Evolution

A battle ground for religious fundamentalists. Though a former creationist (of sorts) myself, as a convert to the skeptically enlightened viewpoint, I see the attack on evolution as an attack on the methods of science itself.

Last updated 10/28/01


Darwin's Ghost, The Origin of Species Updated by Steve Jones -- A sweeping survey of the state of evolutionary biology. Jones' book is patterned after Darwin's classic, retaining the chapter titles, outlines and summaries of the original, but with the content of each chapter containing Jones' contemporary review of the subject, updated to reflect advances in genetics, microbiology, geology, and human evolution (though Darwin barely mentioned the latter in his work). Jones does an excellent job with difficult material. Evolution is difficult to explain quickly because of the interdependence of several disciplinary threads, but Jones' writing is up to the task.

If you are looking for a single book which beautifully paints the picture of how decent with modification and natural selection work, look no further. With this book, Jones joins the ranks of other well known science popularizers (Gould, Sagan, etc.).

Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds by Phillip E. Johnson -- As a defender of creation science, Phillip Johnson is a breath of fresh air. Nowhere are there indefensible scientific arguments for a young earth, or a worldwide flood that accounts for the fossil record, or any of the other endlessly recycled Henry Morris/Duane Gish nonsense that makes up so much of the creationist "young earth" camp. Johnson frames the question more on a philosophical level, pitting the presuppositions of both camps against one another (materialistic naturalism vs. theistic supernaturalism), and attempting to show that adherents of the first camp make just as many untestable and unsupportable assumptions as the adherents of the second. Johnson is a talented writer, and presents a positive argument for "opening" the debate by forcing the evolutionists to relax their dogmatic hold on the thinking in academia, and allow for a more open and free discussion of the actual issues, including evidence for supernatural intervention in the creation and evolution of life.

Unfortunately, the only positive evidence Johnson suggests is Michael Behe's irreducible complexity argument, which is just a repackaged intelligent design model, and the conventional attack on biology's admitted problem with the incompleteness of the fossil record. Throughout the book, Johnson emphasizes the dominance of the materialistic philosophy that pervades every aspect of modern public education and academia. This predisposition, he argues, hopelessly biases any approach to scientific facts and prevents scientists from appreciating the fuller truth that's out there if only they would open their eyes (minds). Johnson repeatedly mischaracterizes the practice of science and the state of affairs in biological circles.

Johnson's representation of the state of open mindedness in contemporary education is questionable. He seems to assume that the dominate role of a college education is to force memorization of a list of "materialistic" facts upon impressionable minds. As an educator, I see the situation as exactly the opposite. Thoughtful reflection and open minded investigation are far more common than Johnson seems to think.

A few specific examples where I think Johnson misses the boat just as badly: page 113 "Evolutionary biology is a field whose cultural importance far outstrips its modest intellectual and scientific content." I think most biologists would take issue with the characterization of the content of their science as "modest."

Page 114 "Biologists are at each others throats in private, fighting over every detail in the Darwinist scientific program. The versions of 'evolution' promulgated by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould , for example, have hardly anything in common except their common adherence to philosophical materialism and their mutual dislike for supernatural creation." He goes on to strongly imply that this ongoing debate is somehow being hidden. Anything but. I assume Johnson has read Dawkins' and Gould's books and should know better. As for their versions of evolution being so different, I'd venture to say that their agreements are far more substantial than their disagreements, and maybe Johnson should examine the actual differences between the scientific views of Michael Behe and Duane Gish, for example. Other creationists have similarly sought to highlight and utilize the differences between various cosmologists and, for instance, the issue of the age of the universe. While there might be legitimate and sometimes bitter disputes between astrophysicists over the size of the Hubble Constant, this dispute hardly gives any hope to the young- earther who is holding out for a 6000 year old universe.

Johnson's use of the example of evangelist Billy Graham deciding against studying the natural sciences and liberal theologies of his contemporaries strikes me as odd. If the naturalistic position is so untenable due to its weak foundation, what does Christianity and creation science have to fear by its presence in academia? How would Billy Graham's witness and testimony for Christianity have been weakened by studying the opposing philosophies? Is Johnson suggesting that attrition from traditional evangelical and fundamentalist circles can be stemmed by preventing the study of modern science?

Johnson's book is admittedly aimed at young readers, students who are going off to college to be faced with the inevitable "indoctrination" of materialism. But I'm not sure what his bottom line advice is for them. Does he wish them to shun the life sciences (as well as astronomy, archeology, geology, and other sciences) where the creation science theories will receive little sympathy? Or does he expect their professors to actually engage in the debate over the relative merits of their respective presuppositions? Does he believe that Christianity (or any religion) actually has anything to fear from the discoveries of science?

