Friends of the Dinosaurs

MIT Press

Some 50 miles south of Fort Worth, near the town of Glen Rose, there is a fossil record of side-by-side human and dinosaur prints–or so claim certain creationists. To them, the prints are evidence that the world is much younger than most scientists would have you believe. That mainstream science has completely discredited the Glen Rose prints, along with other forms of support trotted out by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in Los Angeles, does not seem to concern them. They hold the trump card: When secular science conflicts with the revealed word of God, then secular science simply must give way. If God says in Genesis that that’s how he made the world and when, then that’s the way it is. And no measly, mortal, scientific evidence is needed, only faith.

Surely a basic survival skill for any self-respecting creationist is perseverance in the face of much counter-evidence, and so it seems unlikely that Robert T. Pennock’s Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism will be duly considered by those who might profit from it the most. Pennock, a philosopher at Michigan State University, has nonetheless provided the rest of us with a comprehensive and mostly even-handed inquiry into the current form of the ancient debate between science and theology. Though many people think it possible to both believe in God and practice science without experiencing spiritual or existential crisis, there are many others, as Pennock points out, for whom science and religion are mutually exclusive terms–and they’re choosing sides and starting to pick fights in courts, school boards, and universities.

Pennock’s book is a bracing reminder that defenders of science will never defeat defenders of faith. But it’s also a call to arms in its own way, cautioning non-creationist readers that discounting creationists as a fringe movement of uneducated kooks poses a real and serious threat to science curricula in public schools and to the autonomy and credibility of university research. His purpose is to elucidate the philosophical foundations of scientific methods and to explain why evolution is not vulnerable to the various critiques creationists launch at it. “This book,” Pennock claims in the preface, “is a field guide to help science teachers understand who is attacking them and why; it is a primer to help them know how to respond to the intellectual chaos that creationists would create with their confused arguments.” But his argument that “‘creation-science’ (or ‘intelligent-design theory,’ as it is euphemistically termed) is antithetical to science and certainly does not belong in science classrooms” deserves a much wider audience than science teachers.

His first order of business is to explain who the creationists are, what they believe, and what’s at stake for them. As Pennock’s title announces, these are not your father’s creationists; they’re a new breed. Pennock offers a more detailed taxonomy than need be provided here of the various types of creationists, but generally speaking, they are old-earth creationists (OEC), young-earth creationists (YECs), and intelligent-design theorists (IDCs). The latter group, because they are those most sophisticated and surreptitious, are the most formidable. But before he can turn his attention to the IDCs (to whom he devotes the second half of the book), Pennock gives us an anatomy of the contentious factions that make up the Tower of Babel known as creationism. All three of these groups are vehemently antievolutionist and reserve some of their harshest criticisms for theistic evolutionists, whom they accuse of “collaborating with the enemy.”

Though united against theistic evolutionists within their own camp and allied against evolutionists in general, OECs and YECs bitterly disagree on how to reconcile the “evidence” in Genesis with the evidence in the geological record. Incredible as it sounds, YECs are so committed to a literal reading of Genesis that they are willing to throw out the entire body of knowledge gleaned from fossil records and carbon dating. I confess I found something endearingly quixotic in the YECs’ insistence that the earth is 6,000 years old and that its major geological features result from a huge flood, the “Noachian Deluge.” As passionate in their beliefs as they are benighted in their reasoning, YECs actually calculate things like how many animals Adam could have named in the time allotted to him in the Genesis account. Recall that this is a Herculean task, because without evolution, all animals that will ever populate the earth had to be present that day.

Young-earth creationists have bigger evidentiary problems than measuring how fast Adam could talk. They need to prove that dinosaurs and human beings lived at the same time and also that geological strata were in fact deposited by God all at once, at the time of the great flood. This is where Glen Rose and the Institute for Creation Research come in. As Pennock has discovered in interviews and visits to the ICR museum, the YECs are impossible to argue with. Some are even prepared to argue that although the earth is only 6,000 years old, God made it appear older than it is, which explains all that pesky geological evidence. To my mind, YECs are bizarre and exotic in their beliefs, and I certainly wouldn’t answer if they rang my doorbell on a Saturday morning and wanted to tell me about God, but they’re not that scary. It’s primarily YECs who have tried in Texas and other states to insist that “creation science” be taught along side of “evolution theory,” and in all instances (except Kansas) they’ve failed.

