A book review of PL.TXT

PARADIGMS LOST: IMAGES OF MAN IN THE MIRROR OF SCIENCE, by John L. Casti, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1989. ISBN 0-688-08131-2.

John W. Burgeson

From time to time many of us ask "Why are we here? How did we come to be?" Author Casti takes the serious questioner, one who is unwilling to rely on "authority," into deep paths of thought-provoking reading in this 565 page volume. We need not agree with his conclusions, or even his arguments, to benefit from his keen insight into several problems of human existence as he presents the evidences and contentions as "science in a court of law."

Casti begins by positioning "scientific inquiry" as only one way of searching for answers. He phrases the question "Is there anything special -- or unique -- about human beings?", exploring answers in the light of what science has to say. His answer to this is a qualified "yes," but it is the exploration of the issues, not the author's conclusions which he thinks important.

The book has seven chapters, any of which stands alone as a unit. Chapter 1 is an "instruction manual" on science; the author suggests that one begins reading, however, where your own interest lies! Six "Great Problems" are examined, each in the form of a jury trial, with presentation of evidences and argumentations, summarizations, and a verdict. Casti suggests that anyone who shows no interest in the questions may be seriously uninformed about their nature and beauty. Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA, goes further than this, by suggesting the words "truly uneducated." Perhaps so, perhaps not so. What this reviewer can report is that this book has done much to continue his education on the subject he has studied most (the origin of life) and even more on subjects he had been overlooking for many years.

Chapter 2 begins with the first claim to be tested: "Life arose out of natural processes taking place here on earth." Certainly the most controversial of the six questions, the author does an excellent job in presenting the several (more than two!) alternatives. Committed evolutionists as well as their creationist counterparts will appreciate this chapter.

The claim that "human behavior patterns are dictated primarily by the genes" is explored next. This issue can hit home, as some of us observe the behavior of offspring! How much does a childhood environment (read -- a warm, loving home) count in determining adult behavior? This section makes one think where he lives! Casti finds this problem to be the most perplexing of all those considered and, in announcing his verdict, wonders why so many participants in the struggle cling so strongly to one position to the complete exclusion of the other.

Chapter 4 examines the proposition that "human language capacity stems from a unique, innate property of the brain." The arguments of Chomsky and Fodor are matched against those of Skinner, Piaget and others who argue strongly that language is just another learning activity, and is not unique.

Chapter 5 comes close to this reviewer's professional field. "Digital computers can, in principle, literally think." I had my own ideas (prejudices) on this one and it was refreshing to have them challenged in a professional manner. Casti argues in his "verdict" section that the debate is one between philosophers, masquerading as scientists. Those interested in the AI question may well want to dispute him!

"There are intelligent beings in our galaxy with whom we can communicate" is the assertion tested in Chapter 6. The Fermi paradox (Dr. Fermi, in the summer of 1950, asked the commonsense question "If there are, then where they?") began a whole series of semi-funded experiments which have, so far, found no evidence of intelligence beyond this earth, at least none that is generally accepted. The SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) projects are described in fascinating layman's terms.

Chapter 7 was the most frustrating, for it was the most profound. The claim is made that "there exists no objective reality independent of an observer." Common sense tells one immediately that this claim is nonsense. Common sense is sometimes wrong. I am still wrestling with this chapter, not because it is hard to read or understand, but because it drives my own thought patterns so far into unfamiliar territory.

In the end, three of the six claims won in Casti's court, one was a draw and two lost. But the cases are ongoing. Those who want to dig deeper will appreciate the 54 pages of footnotes and recommended reading. Alas, one has but a single lifetime! I strongly recommend spending a few hours of your life reading this treasure. Your mind will surely be stretched! You will be the richer for the experience.

This book review was published in PERSPECTIVES, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, in Vol 44, #1, March 1992.

The American Scientific Affiliation, ASA, founded in 1941, is an association of people who have made a commitment of themselves to both a scientific description of the world and to Christianity. The present membership is about 2,500.

Information on the ASA, including a sample issue of PERSPECTIVES, is available by writing to:

ASA, P.O. Box 668 Ipswitch, MA 01938-0668

Their web site is at

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