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Darwin's Gift: to Science and Religion by…

Darwin's Gift: to Science and Religion

by Francisco Ayala

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Ayala's intention, as one might guess from the book's title, is to demonstrate that a rejection of evolution is not just bad science but bad theology. As with, it seems, so many books these days, he spends most of his time talking about matters other than his stated topic, in this instance with lengthy explanations of natural selection and the many ways in which it has been shown beyond doubt that "Darwinism" is the way thinks work, and with extremely competent dissections of the pretensions of the IDiots. All of this stuff is very well done and, not only was I greatly absorbed and entertained, I learned quite a deal that was new to me; especially useful were his discussions of the precursors of the modern ID movement -- people like William Paley, whose ID hypotheses might well have been woefully wrong but who was at least doing his best within the boundaries of the science available in his age.

But what of the 10% or so of the book, maybe less, that focuses on Ayala's supposed subject matter? His primary contention seems to be that evolutionary theory does theology a great service by solving at a stroke the theodicy problem -- that is, the problem of having to explain why a benevolent and omnipotent God permits so much cruelty and evil in the world. The argument goes that all this cruelty and evil we see around us is a natural consequence of the way that natural selection works, and therefore not God's fault -- even though it was God who chose to use natural selection as a means of producing the living world we know, us included.

In other words, thanks to evolution and natural selection, theologians would no longer need to trouble their heads about David Hume's famous quibble, summarizing Epicurus:

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 is evil?

It's difficult to follow this rationale, because it seems that -- evolution or no -- Hume's first two questions seem answerable only thus: "He's either unwilling or unable or both." The problem is that, outside the human species (and possibly one or two others) the concept of evil has no meaning, as neither does the concept of good. For sure, the operation of natural selection is immensely cruel and immensely wasteful, but there's nothing evil involved: that's just the way evolution works. On the other hand, it can be argued that, if God has indeed chosen to operate His planet through the mechanism of natural selection, with all its necessary suffering, then there is evil involved.

Or is the argument that human beings became infected by evil through evolutionary happenstance? But, if so, surely an omniscient God would have known this could happen and taken steps to insure against it.

What Ayala and his teachers seem to be arguing for is an ever-diminishing role for God, who is blameless for all disagreeable things because, heck, they're outside His province. But if God doesn't do anything, and if He isn't responsible for anything, what reason can there be for His existence at all? Even if one argues that, Him being God and all, He doesn't need a reason for existence, the related question remains: What reason can there be to believe in the existence of a God who takes no part in the running of His Creation and washes His hands of anything in it that goes awry? It's as if Ayala and his cohorts were calling on the principle of the God of the Gaps and then making the Gap infinitesimally small.

This same issue seems to arise when he claims:

However, we know some basic features that account for human distinctness and therefore can serve as foundations for a  religious view of humankind: the large brain and the accelerated rate of evolution of genes such as those involved in human speech. (p110)

So God's role was to wait some billions of years while natural selection did its stuff and then, a few thousand years ago, to intercede in order to speed up the evolution of particular genes and increase cranial capacity, after which He pushed off and left us to our own devices? This sounds very much like Intelligent Design, which is what Ayala elsewhere roundly (and rightly) disparages; moreover it again leaves God with only a very small Gap within which to operate. If I've misunderstood Ayala and this isn't at all what he means, then of course we're back to the Hume/Epicurus dilemma.

It's at about this time that I expect someone to come charging in to tell me that if only I'd studied theology a bit more exhaustively I wouldn't be making any of these foolish observations, to which my response must be: I can read all the fairy stories in the world and that still won't convince me that fairies exist, or that the hypothesis of a fairies-populated world makes internally consistent sense -- or any sense at all.

They say that the sign of a good book (or movie or play, whatever) is how much you talk about it afterwards, even if the "talk" takes the form of an internal conversation. Ayala's book is good enough that, as well as being a very pleasurable and stimulating read, it made me think. I suppose that for many that won't excuse the fact that so much of the text is, as it were, off-topic; but it's okay by me. As I'm sure everyone has frequently remarked, digressions are often the best bits. ( )
1 vote JohnGrant1 | Aug 11, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0309102316, Hardcover)

With the publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin established evolution by common descent as the dominant scientific explanation for nature's diversity. This was to be his gift to science and society; at last, we had an explanation for how life came to be on Earth.

Scientists agree that the evolutionary origin of animals and plants is a scientific conclusion beyond reasonable doubt. They place it beside such established concepts as the roundness of the earth, its revolution around the sun, and the molecular composition of matter. That evolution has occurred, in other words, is a fact.

Yet as we approach the bicentennial celebration of Darwin's birth, the world finds itself divided over the truth of evolutionary theory. Consistently endorsed as "good science" by experts and overwhelmingly accepted as fact by the scientific community, it is not always accepted by the public, and our schools continue to be battlegrounds for this conflict. From the Tennessee trial of a biology teacher who dared to teach Darwin's theory to his students in 1925 to Tammy Kitzmiller's 2005 battle to keep intelligent design out of the Dover district schools in Pennsylvania, it's clear that we need to cut through the propaganda to quell the cacophony of raging debate.

With the publication of Darwin's Gift, a voice at once fresh and familiar brings a rational, measured perspective to the science of evolution. An acclaimed evolutionary biologist with a background in theology, Francisco Ayala offers clear explanations of the science, reviews the history that led us to ratify Darwin's theories, and ultimately provides a clear path for a confused and conflicted public.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:03 -0400)

"An evolutionary biologist, Francisco Ayala offers lucid explanations of the science, reviews the history that led us to ratify Darwin's theories, and makes a convincing argument for uncoupling science and religion - different ways of knowing the world - thus providing a clear path forward for a confused and conflicted public."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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