International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism

by Robert T. Pennock

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

This is the definitive philosophical critique of Intelligent Design Theory (IDT), the claim that the organic world is so intricate and sophisticated – “irreducibly complex” – that no naturalistic explanation of life will suffice, especially not a Darwinian evolutionary explanation, and that hence one must appeal to an external designer who intervenes to produce and keep life fully functioning.

Linking IDT with earlier forms of biblical literalism (Creationism), Robert Pennock begins with a brief survey of the controversy, properly acknowledging the very great importance of the former Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, the work that sparked the movement in the early 1990s. As Pennock points out, Johnson was not only a theorist for the cause but also a mentor of others, constantly encouraging and promoting them.

The reader is next given a brief-but-adequate background survey of modern evolutionary thinking followed by discussion of some of the traditional Creationist objections, for instance about supposed “missing links”. Pennock then turns to IDT, starting with Johnson, showing that a new dimension has entered into the debate focusing on what might be called “philosophical” issues. Johnson makes much of the notion of naturalism, distinguishing “methodological” naturalism – the working assumption that there are no intervening supernatural factors that science must acknowledge – from “metaphysical” naturalism – the belief that there are no intervening supernatural factors that could be acknowledged. In a sense, this is methodological atheism as opposed to metaphysical atheism.

Johnson wants to conflate the two, arguing that methodological naturalism (the assumption of any conventional scientist, including Darwinian scientists) is ultimately unstable and morphs into metaphysical naturalism. Carefully, Pennock picks apart the arguments and shows that they are not well formed. He also covers the more empirically-based critiques of IDT, for instance those of Michael Behe who, in Darwin’s Black Box, makes much of such phenomena as the bacterial flagellum that are things supposedly inexplicable by Darwinian evolution. Pennock shows that notions like “irreducible complexity” are essentially without meaning or application, tropes invoked simply to make a thinly veiled attack on conventional science and its expectation of organic origins.

Very important to his argument is the way in which Pennock links all forms of Creationism to moral or political issues. People like Johnson are not just making arguments about the nature of reality. They are promoting a bible-based, conservative social agenda, arguing that Darwinism equals atheism equals the end of proper living and decent society. Pennock shows that these supposed implications are not well taken and, somewhat reversing the tables, argues that the methods of argument employed by IDT enthusiasts and fellow travelers are themselves morally dubious and should provoke reflection about who truly is on the side of right and truth.

The book ends with some reflections on the possible teaching of IDT in the schools. As it happens, Tower of Babel was released some years before Pennock himself appeared as an expert witness in Dover, Pennsylvania, in a successful court rejection of efforts to get IDT into the biology curriculum. What he has to say about the need to keep science in, and religion (or rather, religion masquerading as science) out, is as pertinent now as it was when the book was written.