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Review: An Evolving Dialogue

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
22
Year: 
2002
Issue: 
4
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
32–33
Reviewer: 
Philip T Spieth
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
An Evolving Dialogue: Theological and Scientific Perspectives on Evolution
Author(s): 
edited by James B Miller
Harrisburg (PA): Trinity Press International, 2001. 544 pages.
The purpose of An Evolving Dialogue is "to provide a multidisciplinary educational resource for college, university and theological seminary educational settings, that will contribute to a constructive understanding of the dialogue between science and religion on the topic of biological evolution" (p 4). The book is admirably suited to its purpose.

Divided into five parts, the volume is composed of 28 articles that are reprints or revisions of papers published in the 1990s or late 1980s. The authors are major contributors in their disciplines. For the most part, their articles were addressed to a general readership. In its 2001 edition, An Evolving Dialogue is actually a clonal reproduction, with a macromutation, of an earlier version with a longer subtitle published in 1998. The fifth section of the 1998 version is "Evolution and Ethics"; in the 2001 version, it is replaced with a completely new fifth section consisting of 6 articles devoted to "intelligent design" (ID).

If a dialog between science and religion is to be successful, it needs to get its science right in order to provide a common ground upon which to build the dialog. The first two parts of An Evolving Dialogue provide a topical overview of evolutionary biology with articles by leading professionals such as Stephen Jay Gould, Mark Ridley, Douglas Futuyma, and Francisco Ayala. The two sections provide a reasonably good background for readers who are not versed in the evidence, theories, and principles of contemporary evolutionary biology. Biologists might find the articles useful for brushing up on a detail here or there.

The third part, "Historical and Philosophical Perspectives", includes an article on the concept of species by Ernst Mayr, followed by two particularly interesting historical articles. The article by Ronald L Numbers, published in 1986, predates the ascendancy of "intelligent design" as an anti-evolutionary perspective. Nevertheless, it provides illumination upon the mindset of creationists — for whom biblical inerrancy trumps scientific expertise — and serves as a needed reminder of the widespread hostility towards evolutionary biology that sadly exists among a significant fraction of the general public. John R Durant's 1987 article also predates ID but is eminently relevant to the issue. Durant gives a lucid exposition of the historical philosophical context that underlies the concepts of special creation and design and shows how these concepts were made philosophically untenable by the revolutionary impact of Darwin's insights.

The final article in the section is a reprint of Stephen Jay Gould's 1997 column in Natural History in which he elucidated his concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). It is not the most profound article in the volume, yet it gives a simple, clear definition of a philosophical point of view that pervades much of the book. Most of the scientists — and some of the theologians — whose articles touch upon both science and religion express some form of NOMA. A forceful example is Durant's comment:
If today we continue to be worried about the relationship between Darwinism and Christian belief, more often than not it is because we are faced either with science masquerading as theology or with theology masquerading as science. Only history can show us the full extent of the damage that is done by such pretense (p 266).
The fourth part is "Theological Perspectives". The authors include some of the leading contemporary theologians who strive to combine both good evolutionary science and good theology in their quests to find the proper relationship between these two important domains of intellectual endeavor.

In his article from 1996, John F Haught directly addresses the relationship between theology and evolutionary science, setting forth four "positions" — conflict, contrast, contact, and confirmation. This quartet provides an excellent functional framework for recognizing and classifying the contributions that different participants make to a dialog (or, for that matter, a debate) between science and religion. Haught's framework might provide a basis for developing a fuller, more closely reasoned, concept of NOMA, which falls under the rubric of "contact".

An important leitmotif in dialogs between theology and evolutionary science is the role of chance and indeterminacy. Haught explicitly recognizes the role of chance in evolution and its positive theological implications. And the theologian Elizabeth A Johnson, in her article from 1996, addresses the issue head-on. In a wonderful passage, she says:
No chance, no evolution of the universe. If it were not such an impossible oxymoron, chance might even be called a law of nature itself. Chance, consequently, is not an alternative to law, but the very means whereby law is creative. The two are strongly interrelated and the universe evolves through their interplay (p 358).
For evolutionary biologists, this passage should immediately bring to mind Sewall Wright's seminal ideas on the interplay between natural selection and genetic drift.

The fifth part is the site of the macromutation. It is also the section in which NOMA is violated. In the previous version of the book, the fifth part consisted of articles on evolutionary ethics, in which the authors pushed the envelope at the border between the domains of science and religion. In the current version, leading writers from the ID movement seek to infiltrate the magisterium of science with religiously-based philosophical ideas. Articles by the ID writers are paired with rebuttal articles, much as in the April 2002 issue of Natural History.

Two ID articles are by William Dembski; one is by Michael Behe. The first article by Dembski (from 1998) is an overview of the history and goals of the ID movement. The phrase "undirected natural causes" appears repeatedly, always in contexts in which it is equated with "Darwinism". Do not ask where natural selection is in this equation; it is not there. The major thrust of the article is Dembski's conflation of methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. He clearly wishes both to be removed from science. Raymond Grizzle's article from 1995 should be read immediately after this article. Directly addressing the proponents of ID, Grizzle essentially accuses them of violating NOMA. He makes a clear case for the necessity of maintaining methodological naturalism within the magisterium of science.

Dembski's second article (from 1997) is a semi-technical summary of his ideas of actualization-exclusion-specification and his theory of complex specified information. Brandon Fitelson, Christopher Stephens, and Elliott Sober provide an even more technical rebuttal published in 1999. Dembski has some interesting ideas for readers interested in probability. Unfortunately, his treatment is based upon a "neutral" theory of evolution. Natural selection is never included, which makes Dembski's arguments irrelevant to evolutionary biology.

Behe's article from 1996 gives an introduction to his concept of irreducible complexity. In turn, the article by Kenneth R Miller from 1994 shows that, when the evolutionary roles of contingency and jerry-rigging are taken into account, the empirical examples cited by Behe fail to justify the conclusions that Behe wants to draw from them. More generally, Miller marshals an array of empirical examples to demonstrate that the facts of natural history are not in accord with predictions that can reasonably be made from a hypothesis of "intelligent design".

Overall, An Evolving Dialogue is a fascinating book. It makes a good resource for courses that delve into the relationship between the magisteria of science and religion; Gould's and Miller's essays are both on the agenda for my course at Berkeley. Be warned, however, that the book's physical layout has a few problems. One must look in three places to find out when and where the articles first appeared and who the authors are. Typos abound. The winner is in the Southern Baptist statement quoted on page 285: "this Convention accepts Genesis as teaching that man was the special cremation of God".

About the Author(s): 
Philip T Spieth
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
spieth@ncseweb.org