Good review of Carl Sagan and his new book

Joel Cannon (
Tue, 31 Dec 1996 12:20:33 -0600 (CST)

In the Jan. 9, 1997 New York Review of Books Richard Lewontin has a
good insightful review of Carl Sagan, and his book, "The Demon-Haunted
World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" that also looks like it would
serve as short article to illustrate issues in the philosophy of
science, and some of the vulnerabilities of science popularizers.

The review's virtues include interesting contrasts between Lewontin and
Sagan's reaction to a 1964 debate with creationists in Little Rock
where they first met (Sagan became obsessed with bringing "scientific
facts" to the uneducated world; Lewontin saw creation-evolution as an
example of differences in culture), and between Sagan and Gould,
Sagan's "only rival in haute vulgarization of science...whose
vulgarizations are often very haute indeed," who's "deep preoccupation
is with how knowledge, rather than the organism is constructed."

More significant than this is its honest assessment of the limits of
science, or at least of the ambiguities and overstatements of people
like Sagan, and acknowledgement of the role prior commitments play in
evaluating science. For example, Lewontin commenting on Sagan's belief
for the superiority of science says,

"The case for the scientific method should itself be `scientific' and
not merely rteorical. Unfortunately, the argument may not look as
good to the unconvinced as it does to the believer."

Some particularly useful comments involve the need to accept knowledge
"on authority" and the use by science writers of "assertions without
evidence". "Sagan's list of the `best contemporary
science-popularizers' includes E.O.Wilson, Lewis Thomas, and Richard
Dawkins, each of whom has put unsubstantiated assertions or
counterfactual claims at the very center of the stories they have
retailed in the market." Lewontin goes on to say that Wilson's
writings "rest on the surface of a quaking marsh of unsupported claims
about the genetic determination of everything from altruism to
xenophobia. Dawkins's vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in
evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively
superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental
and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has
moved in the direction of emphasizing non-selective forces in

Some other notable quotes:

"What seems absurd depends on one's prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as
I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and
particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Sone,
and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity `in deep trouble.'
Two's a company, but three's a crowd.

"It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel
us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the
contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material
causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts
tht produce material mater how mystifying to the
uninitiated." I suspect Phil Johnson and creationists would have a
field day with this candid quote particularly if used out of context
as it is presented here. Unfortunately, I don't find in Johnson, et. al.
the same awareness of the weaknesses of their own position or the
honesty in admitting it (maybe I will be proven wrong in Austin this

naturalist, but one who is reflective enough to know and secure
enought to acknowledge the ambiguities of his position. Would that all
Christians were as honest! The one weakness I felt in the presentation
was an uncomfortable feeling that he might explain all religious
beliefs as simply a cultural phenomenon. That could simply be my

Hope that I've whetted some appetities enough to make a trip to the
library (the magazine is worth subscribing to). Maybe someone else
could give me a little background on Lewontin. The blurb just
mentioned that he is the "Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology" at
Harvard, and has authored a books including, "Biology and Ideology"
and "The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change." Has anybody read
these--particularly the first one?

Happy reading!

Joel W. Cannon
Dept. of Physics
Centenary College of Louisiana
P. O. Box 41188
Shreveport, LA 71134-1188

(318)869-5026 FAX