ReviewCulture Wars, Big Questions, and Geological Nanoseconds
Review of Am I a Monkey? Six Big Questions about Evolution by Francisco J. Ayala. Johns Hopkins University Press, 104 pages, $12.95
In early 2009 the Texas Board of Education met to vote on whether the “strengths and weaknesses” of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution must be taught in the classroom. On the surface, this seems reasonable: assessing the strengths and weaknesses of just about anything is usually prudent. But in this context, “strengths and weaknesses” was a disguised attack on the scientific consensus behind Darwin’s theory, a back door through which creationism might creep into the state’s science classes.
The Republicans on the board were all social conservatives. Usually their assault on evolution was less oblique. More often you’d hear that evolution textbooks are once again being weakened, or that a state official was forced out for criticizing intelligent design. The “strengths and weaknesses” debate broke along partisan lines, with all seven Republican board members voting to install the provision. But the amendment failed to pass. The Dallas Morning News quoted one of the Democrats, Mary Helen Berlanga, as saying, “We’re not talking about faith. We’re not talking about religion. We’re talking about science. We need to stay with our experts and respect what they have requested us to do.” With a 7–7 vote, the “strengths and weaknesses” proposal was blocked. Students were instead urged to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence.” For once, in a state determined to cut it down, evolution stood tall.
Berlanga’s comment was weird. Calls to respect scientific experts are not often reported in Texas school board proceedings. We expect the Bible to be lurking behind every motion, every word. But the board paused briefly with this vote. It was a quiet moment in the wake of an unexpected stalemate, a moment when people inured to the debate are prepared to listen.
But whom should we to listen to? In the debate between religion and evolution, there are only a handful of thinkers that have lived both sides. Over the first four chapters of Am I a Monkey? Francisco Ayala, a former Dominican priest turned scientist, eases the reader into a very comfortable affirmative. But it is the final two chapters, “How Did Life Begin?” and “Can One Believe in Evolution and God?,” where Ayala’s life, first committed to God and later to evolution, buoys his words.
Ayala never says anything publicly about his own faith. He left the priesthood to study evolution, but in this book, it’s clear that he never lost respect for a religious worldview. To Ayala, evolution and religion are entirely different ways of knowing the world that “cannot be in contradiction because they concern different matters.” Religion parses meaning and purpose out of life while science accounts for process in the natural world. Science is the mechanism, but “matters concerning moral or religious values . . . transcend science.”
The word choice here is important. Ayala, a scientist, writes that human values, whether moral or religious, are somehow beyond the more quotidian workings of the world. This is an anthropocentric view, and a stunning admission from a leading scientist about the limits of his chosen field. Religion and science may be separate, but they are not equal.
Religion seeks to illuminate the unexplained, but since the start of scientific inquiry, mystery has been on the run. Ayala himself catalogues this in the book. Heliocentrism was the first to fall. An intuitive sense of time’s constancy fell with relativity. An object’s palpable certainty fell with quantum mechanics. Genomics briefly derailed a certain belief in our own blueprint’s complexity: we have a mere 20,000 genes, only a few more than a fly, and far fewer than most plants. Science has a way of “de-centering” us, pushing the unknown and therefore religion to the outer reaches, making us smaller.
One of biology’s Holy Grail questions, the origin and nature of the very first organism, is still a mystery, and therefore one of religion’s remaining bastions. Ayala writes that “evolution could be seen as the natural process through which God brought living beings into the [sic] existence and developed them according to his plan.” This is in keeping with his ideas for separate spheres, but once again, evolution here is relegated to a tool. “Meaning” must be otherwise comprehended.
In fact, Ayala views evolution as a gift for the religious at pains to explain tragedy. A universe awash with death and injustice is explained away by the amoral, unplanned nature of natural selection. Would a designer really create a flawed human jaw, a bad back, and a narrow birth canal if operating from a standard of perfection? God is at a remove, operating from a space our science can’t see but our moral cores can somehow feel. On the origin of life, he explains that the majority of scientists believe that life began “spontaneously” through “natural processes.” But this singular event is hypothetical. The precise formation of life is still essentially unknown, perhaps unknowable. Despite his years in science, Ayala reserves a very special place for religious inquiry in his worldview.