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Book Review: The Tower of Babel by Robert T. Pennock

MIT Press, 1999, p429, ISBN 0-262-16180-X

Michael Roberts

Vicar of Cockerham, Glasson and Winmarleigh, England

My awareness of Creationism goes back thirty years when I read a review of the Genesis Flood while working as a geologist in the Namib Desert of South Africa. I had become a Christian two years before at University after reading Mere Christianity. As well as reading most of Lewis' non-fiction, I absorbed Schaeffer's works. Now many grey-haired and balding Christians will know where I am coming from. On return to Europe to train for the Anglican ministry I went to L'Abri for a month. That was a strange but formative experience, marred at the time as I was recommended creationist books, which were a red rag to a bull for a geologist. However, my time at L'Abri taught me that creationism needed understanding before rebuttal, and I was very sharp in rebuttal. I also became convinced that the understanding of it needed to be historical as well as scientific and theological, and thus all my historical interests revolve around creationism in the widest sense, even when I study Darwin's British geology in depth.


As a friend recommended Pennock, I bought a copy to prepare for the ID conference at Wisconsin in June 2000, to know what critics were saying. While reading it I was preparing three academic papers on Darwin's geology for publication, and thus was drawn to the section on Darwin's Own Evolution. Pennock contrasts Darwin's alleged Creationist beginnings against his later wisdom when he had rejected the ideas of his Cambridge professors Henslow and Sedgwick, and converted to Lyell. To say that Henslow and Sedgwick had "detailed hypotheses of catastrophist flood geology" is simply laughable. More risible is Pennock's website, which gives his syllabus on Science and Religion; "We'll look at Darwin's Cambridge professors, who were creationists, and see what happened when they investigated geology as though the Bible's account of the Noachian deluge was a scientific hypothesis." I would dearly love to take Pennock around the British mountains in bad weather to show just how false that statement is. Pennock simply misunderstands how Henslow and Sedgwick practised their geology in the 1820s, as there is simply no evidence for his claim that Sedgwick or Henslow 'had devoted years of research to the Flood hypothesis'.

Sedgwick spent his summers from 1818 working on the stratigraphy of Britain. My own work on Sedgwick has been confined to his Welsh work from 1831 to 1842, when his field methods were virtually the same. His geology was also invariably spot-on. In my fieldwork I always have recent geological maps to guide me so I commit the historians' unforgivable sin of judging a scientist of the 1820s by today's standards. Yet I am always amazed by both Henlsow's and Sedgwick's skill. Sedgwick wrote only one article on the Deluge in 1825, Origins of Alluvial and Diluvial Formations, which was a sound article on the state of "drift" geology (drift is the "rubbish" dumped by ice over the land and consists of sand, clay, stones and boulders, as in Wisconsin and New England.) and only a step away from the Ice Age theory. He considered the drift 'to demonstrate the reality of a great diluvian catastrophe during a comparatively recent period' and that 'It must … be rash and unphilosophical to look to the language of revelation for any direct proofs of the truths of physical science.' The Flood scarcely figured in his geology of the 1820s so thus his recantation of 1831 was only a minor one. Henslow also wrote one article on the Flood in 1822, when he explained the Flood naturalistically by the effect of a passing comet. Here, he was following Whiston in 1690. What Sedgwick and Henslow were doing (on very few occasions) in the 1820s was to look for scientific (naturalistic?) explanations of the Deluge rather than regard the Deluge as a Theistic scientific hypothesis.

