Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist

Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist

by Joan Roughgarden

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Click here to visit evolutionandchristianfaith.org
"I'm an evolutionary biologist and a Christian," states Stanford professor Joan Roughgarden at the outset of her groundbreaking new book, Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist. From that perspective, she offers an elegant, deeply satisfying reconciliation of


Click here to visit evolutionandchristianfaith.org
"I'm an evolutionary biologist and a Christian," states Stanford professor Joan Roughgarden at the outset of her groundbreaking new book, Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist. From that perspective, she offers an elegant, deeply satisfying reconciliation of the theory of evolution and the wisdom of the Bible.
Perhaps only someone with Roughgarden's unique academic standing could examine so well controversial issues such as the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, or the potential flaws in Darwin's theory of evolution. Certainly Roughgarden is uniquely suited to reference both the minutiae of scientific processes and the implication of Biblical verses. Whether the topic is mutation rates and lizards or the hidden meanings behind St. Paul's letters, Evolution and Christian Faith distils complex arguments into everyday understanding. Roughgarden has scoured the Bible and scanned the natural world, finding examples time and again, not of conflict, but of harmony.
The result is an accessible and intelligent context for a Christian vision of the world that embraces science. In the ongoing debates over creationism and evolution, Evolution and Christian Faith will be seen as a work of major significance, written for contemporary readers who wonder how-or if-they can embrace scientific advances while maintaining their traditional values.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Roughgarden, a Stanford biology professor and author of Evolution's Rainbow, is impatient with the current tone of creation/evolution debates, but takes them seriously as an expression of a "pent-up urge for talking about God" in American public life. Attentive to "the spiritual yearning of people that compels them to overlook the evidence" if evolution is portrayed as an enemy of faith, Roughgarden urges science educators to show "more sympathy and willingness to accommodate people of faith, to offer space for seeing a Christian vision of the world within evolutionary biology." The book's main argument is that a suitably flexible reading of the Bible and Darwin bears out common, or at least compatible, themes, and that evolution can be read within a broader perspective of divine design. Roughgarden sees room in the biblical account for the common ancestry of all life on Earth, as well as the possibility that evolution is "guided by the hand of God, even if the mutation process is random" as described by Darwinian theory. While the book occasionally overreaches in attempts to have things both ways-or so it will seem to controversialists on either side-readers who see a role for both evolution and divine creation will appreciate Roughgarden's attempt to stake out a common ground that does not feel like a compromise. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Roughgarden, a Stanford biologist and author of Evolution's Rainbow, sees no conflict between biblical accounts of creation and the biological principles of evolution that she has taught for 30 years. Her strategy is to discuss general theories of evolution, such as species change and random mutation, even the origins of sexual orientation, then to compare these ideas to relevant passages in Scripture, which she interprets to either complement each other or at least not to contradict. At the same time, she vigorously debunks both intelligent design and secular selfish gene philosophies. Roughgarden's persuasiveness depends on how much the reader concurs with her scriptural interpretations, and so her book is probably better suited for a religion collection than for popular science reading. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Professor of theology, Loyola University Chicago - Patricia Beattie Jung

"Clear and brilliantly concise, Dr. Roughgarden's thoughtful analysis sheds much-needed light on the contemporary debate over the compatibility of Christian belief and evolutionary biology. Eschewing polarizing rhetoric and antithetical claims, she demonstrates that there is no contradiction between Christian faith and the facts of evolution and that it is false to suggest such dichotomous thinking is required by either faithfulness to the Bible or scientific evidence. Roughgarden's fresh approach suggests that much in the Bible invites Christians to recognize God's good creation precisely as a universe in evolution."
Professor of evolutionary biology, University of California, Irvine - Michael Rose

"Joan Roughgarden is more than an accomplished evolutionary biologist; she is also brave. Combining lucid evolutionary reasoning with personal Christian faith, she builds a remarkable bridge across the cultural chasm between science and faith in America today. Roughgarden rejects both junk science based on spurious metaphors and junk religion based on spurious theology. In their place, she offers an inspiring accommodation between thoughtful science and compassionate religion."