I wish Johnson well. His logic and rhetoric are powerful and he's a good arguer. However, I fear that his tactics will not advance the cause of creation science very much. Until scientists who believe in supernatural creation are willing to go toe to toe in the scientific journals, arguments of materialistic bias will yield few advances in the understanding of the origin of life.

And even if they do, this approach is destined to fail. Science is the study of phenomena that can be observed, tested, and replicated. Science relies on the construction of logical arguments that can be supported or falsified by such observation and testing. By definition, science will seek explanations for the apparently unexplainable. This is implicit in the process of scientific discovery. Religious belief systems ask that we accept as true that which cannot be seen or tested (Hebrews 11:1). Religion seeks certainty and welcomes the appeal to authority (e.g., thus saith the Lord). It is at this point that the two belief systems must part ways and agree to pursue their independent goals. Forcing one upon the other results in untenable scientific positions (such as most of creation science) or watered down and compromised religious traditions bereft of their spiritual meaning.

Ever Since Darwin by Stephen J. Gould -- A collection of essays from the 70's. Some of the initial essays form a great introduction to natural selection and Darwinism in general. Gould touches on many topics, and his writing is clear and fascinating.

Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution by Kenneth R. Miller -- An excellent review of the state of biological evolution told against the backdrop of some of the more prominent creationist challenges. Miller's presentation is is always upbeat and very respectful of his opponents. His refutations are never derogatory or dismissive, but he confronts the challenges head on and shows what the science behind the claims says. His conclusions, where his actual rapproachment is presented, is interesting and worth reading. Miller presents himself as a Christian believer, though I think he would not pass the test of most evangelicals. Some of my more science-minded friends criticize the book as failing on the basis of Miller's attempt to reconcile modern biology to religious belief, but I am more forgiving. This book's strengths (detailed presentation of evidences for evolution) outweigh its weaknesses. I loved this book and plan to read it again.

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley -- The explosion in knowledge in the past decade in the area of the genetic code has, for the most part, been lost on the general public. Scientific advances are difficult to communicate to the masses, and aside from the occasional newspaper article on "the dyslexia gene" for example, not much is known of what scientists have learned as they have plumbed the depths of the human genome. Ridley attempts to bring us up to date in this respect, and mostly, I think he succeeds. His book is laid out in 23 chapters, one for each chromosome pair present in humans. Far from being an attempt to present a thorough description of every gene (which would take hundreds of thousands of books this size), Ridley selects one or two genes on each chromosome and tells a story. From diseases which are a simple result of the presence of a gene, to such complicated factors such as personality and instinct, Ridley dispels myths and educates the reader about the wonderful simplicity and complexity that is genetics and biological evolution.

I was conflicted by this book. On the one hand, Ridley is an excellent communicator and obviously well versed in genetics and biology, but on the other, I found some of his examples difficult to believe because of apparent contradictions. For example, in the chapter on chromosome 10, Ridley targets the genetic predisposition for heart disease (though the chapter is entitled "Stress"). He states and accepts the conclusion (his notes cite the prestigious journal Lancet) that people get heart disease in inverse proportion to their lowliness on the bureaucratic totem pole. In other words, jobs of low stature - janitors - are under more stress than people in jobs of high stature - presidents or CEOs. I'm not familiar with the research he quotes, but common sense would seem to indicate that the more elevated your position, the more decisions you are responsible, the higher the stress associated with the job. This chapter left me scratching my head and wondering about some of the other conclusions the reader was asked to accept at face value.

Overall, I do recommend this book. It is recent and provides an excellent guide to further reading for those interested in pursuing the human genome.

Science on Trial by Douglas J. Futuyma

It's rare, but not unheard of, that I know by the 50th page of a book that I need to a) read this book again, and b) purchase a copy for my own library. "Science on Trial" is such a book. A remarkable book presenting arguments in favor of evolution as a counter to the rise of creationism. Written in 1983, Futuyma's arguments are perhaps even more relevant today, in light of recent developments in Kansas, Michigan, and other states. Futuyma's writing style is exceptionally clear and he presents science as it really operates and exposes the gaping factual and philosophical holes in the creationist movement. Obviously no book can ever change the mind of a committed, dogmatic creationist, but this book should be required reading for any school board candidate.

Summer for the Gods : The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson -- An excellent survey of the cultural and historical context to the most famous trial of the 20th century. Larson presents a very balanced account of the trial and circumstances surrounding it that may tend to de-glamorize many aspects which have been remembered inaccurately by many people due to popular accounts like "Inherit the Wind" which were mostly sensationalized fiction. This book reminds us that the creation vs. evolution battle is not all that different today than it was 75 years ago.

Back to Books