Genetics and Evolution

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Evolution and ReligionReview - Evolution and Religion
A Dialogue
by Michael Ruse
Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
Review by Berel Dov Lerner
Mar 3rd 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 10)

Michael Ruse is one of today's leading authorities on the philosophy of biology in general and the history and philosophy of evolutionary theory in particular.  He has written or edited about forty-five books on these topics, making him an obvious choice to author the Evolution and Religion volume for Rowman & Littleman's New Dialogues in Philosophy series.

The dialogue is framed in terms of five episodes of a fictional public-television talk-show called Eternal Questions.  Besides Redvers Fentiman, who serves as moderator, there are four participants in the discussion panel, each of whom more or less represents a different position in the quartet of modes for relating science and religion that was first invented by Ian G. Barbour:  Prof. David Davies is an atheist evolutionary biologist whose disdain for religion is reminiscent of the real world Richard Dawkins.  He represents the "conflict" model, which holds science and religion to be incompatible.  Martin Rudge is an historian and philosopher of science who represents the "independence" model, which holds that science and religion need not conflict because they are not really dealing with the same questions.  Reverend Emily Matthews, a rather liberal-minded Episcopalian priest represents the "integration" model; she adopts ideas from outside the mainstreams of both evolutionary theory and Christian theology in an attempt to fashion a unified scientific-religious world view.  Finally, Reverend Harold Wallace is the head pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch and has received some training in physics before he turned to religion.  He represents the "dialogue" position, which holds that religion and science have something to say to each other.  As a "young earth" creationist, he seems to feel that religion should do most of the talking.

Ruse has the characters slug it out with each other as they discuss practically every major issue in the evolution-religion debate, including intelligent design, "young earth" creationism, the origins of life, non-Darwinian elements in contemporary evolutionary theory, the puzzle of the "Cambrian explosion" of life, the meaning of divine intervention, and the political uses and implications of evolutionary theory.  He also treats one issue not properly belonging to biological evolution: the "strong anthropic" or "fine-tuning" argument, which tries to prove the existence of a Creator from the nature of certain basic parameters of physics.  Ruse tries to let each of his characters both score and lose points in the argument, but Reverend Matthews seems to lack intellectual rigor, and it is pretty clear that (despite his best efforts) Ruse cannot really take Reverend Wallace's extreme creationism seriously.

How does this book shape up as a primer on the Religion-Evolution debate?  It is clearly written and it does cover a lot of ground from various viewpoints.  It is, however, a rather short book -- only 136 pages including endnotes -- and occasionally Ruse introduces ideas without granting them enough space to be properly explained.  In the middle of the discussion of the "fine-tuning" argument, for instance, the unprepared reader is suddenly confronted with the claim that, "To make carbon from helium, you need a huge energy state above normal -- in fact, about 7 million electron volts (MeV) above normal" (p. 73).  Similarly, more discussion would be needed to give the reader a reasonable idea of what Process Theology is all about.  

The dialogue format may make the book fun to read, but it also leaves it without the kind of clear-cut logical structure that would make it easier to find references to particular topics and concepts.  That lack of structure is especially unfortunate given the publisher's incomprehensible decision not to equip the book with an index, a move which seriously detracts from its usefulness as a text for undergraduate courses.  It is also disappointing that the book contains no illustrations, charts, or diagrams.  Perhaps the author or publisher thought that such graphic devices would have disrupted the impression that the book simply records unrehearsed conversations, but they also would have greatly improved its effectiveness in vividly communicating scientific and philosophical ideas.  Nevertheless, this book does provide an amusing way to become acquainted with the basic positions in the evolution-religion controversy, and its endnotes offer many useful bibliographical suggestions for further exploration.

© 2009 Berel Dov Lerner

Berel Dov Lerner teaches philosophy at the Western Galilee College in Israel.


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