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Review: Biology Through the Eyes of Faith

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
24
Year: 
2004
Issue: 
3–4
Date: 
May-August
Page(s): 
31
Reviewer: 
Andrew J Petto, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Biology Through the Eyes of Faith
Author(s): 
Richard T Wright
San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 2003. 309 pages.
When we examine the interplay between science and religion in contemporary society, many of the books we review rely on simplistic caricatures of at least one of these enterprises. For those interested in the complex realities of practicing Christians who are also practicing scientists, there have been very few books that engage in thoughtful and honest explorations of the ways in which these people succeed in having rich scientific and rich religious lives. Richard Wright wrote one of the most engaging and thoughtful books in this genre when the first edition of Biology: Through the Eyes of Faith appeared. I recommended this book to readers of Creation/Evolution in 1996 (Petto 1996). The revised edition is even better — not just because the information is more up-to-date, but because Wright's perspective and practice of his science and his faith have obviously matured, and this is evident throughout the book.

Wright is an evolutionary ecologist and has been very active in the American Scientific Affiliation. This book is mean to address the "central dogma" of biology head on:
Biological evolution is probably the most controversial and — in some circles — unpopular scientific theory ever advanced. It is also one of the most fruitful and foundational theories in its impact on the life sciences, and, indeed, has profoundly influenced modern thought (p 119).
There is no getting around it: Evidence from every relevant scientific field supports the evolutionary model. The problem, Wright understands, is with "worldviews". His discussion here relies on Del Ratzsch's work (1996, 2000) — in particular, in the use of the notion of "shaping principles" — in itself a useful point of departure for those who really wish to understand some of the different ways in which Christians view the sciences and their relationship to faith.

Throughout the text there is lucid and well-informed discussion of matters that are recurring themes to those who follow the creation–evolution controversies. Wright understands these in a way that perhaps only comes from years of teaching at an evangelical college and helping students grapple with the various objections to and "evidences against" evolution that fill the anti-evolution literature. Wright faces these objections head-on and, though he is sympathetic to the need for believers to feel re-affirmed in their faith, tells his readers why these positions are really bad for their spiritual life. Relying too much on specific interpretations of data from nature (and supposed gaps and shortcomings in evolutionary theory) to support one's religious beliefs can be disastrous — especially if those interpretations turn out to be wrong!

If there is any criticism of the book, it is that it is sometimes difficult to know when Wright is speaking in his own voice or when he is speaking in the voice of the proponents of some of the positions he is trying to explain. This is a problem when he engages the views on astronomy and cosmology of Hugh Ross (p 101–2) and the nonstandard view of biological "information" from Stephen C Meyer (p 113). These, however, are relatively short passages in a book that illustrates a mature understanding of both the faith and the science that have contributed to Richard Wright's career as a scientist and a teacher.

Perhaps because of his career as an evolutionary ecologist, Wright proposes cooperation between members of religious and scientific bodies to preserve and conserve natural resources and a healthy environment.
[S]tewardship ... [is] the ethical and moral framework that should inform our private and public interactions with the environment. Recall that stewardship is a call to all people to care for creation. ...

Sound science is the basis for understanding how the natural world works and how our human systems interact with it and impact it. By sound science, I mean knowledge that is the outcome of painstaking scientific research using the best available methods (p 238, emphasis in the original).
Niles Eldredge took a similar stance at The College of New Jersey a few years ago (see "Niles Eldredge welcomes biology honors students" in RNCSE 2000 May/Jun; 20 [3]: 8–9) — that sound science and a strong moral framework are mutually reinforcing and together can be very productive in solving real-world problems of consequence to human survival.

The new edition of this book stands as a clear beacon amid the smoke and fog that often obscures books about science and faith. It is one of the few written by someone who understands both evolutionary biology and a Christian faith — because he has actively practiced both. This is a serious book that deserves serious attention.

References

Petto AJ. 1996. Book review of Biology Through the Eyes of Faith by Richard T Wright. Creation/Evolution 16 (1), nr 38: 26–7.

Ratzsch D. 1996. The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation–Evolution Debate. Downers Grove (IL): InterVarsity Press.

Ratzsch D. 2000. Science and Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective. Downers Grove (IL): InterVarsity Press.

About the Author(s): 
Andrew J Petto
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201-0413
ajpetto@uwm.edu