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Customer Review

on July 14, 2004
First, the good. Shanks does an effective job of accurately summarizing the scientific the arguments supporting evolution by natural selection. He does this in ways that are mostly accessible to readers whether they have a background in sciences (biology, chemistry, or physics) or not. Likewise, the reader can see the weaknesses of ID as so much arm-waving. He does this by grounding his arguments in the scientific method of hypothesis testing, so that there can be no (real, substantial) argument that scientists are rejecting ID out-of-hand because they don't like it. The new ingredient to Shanks' book is the philosophical grounding of his arguments. He argues that arguments for ID are based on the metaphors we use to understand abstract ideas like the development of organisms and other complex systems, and makes an effective case that the "life as a machine" metaphor obstructs our understanding of, and critical thinking about, how life could evolve.
Now for the not-so-good. It seems that any good argument should define what it is arguing for and against. Shanks never tells us as much, unless one consults the glossary (to which the text does not refer). This could potentially weaken further arguments through the very mis-interpretation he spends much of the book lamenting. (So for example, biological evolution is change in allele frequencies of a population over time.) It's also clear that Shanks is well-versed in the philosophical foundations of the anti-science of IDers, but his descriptions and explanations are muddled in a way that suggests he has not spent enough time (or had a good enough editor) reviewing how the common person knows what she knows. The chapters themselves progress logically, but the organization within the chapters is sometimes hard to follow and circuitous, a curious breakdown in a book by a philosopher.
Finally, I was disappointed that such a strong work, overall, suffers from what seemed to me as self-sabotage. Early in the book, Shanks identifies himself as someone who does not believe in a deity. This reader took it as a courageous declaration of the author's point of view, which purpose was the make sure readers suffer no ambiguity about his point of view. (Other readers, no doubt, will interpret it as the devil himself setting pen to paper, but this book is not written for minds permanently closed.) I'm afraid, though, that between that declaration and other, rather pointed jabs at IDers, that Shanks weakens the "punch" of what is otherwise a succinct and powerful volume. I'd also suggest that what was missing for me from this, and other, volumes about creationism and ID is more of an exploration about what such people and groups think and how they got that way -- beyond the obvious explanation that many/most IDers believe that a deity created the world we experience. I'm afraid that for all its strengths, this book lapses into what IDers and many other will take as yet another arrogant proclamation for evolution and against deities, and that's just not where the cheese is. We scientists owe it to people to inform, which Shanks does quite well, but we'd do better to keep our literate put-downs to ourselves if we hope to engage people in this rally to save critical thinking.
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