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Philosopher Robert Pennock Tackles Creationism With A New 'Tower Of Babel.'

By Tom Danehy

AUGUST 30, 1999: 

Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism by Robert J. Pennock (MIT Press). Cloth, $35.

A COUPLE DAYS ago, on Gene Kelly's birthday, Turner Classic Movies ran the masterpiece Inherit The Wind, a fictionalized account of the Scopes Monkey Trial. It's one of those movies I watch every time it's on, sort of a thinking man's The Longest Yard. Yet no matter how wonderful the movie is, one can't watch it without hoping that someday it will become archaic, a curious memento of a bygone era. Such is certainly not the case glimpsing the magazine rack this week (more than 70 years after Scopes) and reading that the state legislature of Kansas is attempting to ban the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools.

The forces of close-mindedness and exclusionary religion are still out there, circling the wagons and trying their damnedest (if you'll pardon the expression) to keep that evil science stuff from poisoning the minds of the young. Their never-ending, doomed-to-fail efforts are chronicled in Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against The New Creationism, a wonderful and invigorating new book by philosopher Robert J. Pennock.

Back in the 1980s there was a movement which attempted to have "creationism" taught in public schools as an alternative theory on the origin of species. By tacking an "ism" on the end, they attempted to package religious dogma as junk science, and then tried to soft-sell it as just another viewpoint deserving mention alongside the "unproven" theory of evolution.

They were moderately successful until the Supreme Court (ruling in the 1987 case of Edwards vs. Aguillard) struck down the equal-time-for-creationism laws, stating very clearly that creationism is an inherently religious idea and therefore to teach it alongside evolution amounts to an unconstitutional promotion of religion.

Undeterred, the anti-evolution forces regrouped, slapped the new label "intelligent-design theory" on their Old Testament idea, and shoved it back into the public arena. It is this "new creationism" which Pennock debunks in an authoritative and lively refutation of all that is anti-evolution. Throughout, Pennock makes it very clear that science and religion are not mutually exclusive, noting cleverly that "science is no more atheistic than plumbing," then adding, "to say nothing of God is not to say God is nothing."

Pennock provides an informative look at the history of the anti-evolution movement, from British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who stated in 1864 that, given Darwin's choice of monkeys or angels, "I am on the side of the angels." Pennock then takes us through attempts to ban the teaching of evolution, which led, among other things, to the Scopes trial. (The law upheld when Scopes was convicted stayed on the books in Tennessee until 1967.)

After efforts to ban the teaching of evolution were struck down, "creation science" was born. This attempt to couch religion in the cloak of science was also repudiated, which leads us to today's "intelligent-design theory," a claim that everything on earth and in the heavens was designed by a higher intelligence (which means, but never states, God. Wink, wink.)

Pennock shows how these folks are constantly fighting a battle on two fronts: attempting to get their view into the schools while, at the same time, getting evolution out. And their latest weapon? The Internet.

One of the latest (and most creative) arguments put forward by modern zealots is that evolution somehow violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Pennock clearly and with finality pokes holes in the argument, and bolsters even further the scientific validity of evolution.

But he does so much more than that. He debunks the myth that Darwin converted to Christianity on his deathbed and repudiated his own theory (and points out that even if he had, the theory would still stand on its merits). He uses the herky-jerky evolution of language to illustrate how evolution works in other areas. He points out that the Catholic Church, my homies previously known for bringing us the Inquisition, stated as early as 1950 that "evolution and the teachings of the Church are 'not incompatible.' "

And he notes wryly that even if the creationists were to be successful in discrediting evolution, they'd be surprised to learn that theirs is not the only alternative.

The Raelians believe that all life on Earth is merely part of an ongoing experiment being conducted by extraterrestrials. Shintoists believe the first goddess gave birth to the islands of Japan, then to people. Or maybe in Arizona we could teach what the Pueblo Pima Indians believe: that Magician Man-Maker baked people in an oven, but the Coyote tricked him into taking the first batch out too soon and the second batch out too late. These too-light and too-dark people were sent to lands across the ocean and the third batch, which Man-Maker watched very carefully, came out just right and became the Pimas.

It's not that difficult, Pennock argues, to, as Jesus said, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's." The teaching of science belongs in the schools, the teaching of religion belongs in the churches and at home. The twain can easily coexist but should not meet in public schools.

This battle is far from over, but books like Pennock's Tower of Babel make it easier to refute those blissfully ignorant few who are not satisfied to keep their own minds closed, but seek also to keep the minds of others from opening.


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