "intelligent design" notions are presented, and then usually ripped to shreds by one or more more scientifically minded folk.
In some sections there is more back and forth.
One thing is clear: never the twain shall meet.
The apples-and-oranges type debate (more like apples and asteroids, considering how different the approaches are) doesn't get too far.
Yes, lots of "intelligent design" claptrap is debunked -- but since it is largely sophistic bunk (to put it very politely) to begin with this is largely an arduous and not very exciting exercise.
As Pennock explains in one of his pieces: "To meet Johnson's challenge we must not only show how his argument fails on logical grounds, but also deconstruct his rhetoric" -- fair enough, but numbing over the long term.
Many of the contributors are forced to limit their responses for obvious but unfortunate reasons -- as Peter Godfrey-Smith explains: "There is so much wrong with Dembski's argument that it is quite difficult to discuss without giving constant and distracting criticisms of relatively minor points."
Still, the contributions certainly have their moments.
It is interesting to see what contortions the supporters of "intelligent design" are capable of.
Fortunately (or not ?) many of them write in an approachable style, and often display a generosity towards their opponents that is not reciprocated (and that, for example, you certainly won't find from us).
It's almost touching.
Their misguided arguments aren't all purely nutty: there are valid issues that are raised here -- except, of course, that these tend to get quickly twisted in often quite preposterous directions.
The evolutionary opposition is often at a sort of disadvantage in constantly holding up the emperor's new clothes because they can't address all the issues and claims.
So is this merely a collection for the specialist audience involved in the debate ?
Unfortunately, the debate has much broader implications.
The teaching of all kinds of science (not just evolution) is threatened by the misguided "intelligent design" approach, as is, ultimately, the practice of science -- and, indeed, the way we do (and can) live our lives.
Sometimes the "intelligent design"-supporters get carried away and admit the significance of what is at issue, as when Al Plantinga writes: "The stakes, furthermore, are high; this is a battle for men's souls."
(So how can you not read this book ? Your very "soul" is at stake.)
Often -- here, as well as in both the partisan and mass-media -- the "intelligent design" folk seem remarkably reasonable.
All they want to do, it seems, is put their very scientific idea on the table and have it considered in just the same way as Darwinism is.
But, as this collection demonstrates, their intentions are far from innocent and what they have to offer doesn't belong on the same table as Darwinism.
Pennock and friends convincingly show that despite the scientific veneer -- enlisting academics and scientists in support of their positions, and claiming to want to study and do research regarding "intelligent design" -- there has been essentially no truly scientific work done in the field and no publications in scientific journals that support their propositions.
(The big problem for the "intelligent design" proponents is, of course, that they have all the answers already .....)
The opening section of the collection includes perhaps the most important contribution, Barbara Forrest's study of "The Wedge at Work", explaining "the wedge" approach that creationists have now adopted.
It is chilling reading -- and also revealing as to the contrast between how the "intelligent design" proponents publicly present themselves, and what they're actually after.
Contributions vary from the detailed "scientific" discussions (or what passes as such), to laymen-level discussions, to Stephen Jay Gould's amusing account of trying to explain what on earth these creationists are thinking to some priests in the Vatican.
It serves little purpose to discuss most of the essays in this collection in much detail because that is essentially what is done in the book itself: it presents argument and counter-arguments on all the major issues.
(Much more could, admittedly, be said about each ... and probably will be at the sites that follow this debate.)
Certainly, the great bonus this volume offers over others on the topic is that both sides are well-represented, trying (for better and, usually, for worse) to discuss the same questions.
Proponents of "intelligent design" will probably argue that they didn't get a fair deal here, but it's still better than only hearing from a single side.
Presumably the book will most often be used as a textbook.
It is a tough slog to read through.
But because of the importance of the issue readers should seriously consider doing so.
It may seem like a trivial, peripheral, and largely ridiculous debate.
Unfortunately, it is not.
And remember: vote in your local school board elections to ensure that proponents of these and other similarly dangerous ideas can play no role in what is taught to future generations !
Note: we remind you that our reviews (like most reviews) are never objective, but that -- as might be clear from our tone -- we are likely even less subjective than usual regarding this subject-matter.
We have no respect and very little tolerance for notions such as creationism and "intelligent design".
To our mind the arguments made by proponents of these notions are as misguided and reprehensible as those of folk who say having sex with tots is acceptable: of course one can argue for it, but the basis for doing so is so unsound, the implications so beyond the pale, and the proposition itself so antithetical to the very idea of humanity that its sole effect (and therefore implicitly also its very purpose) is one of degradation and degeneration.
Maybe that's what their deity wants from them (they seem to be especially perceptive in understanding exactly what the big guy in the sky expects, even if they're not very good at proving any of it); we'll stick to scientific reason and method -- with which "intelligent design" has nothing to do.
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Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics:
"Intelligent" Design Creationism:
Author pages and sites:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Editor:
Robert T. Pennock teaches at Michigan State University.
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© 2002-2010 the complete review
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