Pennock's treatment of Darwin's geology both before and during the Beagle voyage is plain wrong. He seems to think that Darwin got nowhere with his geology until he studied Lyell. In fact, when he read Lyell in 1832 he was already a highly competent geologist having been taught by Sedgwick and Henslow. I show this in A longer look at the Sedgwick-Darwin tour of 1831 (Annals of Science, forthcoming). Darwin visited the highly complex Ordovician strata in Cwm Idwal in Snowdonia after leaving Sedgwick and his perception and skill in trying to unravel is first–rate. All due to Sedgwick's teaching. I hope to follow this up by assessing the influence of Sedgwick and Henslow on the Beagle geology. This will show an evolutionary change in his geology rather than a rejection of Sedgwick and Henslow when he read Lyell. It will also minimise the influence of Lyell, though that was not my intention. Darwin did not need Lyell to teach him geology, but adopted Lyell's theoretical approach of Uniformitarianism to mould his interpretations. He said of himself that he "out-Lyelled Lyell" and he did, as, for example, at Glen Roy in Scotland in 1838, where he made "one long, gigantic blunder" in that he reckoned that the Parallel Roads were former shorelines above 1000ft. In some senses this Uniformitarianism paved the way for evolution for Darwin. But enough of all this, as it diverts us from Pennock's criticism of his Tower of Babel which forms the core of this work. However, it makes my hair stand on end to see this kind of historical writing. The purpose of this section is to contrast the true scientific methodology of Darwin and his successors, i.e., pristine methodological naturalism, with the theologically polluted understandings of his teachers, which was akin to the theistic pseudoscience of all occupants of the tower of Babel. As he continues he then shows that all from Babel, and presumably Howard Van Till and myself, are similarly polluted by their religious views.


In his critique of design Pennock has insufficient engagement with Design in the past. To understand what Intelligent Design is all about, we need to compare it to Design in the past. We need to see it in the light of John Ray and others in the 17th Century along with Paley, Buckland and others in the 19th Century. That he fails to do, and simply mocks Paley. The main difference between Paley and ID is that Paley looked for Design in everything whereas ID regards some of nature to be deigned and the rest undesigned, thus calling to mind Van Till's description "Punctuated Naturalism".His treatment of the history of science is badly flawed, especially on the development of geology, which is crucial to our understanding of "creationism". Two examples will suffice; Megatherium was named by Cuvier in 1826 and not by Darwin in 1832 (as Pennock says, putting the event two months after Buckland gave his lecture on the animal! See Roberts PSCF Dec 1999); and worse still is his statement that only Carbon-14 was used for radiometric age-dating until the 1950s!!!!!! (p.77) Uranium-Lead was first used by Boltwood before 1910. I need say no more than refer readers to Cherry Lewis's The Dating Game. Pennock has made a worse job on geological age-dating than many Creationists. In fact his chapter The Evidence for Evolution is continually marred by scientific and historical errors that it will mislead the reader. In contrast, Niles Eldredge gives a superb popular presentation of contemporary evolutionary ideas. His finest section is that on the Cambrian Explosion, where he defuses the incident into a 10 million year process (Eldredge p. 44ff). Not many have written as clearly or concisely.


Pennock uses the image of the tower of Babel to bring together in a pejorative way all those silly ideas he calls Creationism. Despite having differentiated the varieties of "creationism" from YEC to Van Till in the first chapter, he spends the rest of the book smoothly gliding from one to the other to mislead the undiscerning, and give the discerning high blood pressure. To describe Van Till as 'brush(ing) right up against the border' of Creationism is laughable?. To say that writing 'To know God as Redeemer, must first know him as Creator' … 'may make Van Till sound like a creationist' is even more so. We can all be tarred with the same YEC brush. Guilt by association is pure McCarthyism. Pennock fails to indicate that his 19th century "creationists" such as Sedgwick and Henslow were superb scientists, and to imply otherwise is poor scholarship. This is shallow rhetoric and worthy of Clarence Darrow. By this he can belittle those he disagrees with rather than understand them. Thus, Morris and Gish, Behe and Johnson, and Henslow and Sedgwick are portrayed as of the same creationist mould. Of course, all are CREATIONISTS in the wider sense – and so am I– , as are Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinhorne.

