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the Complete Review
the complete review - science/philosophy

Tower of Babel

Robert T. Pennock

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To purchase Tower of Babel

Title: Tower of Babel
Author: Robert T. Pennock
Genre: Critical Study
Written: 1999
Length: 411 pages
Availability: Tower of Babel - US
Tower of Babel - UK
Tower of Babel - Canada
  • The Evidence against the New Creationism

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Our Assessment:

B+ : comprehensive and well-argued exposition of the "arguments" presented against evolutionary theory by creationists and their ilk.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist A 5-6/1999 Peter J. Bowler
Annals of the AAPSS A 11/2000 Michael Ruse
The NY Rev. of Books A 4/10/2001 Frederick C. Crews
Scientific American A 8/1999 Eugenie C. Scott

  From the Reviews:
  • "(Pennock's) 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." - Peter J. Bowler, American Scientist

  • "(Pennock) examines in great detail all of the arguments pro and con showing unambiguously how truly inadequate and, in many respects, unsavory is the case being made for the new creationism. (...) This is a long book and detailed. (...) There is much to be learned, and there is a very real threat out there, as Pennock convincingly demonstrates. What he also does is give us a very effective tool for rebuttal." - Michael Ruse, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

  • "Robert T. Pennock's comprehensive and consistently rational Tower of Babel, the best book opposing creationism in all of its guises." - Frederick C. Crews, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       America remains a land of contrasts. One of the oddest "debates" that continues to rage throughout the land is that between supporters of Christian creationism and those espousing evolutionary theory ("Darwinism", to label it simply) . The battlefield is generally the classroom, the battle the fundamentalists' varied attempts to force creationism (by which they mean the Christian notion of how the world -- and man, specifically -- came to be) to be taught side by side along with traditional Darwinian evolution -- or in place of it. The ramifications, regrettably, go much farther.
       It is a baffling controversy. As Pennock repeatedly reminds his readers, "As a problem for science, however, the 'creationism debate' is basically a nonissue." Evolutionary theory is a huge, complex beast, and many aspects of it remain unclear and unexplained, but its gist is incontrovertible. Evolutionary theory is the foundation of modern biology, and it has served it (and other disciplines) extremely well. There is no dispute that it is true -- though creationists play with this terminology ("theory", notions of truth and falsehood) to confuse what is, in fact, a straightforward non-issue.
       Pennock does a great service with this comprehensive account of creationist arguments, their methods of arguing against evolutionary theory (and science and scientific method as a whole), and their clever efforts at spreading their gospel in the guise of science. The manner in which creationists present their arguments has become much more polished, avoiding obvious religious references and pretending to be "scientific". Pennock surveys the new arguments and their presentation -- a troubling tour.
       Pennock 's main target is Phillip Johnson, a lawyer who has taken a leading role in spreading the word. The word now is also not creationism, but often intelligent-design creationism (where the intelligence behind the design is, of course, the supreme creator him/her/itself). The Christian deity is removed from the forefront of the argument, as is the Bible as the mainstay text, and the creationist argument is couched in almost secular language. The conclusion, however, is the same -- the six days of creation (with varied interpretations as to what a "day" is in that context), man formed as is, etc., etc.
       Pennock does an excellent job at explaining how, in public forums, creationists have managed to frame the debate in a manner that, while superficially convincing, is in fact logically unsound. Creationists use the simple but effective debating technique of framing the argument as one between Darwinism (A) and creationism (B), and then proceeding to point out all the flaws in A. (Selective attacks on evolutionary theory, addressing peripheral facts, are, of course, valid, but they miss the big picture. Scientists forced to refute minor points are prevented from showing the obvious: that in its broad sweep evolutionary theory is a stunning scientific success, and obviously superior in all essential points to any alternate theory.) B is offered, implicitly (and incorrectly), as the sole and logical alternative to A, reducing the debate into one of A or not A (where not A equals B -- a highly dubious assumption audiences are cunningly led to). If A can be sufficiently undermined, then a gullible audience might be led to believe that B must be correct -- even without B having been subjected to any of the same scrutiny. Amusingly, creationists themselves are strongly divided about what the true variety of creationism is -- i.e. there are a number of theories floating out there, differing as much as Darwinism and Lamarckism do. Beyond their insistence that a supernatural being had a hand (or foot or whatever it is) in cooking up the world as we find it, there is little agreement as to what the B (theory of creationism) being defended is. Indeed, one of the most vital points Pennock makes is that creationists are not so much arguing for their theory (which they are not even in agreement about), but rather against evolution (and, in fact, science and scientific method per se).
       As Pennock correctly points out, there are large differences between various creationist theories espoused by American fundamentalists (most prominently the Young earth vs. Old earth schools, which interpret the age of the earth differently). More significantly, there are a vast number of alternative creation myths that are never brought into the debate. Almost all cultures have creation myths that are as viable (or, rather, as unviable) as the Christian story, and there are even some creation variations not based on religion, notably the Raëlian Movement (which holds that man was ... put together by aliens). The American creationist debate centers wholly on the monotheistic Christian account of events -- a fact that can not be emphasized enough, and one that has not been sufficiently explored.
       Creationism, however it is defined, is explained by supernatural interference. A god makes for a simple ultimate explanation (a god -- especially an all-powerful, all-knowing one -- can, after all, be used to explain absolutely everything). Unfortunately, supernatural explanations are not very useful in the service of science. Science -- such as the theory of evolution -- relies on facts, empirical evidence, hypotheses against which observation and experimental data can be and are tested. If the facts disprove a theory then the theory is revised or replaced. It is a marvelous tool, and it has gotten man where he is today. Significantly, science is morally neutral (which also means that it does not make us better -- or worse -- people). Many creationists seem to deny this.
       The creationists choose to see evolution as a make or break issue -- evolution, to them, implies atheism and the denial of any deity (and many worse things as well). It is an absurd leap. Pennock is a bit disingenuous when he says "Science is godless in the same way that plumbing is godless", but basically he is correct. Darwinism and a belief in the supernatural are not mutually exclusive. Certainly biblical literalism (man created in the image of his maker, and woman from Adam's rib, etc.) does not square with evolutionary theory, but a belief in a higher power is still possible.
       In fact, Pennock does not address the creationists' concern regarding the gospel truth adequately. Fundamentalist belief often demands a literal interpretation of the "good" book, and this audience will not be appeased by his claims that it is possible to believe both in higher beings and Darwinian evolution.
       The consequences of reliance on a non-scientific approach to knowledge about the natural world (not the spiritual one, mind you) is devastating. Pennock cites an example from Robert Root-Bernstein, a university professor who found himself confronted by students in his class who were convinced that males had one fewer pair ribs than females. This in a college-level physiology course. If that does not send shivers up your spine, about the state of education in the United States as well as misconceptions bred by ill-informed religious teaching then you are jaded folk indeed. Unfortunately, this illustrates how deep ignorance and misunderstanding have spread. The example might seem amusing, but bear in mind that what is involved here is fundamental empirical knowledge that can be tested and acquired "scientifically" by anyone merely by counting the pairs of ribs on some X-rays, or by feeling the number of ribs on a few individuals. How are individuals who get their "information" from scripture even regarding such simple facts ever to work with more complex scientific concepts (practically unobservable atomic theory, abstract maths, and ... evolution) ?
       Pennock does recognize that creationists "are not so much worried about evolution as they are worried about meaninglessness." Apparently, if the world has not been created according to some god's little plan then the only alternative is existential Angst in the worst sort of way, a world without reason. Pennock seems to do a good job of allaying these fears, though we must acknowledge that we find the contention itself utterly baffling. Further creationist arguments against evolution, on the grounds that it leads to ethical relativism and the like are similarly earnestly discussed, though these, surely, are true non-arguments (wrongly considered consequences of Darwinism, and irrelevant to any debate as to its validity).

