19 November 2008

Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion

By
non-fiction
Francisco J. Ayala argues that Darwinian evolutionary theory is a gift not only to science, but also to theology. According to Ayala, it absolves God of responsibility for the cruelty, misery, destruction and poor functional design in the natural world.
Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion
Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion
By Francisco J. Ayala
Joseph Henry Press
256 pages
ISBN 978 0 309 10231 5
0309102316
A$40.99

Francisco J. Ayala argues that Darwinian evolutionary theory is a gift not only to science, but also to theology. According to Ayala, it absolves God of responsibility for the cruelty, misery, destruction and poor functional design in the natural world. He also claims that evolution is consistent with orthodox Christian belief in an omnipotent, benevolent deity while creationism and intelligent design are not, because evolution accounts for these natural evils with clumsy adaptation, rather than the specific design of a creator.

Ayala’s book contains much that is commendable. Its early chapters develop a clear and comprehensive defence of evolutionary theory, explaining why it is overwhelmingly accepted by serious working scientists throughout the world, and how it has been extensively corroborated by innumerable studies. Ayala also explains concisely that evolution is not a theory in the olloquial sense of a conjecture, hunch or mere hypothesis, but in the sense used by scientists when they refer to a ell-established explanatory system. He also gives a lucid, if somewhat idealised, account of the scientific method of conjectures and experiments.

Other aspects of Darwin’s Gift are less impressive. Ayala defends Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria: the idea that science and religion never compete because they concern different questions. This construction of the vexed religion/science relationship had little going for it when proposed late last century, and was much criticised. Ayala adds nothing significant to the argument.

Perhaps more importantly, Ayala’s attempt to defend God’s ways has an obvious weakness, one that he never addresses or even acknowledges. It’s one thing to blame various natural evils on the clumsy processes of mutation, survival and adaptation, which produce imperfect, often cruel results, rather than attributing the evils to a deity’s specific design. Fine. But an all-powerful, all-knowing deity need not use such clumsy methods, and would foresee the dire consequences. If this being were also benevolent, would it not prefer to imagine and create a universe specifically designed to be free of such evils?

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