And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name…
—Genesis 11: 4 (KJV)
Author Robert Pennock (presently professor at Michigan State University) draws on the old Bible story of the Tower of Babel when speaking of the creationist movement. It is the creationists, he says, who are building a tower to heaven.
This is a striking metaphor, particularly when one considers that the story ends with god himself smashing the tower and scattering its builders over the face of the earth. But Pennock isn’t interested in divine smiting. He wants the public to understand that the creationist effort, with its push to have “intelligent design” taught in public schools, not only undermines scientific understanding, it represents a danger to religious freedom itself. As a philosopher of science, he decries this threat to science education. As a member of the Society of Friends, freedom of religion, particularly for minority religions, is something he cherishes.
Much of what he refers at the new creationism is not new per se, but (perhaps he cannot help tweaking their noses just a bit?) he does trace the evolution of the debate and the emergence of a new species into the fray, as it were, of creationist: those who do not refer explicitly to religion in their argumentation, but who attack science, the scientific method and empiricism as inadequate means of uncovering knowledge. Such are the proponents of intelligent design. For example Michael Behe, Professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box does not deny descent with modification. However, he claims to see structures that could not have evolved because losing any one component in these structures would render the whole thing useless. They are “irreducibly complex.” Evolution by natural selection cannot account for their existence. In order for them to come into being, they had to be nudged along by an intelligent agent, though this agent is never named.
A leading developer in the idea that empiricism is incomplete is lawyer Philip E. Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial and Defeating Darwinism. He developed what he calls the “wedge” strategy to not only defeat Darwinism but to remove those who are “theistic evolutionists” and others off the fence. There is no room for compromise.
“At a deeper level, however, is an equally significant debate about truth itself and how we can come to know it. Can we check the truth of such empirical matters (and related matters of purpose and moral value) by human experience and reason, or must we rely on divine revelation? It is in large part because of the intersection of these two sets of issues that the creationism case is of particular interest for the philosopher of science.” (Pennock, p. 40)
Pennock returns to the metaphor of the Tower of Babel when compare biological evolution to the evolutions of languages. There are families of languages whose common ancestors we no longer see, for example. Darwin himself wrote about the similarity. And much to at least one reader’s disappointment (but not surprise…) creationist Henry Morris of the Institution for Creation Research (IRC) writes that the best explanation for multiple languages and the similarities is, yes, the Bible story of the Tower of Babel.
Pennock lays out his argument brick by brick, as one might expect a philosopher to do. The reader is taken through some fairly abstract material—why literature classes and creationists alike pounced on Thomas Kuhn’s ideas of paradigm shift, for instance.
This is an utterly satisfying read. It takes a bit of attention and is not a quick or beach book (except for philosophy majors, perhaps!), but is worth the time spent on it for anyone interested in the creation/evolution debate beyond the slogans.