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Book: Evolution and Christian Faith

I’m constantly on the lookout for books on evolutionary theory aimed at the general public rather than specialized audiences, so when I saw this little book on the shelf of the local university library, I took it home to check out.

My response to it is a bit mixed. There are a number of good things about it. It’s simple, it presents most of the basics of evolutionary theory at the most basic level, and it deals with intelligence design briefly and vigorously. On the other hand, its approach to Biblical interpretation is vague, its theology is a bit soft, and its assumption that these arguments have any hope of reaching fundamentalists or even conservative evangelicals is frankly just a bit naive.

The author, Dr. Joan Roughgarden, is an evolutionary biologist who is also a Christian and a member of the Episcopal church. She begins by discussing the relationship between science and religion. She suggests that the conflict between religion and science is fostered by the fact that we don’t discuss the two together. Her favorite topic of research is lizards, and she laments that evolutionists rarely discuss God and anti-evolutionists discuss God and rarely discuss lizards (p. 6).

Unfortunately she really doesn’t do very much of discussing the two together. She does draw a few lines of connection between the Bible and science, but these can be divided between the naive and the distantly metaphorical. I don’t mean to be too cruel here, because there are a number of wonderful passages in this book, especially in describing the basics of evolutionary theory in non-specialists terms.

In this early chapter she also intends to draw a distinction between what is solid and what is still questionable or “squishy” in evolutionary theory. That promise is very interesting, as is her distinction between the “real” controversies, which are in the details and in the leading edge of evolutionary theory, as opposed to the fake controversy created by intelligent design.

In the second chapter, Dr. Roughgarden discuss the first “solid” element of evolutionary theory which she rightly calls a fact, common descent. She argues that there is nothing in a literal reading of Genesis that would deny this. The then continues in the third chapter with variation, which again she says does not contradict a literal reading of Genesis. I happen to agree with her on this point, as I state in my earlier blog post An Evolutionary Understanding of Kinds. The problem, as most people who have discussed this issue will see, is that with these two elements we’re pretty much out of literal readings of Genesis 1 and 2 that will support evolutionary theory, and most conservative Christians will not even agree to those.

Thus it is no surprise that chapter 4 deals with reading the Bible literally, and suggests essentially that Jesus came to change a rule-based approach to one based on principles and relationships. Most interpreters would have some trouble using that point to suggest that we now have permission to read certain things literally or not literally based on whether they agree with our scientific understanding. The connection there is a bit vague. Further the dividing line is also a bit vague. How do you decide?

Dr. Roughgarden doesn’t tell us. She leaves us with the literal reconciliation of common descent and variation without a “kinds” boundary in living things, while suddenly rejecting such a literal reading of the days of creation based on the changed approach brought by Jesus. I don’t think this will provide a consistent approach to hermeneutics, and I don’t think it will impress the fundamentalists.

In the fifth chapter she carries this point to the other extreme, using the vine and the branches (John 15:1-6) as an illustration connecting natural breeding (which she prefers to natural selection) in the Bible. This is such a metaphorical connection that it strains my reading a bit, and I’m quite an advocate of metaphorical readings. But she goes on in chapter 6 using Mark 13 and the parable of the sower as a connection to random mutation (p. 45). The explanation of random mutation is pretty good, however.

Chapter 7 is a discussion of direction in evolution which, in my opinion, doesn’t deal adequately with the challenge presented by the theory of evolution to the older Christian understanding of the way in which the universe works. This is followed by chapter 8 which is occupied by a discussion of Roman Catholic theology. In it, Dr. Roughgarden acknowledges that the challenge to evolutionary theory and the impetus to teach intelligent design in the science classroom are not largely driven by Catholics. Those who are pushing it are, to a large extent, not going to be moved by statements by the Pope, however good those statements are.

Following this is a chapter on the things that evolution has not accomplished yet which is largely dedicated to discussing the definition of an individual, and where natural selection operates, individual or group.

The chapter on intelligent design was quite good. I was surprised that after a call largely for peace, this chapter is a pretty vigorous attack. On page 94 Dr. Roughgarden provides four things that intelligent design proponents need to do in order to get their views examined scientifically (p. 94). These are good criteria that would require the ID folks to do some actual science, an unlikely prospect. She further describes the controversy proposed by ID (as in “teach the controversy”) as “concocted” (p. 95), and finally calls ID “junk religion” (p. 101). She says it should be discussed in religion classes in order to point out just how bad it is as theology. She doesn’t think it has any place in science classrooms. On this, of course, I agree!

Chapter 11 is given to sexual selection, and I have a hard time seeing why it is in the book. It makes little sense to me, but I’m not an evolutionary biologist. If it does have a purpose, that would seem to be to suggest that we shouldn’t present natural selection in such a competitive fashion. I’m not sure just how this works. Natural selection does involve a fairly heavy competitive element.

The last chapter points to new directions. These could be summarized by saying that scientists should present themselves less like Richard Dawkins, and theologians should avoid referring to a wrathful God so much. I’m pretty much in agreement with that, but I don’t think either Dawkins or Falwell and Roberts (who she uses to illustrate what’s wrong in religion) will follow the suggestions.

My overall impression is that Dr. Roughgarden is a good scientist who has a liberal view of religion, but has a limited understanding of the type of theological ideas that drive evangelicals and fundamentalists. She expresses a peaceful and experiential faith that I can truly appreciate. If my review sounds rough, it’s because I don’t think that she has engaged the controversy that is actually going on. She’s hoping for peace.

I enjoyed this book, but I don’t feel I can add it to my list of recommended reading for those who are trying to get acquainted with the creation-evolution controversy.

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  1. Joe M says:

    “and finally calls ID “junk religion” (p. 101). She says it should be discussed in religion classes in order to point out just how bad it is as theology.”

    This is an aspect that I’ve never considered. I usually consider ID in the pseudoscientific sense. What makes it junk religion? Is it because ID is using superficial theology to try to prove god’s existence?

    1. I have written on this before on this blog, for example Bad Theology and ID. If you check the related posts at the end of that one you should get several more.

      It’s hard to define what bad theology is except within a particular system, but nonetheless the claim has been made numerous times. From my own theological perspective, ID is bad, i.e. it contradicts essential points of my theology. How important that is depends on whether one accepts those major elements.

      All of which re-emphasizes that theology and science operate differently.

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