95 of 104 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2006
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"Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism" is a cogent history of creationism and its sophistic spawn "creation science" - and a devastating refutation of the inane bibliolatrous arguments utilized by anti-Darwinists as the gaps available for polemics become increasingly circumscribed by the explanatory power of science. Pennock refutes creationist babble through a novel discussion of linguistic evolution and pays special attention to Paleyesque fallacies embedded in the "Intelligent Design" movement.
Pennock's bestiary classifies all anti-evolution Christians as creationists - kinds include Young Earth Creationists, Old Earth Creationists, Evolutionary Creationists, Progressive Creationists, and Intelligent Design Creationists - squabbling schisms whose theologically impelled supernaturalism places all variants well outside a scientific mainstream united in support of methodological naturalism.
Internecine creationist spats receive a useful historical, theological, and social context treatment, and the preponderance of crank creationist websites is ruefully noted - along with their intellectual and ethical squalor. Pennock debunks the most egregious examples, including the infamous "Lady Hope" hoax (Darwin's fraudulent deathbed conversion and recantation).
After lampooning creationist comedy websites (Google AiG for a slick but sick example), Pennock discusses the Genesis myth meme echoed in the title - the Tower of Babel. Scholars realized that languages were shaped by evolutionary processes and common descent before Darwin burst on the scene. Biological and linguistic evolution contradicts special revelation hallucination, and both have been obdurately attacked by bloviating biblical literalists. Like species and higher biological taxa, languages blur at boundaries and form sub-taxon variants known as dialects. Pennock utilizes these facts to illustrate creationist misinformation about evolution, including the spurious missing link objection, and epistemological issues encountered when science deals with past events - particularly the lack of direct observation and the status of evolution as both factual and theoretical.
Utilizing language illustrates evolutionary taxonomy (classification) and phylogeny (development) and "descent over time with modification" as spoken languages developed from precursors (e.g. Romance languages from Indo-European and Proto-Indo European). This approach exhibits the same quirks as biological evolution including loss through extinction, incomplete preservation, convergence, and horizontal transfer.
Neo-medieval creationists crib from postmodernist rivals by asserting that Darwinism is "a secular religion." Both also deny that human cognitive enterprises can approach the truth. Pennock skewers figures such as Alvin Plantinga, Paul Nelson, William Dembski, Michael Behe, and Philip Johnson who proffer ostensibly 'scientific' lines of reasoning that devolve into theological hand waving and philosophical special pleading upon close examination. Johnson's implicit conflation of ontological naturalism (materialism) with methodological naturalism is artfully deconstructed and Pennock shows that if science were to embrace miracles it would become useless as a way of knowing; an omnipotent and capricious deity would pull seemingly empirical strings. Pennock's characterization of Intelligent Design as a 'science of the gaps' that hamstrings what science could in principle explain is devastating - and portends rampant intellectual sloth "God said/did it, that settles it" - along with endemic theological or political meddling.
Pennock utilizes one of Behe's own examples to shred 'irreducibly complex' systems. Behe lays out the probability that a groundhog could mate across an eight-lane freeway to rebut speciation and adaptation. Pennock's version substitutes a population of groundhogs with survivors who make it to the center divider and reproduce before tackling the next lane, succinctly illustrating Darwinian processes. Behe's claims are then related to Dembski's opaque notion of 'complex specified information' (CSI) an arcane reimagining of Aquinas's argument from design and a mathematically absurd attempt to turn information theory against Darwin. Pennock lucidly explains what is wrong with CSI without overwhelming the reader with mathematical equations or technical terms - unlike Dembski who deliberately uses both to camouflage vacuous arguments.
Creationism and politics go together in America like bibles and thumping. The tortuous maneuvers creationists use to cross-dress theologically motivated political and educational agendas as science are exposed in detail. Creationists incessantly beaver away at court rulings prohibiting state funded public schools from promoting a religious viewpoint with bunko biblical hermeneutics and revelation repackaged as research. Pennock's defense of reason and science in the face of rampant superstition and magical thinking is passionate and compelling - and should be read into the minutes of every local school board or curriculum standards committee meeting.