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Evolution and Christian Faith

Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist

By Joan Roughgarden


Copyright © 2006 Joan Roughgarden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-157-9


Science with Religion

BOTH SIDES OUGHT TO BE PROPERLY taught," urged President George W. Bush when asked at a news conference in August 2005 about teaching evolution and its alternatives, such as intelligent design, in the public schools. I'm an evolutionary biologist and a Christian. Here's my perspective on what to teach about evolution and on how to understand today's collision between science and Christian faith.

It is 175 years since Darwin embarked on his 1831 voyage to South America in a ten- gun brig of the British navy called the Beagle. That voyage carried him to the Galápagos where he began his thinking about evolution. After all this time we can now say that some parts of the subject he started, called evolutionary biology, have been demonstrated as true. I believe the demonstrated parts should be taught in all our schools and that to not do so is like failing to teach that the earth is round. On the other hand, not all of evolutionary biology is as clear-cut as evolution's basic facts are, and some points are seriously problematic. This book clarifies what is truly established in evolutionary biology, indicates what aspects of evolutionary theory remain inadequate, and identifies some parts that are probably wrong. It will, I hope, give you a balanced view of the state of evolutionary biology today.

I'm a Christian and active in the Episcopal Church. My parents were Episcopal missionaries, and I grew up in the Philippine Islands and Indonesia. I attended church through high school, drifted away after college, and returned about ten years ago when I was facing personal trials. Since then, I've worked through the connection between my faith and my occupation as an evolutionary biologist.

Although we keep hearing of "sides" in a "debate" between evolution and religion, I don't think that way. After all, the famous "monkey" trial in Tennessee ended long ago, in 1925. This trial challenged the teaching of evolution in schools and is named the Scopes Trial after the defendant, John T. Scopes, who was a teacher. You may have seen this trial dramatized in the classic 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy, and may recall that evolution came out the "winner." I ask, Why should we bother replaying that trial again and again today? I don't want to argue with other Christians. I want to share with them the fellowship and the love of Jesus.

Here we'll look at actual biblical passages and you can see for yourself whether any conflict exists with evolutionary biology. You may agree that the Bible doesn't have any necessary conflict with evolutionary biology, as many people already think. I think that, even more important, what evolutionary biologists are finding through their research and thinking actually promotes a Christian view of nature and of our human place in it. Thus, as Christians we don't have to simply stand aside and say, Well, science is about the material and religion about the spiritual, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Instead, we can rejoice as Christians in the ethical meaning behind what evolutionary biologists are increasingly finding. I've been exhilarated by this personal realization, and I hope you will be, too.

I've written this book for several reasons. First, I want to provide a short and succinct statement of what evolutionary biology is, what it says and what it doesn't say. Because many people get their idea of evolution secondhand, a lot of misunderstanding is creeping in and I think there's a need to set the record straight. Second, I want to discuss what the Bible actually says, for the Bible too is often misrepresented. Third, I want to investigate the relationship between evolutionary biology and the Bible. I want to do this because it pains me to see proponents of science and Christianity ridicule and hurt each other. I hope to get us talking constructively.

I've kept the book short—a read for a long plane trip, or a night or two's sitting to brief for a school board meeting, parent–teacher conference, or church group discussion, or for writing a term paper—any situation where you've got to come up to speed fast on today's incarnation of the controversy over teaching evolution.

I've been struck by how the "debate" over teaching evolution is not about plants and animals but about God and whether science somehow threatens one's belief in God. To analyze this threat, I'll discuss plants, animals, and God all together—something people rarely do. My specialty is lizards. When I lecture, I discuss what islands my lizards live on, what food they eat, what their colors are, and who their predators are. I never mention God. When anti-evolutionists lecture, they discuss God, what's in the Bible, and how they think the Bible should be interpreted. They never mention lizards. So, if we're going to get a dialogue going on evolution, we're going to have to start talking about plants, animals, and the Bible together in one place, as I do in this book.

In talking about plants, animals, and the Bible in the same paragraph, even in the same breath, are we fudging the separation between science and religion? Is this right? Maybe in some past world the spheres of science and religion were kept separate, but today the separation has disappeared—the polls tell us that we're past the point of no return.

A CBS News poll in November 2004, based on a nationwide telephone survey of 885 adults, showed that 65 percent of all Americans favored teaching creationism alongside evolution. A follow-up poll of 2,000 people by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in July 2005 found that 64 percent were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution. Both polls are practically identical and confirm each other. The polls also show large numbers, around 40 percent, in favor of replacing evolution with creationism in the science curriculum. When compared with these poll results, President Bush's position that both sides should be taught seems modest.

