Monday, December 1, 2008

Darwin's Gift

....and here is a review that I will post on Amazon as well, but wanted to share it here first (Francisco Ayala, the author of Darwin's Gift, is a biologist and philosopher at UC Irvine):

In Darwin’s Gift: To Science and Religion, Francisco Ayala provides a clear, concise, and readable introduction to the myriad ways in which evolutionary theory has been applied in the century and a half since Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species. Although the motivation for writing this book appeared to be that of countering the views of “intelligent design” creationists, it can also be read by anyone interested in a brief overview of evolutionary theory. While not focusing at length on Darwin, this book does an effective job of explaining what the theory of natural selection consists of, and how it has been applied to such fields of study as paleontology and genetics in the century since Darwin. In fact, I’ve recently been reading of a number of works discussing evolution and have listened to a number of lectures on this topic (all as part of a university-level course on Darwin), and for a non-scientist like myself, I would’ve been helped much if I had read Ayala’s book first.

Of course, it is evident from the title that Ayala intends to allay any fears that religious believers may have about evolutionary theory, and he effectively demonstrates how this theory can complement rather than threaten the foundations of religious belief. The basis that he rests this view on, as noted by other reviewers, is the concept of NOMA, or the “non-overlapping magisterial areas” of science and religion, popularized by Stephen Jay Gould. In other words, it isn’t the business of religion to concern itself with strictly scientific questions, nor is it that of science to expound upon religious and philosophical questions (although this doesn’t mean that individuals who are religious can’t have an interest in science, and vice-versa). With this view as a departure point, Ayala shows not only what a gift Darwin’s theory has been to science—with ample description of the ways in which evolutionary theory has been applied to a number of areas of study—but also to religion. In explaining aspects of nature that seem cruel or poorly designed, he shows that a refutation of “intelligent design” and acceptance of natural selection lets God off the hook, so to speak, by providing a plausible explanation for an imperfect world. In a similar vein, he follows the lead of the theologian John Haught (who he cites) and the paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who he doesn’t) in showing how evolutionary theory can also provide an alternative explanation to the question of the existence of evil in the universe, solving the problem of theodicy (although admittedly this explanation doesn’t have much to say about individual evil, such as how Hitlers and Stalins come to be).

Yet, even aside from the big questions of religion and science, Ayala’s treatment of natural selection and evolution do a good job of demythologizing these concepts. For example, I found it helpful to learn that the process of natural selection is not the random, purposeless path it is often made out to be: while the mutations that lead to new species are indeed random, the process of natural selection that leads to such mutations becoming firmly established is not, but is instead a common-sense response of organisms adapting to a given environment over time.

In a time when the stridently atheistic views of bestselling evolutionists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have received much attention, it is refreshing to read the work of someone like Ayala, who can calmly make the case for the peaceful co-existence of both evolution and religion.

Brad Bauer

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