If YEC has roots in the early 19th century it is with the likes of the Rev. Henry Cole who in 1832 thought Sedgwick to be an infidel because the devout evangelical geologist did not believe God created all in 6 days. Its 19th century roots lie more with Seventh Day Adventism as is made so clear by Numbers in The Creationists. ID is not of the same ilk and cannot be so easily dismissed. Though some are clearly YEC, Dembski and Behe are producing arguments that demand consideration. One issue they need to come clean on is the age of the earth, as, if the earth is 4.5 billion years old (and no geologist would challenge that!), then we have a God – sorry, Intelligent Designer – popping back at regular intervals to do a bit more. If in the 1850s the French geologist Alcide d'Orbigny was correct to say that there were 27 extinctions and new creations in a small part of the Jurassic then there must have been some 1500 new creations since the Pre–Cambrian. (It was d'Orbigny who gave us the concept of the Geological Stage.) This question must be faced.


The Tower of Babel concept mars Pennock's discussion on naturalism in his chapter Of Naturalism and Negativity, though naturalism is a slippery term with as many meanings as evolution. The definition of Naturalism is difficult but briefly it is the insistence of explaining natural phenomena by secondary causes without divine activity. Pennock equates the Two-model stance (atheistic evolution vs. YEC) of YECs with ID's opposites of Naturalism and Theistic Science. The two models are so different that confusion ought to be impossible. Despite that Pennock rightly distinguishes between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism [Methodological Naturalism is to use naturalism as a method but being open to non–natural causes. Ontological Naturalism is to allow only natural causes and to exclude, by definition, any supernaturalism.], which Phillip Johnson, in particular, often fails to do. This is the Achilles' heel of Johnson's argument against naturalism. However, the methodological often slides into the ontological in practice as may be seen in theologians like Peacocke, who, despite affirmations of theism, limit "action" to a closed universe. There are of course many non-religious scientists who assume a closed universe and thus no God. Their view is clearly materialistic and contrary to any Christian viewpoint. It would not take long to find many examples, and is the logical position of a non–theist.

Pennock attempted to consider naturalism historically, but here his lack of history fails him as he attempts to argue that ID 'is nothing but a version of the old argument from design' and is a restatement of the old earth type of creationism, which was collapsing by the mid-nineteenth century. We should not think of ID as a rehash of early 19th century ideas, though it does have some similarity with what Darwin called "the ordinary view of creation" in the Origin of Species. This allows for an old earth, progressive creationism with God intervening at intervals, and was the majority view of the early 19th century though it was already crumbling. With excellent rhetoric ('But do they really believe that at innumerable periods of the earth's history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues?', Origin of Species p. 482) and some good scientific arguments Darwin leads us to descent with modification as the soundest solution. There is an interesting pair of confusions here; Johnson overstates the "materialist" side of Lyell and Darwin, and Pennock dismisses the Pre-Darwinians for being too creationist and wedded to design, and chooses to ignore the contribution to science of these "theistic scientists" from Boyle to Sedgwick. Both Johnson and Pennock err.

Now there needs to be some hard thinking on both the varieties of naturalism and theistic science, but this is not the place. Both Johnson and Pennock polarise the discussion. Neither seems to allow room for miracle in any form of naturalism and ignore that some form of naturalism has been followed by "Christian" scientists since the time of Robert Boyle in the 17th Century, through Darwin's supposedly errant teachers, until those of today. What is urgently needed is a careful historical study of both naturalism and design.


One of my concerns with Intelligent Design is that it considers only the mechanical processes of Creation and nothing about redemption. The case of Paley should be a warning. Evangelicals did not warmly welcome Paley when Natural Theology was published in 1802. Though much of Paley's argument of design was very acceptable, the main criticism was that Paley paid insufficient attention to Revelation and tried to prove the existence of God without reference to the 'direct communication' of Revelation. To emphasise the point, the reviewer claimed of Paley's argument that 'it was made the ground of the theological system of Thomas Paine [and I would add Jefferson].' (These quotations are from the Christian Observer of 1803.) Paley had in fact offered a religion of reason rather than Redemption in Christ. This reflects the evangelical concern for a religion centred on redemption and revelation rather than reason. Later Evangelical writers, such as J. B. Sumner (Archbishop of Canterbury 1848–62), also stressed the limitations of natural theology and how revelation was always necessary to enable one to "know God and to enjoy Him for ever." This warning needs to be heeded today as Intelligent Design could lead to "Christianity without Christ" where specified complexity becomes more important than salvation in Christ.

