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A review by Gert Korthof
2 May 1999. ( Updated 13 May 2001 )
The main goal of Tower of Babel is to evaluate the position of the Intelligent Design Theorists Michael Behe (biochemist), Phillip Johnson (lawyer), William Dembski (mathematician) and Alvin Plantinga (philosopher). Some attention is also given to the views of Young Earth Creationists John and Henry Morris, Old Earth Creationists (Fred Heeren and Hugh Ross) and Theistic Evolutionists such as Arthur Peacocke and Howard van Till. However, with a little exaggeration, this is a book about Phillip Johnson's views.
This book is from a professional philosopher . But not a philosopher who is only interested in the history of ideas starting with Plato and Aristotle and ending with Popper and Kuhn. Philosophy is invoked at the right moments when it is needed for clarifying. There are also elements of story telling and personal details throughout the book. His sources are not only academic books and philosophy journals. Typically Internet sites are listed in the References, Notes and in some places in the text.
The subtitle of the book The Evidence against the New Creationism makes it clear that it is a criticism of the 'New Creationism', if you wish an 'attack', but it is not from an atheist. Robert Pennock is a Quaker. So this is not an anti-religious book. He is a theist criticising other theists . Pennock gives a philosophical defence of evolution, so he is also an 'Evolutionist' . In his view evolution is compatible with theism, so he could be a 'theistic evolutionist' or a deist. He does not tell anything about his own beliefs, rather his position must be inferred from the persons he criticises and the way he does it. Since he is also a biologist, he is well qualified for the job. Furthermore he is well prepared to evaluate neo-creationism, because he read their books, went to their meetings and conferences, including a 'guided tour of the Museum of Creation' and discussed with a lot of them personally. He is good at creeping into their skins: who are they? What do they want? What drives them? What are their worries?
The title of The Tower of Babel refers to the biblical story of the origin of human languages. Pennock uses the origin of languages to "spell out some of the structural parallels between linguistic and biological evolutionary theory in the hope that it can provide a therapeutic way through the emotional block for those who find it unpleasant or troubling to think of themselves as being descended from prior animal forms." (p. 147). This is one of his original contributions to the Creation-Evolution Controversy. Interesting as the linguistic example may be in itself, I see an underlying motive suggested by the words 'therapeutic' and 'emotional block' and that is a genuine interest in creationist worries. And this is a far more important contribution to the Creation-Evolution Controversy than for example debunking creationists' positive evidence. This concern reappears explicitly in the paragraphs Calming the Creationist's Fears, Evolution Does Not Imply Atheism and Can We Seek Meaning Together? of Chapter 7. As Pennock sees it, creationists fear evolution, because life is without purpose if 'natural evolution' created us. And this should be so because natural evolution is mindless and purposeless . And this derives from the essential random nature of mutations which are the motor of evolution.
"When evolutionary biologists speak of 'evolution', they are not referring to a process that either was or could have been guided by a supernatural Creator" (Johnson,1993,p. 115).
This central conflict between purpose and randomness always seemed to me one of the clearest arguments of Johnson. It is confirmed by the well-known claim of S.J.Gould : rewinding the tape of evolution would not guarantee the re-occurrence of the human species. And Pennock himself quotes Dawkins: "Evolution has no long-term goal"(p. 261). The randomness of the mutational process, the impossibility of 'directed evolution' , the lack of a long-term goal, and the long time span before the appearance of humans, all seem to suggest that the designer could not create humans by means of evolution. In Johnson words: it contradicts that "mankind was designed and exists for a purpose" (Johnson,1993,p. 115).
Pennock does not see it in that way. He does not see randomness as the most important aspect of evolution anyway . Pennock tries to show in at least 4 ways that evolution and randomness are compatible with design:
However, creationists still could object that Genesis tells otherwise: the world, plants, animals and humans were deliberately created and not the result of purposeless processes. On the other hand even if the world was created, randomness still exists in nature. We still have the same laws of nature including randomness. We would still have volcano eruptions, lightning and all kind of other natural disasters.
I doubt that Pennock convinces old-fashioned literalists. However any creationist who accepts Pennock's (or de Duve's) argument would be released from the war against evolution and evolutionists. And that makes the road free to seek meaning together. Let's hope that at least some are convinced by Pennock's arguments. If not: is a creation myth really worth a war, considering that the point of creation myths is giving human existence meaning? How far can defenders of one creation myth go in their war against the other creation myth and still have a meaningful life? Is war compatible with a meaningful life and high absolute moral standards? How far creationists need to go partly depends on the willingness of evolutionists and atheists to acknowledge that evolution logically does not imply atheism.
Pennock doesn't seek conflict in the Tower of Babel. Pennock intentions are honest and peaceful. He tried to take away the 'how and why we came into existence'-worries, in other words: the existential worries of creationists.
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|Copyright © 1999 G.Korthof .||First published: May 2 1999||update: 13 May 2001 F.R.: 20 mar 2006|