Other varieties of creationist credo are more alarming. Old-earth creationists also want their version of the origins of life and the universe recognized in the schools, and like YECs they also consider themselves biblical inerrantists and are usually fundamentalists. They recognize, however, that the geological record cannot be summarily dispensed with, and they argue that the account of creation in Genesis remains literally true only if properly understood. It all depends on the definition of a day. According to Pennock, “the largest old-earth faction holds that the days of creation are not to be thought of as twenty-four hour human-sized days, but rather as God-sized days. Each “day” is like an age on a human-sized scale, and each may have been millions or even billions of years long.” Though this interpretation is anathema to young-earth creationists, its inclination toward metaphor and tolerance of the scientific record make it palatable to many mainstream believers. But we shouldn’t be too complacent, cautions Pennock, because old-earthers, like all creationists, are not content to stay on their side of the theology-science fence. They’re united by a “shared sense that science be seen as providing scientific evidence of the Creator as depicted in the Bible.” Their goal is not simply to reconcile scripture with science, but rather to subjugate science to religion. This is where it begins to get scary: enter the intelligent-design theorists (IDCs).

The second half of Pennock’s exhaustive study is devoted to explaining and refuting the work of intelligent-design theorists (IDCs), in particular Phillip E. Johnson, law professor and author of more than two dozen books and scores of articles making the case for intelligent design as a legitimate field of study. (The most recent is called The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundation of Naturalism). IDC is stealth creationism: Its proponents rarely use the word God, or even creator, preferring instead to speak about the evidence that an intelligence is behind the design of the universe. As Pennock puts it, IDCs like Johnson are called the “‘upper tier’ of creationists because, unlike their earlier counterparts, they carry advanced degrees from major institutions, often hold positions in higher education, and are typically more knowledgeable, more articulate, and far more savvy.” (In Texas, Baylor University president Robert B. Sloan recently established the Michael Polanyi Center for the study of intelligent design, affiliated with its Institute for Faith and Learning, and appointed high-profile creationist Robert Dembski as director. Dembski has since resigned).

Essentially an updated version of the old argument for design, intelligent-design theory holds that if we can find evidence of complex specified information (their favorite example is DNA), then we can infer the existence of an intelligence (God) who designed it. They reject the possibility that the mechanisms of evolution (which they erroneously claim are completely random) could produce such a variety and complexity of life forms. They attempt to use the language and the methods of science–if not its grounding philosophy and epistemology–to prove the existence of an intelligent agent responsible for making the physical universe and for endowing human beings with moral purpose.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that IDCs wish to “compete head on with evolution.” Toward the end of the book, Pennock describes the clash even more dramatically: “Eventually I realized that for creationists this is not just a debate about the evidence for or against a scientific conclusion, but a classic clash of good and evil. As creationists see the issue it is a battle in defense of the one true form of Christianity and the philosophy of the devil.” Intelligent-design theorists, along with other creationists, Pennock goes on, need to “burn evolutionary theory and with it much of the rest of science, not simply because it is false (they claim), but because it is morally evil.” Clearly, no amount of philosophical evidence is going to convince them otherwise. Why would God’s purposeful creatures seek counsel from the devil’s own advocates? Ultimately, Pennock can only suggest that we “reassure” creationists that meaningful existence is still possible in a world governed and explained by natural laws.

Having fought the good fight and worked out all the arguments, Pennock ends where he began. The evidence against IDC is the same as it is against the earlier and blunter forms of creationism: Evolution does not exclude the possibility of the existence of God. Simply put, “evolutionary science, like all sciences, is neither theistic nor atheistic in the ontological sense, but is agnostic, leaving God as a possibility that is outside the boundary of its methods of investigation.” Though this may satisfy readers who have followed Pennock’s meticulous philosophical analogies and sometimes excruciatingly Socratic-tinged hypotheticals (“let us suppose if…”) for close to 400 pages, it’s impotent in a “debate about evolution [framed] as a holy battle between two incompatible worldviews, one–theistic religion–that upholds truth, goodness, and beauty, and another–evolutionary naturalism–that undermines the same, leading to moral decay in every aspect of society, not to mention the loss of hope in an eternal afterlife.”

This is ultimately the book’s flaw: Pennock can only convince the already convinced, and finally can’t give science teachers or other readers any evidence against creationism that will be compelling (or damaging) to creationists. Tower of Babel suffers from Al Gore Syndrome. It’s extremely important and scrupulously researched. It repeats the difficult things a couple of times just to make sure you get it. It’s a little too proud of its own cleverness. It’s unfortunate that none of these careful, rational arguments are likely to ever reach creationists, who proceed from faith rather than reason, and rely on revelation rather than natural law. Secular philosophy, like secular science, has become the enemy.

Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton is Assistant Professor of English at Southwestern University.

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