Highly recommended on all counts - this is an erudite and necessary book.
97 of 113 people found the following review helpful
Pennock's book 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]
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2003
The audience of such a confrontational book will usually fall in three categories: (1) creationists who want to refute the arguments presented, (2) people who don't know much about biology but were told there was a debate between "creationists" and "evolutionists", and (3) biologists who look for simple ways to explain things to a lay public.
I hasten to point out that no, evolution itself is not a controversial scientific subject and hasn't been for a century. However, the public's perception of it clearly still is in certain parts, and that's why such books can be very helpful.
Pennock's book is very well researched, well developed, and most importantly given its target audience, a lot of fun to read! I would recommend it to anyone, put especially to high school biology teachers who want simple material devoid of jargon to explain the principle of evolution to children.
Five stars, and well deserved.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2003
In "Finding Darwin's God" (see my Amazon.com review of 8 April 2000 "God Is a Creator, Not a Creationist") Kenneth Miller finds common ground between God and evolution. Mainstream science and most major religions found that long ago, of course, but Miller also criticizes the "mutually contradictory" creationist positions that persist in trying to discredit evolution as an atheistic worldview (with the ironic help of some outspoken atheist scientists). While Miller notes primarily the differences in the creationist approaches, in "Tower of Babel" Robert Pennock traces their "common ancestry," and concentrates on how the new "intelligent design" creationism (IDC) evolved.
Although it is tempting to think that IDC was "designed" to get around the Supreme Court decision that banned the teaching of creationism because it is a religious view, the approach was in fact "pre-adapted," as evidenced by such books as Michael Denton's "Evolution - A Theory In Crisis." Unlike classic creationism, IDC generally avoids stating its own alternative hypotheses and origins models, and does not identify the designer. Rather, IDC recycles long-refuted arguments against evolution, and builds upon them with some original ideas, none of which, however, qualify as science.
Pennock's novel approach uses linguistics, both as an analogy for biological evolution, and as an example of how anti-evolutionists of all stripes try to hide their internal disagreements, such as on the origin of human language diversity. Focusing on Phillip Johnson, but also discussing other prominent Discovery Institute fellows such as Michael Behe and William Dembski, Pennock exposes IDC as a "postmodern" approach that cleverly avoids the pitfalls of classic young-earth and old-earth creationism (YEC, OEC), whose models and hypotheses have been thoroughly discredited. Like Miller, Pennock does not give enough emphasis to the fact that America's poor science literacy is a chief reason that creationists can get away with their misrepresentations of evolution and science in general. But he does note that the general public has been sold on a false dichotomy of design vs. evolution. The logical disconnect between the "arguments for design" and "arguments against evolution" is lost on most audiences.
Pennock also downplays two other features of IDC. First, given his interest in linguistics, I expected more coverage of how the IDC strategy is mainly a semantic one. IDC's chief tactics are to quote scientists out-of-context and to define terms, especially "Darwinism," to suit its bait-and-switch arguments. Second, although he hints at it in places, he stops short of the claim made by Ronald Bailey in his insightful article "Origin of the Specious" (Reason magazine, July, 1997) - that many creationists privately accept evolution, despite their vocal arguments against it. While this may not be true of all creationists - indeed many IDCs may be closet YECs - I am fairly convinced that it applies to most professional IDCs. Their extreme political and philosophical views, however, prevent them from admitting it to a general public that they fear cannot handle the truth. But other than misrepresenting evolution, IDCs avoid bearing false witness by letting the audience do the dirty work of inferring whatever alternative they prefer. The more educated audiences usually infer OEC, sometimes including the common descent that Behe and others have admitted, while general audiences prefer YEC, America's favorite origins myth. But the fact that most audiences do not notice, and if they do, mostly ignore, the mutual contradictions among their alternative positions, is evidence that IDC is much "fitter" than its more slowly evolving creationism cousins. IDC is not "Creationism Lite," it is "Pseudoscience Xtreme."