Similarly, Senator Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican leader who is a medical doctor, also endorsed teaching both sides, saying such an approach "doesn't force any particular theory on anyone ... I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go about education and training people for the future." Many scientists were surprised by Senator Frist's statement and dismissed it as an attempt to garner conservative Christian support for his anticipated presidential bid. One might anticipate that medical doctors, because of their substantial education in biology during premedical training, would be more supportive of teaching evolution than the general public is. But, in fact, many doctors are unsure of evolution, and Senator Frist's view is not extreme among them.

A poll in May 2004 of 1,472 physicians by the Louis Finkelstein Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary together with H CD Research in Flemington, New Jersey, reported that 65 percent approved of teaching both evolution and creation in the schools. And 11 percent of the Catholic doctors, plus 35 percent of the Protestant doctors, believe that "God created humans exactly as they appear now." Acceptance of evolution is far from unanimous among Christian doctors.

The reason is not hard to find: evolution is increasingly crowded out of the premedical curriculum by topics like cell biology, physiology, and genetics, which are more pertinent to day-to-day medical practice than evolution is. The polls show that, as a group, doctors don't know any more about evolution than does the general public. And a majority of the public, including doctors, already wants science and religion taught side by side.

Although both President Bush and Senator Frist have voiced positions on evolution consistent with the polls, I believe it's fair to say that they have not assumed leadership in showing how evolution should be presented or in finding some way to bridge the perceived gap between evolutionary biology and Christian values. I hope that this book will help bridge that gap.

People often seem to want to talk more about religion than about science. I sense a deep desire to speak about God but not much desire to see another nature show. I believe this pent-up urge for talking about God is being met through the work-around of shoehorning God into a debate about teaching evolution. Why? Because it's inappropriate to discuss matters of religious faith in public debate, whereas it's acceptable to talk about the science curriculum. We talk about teaching evolution when we really want to talk about God, not plants and animals. So, let's not fool around. In this book, I speak openly and explicitly about God, not God camouflaged as science. Once the air is cleared, I hope we can return with rekindled interest to the plants and animals that motivated evolutionary theory in the first place.

Just as evolutionary theory has both rock-solid parts and squishy parts, some Christian teachings enjoy broad support while others are embraced by only a few sects. Evolutionary science threatens some Christians but not others. Why? When evolution seems to conflict with religious beliefs, could the problem be in the religious teaching, not the science teaching? A balanced look at teaching evolution necessitates looking seriously at both religion and science, which I do in this book.

People have asked me to be direct about my own definition of God and my own religious sentiments. Well, to me God is an experience, not an idea. I experience God through human community. I believe Jesus lived and died for our sins. His teachings express a vision of love and inclusion. I am concerned not with "proving" whether God exists but with living a Christian life. Beyond that, I'd rather not make much of my own story, because this book is not about me. It's about burying the hatchet between science and religion, starting with the teaching of evolution.

Here's where I'm coming from. I've taught evolutionary biology and ecology for more than thirty years at the university level and have made a lifelong study of the subject. In contrast, I write as a simple parishioner about Christianity and the Bible. I wish I had the depth of experience with the Bible that I have with evolution, but I don't, and I hope you will forgive my mistakes. My faith tradition emphasizes a personal responsibility to engage the Bible and to tell others about it. Although I question my own competence to write about matters of Christian faith, I draw courage from the instruction in each Sunday's sermon about the need to speak up. Many of you will also have developed your own personal understanding of the Bible, and I hope that you will find my interpretations complementary to your own inquiry. I know this has been an important journey for me. I simply would not participate in evolutionary biology if I thought it somehow undercut Christian faith or was in any way immoral or destructive to our shared humanity. I think that people who actively engage in both evolutionary biology and Christianity should know in their hearts that they are doing the right thing.

For the biblical passages I use the King James Version. I've wanted to avoid digressing into the pros and cons of the dozens of different translations that are currently available and have chosen a version that is familiar, even though couched in Old English phrases. The points I'm making depend not on how a particular Hebrew or Greek word is translated but on the whole passage, the meaning of which comes through in any translation. Furthermore, I accept the Bible as is—this is the book on the table in front of us. I believe our first task is to see how the Bible, as currently given in a standard text, compares with the findings of evolutionary biology. You may wish to pursue further historical and textual analysis of the passages that I've singled out, but for now we have to start somewhere.

