Review of Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion

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

Washington D.C. Joseph Henry Press 2007 237 pp, index

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

Review published in Theology & Science, Volume 6, Issue 2, 133-136

I finished reading this book late at night and lay sleepless and flabbergasted that someone so obviously intelligent, who understands evolutionary theory so well, and is capable of explaining it so cogently, could end up with the bizarre conclusions that Francisco Ayala draws about science and religion.

There are two threads to this book. One is Ayala’s argument that Darwin’s most significant contribution to science was not the theory of evolution itself, or even the origin of species, but the concept of natural selection. This discovery, he concludes, completed the Copernican revolution by bringing the understanding of the design and diversity of organisms into the realm of science.

He suggests that Darwin’s real aim was to solve Paley’s problem of how organisms are designed, and that but for certain accidents of history, and the concepts of the scientific method prevailing in Darwin’s time, this might have been more widely recognized. He even suggests that, had things gone slightly differently, some of the twentieth century’s clashes between religion and science might have been avoided. He tells the extraordinary story (extraordinary to those of us who do not live in the United States) of the battles over evolution and religion in American schools, quoting extensively from Judge John E. Jones’ eminently sensible conclusions in the Dover Area School District case.

The second, and major, thread—the one that inspired the book’s title—is that there is no conflict between the science of evolution and religious belief; this is why Darwin’s work was a gift to both. This is clearly Ayala’s main aim: ‘‘to persuade people of faith as well as other readers that there need be no antagonism between evolution and religious beliefs’’.1 To make his case, Ayala devotes a large part of the book to explaining the basics of evolution in an easy and engaging way. He explains Paley’s argument from design and how the theory of natural selection makes design possible without a designer; he deals with the problems of blending inheritance, the role of randomness and chance in evolution, and explores the principles of the scientific method and why evolution by natural selection is a powerful theory in the best scientific sense and not, as in everyday parlance ‘‘just a theory.’’

In the process, he comprehensively demolishes many of the claims of both scientific creationism and Intelligent Design, sweeping away their appeals to irreducible complexity, and showing how the literal interpretation of the Bible on which so many of their arguments depend is both inconsistent and false. He cites various theologians, from St. Augustine on, as affirming that the story of Genesis in the Bible was never meant to be a scientific treatise but was a guide to salvation. As Pope John Paul II declared in 1981, the Bible ‘‘does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.’’2

This much makes it clear that Ayala rejects vast swathes of traditional Christian belief and biblical teachings. He does not accept that God created the earth recently, that He designed each species in its proper place, that He intervened step by step in the process of evolution, or that He physically made humans in His own image because, as he explains so well, such beliefs would conflict with everything we know from science. Yet he declares, firmly, and frequently, that there is no conflict between science and religious belief because ‘‘science and religion concern non-overlapping realms.’’3

So which religious beliefs does he mean? This is crucial because Ayala has stated so clearly that many traditional Christian beliefs are indeed in conflict with science. So we might reasonably expect him to draw a clear line between all those unacceptable beliefs that are in conflict with science, and the acceptable ones that fall into that ‘‘non-overlapping realm.’’ He does not. Indeed, it is hard to work out what he does believe: I had to try to infer his beliefs from various comments that seemed to give a clue.

For example, he talks about the ‘‘Divine Creator,’’ describes ‘‘humans as special creatures of God,’’4 and mentions belief in the immortality of the soul, although he does not make it clear whether he believes in a soul or not. Perhaps more definitively, he describes himself as ‘‘a biologist concerned that God not be slandered with the imputation of incompetent design.’’5 This latter is most curious since he has previously listed many examples of the cruelty, waste, and sheer incompetence of some of nature’s designs, from mate-eating spiders to cats playing with mice, concluding that the God of love and mercy could not have planned all this. He also explains that science has provided much relief to theologians, and removed a burden from the shoulders of believers, by attributing defects and dysfunctions to the outcome of natural causes rather than to God.

But then what does he think his creator God did? Is it that his ‘‘God of love and mercy’’ set evolution going without realising it would end in tears? If so, then surely Ayala’s God is not much good at foresight, let alone omniscience. Did the God who set evolution going not care what would happen, not know what would happen, or find Himself unable to influence it? Nothing that Ayala says suggests that his retreat from belief in a designer God in any way avoids the problem of evil. Perhaps we might better be able to understand Ayala’s position when he demarcates those aspects of knowledge that science can legitimately deal with from those it cannot. Happily, he is quite clear about this. Science, he says ‘‘transcends cultural, political, and religious differences because these matters are none of its business’’6 and ‘‘questions of value, meaning, and purpose . . . areforever beyond science’s scope.’’7 Unhappily, he is wrong.

It seems extraordinary to me that Ayala can be so sure about what science can and cannot deal with when the history of science shows how often demarcation attempts have failed. Again and again, science has found a way to tackle problems that had previously seemed completely unapproachable by existing methods. And none of the examples he gives are even remotely in this category. The science of gene-culture coevolution has a lot to say about cultural differences, as does anthropology and even history; science deals with political differences in its study of human behaviour, social psychology, and economics; and as for religious differences, memetics and evolutionary psychology both have a great deal to say about how people become infected with religions, how those religions affect their lives and societies, and why people are religious in the first place. The same can be said of scientific work on religious experiences, and religious inspiration, which he also places on the far side of the non-overlap.

Perhaps more sense can be made of this if we take him not to be saying that science cannot study these things but that we cannot derive values, meaning or purpose from science. This is trickier. Take, for example, the problem of animal suffering, a real problem in this age of factory farming and laboratory testing. The mystery of consciousness is such that we simply do not know whether a chicken suffers from being kept in a small cage, or how much a cow suffers from having her calf taken away from her. Can we find out? I expect we shall, for in my lifetime I have seen neuroscience appear as an entirely new field and solve all kinds of problems concerning the mind that appeared intractable before. I expect we shall one day find measures, whether based on brain scans, behaviour, or chemistry, that will tell us just how much an animal is suffering. Then we will be able to use science to address questions of value.

But—you might object—science cannot say why we should want to reduce suffering in the first place; surely that is a value right outside of science, isn’t it? Again, I say no. Evolutionary theory itself explains why humans, as well as many other species, are capable of empathy and caring. Even rats will work to reduce the observed suffering of another rat. Our values emerge from the kind of evolved creatures that we are.

So what about meaning and purpose? Do we just invent those for ourselves in a pointless universe, or does religious belief reveal the true meaning and purpose of life? Ayala quotes Richard Dawkins as saying that ‘‘the universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,’’ criticising him, and others, for their denials. They have a right to think as they wish, he says, but they should not ‘‘share the creationists’ conceit that science makes assertions about values, meanings, and purposes.’’8 But Dawkins never claimed it did. He simply pointed out how the universe looks when you know some science: it looks as though there is no designer, no plan, no inherent meaning and no ultimate purpose. This does not mean these things cannot be, and certainly not that science can disprove their existence. It does mean that you need to have a rather good reason for believing in them. Nothing in this book suggests to me that Ayala does.

1 Francisco J. Ayala, Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (Washington, DC: Joseph Henry
Press, 2007), 201.
2 Ibid., 168.
3 Ibid., 162.
4 Ibid., 106.
5 Ibid., 160.
6 Ibid., 173.
7 Ibid., 163.
8 Ibid., 174.

Author Posting. (c) ‘Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences’, 2008.
This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ‘Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences’ for personal use, not for redistribution.