After detailing their strategy, Pennock tries to "calm the creationists' fears." But surely he knows that Johnson et al have heard his philosophical arguments before and have well-rehearsed rebuttals. Though not often obvious, Pennock's arguments here are for the benefit of third parties who find the ID sound bites convincing, but have not given them much thought. Whether he privately agrees with Pennock or not, Johnson is, in the words of one reviewer, "past praying for." Pennock concludes by defending the counterintuitive claim that teaching only evolution is the fairest option.
Although "Finding Darwin's God" appealed to me more as a scientist, "Tower of Babel" is an excellent reference on the evolution of the anti-evolution strategies, and the parallel evolution of the creationists' "god" (the gap-dwelling designer that they promote, if not the God in which they believe) into a caricature that is unfit for both science and religion.
70 of 87 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2000
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Having just completed a survey of contemporary creationist literature, I was struck by how little serious scientific response there is to Intelligent Design Creationism, the latest incarnation of Biblical creationism. I guess this is because scientists generally don't take it seriously and they have better things to do. This is unfortunate, since creationism is very widely believed in this country and a number of recent books by creationists have been big sellers. This book should remedy that situation, at least in part. Pennock methodically shows the problems with the creationist positions. He concentrates on logical errors in their arguments and inconsistencies in their positions. He makes a very good case against creationism. Sadly, responses to specific pieces of negative evidence (the complexity of hemoglobin, for example) are beyond the scope of this book and the curious reader will have to go elsewhere to supplement that portion of the argument. The book is careful and neutral in style, lacking the bombast of a number of the popular writers on both side of this issue. Highly recommended.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2005
I openly wonder if many of the negative reviews come from people who have never read the book but feel it is their Christian duty to defend their creation myths. The sad reality is that people whose search for truth is based upon faith, will struggle with science because the world views are so different.
As for the book itself, I thought the author was effective on several levels at explaining the different and contradictory factions within the "Creation Science" community. The thing that distinguishes them is how much of the biblical story they are willing to give up to preserve even the impression that they are scientists.
Obviously young earth creationists have the most difficulty and are the easiest to dismiss. However those pushing the Intelligent Design theories can be dismissed with a little more thought and analysis.
The author's analogous use of linguistic evolution to organic evolution and the implications to the mythical "Tower of Babel" is certainly effective. A reason why linguists don't get the ire of Christians is that the Tower is not as central to their mythology as the creation is. The Christ of the New Testament came to redeem Adam and his posterity for his fall in the garden. Rejecting the creation story has far reaching implications for Christians and is why Darwinian evolution is so threatening to their belief system.
Scientists owe people like Pennock a big thank you. Unfortunately, scientists go on doing science forgetting that society may not care what the evidence leads to. The implications for the United States was appropriately discussed by the author and gives cause for real concern regarding science education in this country.
I welcome feedback on this and all reviews at firstname.lastname@example.org
30 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2002
As a Bible-based, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled believer, I find Tower to be blessing! As a scientist and educator, I agree with Pennock's logic, his objective presentations of creationism and his exposition of evolutionary science.
Pennock successfully deconstructs the various forms of creationism, yet always remains respectful toward religious faith. He explains the fallacies involved in creationist arguments that challenge evolution and exposes the socio-political agendas of the more radical fundamentalist creationists. He then demonstrates that recently developed "intelligent design" approaches are just another form in the evolution of creationist ideas. As a creationist theory, I have always liked the intelligent design approach, and after reading Tower, I understand it better. While I have yet to understand how the Genesis account is best interpreted, Pennock has contributed to my grasp of the current controversy.
Regarding evolution, Pennock explains what evolution is and is not, then demonstrates the critical importance to democracy of keeping science education free of supernatural explanations and keeping creationism out of the science classroom, where it absolutely does not belong.
