“Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 1

Book Review

Francisco Ayala wants us to understand and appreciate what he considers to be Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion. The author of a recent book by that name, Ayala certainly has a claim to knowledge on the issues: he trained as a seminarian in Spain, and is now an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine.* He chaired the committee that produced the booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism for the National Academy of Sciences/Institutes of Health.

Why a biologist would consider Darwin a gift to science is not hard to imagine. Not assuming his readers understand evolutionary theory, though, Ayala devotes several chapters to an overview and argument for evolution and against Intelligent Design theory. As an introduction to the topic from a mainstream science perspective, this book would be hard to beat. Ayala knows his topic, and he writes well.

Things That Seem Wrong About the World
But that’s familiar ground for most readers of this blog. My interest was in how he saw Darwin as a gift to religion. He introduces his primary reasons early in the book, beginning with this on page 5:

When I was studying theology in Salamanca Darwin was a much-welcomed friend. The theory of evolution provided the solution to the remaining component of the problem of evil. As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life. They were not a result of deficient or malevolent design: the features of organisms were not designed by the creator.

Related to that is evolution’s explanation for imperfections in nature (pages 22-23):

If functional design manifests an Intelligent Designer, why should not deficiencies indicate that the Designer is less than omniscient, or less than omnipotent? … We know that some deficiencies are not just imperfections, but are outright dysfunctional, jeopardizing the very function the organ or part is supposed to serve…. Even if the dysfunctions, cruelties, and sadism of the living world were rare, which they are not, they would still need to be attributed to the Designer if the Designer had designed the living world.

For Ayala then, as a believing Catholic Christian, evolution explains many things that seem wrong about the world: imperfections in nature, and the problem of evil.

“Not a Threat”
Evolution is, moreover, a friend of religion because (page 6):

Christians need not see evolution as a threat to their beliefs…. There need not be conflict between religion and science. Apparent contradictions only emerge when either the science or the religious beliefs, or very often both are misinterpreted.

Evolutionary theory resolves a kind of “conceptual schizophrenia” (page 42) by which we might otherwise want to attribute some of nature to natural processes, and some of it to supernatural. A full explanation of the natural world can be accomplished in just natural terms, while religion provides a genuine way of knowing about matters of meaning, love, purpose, and so forth (page 172):

The scope of science is the world of nature, the reality that is observed, directly or indirectly, by our senses. Science advances explanations concerning the natural world, explanations that are subject to the possibility of corroboration or rejection by observation or experiment. Outside that world, science has no authority, no statements to make, no business whatsoever taking one position or another. Science has nothing decisive to say about values, whether economic, aesthetic, or moral; nothing to say about the meaning of life or its purpose; nothing to say about religious beliefs (except in the case of beliefs that transcend the proper scope of religion and make assertions about the natural world that contradict scientific knowledge; such statements cannot be true).

That closing parenthesis is of course aimed directly at various versions of Creationism–any belief, that is, that contradicts evolutionary theory.

This summarizes Ayala’s position on religion and evolution: evolution solves a significant problem for religion, the problem of evil; and science and religion can be friends if they will mind their manners and remain each in their proper spheres.

This blog post will go much too long if I try to respond to all of this in one shot. I expect this will require several entries before it’s done. Having covered some ground here by just introducing the issues, I’ll limit myself to a very limited response now to part of what Ayala had to say regarding the friendship of science and religion.

It is most refreshing to see such a highly regarded scientist recognizing boundaries and limits around what science can do. He has a genuine respect for religious understandings of life; and I have absolutely no questions about the reality of his own religious convictions. There is much to appreciate there. His convictions are of a specific sort, of course; and well they should be, for what good is a vague, unformed set of beliefs?

No Threat–To What?
But he assumes a great deal of authority for his beliefs. Early on he had said that “Christians need not see evolution as a threat to their beliefs.” But what if some Christians believe in God’s literal involvement in the origin and development of life? Ayala says God is not the designer (that’s why God is absolved from responsibility for imperfections and evil). That runs counter to the beliefs many of us hold. Later on Ayala explains that our beliefs are just wrong; that we need to let loose of God’s creative involvement in the world.

Ayala’s version of evolution, which (like Kenneth Miller’s) leaves God entirely out of the process of life’s development, is a friend to Ayala’s version of Christianity. Better this than Dennett’s or Dawkins’s versions, which are clearly at enmity with Christianity. But one could wish that he had not stated so baldly that evolution is no threat to Christian beliefs, for it certainly is at odds with any view that says God has been intimately, providentially, guiding the course of life and nature from the beginning.

There is a tension there. For Ayala, that tension must always be resolved in favor of science; religiously-based knowledge about nature is no knowledge at all. That’s certainly a mainstream belief, yet it’s open to challenge. I am out of time and space to explore that now, though; I’ll have to return to it later.

Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, by Francisco Ayala. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2007. 256 pages. Amazon price $24.95.

*I’m writing this on an airplane, without the book in hand. I photocopied several pages of interest to bring on the plane with me, but I forgot to include Ayala’s biographical information. Thus my rendering of it comes from memory and must be somewhat vague until I have time to look it up and correct it.

Series Navigation (Darwin's Gift?):

“Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 2 >>>


  1. Jacob

    How should we think about knowledge? Should we assume knowledge is knowledge regardless of whether it’s scientific or spiritual? Or should we assume there is a difference between scientific knowledge and spiritual knowledge?

  2. Post
  3. econ grad

    I suspect evolutionary theory is accurate but I don’t see how evolution solves the problem of evil.

