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John Wilson

Speaking About Tongues

In Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, Robert Pennock takes a step in the right direction, toward genuine engagement with his opponents. I don't think he gets all the way there, but he has made a start. You wouldn't guess that from Phillip Johnson's response to Pennock in the last issue of BOOKS & CULTURE (where Johnson speaks of "the kind of logical fallacy you can flunk an undergraduate for misunderstanding" and "these rather obvious points, which bright high school students can readily understand"), nor from Michael Behe's review of Pennock's book in The Weekly Standard (June 7, 1999, pp. 35–7). In particular, both Johnson and Behe are dismissive of what Johnson calls

Pennock's centerpiece argument, the evolution of languages. Of course language has evolved, just as symphony orchestras and computer software have evolved. All these examples illustrate the often unpredictable results of interaction among intelligent agents. They do not support an inference that intelligence is not needed to produce either language or software.

Behe summarizes Pennock's argument thus:

The Bible says that all the plants and animals were created within a few days of one another; the Bible also records that human languages were created simultaneously by God, to foil plans for the tower of Babel; so Pennock concludes that if he can convince creationists there is good evidence that modern languages arose from a common ancestral language, he may be able to get them to give up their insistence on the simultaneous creation of all living things.

So far so good; that's an accurate summary. But immediately following this useful exposition, Behe proceeds to garble Pennock's argument (we'll come back to this in a moment) and muddies the waters altogether:

[Pennock] announces proudly, "To my knowledge no one has drawn this important parallel before" between linguistic and biological evolution. Well, no wonder. People who believe that the Bible trumps fossils and Stephen ...

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