Review of Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion

Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion

By Francisco J. Ayala

ISBN-13: 978-0-309-10231-5

Joseph Henry Press

Washington, D. C.

Reviewed By Bob Lane

Francisco J. Ayala is professor of biological sciences and of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. His scientific research focuses on population and evolutionary genetics; he also writes about the interface between religion and science. He is the author of several books, including Genetics and The Origin of Species (1997). Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (2007) [DG] draws on his expertise in biology and philosophy to present a readable, informative and compassionate book which attempts to bring together religion and science in the twenty first century. Ayala presents a strong defense of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and a spirited attack on the creationist pseudo science currently calling itself Intelligent Design [ID]. He also argues that Darwin has given an equally powerful gift to religion, and that, hence, science and religion need not be in conflict. The reader will have to decide if his attempt is successful.

Most readers will know Ayala as the National Medal of Science Medal recipient in 2002 and as the chief witness in the creationist trial in Arkansas in 1981 that prevented religion from being taught as science in the classroom. After that trial, as we now know, the creationists’ textbook Of Pandas and People underwent some evolution itself giving us the now famous “cdesign proponentsists” missing link that played an important part in the trial in Dover. The recent release of “Science, evolution, and creationism” by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine was made possible by Ayala who chaired the committee that produced that document. He writes of that in an editorial in the most recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ayala presents the science side of the book’s argument elegantly, persuasively, and with an eye fixed sharply on showing the emptiness of the claims made by ID proponents. He writes, “Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life’s work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It’s a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth’s living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it’s “just” a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is “just” a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That’s what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally—taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.”

Darwin’s gift to science? In one sentence: “Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.” Ayala writes, “Gaps of knowledge in the evolutionary history of living organisms no longer exist.”  [79] “There is probably no other notion in any field of science that has been as extensively tested and as thoroughly corroborated as the evolutionary origin of living organisms.” [132]  So much for the God of the gaps!

As for the gift to religion: Ayala argues that the most serious problem for religion, paradoxically, is the argument from design. The claim that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God designed the universe in all its detail as reported in so many scriptural creation myths makes that God either a trickster or a very poor designer! Look carefully at the many design flaws in the human animal. [As I write this my back like many other human backs hurts from a design flaw.] Look at the “cruelty” manifest in nature. God, according to Ayala, can be relieved of the responsibility for all these design flaws because of the gift of Darwin. God could have set the process of natural selection in motion and then withdrawn from the results. “The design of organisms is often so dysfunctional, odd, and cruel that it possibly might be attributed to the gods of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians . . . For a modern biologist . . .  the design of organisms is not compatible with special action by the omniscient and omnipotent God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” [158]

Darwin’s gift to religion then is to offer a way out of  Hume’s problem: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then evil?” This burden is removed from the shoulders of believers, writes Ayala, “when convincing evidence was advanced that the design of organisms need not be attributed to the immediate agency of the Creator, but rather is an outcome of natural processes.” [159]

Readers of DG need not have special training in biology or philosophy. The book is rich with explanations of genetics, microbiology, and natural selection in non-technical language and with diagrams to help understand the examples from the field of biology. Darwin does for the life sciences what Galileo and Newton did for physics. His discovery is “that there is a process that is creative though not conscious. And this is the conceptual revolution that Darwin completed: the idea that the design of living organisms can be accounted for as the result of natural processes governed by natural laws. This is nothing if not a fundamental vision that has forever changed how mankind perceives itself and its place in the universe.” [202]

Will this book mend the rift between the New Atheists and the religious fundamentalists? Will we suddenly see that science and religion can coexist in a positive way? Will humility and tolerance be reawakened?

I doubt it, but we could do worse than pay close attention to the gift Ayala offers us.

Bob Lane is a retired teacher of literature and philosophy and a Professor Emeritus at Malaspina University-College in Canada. His book, Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation, argues for the literary value of biblical texts.

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