       The title of Pennock's book refers, among other things, to one of his examples: that of linguistic evolution. The evolution of languages has, as he shows, also progressed in a manner counter to what reliance on scripture would suggest -- indeed linguistic evolution has been, broadly, Darwinistic. Pennock admits that the example is not ideal, for a variety of reasons (including that lack of a comprehensive record of writing, as well as its methods of transmission), and regrettably he does not elaborate on it in greater detail, but it serves a useful function.
        Pennock also cleverly wonders about the various creationist factions and their disparate theories (some of which admit to some aspects of Darwinian evolution, while others claim man and dinosaur coexisted and the world is only a few thousand years old), suggesting that Darwinian evolution can also be seen in their struggle for survival and adaptation to their environment -- a good idea, also worth spinning out more.
       Pennock writes engagingly and with a useful sense of humor. He is willing to examine the various creationist positions in great detail and presents their arguments well and clearly. A philosopher, he is especially strong on the philosophical issues involved (definitions of science, truth, theory, and the many irrelevant questions of morality that the creationists try to bring into the discussion). It is a large book, and the weight of the material (attacking a belief that is just that -- a belief -- while claiming to be more) can be a bit much. However, it is a good read throughout (and very accessible: Pennock has a great touch for conveying all the concepts -- from complex science to bizarre religion -- very well), and often a fascinating one. This is an important book, and one wishes that instead of a weighty MIT Press hardcover it were a mass market paperback on the supermarket shelves, read by all the soccer moms in the American heartland.
       One of the great problems of this issue is that, as Pennock states, it is considered a "nonissue." It strikes practically all scientists as absurd to argue against evolution, which has proven to be such a powerful tool (scientific, not ideologic as the creationists might assert), and so there is no concerted effort to strike back against those trying to impose Christian creationism on school-biology classes. Certainly, the first reaction is to giggle in disbelief at the absurdity of creationism being mentioned in biology classes. As Pennock shows, there is an actual danger here -- and it is a great one. Evolution is only one obvious target. All of science is vulnerable to exactly the same attack. Creationists want to deny scientific method. It may sound ridiculous (because it is ridiculous), but given the successful inroads creationists have made thus far (and weekly there are school boards considering the question, more often than not succumbing to the concerted attack of the well-organized creationists) it is a danger that must be recognized and dealt with.
       Ignorance may be bliss for those who have found a lord, but for society as a whole it is damning and damaging. As Pennock reminds us, a well-informed citizenry is vital, especially in a democratic state. The individual has a certain obligation as well. An understanding of how the world works should be expected. Denying science denies citizens important critical faculties. Denying children the opportunity to learn scientific thinking from the earliest age is to stunt their intellectual development, and ultimately to make them lesser beings.
       One should be aware of the insidious creationist threat. Many people believe there are grains of truth to their position, arguing that it is harmless to teach it side by side with evolution, as just another plausible theory. Pennock clearly enumerates all the reasons why this is both wrong and unacceptable
       It is a fascinating though perverse "debate", more interesting for sociological than scientific reasons. (The question of why specifically Americans are so concerned with this issue, which, though it has been imported to a few other countries, is basically a complete nonissue everywhere else on the earth is also one worthy of more consideration.) Pennock has answered many of the other questions and put the "debate" in its proper light -- and the creationists in their proper place.

       A very important book, highly recommended.

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Tower of Babel:
  • MIT Press, publicity page. With link to text of first chapter.
Reviews: The Issues surrounding the Creationism vs. Evolution "Debate":
  • Yahoo ! links to a wide variety of sites.
Robert T. Pennock: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Robert T. Pennock teaches at Michigan State University.

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© 1999-2010 the complete review

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