Review: A Jealous God

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
27
Year: 
2007
Issue: 
5–6
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
50–51
Reviewer: 
Jeffrey Shallit
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion
Author(s): 
Pamela R Winnick
Nashville (TN): Thomas Nelson, 2005. 368 pages.

Pamela Winnick is an attorney and former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who has written several articles that lean against evolution and in favor of "intelligent design". I recently forced myself to read her 2005 book, A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion. It was not a pleasant experience.

Winnick's book covers a variety of topics: abortion, population control, eugenics, medical experimentation, the Scopes trial, the theory of evolution, "intelligent design", and fetal tissue research. Her thesis — if this rambling, disjointed book can be said to have one — is contained in the book's final paragraph: "The Galileo prototype of the scientist martyred by religion is now purely a myth. Science long ago won its war against religion, not just traditional religion, but any faith in a power outside the human mind. Now it wants more" (p 298).

Throughout the book, scientists are depicted as crazed, power-hungry, and immoral. Only religion, Winnick implies, can rein in these dangerous nuts who threaten society.

Winnick's claim that "science long ago won its war against religion" is far too glib. Ironically, 2005 also saw the publication of Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science (New York: Basic Books, 2005; reviewed in RNCSE 2005 May–Aug; 25 [3–4]: 45–6), a far better documented book that shows in depressing detail how American science has been subjugated to the political and especially religious goals of the Christian right.

Winnick's reporting is often sloppy. Incidents are slanted to support her thesis, names are misspelled (Stanislaw Ulam's last name is comically morphed into "Ulsam"; Richard Lewontin's middle initial is given incorrectly), quotes are mined (sometimes incorrectly), and some "facts" are just plain made up (see below).

Here is an example of a mined quote. Winnick claims, "In a 1997 piece in the New York Times, Dawkins famously remarked that anyone who does not believe in evolution is 'stupid, and ignorant and ... wicked' (emphasis added)" (p 161). However, Dawkins's actual remark was "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." Winnick entirely changed the meaning of the quote by replacing Dawkins's "or"s with "and"s. Further, Dawkins's remark did not appear in 1997; it appeared in an April 9, 1989, book review.

As might be expected of someone with no scientific training, Winnick displays multiple misunderstandings of science. In this, she joins several other lawyers who have criticized evolution, such as Phillip Johnson (Darwin on Trial), Norman Macbeth (Darwin Retried), and Dean Overman (A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization). (Oddly enough, the reverse case — evolutionary biologists writing books about law — does not seem to occur.) And despite the fact that Winnick claims to be a "practicing Jew and liberal Democrat", her book uses the same nasty and dishonest rhetorical tricks that are the staple of far-right Christian creationists.

First, let us look at some of Winnick's misunderstandings.

On page 110, Winnick claims that, although evolution cannot be observed, "evolution could be inferred from the rapid variations that occur within a given species. During his famed five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin observed these variations first hand. On a stop in the Galápagos Islands, he noticed the different beak sizes and shapes among the finches that had flown in from the mainland, each settling on a different island" (emphasis in original). Winnick fails to understand that the Galápagos finches are not merely variations "within" a species (here she merely echoes a typical creationist objection to evolution), but different species — in fact, thirteen different species in the Galápagos. And of course, evolution can be observed, as speciation has been observed in both the laboratory and the wild. How many times can these creationist falsehoods be repeated? Why does Winnick not subject these false claims to some critical scrutiny?

Later on the same page, Winnick writes (in a footnote), "The word 'theory' when used in science is different from its ordinary use. A scientific theory is considered virtually the same as fact." While the first sentence is correct, one can only stare open-mouthed at the ignorance of the second. A theory is not the same as a fact; otherwise how could one speak of competing scientific theories? Rather, a theory in the scientific sense is a coherent system of explanation for natural phenomena, testable by experiments, that makes predictions and explains observations. Some theories are better supported than others; only the really wellsupported theories, such as gravity and evolution, can be considered as similar to facts, keeping in mind that in science every explanation is provisional.

Winnick also claims that "Darwin's theory was inspired not by science, but by the politics of his time" (p 111). Although it is true that Darwin hit on natural selection by an analogy with Malthus, it is misrepresentation to suggest that his theory was inspired by politics alone. Has Winnick never read the Origin of Species? If so, she would have known that Darwin patiently built his scientific case for evolution on a host of supporting facts, not politics. And her history is wrong, too, since Darwin began his transmutation notebook (the "B" notebook) in 1837, but did not make the connection with Malthus's essay until 1838.

But then, Winnick is no stranger to misrepresentations. In 2001, she claimed, "I am, however, writing a book about the subject showing how the media and scientific elite has stifled meaningful debate on the subject. In doing so, I am indeed supported ($25 000) by the Phillips Foundation, an organization which takes absolutely no position on the subject of evolution, but which seeks to promote fair and balanced reporting in all subject areas." However, Wesley Elsberry took a look at the Phillips Foundation web page and found that Winnick's fellowship was then described as follows: "Project: 'Examination of How Media and Established Scientists Treat the Subject of Evolution,' analyzing why there seems to be little tolerance for teaching creationism in America." (See http://www.anti-evolution.org/events/pbsevo/wre_prw_20011129.html for details.) Since then, the Phillips Foundation has altered its web page and the description of Winnick's project.

Another creationist trick that Winnick uses is credential inflation. Phillip Johnson, a law professor with no biological training, is described as "brilliant". Ironically, on page 195, Winnick asks, "how likely was it that Alec Baldwin or Kim Basinger or any of the many other glitzy Hollywood stars had ever seriously studied biology or understood Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection or ever read anything on the subject other than PFAW press releases?" Offhand, I'd say it is about the same likelihood that Phillip Johnson or William Dembski or David Berlinski has seriously studied biology, but Winnick does not hesitate to tout them as experts.

No creationist saw is too unreliable for Winnick to repeat. Here are a few examples:

A nameless Chinese paleontologist is quoted on page 198 as saying, "In China we can criticize Darwin, but not the government; in America, you can criticize the government, but not Darwin." Neither Winnick nor others who have used the quote, including Phillip Johnson and Jonathan Wells, have ever identified the paleontologist or provided any corroboration for the anecdote.

On page 122, two brief quotes from mathematicians expressing skepticism about the mathematical feasibility of neo-Darwinism are presented as representing the consensus of the 1966 Wistar Institute Symposium. Winnick says that their dissent was ignored and their objections "faded into oblivion" because of ideological resistance, not considering the possibility that they were mistaken.

Fred Hoyle's "tornado in a junkyard" objection to current theories of abiogenesis is mentioned on page 172 as if it represented a scientific result rather than his own expression of incredulity and as if no progress had occurred in origins- of-life research in the 25 years between Hoyle's comment (in his 1983 book The Intelligent Universe) and Winnick's book.

Liberal Democrat or not, this book cements Pamela Winnick's reputation as a flack for the Christian right. It is not a fair, reliable, or objective look at the battles between science and religion. It appears to me that Winnick has a bad case of science envy.

About the Author(s): 

Jeffrey Shallit
School of Computer Science
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1
Canada

Jeffrey Shallit is Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo. He blogs at http://recursed.blogspot.com.