    If God designed the Universe then evolution would be an emergent property certain to appear. I don’t see how you can pull a property of nature as an excuse for evil.

  4. JJS P.Eng.

    Wow! Where to begin…

    1. So Ayala claims that evolution “explains” the problem of evil in the world. I guess as a “Catholic Christian”, Ayala never put much stock in the Fall as a possible explaination.

    “…just as through one man sin[/decay/evil] entered the world, and death through sin…” Romans 5:12 NASB

    2. It appears Ayala is inconsistent in defining the limits of science. It’s like he’s saying “Science does not say anything about morals unless those morals contradict science, especially evolution.” (emphasis mine)

    3. I realise that as a biologist, Ayala is an expert and knows what he’s talking about, but only as it pertains to biology. When he wanders into the realm of theology/philosophy, he appears to be quite the amateur. I get the feeling that if Ayala ever got into a debate on “The Problem of Evil” with someone like Peter Kreeft that the former-seminarian-turned-biologist would get smoked like a bad cigar (technical term from Mike Lange).

  5. Tony Hoffman

    JJS P. Eng,

    How do you propose that morals and science could contradict one another?

    Have you read the book? If not, doesn’t it seem unfair to you to declare that “When he [Ayala] wanders into the realm of theology/philosophy, he appears to be quite the amateur,” and then to predict that were Ayala to get into a debate with Peter Kreeft that he would fail to hold his position?

    The fact that Tom has brought this book to our attention, and commended it on various levels, would incline me to believe that the writer is not a buffoon and his arguments not straw dogs. I’m not suggesting that you must read the book to argue the merits of its positions, but I think we should at least wait until we’ve heard something like a detailed explanation for the writer’s positions before announcing the battle won.

  6. JJS P.Eng.


    1. I never said, nor proposed, that morals and science could contradict one another. That’s another topic for a separate thread. I meant that Ayala, in the statement I referred to above, was inconsistent.

    2. No, I have not read the book. My comments are/were based solely on the content contained in Tom’s post above.

    3. Would I ever want to read Ayala’s book? I would lean more towards “no” than “yes”, especially since there are other books on my “must-read” list. That said, I may see if my local library has it in stock (so I guess my answer is really “I won’t shell out money for Ayala’s book”).

    4. I must emphasise that, IMO, Ayala appears to be an amateur in the field of theology/philosophy. This conclusion was based on Ayala’s oversimplistic explanation of “the problem of evil” (again IMO), and proposing evolution as an explanation seems (IMO again) nothing more than a “hand-wave”.

    5. I have read Peter Kreeft’s writing on “the problem of evil” and IMO, Kreeft gives the subject more respect (and compassion) than Ayala does (based on what I read in the above post). This is why I think Kreeft would “beat [Ayala] like a rented mule” in a debate on the problem of evil. (That said, I thought the Patriots would smoke the Giants’ like a cheap cigar in SB LXII, but I was wrong. Therefore, my prediction on the outcome of Ayala v. Kreeft should be taken with a grain of salt.)

    6. I never stated that Ayala was a buffoon. As a biologist, I am sure he knows what he is taking about in the field of biology. Also, if I ever had the pleasure of sitting down with him in person, I am sure that I would learn a lot regarding biology.

    However, what amazes and irks me is that even though Ayala has theological training that he would make the equivalent of a “God of the gaps” response for “the problem of evil”, and state that evolution is a better explanation than “The Fall”. “The problem of evil” is a complex and sensitive subject and deserves a better response than “Evolution did it”.

    I may not be an expert in biology, theology, nor philosophy, but I recognise a “snake-oil salesman” when I see one.

  7. SteveK

    In fairness to the author, he says evolution is only one part of the solution – not a better solution as you say above. I can’t imagine him saying the fall wasn’t the major contributor.

    “The theory of evolution provided the solution to the remaining component of the problem of evil.”

  8. JJS P.Eng.


    Thanks for pointing that out. I did catch that on a re-read of the article.

    I am curious as to what Ayala considers “the remaining component of the problem of evil.”

  9. Post
    Tom Gilson

    The “remaining component,” based on the surrounding context, is this: the fall of man can explain the harm done by persons against persons, but not, for Ayala, “earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts, and other physical catastrophes…. Also…. if God is the designer of life, whence the lion’s cruelty, the snake’s poison, and the parasites that secure their existence only by destroying their hosts?”

    This topic is attracting more attention than the one related to various kinds of knowledge, so I’m going to blog on it next.

  10. Ed Darrell

    I don’t read Ayala as saying evolution solves the problem of evil; it points to issues where evil should not be laid on God’s workbench.

    Early on he had said that “Christians need not see evolution as a threat to their beliefs.” But what if some Christians believe in God’s literal involvement in the origin and development of life? Ayala says God is not the designer (that’s why God is absolved from responsibility for imperfections and evil). That runs counter to the beliefs many of us hold. Later on Ayala explains that our beliefs are just wrong; that we need to let loose of God’s creative involvement in the world.

    Genesis doesn’t say God tinkered with every stomate and pore, every bone joint, every follicle. Christians generally say God spoke life into existence. If somebody wants to make an argument that God created all the details, let’s be clear that is not what scripture says. God cares about each detail, but there’s nothing to suggest that each design of life, the wasp that eats the caterpillar’s brains, the tapeworm, the cat that toys with the poor mouse, is God’s direct intent.

    Insisting God made such deviously torturing things rather sullies the glory to most Christians, I think.

Comments are closed.

By commenting here you agree to abide by this site's comment guidelines.