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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion by Francisco J. Ayala

Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion by Francisco J. Ayala. Washington D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-309-10231-5

This is a powerful, valuable book, which explains and thoroughly documents the contributions that Darwin has made to science. You hear the word Darwin, and what do you think of? Evolution, of course, but Ayala makes the point that Darwin himself did not consider the theory of evolution to be his most important discovery, but rather, his explanation of design by natural selection.

Probably the most striking point in the book, to me, at least, is the author's assertion, made at length in the fifth through seventh chapters of the book, that in essence, the so called “missing link” is no longer missing. As he puts it, “Gaps of knowledge in the evolutionary history of living organisms no longer exist.” The missing link, so called, especially in the area of human evolution, has always been, and remains, one of the favorite arguments of creationists, those who deny the idea of evolution.

So, how can the author make this claim? In two ways: first, the fossil record has been much filled in since that argument was first made. Here's how he puts in at the beginning of chapter six:

The missing link is no longer missing. Not one, but hundreds of fossil remains belonging to hundreds of individual hominids have been discovered since Darwin's time and continue to be discovered at an accelerated rate. Especially in the past two decades alone, numerous hominid fossils have been discovered and analyzed.

But even more significant than the fossil record, which will always continue to have gaps in it, is the evidence from the unraveling of DNA, the evidence from molecular biology, explored in chapter 7. By measuring the amount of similarity and difference in the protein sequences in the DNA of various organisms, one can clearly see the evolutionary relationships between them. To quote the author again:

. . . each of the thousands of genes and thousands of proteins contained in an organism provides an independent test of that organism's evolutionary history. Many thousands of tests have been done (and thousands more are published every year); not one has given evidence contrary to evolution. 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.

There are two problems with Ayala's book that I would like to point out. The first minor, the second of more significance. On page 168, he states that “Opposition to the teaching of evolution can largely be traced to two movements with nineteenth-century roots, Seventh-day Adventism and Pentecostalism.” He goes on to say that

Consistent with their emphasis on the seventh-day Sabbath as a memorial of Biblical Creation, Seventh-day Adventists have insisted on the recent creation of life and the universality of the Flood, which they believe deposited the fossil-bearing rocks. This distinctively Adventist interpretation of Genesis became the hard core of “creation science” in the late twentieth century and was incorporated into the “balanced treatment” laws of Arkansas and Louisiana.

He further states that

Many Pentecostals, who generally endorse a literal interpretation of the Bible, also have adopted and endorsed the tenets of creation science, including the recent origin of the Earth and a geology interpreted in terms of the Flood. They differ from Seventh-day Adventists and other adherents of creation science, however, in their tolerance of diverse views and the limited import they attribute to the evolution-creation controversy.

Now I don't dispute Ayala's statements about Seventh-day Adventists and their view of creation science, the Flood, the age of the Earth, and so forth. But I do have to take issue with his implication that Adventists are responsible for balanced treatment laws. I've never known Seventh-day Adventists to be particularly interested in or concerned with what is taught in the public schools.

Adventists take an entirely different approach. They simply reject public schools, by and large, and have developed a parochial school system where they can teach whatever they choose to their children. I myself am a product of that system, having attended Adventist schools from the second grade (I was home schooled first grade) right through my first college degree. Bible classes were a regular part of the curriculum, and evolution was only mentioned in a derogatory and negative way. To imply, as he does, that Adventists are responsible for laws about the teaching of evolution or Creation, is inaccurate and irresponsible.

The other, more serious problem with Ayala's book, from my perspective, is that he fails in his promise to show, as he says in the very first sentence in the book's Preface, that “Science and religion need not be in contradiction.” The only real reason he seems to give for why they are not in conflict with one another is because, first, the Pope said so, and many other Christians have followed the Pope in also saying so.

He points out the faulty design issue, which indeed provides an excellent argument in favor of natural selection over intelligent design (an example: the human jaw is too small for the number of teeth we have; evolution explains this by the increasing size of the human brain, which took up more and more space in the skull, leaving less room for things like teeth), but completely ignores the standard fundamentalist interpretation: these design flaws are the result of human sin, not of poor design on the part of the designer.

He also cites the classic philosophical argument that if God is omnipotent, why is there evil, cruelty and imperfection in the world? And he argues that evolution provides an answer, since it explains why things are the way they are. God didn't do it this way, evolution did.

But this actually begs the question, since it still leaves us with a supposedly omnipotent God who can't prevent evil, regardless of how that evil came about. If God chooses not to interfere in natural selection or evolution, that still makes Him (or Her) oblivious to imperfection and evil. If God is powerless to interfere, then it makes Her (or Him) less than all powerful. The dilemma has hardly been resolved.

The logical conclusion of a belief in evolution is that God doesn't exist. His existence is no longer necessary to explain life and human existence. Ayala simply ignores this aspect of the problem. That's my view, anyhow.

This book is a valuable, but ultimately flawed work of reasoning. Definitely recommended for those who want to understand how evolution and natural selection are understood, especially in light of recent scientific developments, but ultimately disappointing in its treatment of how God enters into the picture.

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