Finally, you might wonder why I am writing solely about Christian faith and its relationship to evolution. Well, I'm even less qualified to write about other faith traditions, or about atheism, than I am about Christianity. More important, the problem before us is specifically between evolution and Christianity. It is only Christians, not people of other faiths, who are challenging the teaching of evolution in our schools. If you are from other faith traditions, or are an atheist or agnostic, then I hope this book will still be of interest to you because of the status report it presents on the current state of evolutionary biology and because the relation of evolutionary biology to Christian teachings is a major issue of our time.

Here is the plan for the book. The early chapters present the facts of evolutionary biology. The middle chapters focus on how evolutionary biology explains those facts. The final chapters discuss current limitations to evolutionary theory as well as the challenges posed by present-day anti-evolutionists. Throughout, both scientific and Christian dimensions of the issues are discussed side by side.

I don't think we need more evidence for evolution. I think the presentation of evolution in our schools needs to respect the spiritual yearning of people that compels them to overlook the evidence we already have. I believe scientists need more sympathy and willingness to accommodate people of faith, to offer space for seeing a Christian vision of the world within evolutionary biology and not force people to accept a doctrine of universal selfishness as though established scientific fact.


Single Tree of Life

JUST WHAT IS EVOLUTION? THE MAIN finding, originally suggested by Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle in 1860, is that all life is related. All life belongs to one huge family tree. Some branches are the plants, other branches are animals, and subbranches of animals are the starfish, the insects, the mammals, and so forth, everything. The single tree of life is the basic fact of evolution. Not teaching that all life is related in one gigantic family tree is like not teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun.

You hear that evolution says we are descended from apes and monkeys. Sure, but that's not the point. All of life is related, not just humans with apes and monkeys. If you hug a tree, you're hugging a relative, a very distant relative of course, but a relative nonetheless. And we're not descended from apes and monkeys the way those species are now. Our relationship to monkeys and apes goes back in time to when our common ancestor lived—it's not that we were ever like today's monkeys or that they were like us, it's that we share ancestors in common.

How do we know this? The same way we tell whether people are related to one another. Children resemble their parents; they're not exact copies of course, but you can typically see the parents' eyes, nose, hair color, height, or another characteristic in their children. It's the same with animals, but you have to look beneath the skin, into the genes. Genes are substances deposited by parents into their eggs and sperm. After an egg and a sperm unite, these substances are "read" like a recipe so that the embryo can develop with the eyes, ears, nose, hair, height, and so forth that the parents have. Genes are made from a chemical called DNA, for short, although the full name, which nobody bothers to use, is several syllables long.

Everybody seems to know, even from courtroom television, that DNA can be used today for paternity analysis. Because children share the DNA of their parents, we can tell whether people are related by seeing if their DNA is the same. Well, this principle works across all living things. We share genes with all other living creatures—not just one or two genes but thousands of them. From 50 to 99 percent of all our genes are shared in common with other species, depending on how closely related we are to them. Today, the family tree of all life is being diagrammed from DNA data.

More evidence of evolution comes from fossils, the remains of ancient animals now embedded in rocks, but this is not as good as the DNA data because it's fragmentary. There are only so many quarries or exposed cliffs in which to dig up old bones and shells, and consequently the quantity of this data is always limited. But what there is shows the appearance through time of new forms coming from older forms. To me, what's interesting about fossils is not whether they prove the unity of all life, because the DNA data already do that, but that fossils offer a glimpse into what living conditions were like in the past. Digging fossils is the closest thing we have to a time machine. Fossils show that many species once lived that are no longer with us. This is a humbling realization, because some of these species were very widespread and looked totally successful, as though they would never disappear.


Excerpted from Evolution and Christian Faith by Joan Roughgarden. Copyright © 2006 Joan Roughgarden. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joan Roughgarden is professor of biological sciences and of geophysics at Stanford University. Her many books include Evolution's Rainbow (University of California Press, 2004), Primer of Ecological Theory (Prentice Hall, 1995), and Theory of Population Genetics and Evolutionary Ecology (Macmillan, 1979).She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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