Tower of Babel:
The Evidence Against the New Creationism

Robert T. Pennock

The MIT Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999
The primary focus of Tower of Babel is on the "new creationism", on intelligent design theory and the more philosophical arguments of some modern creationists. Some of it is not at all novel, for example refutations of common creationist arguments (moon dust, the second law of thermodynamics, and so forth) and presentations of evidence for evolution, but Pennock finds different ways of approaching familiar ideas and addresses topics often ignored by anti-creationists. Most of the chapters are based on previously published articles, resulting in some repetition and a slightly disconnected feel, but the overall result is eminently readable.

Pennock's first use of "Tower of Babel" is as a description of a creationist camp rent by internal disagreements, both in particular claims (most notably about the age of the Earth) and in fundamental theology. He presents a taxonomy and history of modern creationism in which, treating it as a meme complex, he uses analogies from evolutionary biology. Then in chapter three he uses the Tower of Babel story as a parallel to biological evolution, hoping that the less controversial topic of language origins will help avoid visceral feelings aroused by human ancestry. He also demonstrates how creationism attacks not only evolutionary biology but also linguistics and most other sciences.

But the two major targets of Tower of Babel, themes which recur throughout, are attacks on naturalism and the argument from design. Chapter four explains how methodological naturalism actually works and why creationist attacks on it are misguided; it highlights how purely negative creationist attacks on naturalism are, comparing them with those of anti-scientific cultural relativists and postmodernists. Arch-creationist Phillip Johnson draws most of Pennock's fire here (and indeed throughout the book, though people like Dembski, Behe, and Plantinga also come in for a mauling). Turning to the argument from design, chapter five looks at the Raƫlians, who believe that life on earth was created by alien scientists: examination of their intelligent design theory highlights some of the confusions of the creationist version. This chapter also dissects Behe's "irreducible complexity" confusions. Chapter six points out the theological dangers of a supernatural creation science, showing that its proponents risk falling into "supermaterialism", effectively making God into part of the natural world. And imagining the effects supernaturalism would have on the legal system shows up the practical problems letting it into science would create.

What is it about evolution that attracts such attacks? In chapter seven Pennock explains how creationists identify evolution with meaninglessness, atheism, and the loss of moral values — and tries to calm their fears, showing that evolution has no necessary connection to these. Chapter eight looks at the political conflict created by creationism in the education system. Here Pennock doesn't just give the usual separation of religion and state spiel, but sets it in the context of the underlying philosophy of public education.

Tower of Babel is unlikely to convince many creationists and may not appeal much to those anti-creationists only interested in demolishing scientific errors. But it will be a valuable guide for those intrigued by the broader philosophical issues and those who have to deal with them when confronting creationism in education or politics.

December 1999

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%T Tower of Babel
%S The Evidence Against the New Creationism
%A Pennock, Robert T.
%I The MIT Press
%D 1999
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 026216180X
%P xviii,429pp