Review: Tower of Babel

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
19
Year: 
1999
Issue: 
6
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
40–42
Reviewer: 
Eugenie C Scott, NCSE Executive Director
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism
Author(s): 
Robert T Pennock
Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000. 451 pages.
Christian creationists have long opposed evolution, first attempting to ban it (as in the Scopes-era anti-evolution laws) and more recently inventing "creation-science", alleged scientific evidence for biblical literalism. In 1987 the Supreme Court in Edwards v Aguillard struck down equal-time-for-creation-science laws because creationism is an inherently religious idea and teaching it as the equivalent of science (evolution) unconstitutionally promotes religion. This led to selective pressure to avoid the religious term "creationism", and within a few years of Edwards, some creationists were calling not for "creation" science, but for "abrupt appearance theory", "evidence against evolution", or — most recently — "intelligent design theory". In Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, philosopher Robert T Pennock neatly exposes the creationist roots of "intelligent-design theory"; from the beginning he refers to "intelligent-design creationism" and shows us how it has descended with modification from its creation science predecessor.

Intelligent-design creationists primarily are conservative Christians greatly concerned over the increasing secularization of US society. They wish to promote Christian theism over philosophical materialism — the view that there are no supernatural forces in the universe, only matter, energy, and their interactions. Because science rules out supernatural explanations, intelligent-design creationists believe that it promotes philosophical materialism and thus devalues faith. They accuse scientists of clinging to their naturalistic explanations because of pre-existing materialist prejudice rather than the power of empirical evidence.

Because evolution deals with theologically sensitive issues, such as humanity's place in the universe, it becomes the special target of intelligent-design creationists. Movement leader Phillip E Johnson, a professor of criminal law at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that by showing the weaknesses in evolution, they will drive a wedge into the ideology of materialism, and theism will emerge triumphant. One of the goals is to replace modern science with a "theistic science" in which supernatural explanations will be allowed. It is therefore a religious movement that is both antiscience — at least as science is practiced today — and anti-evolutionary.

Pennock systematically reveals the philosophical problems inherent in intelligent-design creationism. He shows in several ways that science is not inherently antireligious. Intelligent-design creationists confuse materialist philosophy and the methodological materialism of science, which says that science cannot use supernatural cause to explain the natural world. To explain by natural cause does not make a field antireligious; as Pennock wryly notes, science is no more atheistic than plumbing. "To say nothing of God is not to say that God is nothing." Intelligent-design creationism also errs in assuming that if a natural phenomenon can be explained without reference to God, therefore God had nothing to do with it. This brings us to the "design" in intelligent-design creationism.

These creationists have taken William Paley's 18th-century Argument from Design and established an entire subspecies of anti-evolutionism around it. Paley found proof of God's existence in the intricacies of nature. Complex structures as the vertebrate eye "could not have occurred by chance", so they must have been designed by an omniscient God, much as the existence of watches implies a watchmaker. Charles Darwin's major contribution to science was showing that structural complexity could be explained through natural processes and did not need the guiding hand of God.

The "God of the Gaps" Problem

Most Christian theologians today believe that God can be Creator and be in charge of the universe without having to line up the chromosomes during each cell division or having to adjust planetary orbits directly. In fact, mainstream Christian theology long ago ceased making design explanations of the natural world, partly to avoid the "God of the Gaps" problem: if the direct hand of God explained unknown natural phenomena, once a natural explanation was discovered for it, God was left with one less gap to fill, reducing His majesty.

Although it finds structural perfection in molecular biology and information theory rather than in the vertebrate eye, intelligent-design creationism nonetheless repeats Paley's errors. Pennock details how intelligent-design creationists zero in on currently unsolved problems, such as the origin of life and the Cambrian explosion of invertebrate phyla, and declare them to be "too complex" to be explained by a natural cause, requiring explication by an unnamed "intelligent agent". Theologically, intelligent-design creationism is still stuck with the God of the Gaps, and scientifically, it confuses the unexplained with the unexplainable.

But the Argument from Design and science as materialism are easy to sell to the public, which is more concerned (as Pennock wisely points out) with existential issues of meaninglessness and purpose than with empirical scientific evidence. One of the strengths of Tower of Babel is that it specifically addresses these existential issues. A theist himself, Pennock presents a particularly thoughtful discussion of why neither science nor evolution renders life meaningless. He recognizes that some atheist scientists agree with intelligent-design creationists that evolution and religion are incompatible, and he demonstrates the error of "naturalizing God" into a testable hypothesis: it redefines science in harmful ways and, for theists, devalues God.