With the overpopulated Tower of Babel, Pennock is able to move seamlessly from Young Earth Creation-science, with Paluxy footprints, moondust and population growth, to Behe's mousetrap and other Intelligent Design arguments, as if they are of the same calibre. That demonstrates an attitude to careful reporting as cavalier as that of von Danniken, author of The Chariot of the Gods. It is one thing to criticise Behe, Dembski and others, but it is another to cast them as pseudoscientists. I, for one, have serious criticisms of ID, but I will not dismiss them out of hand. Theological issues are largely left to one side bar sweeping criticisms of inerrancy and 'plenary verbal inspiration'. He is dismissive and fails to understand the conservative position of scripture whether that of a Van Till, Dembski or Ken Ham. He looks to one Bishop John Spong who is concerned at the dire effects of inerrancy (and much else!). However, even some Episcopalians are actually concerned about Spong!


Now Pennock is very worried about the implications in the teaching of science. I will come clean. The thought of encouraging Young Earth Creationism in schools and colleges fills me with horror, and I was and still am pleased at the Arkansas verdict of 1982. I am relieved that Kansas was overturned. Not that as a colonialist I should be concerned, but there are some problems this side of the pond. But Pennock does it again, and puts all dwellers of Babel together, tarring ID with the YEC brush, yet writes "Of Ideologues and Intellectual Honesty". He hoists himself on his own petard as his whole method of the Tower of Babel to rubbish (trash, if you insist) all and sundry is ideological and not intellectually honest. I shall say no more, beyond that of asking whether Pennock's misinformed ideas should be permitted in any university, except as an example of bad scholarship.

Unfortunately, Pennock is not alone in uncritical condemnation. Niles Eldredge in his otherwise excellent The Triumph of Evolution – and the failure of Creationism similarly equates YEC and ID. Had Pennock and Eldredge not done this, both could have produced useful books to enable readers to understand what YEC and ID are all about, and their shortcomings as perceived by the mainstream of science. In this, Ken Miller succeeds in Finding Darwin's God where he distinguishes carefully between YEC and ID. That does not stop his criticisms, but he is so much fairer. There is a right and fair way of criticising


In the course of his book, and lost under his sleights of hand, Pennock gives two sound criticisms of the Intelligent Design movement. This first is his differentiation of methodological and ontological naturalism discussed above, which many fail to make and others fail to understand. The second, is the avoidance of committing themselves to the age of the earth. As Nancy Pearcey wrote in Touchstone in 1999, 'For too long, opponents of naturalistic evolution have let themselves be divided and conquered over subsidiary issues like the age of the earth'. To any with even a basic knowledge of geology that is both an unacceptable statement and an unacceptable practice and gives some credence both to Pennock's sleights of hand and Van Till's epithet of ID – Scientific Creationism in designer clothing. Not to accept the vast age of the earth is an implicit rejection of physics and chemistry, as well as geology. This ambivalence to the age of the earth is the main reason why I have reservations with Intelligent Designers, though I respect some of their arguments and applaud their attack on atheistic naturalism. My greatest worry is that this book will be seen as a definitive critique of all so-called "creationism", and will feed the prejudices of "non-creationists" and thus stifle dialogue on an extremely important issue. Its main effect on me was to make me aware of the unreasoned hostility to anything Christian (past or present) by some mainstream academia. It made me aware that Culture Wars are a reality.

Biography; Michael Roberts studied Geology at Oxford and spent 3 years in Africa as an exploration geologist. He studied theology at Durham and was ordained into the church of England in 1974. He is now Vicar of Cockerham, Glasson and Winmarleigh, near Lancaster, England. He is a keen mountain walker and has written articles on science and religion (one on Darwin and Design received a Templeton Award in 1997) and Darwin's British geology. In June 2000 he was a plenary speaker at the conference on Intelligent Design at Wisconsin. He is married to Andrea and they have two almost-grown-up children.

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