Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science, by Massimo Pigliucci (Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Associates Inc., 2002, ISBN 0-87893-659-9) 275 pp., Paperback $24.95.
Denying Evolution is a great book and Massimo Pigliucci’s finest work to date. The reader might be forgiven for asking, Why yet another book on the evolution-creationism controversy? In the words of William B. Provine, who wrote the Foreword to Denying Evolution: “The typical book written by an evolutionist is directed to the destruction of creationist arguments . . . Pigliucci’s stimulating book is different” (p. ix). Pigliucci certainly does not flinch from critically engaging with the arguments of leading evolution deniers, from young-earth creationists to intelligent design theorists, and he often succeeds in showing their many flaws, but the real focus is elsewhere. Denying Evolution is primarily a penetrating, timely analysis of why the controversy still exists, despite the fact that creationism in all its forms has no leg to stand on, and the scientific community has long since embraced evolution.
Pigliucci takes a historical approach to analyzing the main causes of the evolution-creationism controversy. The first two chapters, “Where Did the Controversy Come From?” and “Evolution-Creationism 101,” are an excellent introduction to the debate. Following this is a chapter on the anti-intellectualism of much evolution denial, and another on the scientism of some scientists and the true nature of science. Here we can already see the distinctive character of this book and the value of its contribution. Pigliucci shows us the historical roots of the problem, and he takes a balanced approach, declining to pin the blame entirely on one side, but showing how all have played their part in the continuance of what is essentially an ideological or cultural dispute, not a scientific one.
Next is a chapter on creationist fallacies, which is as close to the typical pro-evolution approach as Denying Evolution comes (it is valuable nonetheless). Then follows an informative chapter on three major, recurring controversies in the evolution-creationism debate: the second principle of thermodynamics, the origin of life, and the Cambrian explosion. Finally, the penultimate chapter examines fallacies scientists and educators are prone to make in dealing with creationism, such as the rationalistic fallacy (over-intellectualizing by assuming that all we need to do is just explain things better and people will see the light [p. 234]); not being sympathetic enough to irrational positions; and, perhaps worst of all, not understanding the nature of science itself.
I would be remiss if I did not note a virtue of this book, and of Pigliucci’s writing generally, that makes it stand out. As an associate professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who teaches ecology and evolutionary biology, he possesses the scientific expertise we might expect, but he is also well versed in related subjects, such as history and philosophy (in fact, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in the latter). A specific example is Pigliucci’s exceptional knowledge of the history and philosophy of science. He clearly explains how science works, covering standard topics like deduction, induction, the role of observation and experiment, reductionism, and falsificationism, as well as such cutting-edge and oft-neglected issues as Bayesian statistics, myths about science, and the limits of science. He aptly uses examples from the history of science and real life to aid understanding. Overall, Denying Evolution possesses a subtlety, breadth, and sensitivity to nonscientific issues that is pleasantly reminiscent of the likes of Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould—which is no small praise indeed.
The best part of Denying Evolution, I think, is the final chapter, in which Pigliucci confronts one of the major causes of the controversy: the poor state of science education in the United States (and no doubt elsewhere). It is no great wonder that students do not understand science since it is often taught as if it consists of a set of unrelated facts of mysterious provenance rather than as a method for finding out about the world. Contributing to the problem are the facts that we do a poor job of teaching critical thinking at all levels of education; and that, despite their rhetoric, institutions of higher learning tend to value research over teaching. Pigliucci does not just condemn the establishment failings but suggests practical steps, based on good pedagogy and current research into how the brain works, that would help alleviate the problem (pp. 274–81). As an occasional university teacher myself, I think Pigliucci has hit the nail on the head, and I can only hope that some people in the academy sit up and take notice.
As if that weren’t enough, each chapter contains good suggestions for further reading, and Pigliucci has included two appendices with useful supplementary material. (The first has a selection from the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, who raised substantial criticisms applicable to intelligent design before it even existed. The second has the complete text of William Jennings Bryan’s intended last speech at the famous Scopes trial, as a resource on the creationist mindset). Simply put, Denying Evolution is probably the most insightful book on the evolution-creationism topic to come out in years, and it is highly recommended.
Shawn Dawson occasionally teaches philosophy classes at the University of Regina and maintains the Philosophy Page (www.rationalnorth.com).