Dominique Lecourt, 1992 L’Amerique entre la Bible et Darwin. Second edition with postface 2007. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France
The philosopher Dominique Lecourt is well known (by myself at least) as a passionate advocate for philosophy of science education for scientists (see Lecourt 1999). There, one theme in particular was that Lecourt has argued that it was philosophical naivety that caused scientists such as S J Gould to be led into a philosophical trap set by creationist arguments (1999 p.26).
This book therefore can reasonably be seen as Lecourt’s attempt as a philosopher to explain creationism to scientists. In this it is very different to other philosophers’ interventions on the issues raised by creationism, for example Kitcher’s very angry 1984 book, which gave a point by point refutation of the philosophical and scientific issues raised by creationism. Instead, while it is throughout very clear that Lecourt argues from the evolution side of the debate, this book attempts something different, and more ambitious – it aims to understand creationism, where it comes from, how it sees itself, and why did it arise particularly in the US of all places. As such, the book goes beyond philosophy of science and becomes one of sociology and history of (pseudo)science instead. To my mind, Lecourt has correctly identified a sociological understanding of creationism as crucial for advancing the arguments in favour of evolution. We need to understand what we are arguing against.
The book was originally published in 1992 as a reaction to the “old-style” creationism as featured in the famous Arkansas case of 1982 (the judgement of which is included as an appendix), though the new 2007 edition includes a postface on intelligent design, and the recent debate surrounding the 2005 Dover case. Here again, rather than going into the details of the case itself, Lecourt aims to explain how intelligent design functions and interconnects with its predecessor.
After first giving a quick introduction to creationism – the by now well known background of the Arkansas case, the establishment of the “Discovery Institute” and the famous “monkey trial”, Lecourt provides an overview of the relationship between Darwinism and theology in the 19th century. Though he includes, like most commentators, a discussion of Darwin’s religious views, he proceeds by providing a much rarer and interesting description of the parallel developments within academic theology and its efforts to reconcile itself with science. In particular the movement of “natural theology” is stressed, as this then had an influence over how the debate developed in America. In this sense creationism has been born not only out of American religious fundamentalism, which Lecourt also briefly reviews, but also out of theological debate which in the 19th century at least was home in mainstream (American) academia. Though creationism has been dormant for most of the early 20th century, when it was eventually revived, creationists were able to draw on the old resources and arguments to make their points. Turning to the substantive issues of the creationist arguments, Lecourt then examines the epistemological and philosophical claims made by creationists in order to justify their activities as proper science, while at the same time using philosophical arguments to denigrate evolutionary theories as unscientific. In particular Lecourt points to the appropriation of Popperian philosophy of science, which creationists like in particular as it seems to show that since evolution is unfalsifiable it’s not proper science. Lecourt examines the scientists’ (and philosophers’) attempts to engage with these philosophical arguments, finding here that due to the philosophical naivety of some scientists about the definition of “theory”, the argument may have reached a philosophical impasse; one that was already evident in the days of Darwin. To round off the discussion of creationism and its background, Lecourt provides a number of other points which he believes have led to the situation as it is. These include the prominent role of religion in American politics which quite often is secular in name only, and speculations on the American education system, which I found slightly less convincing. It also includes a discussion of “creationist ethics” which attempts to explain why for the fundamentalist ethical viewpoint evolutionary theory is seen as so offensive – a section I found very revealing and unfortunately far too short.
If I understood correctly, and this book is meant to be a sociological as well as historical look into the phenomena of creationism and intelligent design, then I think it may have been interesting to use some of the vast literature on sociology and the sociology of science to underline and develop Lecourt’s points and ultimately to understand the creationism movement better. For example I think that his arguments on creationist ethics would have benefited from a quick discussion of Mary Douglas’ ideas of purity and the body, and how symbolically unclean outside influences that disrupt the boundary between the body and the outside world (such as the idea that we are related to beasts) are resisted (Douglas 1966). Similarly the whole tone of the epistemological discussion on what is proper science and what isn’t can be analysed as the drawing of boundaries in the sense of Gieryn’s work (Gieryn 1983), or even as actors rhetorically positioning themselves as part of a wider social identity.
But these points don’t detract from the book itself, and I suppose merely point to where I would personally have developed the arguments. As a sober analysis of the history and sociology of the creationist movement from a philosopher’s viewpoint it is still surprisingly rare, and I keep finding myself wanting to recommend it to my scientist friends before remembering that it is only available in French, which is a shame.
Statistical Laboratory, University of Cambridge
Douglas, Mary. 1966 . Purity and Danger. London: Routledge
Gieryn, Thomas F. 1983. “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science From Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists.” American Sociological Review 48(6):781-95.
Kitcher, Philip. 1983. Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Lecourt, Dominique. 1999. “Rapport au ministre de L’Education nationale, de la Recherche et de la Technologie: L’enseignement de la philosophie des sciences” [Web Page]. Accessed 23 June 2008. Available at http://pedagogie.ac-toulouse.fr/philosophie/ensei/rapportlecourt.htm. Extracts (in English) are to be found at http://www.pantaneto.co.uk/issue5/Lecourt.htm.