Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Evolution and Christian Faith

Joan Roughgarden is Professor of Biology at Stanford University, a transgender woman and a practising Christian (specifically, Episcopalian). Which puts her right at the intersection of the American "culture wars".

Her Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist is a short, clearly written book which explores the relationship between evolutionary biology and Christian faith. Apart from being a practicing Christian, she is obviously not interested in playing the game that being rational/scientific/whatever “requires” one to give up your Christian faith. In terms of being widely persuasive, that is a losing proposition.
Chapter One frames the problem, discussing US polling favouring treating evolution and intelligent design as equally valid things to teach school children. Including a poll of doctors (which rather deflates the “it is because they are stupid” line).

Chapter Two sets out the first fact of evolutionary biology: that all life on Earth is related. One of the virtues of the book is Roughgarden’s very clear presentation of the key features of evolutionary biology. She finds no contradiction between this “single tree of life” and Scripture.

Chapter Three sets out the second fact of evolutionary biology: that species change. On these two facts hang all of evolutionary biology: one family tree unites all of life, and species change across space and time (p.24). These are the two key facts Roughgarden believes need to be part of any Science curriculum. She also finds no contradiction between species change and Scripture, parsing the use of ‘kind’ in Genesis 1:11-12 in a minimalist way.

Chapter Four discusses her approach to Scriptural interpretation, which is to give the facts precedence. That is, to side with the evidence over rule-bound literalism. This she holds to be the approach of Jesus, particularly in Matthew 15:10-16 and Matthew 15:17-20. Besides, if God found His Creation to be good, so is being truthful about how it is. There is nothing here that would bother St Augustine, for example.

Chapter Five discusses how species change, the point where we move from established biological facts to biological theory. Roughgarden uses the phrase natural breeding rather than natural selection because of the distracting uses selection has acquired. The key point is what breeds. Indeed, it is not merely having offspring that counts in evolutionary terms, it is having offspring who themselves also breed.

Chapter Six discusses random mutation, the generator of the differences evolution works on. While random mutation provides the raw material, it is breeding which provides direction in evolution (p.46). The Parable of the Sower provides a Biblical illustration of the mechanism.

Chapter Seven discusses the direction of evolution and the differing views of the role of God in Creation. There is lots of evidence that random mutation/genetic variation + natural breeding leads to living things better equipped to survive.

Chapter Eight discusses debate within the Roman Catholic Church on evolution. Chapter Nine is a To-Do-List for theorists, looking at current limits of evolutionary theory. As per her earlier Evolution’s Rainbow, the need to grapple more with social and cooperative behaviour is central to her discussion. Indeed, the discussion (Pp 71ff) of individuality and individualism in biology is rather better here than in Evolution’s Rainbow. There is also a fun discussion of favourite examples of evolution in action. Her discussion of the need for a richer sense of motivations is not too dissimilar from some of the points David Stove made, but she does it much more tactfully as a practising scientist. (Her speciality is, apparently, lizards.)

Chapter Ten is on Intelligent Design (ID) and why it is not science. She notes that, in theory, ID (start an agnostic and scientific data leads you to an intelligent designer—i.e. God) can be distinguished from Creationism (start a believer in the complete truth of Scripture, including Genesis, and science supposedly confirms your belief). In practice the two have become hopelessly bound together (p.62). ID is not science since its central claim of “irreducible complexity” is a claim without any evidence (apart from assertion), nor any parameters on which to structure getting evidence. She has fun with the notion of “irreducibly complex” bits popping into existence before moving on to a discussion of miracles.

She concludes with a credo about the need to teach what science is:
Science is not just an accumulation of facts, it is how to discover facts and how to explain them. We must teach that science depends on stating testable hypotheses, then actually doing the test, and then standing aside while the tests are confirmed or refuted by other, independent, parties. That process produces facts and explanations, not opinions. Assertions that are not testable, or never will be tested, or will be tested only by one group with a vested interest cannot be considered good science (Pp 100-1).
While she is firmly of the “science produces facts and explanations” view, I can see that some of her language here could be seized on by “it is just because the establishment is against us” types, but it is clear enough what she means.

Roughgarden believes ID should be in science curricula as an example of what is not science. She also favours:
teaching intelligent design in a religious studies curriculum as an example of junk religion (p.101).
Chapter Eleven is on gender and sexuality, both in evolutionary theory and in St Paul. She favours a “reading down” interpretation of St Paul (particularly those bits of Romans): an approach whose attraction I understand but which I do not think works. St Paul is fairly clearly invoking the marriage of classical natural and Judaic Scripture which was pioneered by Philo of Alexandria, both in his discussion of the Levitical laws and in his discussion of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Hence St Paul’s use of unnatural (para physin), a non-Judaic concept that appears nowhere else in Scripture (except in his letters) and St Paul's condemnation of female-to-female sex, which occurs nowhere else in Scripture other than in Romans.

Chapter Twelve, Future Directions, is a plea for more understanding from all sides of the debate, including:
reforming the narratives of selfishness that underwrite social Darwinism, developing nuanced moral positions about genetic engineering and cloning, and improving our care for the global dimensions of God’s creation (p.126).
Dawkins’ enthusiastic adoption of the language of selfishness comes in for a kicking. (Philosopher Mary Midgely would thoroughly agree.) But Roughgarden is equally critical of religious perspectives that invoke a wrathful and hateful God. She puts forward a fairly mild statement about global stewardship and concludes with Christ’s summary of His teachings in Matthew 22:37-40.

Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist is a short book, designed to be read relatively quickly. It succeeds admirably as an accessible primer for anyone interested in the interaction between evolutionary biology and Christian belief.

No comments:

Post a Comment