Sedimentary Muddle: Review of Robert Pennock’s “The Tower of Babel”

Sedimentary Muddle: Review of Robert Pennock’s “The Tower of Babel”

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It is odd how certain books can be turning points. I can think of three Rwhich have created turning points in my understanding of science and religion. The first was The Genesis Flood which convinced me in 1971 that Creationism was a serious issue. People in Britain laughed.

The next was the Sea of Faith by Don Cupitt in 1983.Basically he misused and distorted the history of science to believe in a non-realist God (an oxymoron?)

The thrid was The Tower of Babel by Robert Pennock. I bought that in February in preperation for the ID conference in Concordia Wisconsin. I read it hopefully to find arguments to buttress my criticisms of ID. It was of little use for reasons I detail below.However its inaccuracy and stridency convinced of the claims of a culture war put forward by Johnson and in Books and Culture. Rather than convince me of the folly of ID, it convinced me that there were those who were not willing even to listen to IDers and give them a fair hearing, but simply to label them as Creationists. Most laughable was his statement that Van Till was brushing up against Creationsim. His science is often wrong as was his comments about “other radioactive systems” were used to date older rocks AFTER Libby got his nobel prize for C-14 etc. A modicum of knowledge of geology would have told him that Strutt, Boltwood and Holmes were doing this in 1910 (see Cherry Lewis’s The Dating Game, 2000 Cambridge U p).

However one of the greatest faults of Pennock’s book is his bad history.

On pages 59ff Pennock describes “Darwin’s own Evolution” and pits Darwin’s alleged Creationist beginnings against his later wisdom when he had ditched his Cambridge professors Henslow and Sedgwick and converted to Lyell. He seems unaware of Darwin’s home influence or that at Edinburgh, which were decidedly non-creationist. To say that Henslow and Sedgwick had “detailed hypotheses of catastrophist flood geology” is simply laughable. Pennock is simply unaware of what and how Henslow and Sedgwick practised in their geology in the 1820s . This has been brought forcibly home to me recently as I have studied Henslow’s magnificent Memoir on the geology of Anglesey of 1822 and studied Darwin’s use of it both before and while he was on the Beagle. As for Sedgwick’s flood  thus dodgy geology I invite Dr Pennock to visit me in Wales and I shall show him what Sedgwick did. I shall take him on one of Sedgwick’s little walks over the Welsh mountains. 12 hours should be sufficient. It is longer than down and up the Grand Canyon! ( I had better add to this as in August I went down and up the Canyon from the South Rim. It took me 9 1/2 hours in temps up to 110 or so and was far more exhausting than Sedgwick’s route, even if at 16 miles and 5000feet of climbing it is rather shorter than Sedgwick’s route of 18 miles and 5500ft!).) His geology was also spot on. As I carry  out my field work in the history of geology I always have recent geological maps to guide so I am always commiting 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. As for his send-up of Sedgwick on p74 describing him as one “who had devoted years of research to the Flood hypothesis.” It scarcely figured in his geology of the 1820s so thus his recantation was only a minor one, as is clear when one reads it. My views cannot be that wayward as I gave a paper on Sedgwick’s 1831 geological field trip to Wales to part of the Geolo Soc of London and was advised to publish. If I am wrong then all of the History of Geology Group of the Geol Soc are wrong too!!!! Pennock’s treatment of Darwin’s geology both before and during the Beagle voyage is simply plain wrong. He seems to think that Darwin got nowhere with his geology until he studied Lyell. In fact before he read Lyell he was already a highly competent geologist having been taught by Sedgwick and Henslow. This influence comes out in his geological notes of the Beagle. (See my papers in Brit Jour Hist Sci 1996, and in ARchives of Natural History 1998, and 2000 on his pre-Beagle geology. My main paper of his work with Sedgwick is being refereed now, which doubles the time Darwin spent with Sedgwick from 7 to 18 days. This will be summarised in Endeavour in spring 2001.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 sudden rejection of all he learnt from his Cambridge professors) It makes my hair stand on end to see this kind of historical writing.

Further Pennock has insufficient engagement with Design in the past. To understand what Intellegent Design is on 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 17 Century and Paley, Buckland and others in the 19 Century.( see my article in Perspectives of Science and Faith Dec 1999 comparing Buckland with Behe.) That he simply fails to do and he gives an inadequate treatment of Paley.

Further he is very loose in his use of CREATIONISM meaning anything from 19th century creationists such as Sedgwick and Henslow, YECs and IDers who are a varied crowd. this means he can tar them all with the same YEC brush.  19 century creationists such as Sedgwick and Henslow, Buckland, Hitchcock, Silliman and others were superb scientists. Having studied the geology of the first three the mixing them up with YECs fills me with anger and contempt at such poor scholarship. I have no respect for most YECs as I have yet to find one YEC argument which holds one molecule of water, despite 30 years of reading YEC literature. Pennock needs to be more precise and not dismiss any he can by the term Creationist, That is very 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 all of the same creationist mould. Of course, all are CREATIONISTS in the wider sense. But then so am I – but a Darwinian Creationist! (Were I to write Ruse’s new book “Can a Darwinian be a Christian?” I would only need one word – YES!!) YE creationism is frankly pseudoscience and if it has roots in the early 19th century it lies with those like the Rev Henry Cole who thought the Evangelical Sedgwick to be an infidel because the devout evangelical geologist did not believe God created all in 6 days. Its 19th century roots lie with Seventh Day Adventism as I argued back in 1985 and by Numbers in The Creationists, and not with the clerical geologists such as Buckland Sedgwick and others.

ID is not of the same ilk and cannot be so easily dismissed (though in a review I described Behe as “god-of-the-gaps -wrapped-up-in-amino-acids”!) Though some are clearly YEC, their arguments are far better. Some such as Dembski and Behe are producing arguments which demand consideration, although I find them mistaken. One issue they need to come clean on is the age of the earth, as if the earth is 4.5 by old (and no intelligent person would challenge that !) then we have a God – sorry Intelligent Designer – popping back at regular intervals to add a bit more ID.How many times did Mr ID pop back to put another modification on the horse, and the elephant etc ,etc?

We should not think of ID as a rehash of early 19 century ideas, though it does have some similarity with what Darwin called “the ordinary view of creation”. This allows for an old earth, progressive creationism with God intervening at intervals and was the majority view of the mid 19 century though it was already crumbling. With excellent rhetoric (e.g> his 3 Indonesian rhinos) and some good scientific arguments he leads us to descent with modification as the soundest solution.

Where do I stand? I suppose I take a similar position to van Till and Ken Miller. I see YEC as without any credibility. ID varies from restrained YEC to something approaching theistic evolution. ID is  a mixed bag, like a curate’s egg and though I find it plain wrong in places, it is worthy of respect and careful scrutiny. If nothing else it lobs a few hand grenades into the reductionism of Dawkins and has made many (including me) look more closely what are very important theological and scientific issues. And Thank God the Polanyi Centre has been repreived, a victory for open scholarship.

Michael Roberts, an Anglican priest in the UK.  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 Anglican Church in 1974. He spent 13 years in parishes in Liverpool before moving to be Vicar of Chirk, near Llangollen in 1987.  He is a keen mountain walker and has written a number of articles on science and religion. In his rebuttal below, Roberts covers a lot of different strata and ends up with some sedimentary muddle.