Polls show that close to half of Americans prefer Genesis-type special creation of humans over human evolution. In an excellent analogy for such Americans, Pennock invokes the biblical Tower of Babel, where God specially created the many different languages of humankind. Linguists have learned that languages have descended with modification: they have evolved by some (though not all) of the same mechanisms as biological species.

Most religious people can accept language evolution. So if it is acceptable that languages evolved rather than having been specially created, why not species? Although languages are used by intelligent humans, languages change not by design or human planning but according to rules that only recently are becoming understood. Citing Bibles through the ages, Pennock illustrates English language evolution with the first line of the Lord's Prayer — which is virtually unreadable in its Anglo-Saxon form and even in medieval versions. Pennock makes an especially interesting comparison of differences between "designed" languages like Esperanto and "natural" languages: the former are much more regular, orderly, and precise; natural languages grow by accretion and look like it. This is directly relevant to the design argument: neither languages nor living things have the orderliness of specially designed phenomena but look far more like "jerry-built jumbles" such as would be produced by evolution.

He That Troubleth His Own Home

Pennock also uses the Tower of Babel as a metaphor to describe the confusion and squabbling among anti-evolutionists themselves, detailing the nuances of intelligent-design creationists, young earthers, old earthers, progressive creationists, and others. Perhaps being mindful of the proverb "He that troubleth his own home shall inherit the wind", Johnson and other leaders try hard to hide theological differences in and outside their camp, claiming that such "details" as the age of the earth, Noah's Flood, and the like should be set aside until theism triumphs over the evils of materialist science. Intelligent-design creationists try to keep the peace by avoiding any specific empirical claim about what the designer might have done, relying instead on bashing evolution. In this way, the movement shows its inheritance from its creation science ancestor, which specialized in the negative argument of "if evolution is wrong, then creationism is right".

But Pennock cleverly shows that merely disproving evolution fails to win the day, because (among other reasons) there are more than 2 alternatives. The Raëlian movement, for example, proposes a purely secular, naturalistic alternative to both evolution and Christian creationism: life on earth is the result of a long-term experiment by technologically and intellectually superior (but fully material) extraterrestrials. Pennock shows that Raëlians marshal the same arguments to support the extraterrestrial intelligent designer that intelligent-design creationists use to promote their Godly intelligent designer — and both arguments share the same weaknesses, of course. Extraterrestrial intelligent design and Godly intelligent design ultimately fail as science (Pennock discusses why at length); either must be taken on faith.

Intelligent-design creationism versus evolution is not just a philosophical and theological intellectual exercise: it is also a fight over what will be taught in our public schools. At the National Center for Science Education, we see more school districts contemplating adding "intelligent-design theory" to the curriculum or being pressed to adopt the intelligent-design textbook Of Pandas and People. Pennock illustrates that if they do, they will find the familiar laundry list of long-refuted creation science "arguments against evolution" and the sterile creation science approach of attempting to prove creationism by disproving evolution. The Supreme Court held in Edwards that teachers may teach secular and scientific alternatives to evolution, but intelligent-design creationism fails on both accounts. At heart it is religious (Pennock relates how on creationist Web sites and among believers, "intelligent designer" is described as the "politically correct term for God") and to qualify as scientific, it has to argue for the redefinition of science to include "intervention" — miracles, by any other name. One district court already has used "intelligent design" as a synonym for "creation science", so teachers would be advised to use caution when considering advocating it in public schools.

Creation science was rejected by university scientists, but proponents tried by statute to force high school teachers to teach it, arguing that it was only "fair" to teach creation science if evolution were taught. Its descendent, intelligent-design, theory similarly argues "viewpoint discrimination" instead of earning its right to be taught by persuading the scientific community of its veracity.

Continental drift, punctuated equilibria, and quantum theory had to be accepted by the scholarly community before being included in high school curricula, and this is the task for intelligent design. Its proponents are not there yet: Pennock cites a computerized journal search for "intelligent design" that revealed no scientific research using intelligent design as a biological theory. Intelligent design remains a virtually empty bandwagon. To understand why, instructors might consult Pennock's index for long lists of "problems with arguments" of intelligent-design creationism, of Johnson and other leaders, and of terms-of-art like "irreducible complexity", "information", and "explanatory filter".

Certainly there are legal and scientific problems with the teaching of intelligent-design creationism. But perhaps of most concern, it misrepresents science as an inherently antireligious enterprise, and evolution as the first step down this slippery slope. This is no way to improve science literacy in America.

Originally published in Scientific American
August 1999 pp. 92-94; reprinted by permission.