Saturday, August 8, 2009

Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion

Francisco J. Ayala. Darwin's Gift to science and religion
Washington, D.C. : Joseph Henry Press, 2007.

A full-page ad for Cokesbury (Sojourners, August 2009, Vol. 38, No. 8, Pg. 4) was headlined "Religon and Darwin: on the same page?" It reminded me of Darwin's Gift, a book I recently discovered at my local library.

It seems to me that Francisco Ayala is uniquely qualified to address the issue of perceived conflict between science and religion. A practicing Catholic and former Dominican priest, he is a biologist and a professor at U.C. Irvine with a research interest in evolutionary genetics. The negative reception Ayala's work has received from some members of the Christian religious community makes me question whether I misunderstood his argument entirely, or maybe I just saw what I wanted to see. Where some critics - but not all - make the claim that Ayala cannot be a Christian, I believe that he is, if not Christian as some might define the word, at least a believer in the Divine.

The basic treatise of Darwin's Gift is that science and religion can not only coexist peacefully but can compliment one another. Ayala isn't the first to offer the suggestion that the two operate in different spheres but he makes the argument eloquently. He writes, "Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously successful for understanding and manipulating the material universe. Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe. (Page 179)"

In this book, Ayala explains the basics of evolution in chapters covering natural selection, human evolution, and molecular biology, and he lays out the problems with so-called "Intelligent Design." He suggests that biological evolution explains "mistakes" in nature, birth defects being one example, because why would a good god cause a child to be born with a fatal or disfiguring defect? Ayala also writes:
It is possible to believe that God created the world while also accepting that the planets, mountains, plants and animals came about, after the initial creation, by natural processes. In theological parlance, God may act through secondary causes. (Page 175)
This is a book for adults but Ayala keeps the language simple enough that the reader doesn't have to be a biologist or a theologian to understand. His carefully thought out explanation of natural selection and human evolution are not a threat to my faith but an eloquent re-introduction to the elegance of biology and the unfolding of life as we now know it.