Tower is essential reading for concerned Christians who are not comfortable with radical creationist scare-tactics yet lack the information needed to effectively refute their attacks against evolution. Also, Pennock is a peacemaker in that he shows that evolution itself is not contrary to faith, although many mistakenly justify their unbelief in terms of materialistic naturalism. Most importantly, Pennock shows that Christians need not fear evolution and for this I am eternally grateful, no pun intended.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2004
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I'm about 3/4 through this book and loving it. Where Pennock excels in supporting his refutation of the ID and Creationist claims to legitimacy, far exceeds where his argument is less-than-illuminating of his own views. He succeeds overwhelmingly in his overall argument.
For those who argue (quite angrily in their reviews of books that support evolution) for support of ID or Creationism, the question remains, who are you making this argument for? Why this angry, vociferous push to be accepted into the realm of science? Religious belief is a matter of faith, not proof.
On page 274 of Pennock's book he makes a statement:
"Indeed, for many Christian believers, one's true faith is only proven when it survives in the face of events that would naturally cause one to doubt God's presence. To hold on to belief come what may is a sign of religious virtue. Contrarily, science takes it to be a virtue that one witholds belief in the truth of a proposition until it is supported by the weight of evidence."
It's clear that if one has no need, as the majority of Christians do not, to cleave to a literalist reading of scripture, then one has no need to refute scientific reasoning. Contrarily, it's impossible for a scriptural literalist to objectively review scientific arguments for the soundness of their experimental processes because scientific methodology threatens their need for absolutism.
It takes moral and intellectual courage, as Tillich wrote, to live in a world full of ambiguity and uncertainty. The absence of that courage requires reliance on some ideology of absolute answers.
Absolute answers are beyond verification using scientific methodology. They require faith. Those with the courage to maintain that faith in the face of all evidence to the contrary are comforted in their anxiety about an uncertain world.
ID arguments are intellectually dishonest, their attempt to distance themselves from Creationists is a disingenuous faint, and their ends are morally suspect.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
This is a rich and textured work. Pennock weaves together evolution, intelligent design, and literal creationism into an unexpectedly coherent tapestry.
I think some descriptions of this book do it a disservice, claiming that the point of the book is comparing language evolution with biological evolution. It is true, Pennock has that rather novel idea, which helps the reader better grasp the certainty of evolution. A literal reading of the Bible indicates that God directly creates both animals and languages- yet the scientific evidence indicates a process for both. But the changes in languages happen at a much more rapid and visible rate, making it more difficult for the Literal Creationist to deny them. And if one developmental process is accepted, the other is not too remote in logic. Yet this is not really the main point of the book, but rather a very helpful recurring analogy.
Pennock's brilliance are in another areas. He very clearly states what evolution is, and is not, for the lay reader. And he clearly shows what the many brands of creationism are, including Theistic Evolution, Young Earth and Old Earth Literal Creationism, and Intelligent Design. He discusses with great frankness and equanimity the various groups, being fair yet not withholding all of the positive evidence for evolution. He doesn't deny where he stands, but tries to point out the myriad of different stances others hold. Through this he shows his true brilliance- describing the evolution of creationism. Applying (by analogy) principles of natural selection and biological evolution to languages, he extends that to the development of various creationist doctrines, thereby pointing out the danger in attempting to teach creationism in schools- for there are thousands of forms of this belief.
Like Pennock, I was once a Literal Creationist, and like Pennock, discovered the Light as a Quaker. I can relate to much of what he shares. Pennock helps the die-hard evolutionist understand better where creationists are coming from, and what ideas are important to them. He shows how clearly those in Intelligent Design are rejecting the foundations of Christianity in order to embrace Post-Modernist philosophies. He shows how clearly the evidence for evolution stands, and after everything, still stands. And dare I say it? As a former Literal Creationist, I'd say he comes quite close to being convincing to the open-minded Literal Creationist that evolution just might, after all, have some truth to it. And that's a hard path to create.
35 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 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. A longer version of this review is to appear in The Skeptic; watch the Australian Skeptics web site.