Book review: Evolution and Belief by Robert Asher
Adam Rutherford tires of zombie arguments about creationism
Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Palaeontologist by Robert Asher (Cambridge University Press)
I met a parish priest recently who launched into a splenetic tirade about the fallacies of evolution. It was an inventory of canards: the inexplicable complexities of the eye: check; the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagella: check; mutation cannot miraculously create information: check.
I, and many of you New Humanist readers, have played this game before. I need not go into why they are all wrong and all perfectly answerable; you have the Internet for that. These assertions, spoon-fed by unimaginative but persistent creationists, have been characterised as “Zombie Arguments”: they may be dead but just won’t lie down.
The fact is that while there are scientific disputes within evolutionary biology, no one has successfully challenged the foundations of evolution by natural selection: via genetic mutation and generational time, all species on Earth emerged from a common ancestor. It is a theory, in the scientific sense of being indistinguishable from fact, whose wholesale replacement is extremely unlikely.
Evolution, as all science does, concerns only the realm of the natural. As there is no supernatural realm, the empirical truth that some scientists believe in God can be puzzling. I’ve not come across a satisfactory explanation for this apparent discrepancy between the imagined and the real that doesn’t involve some kind of compartmentalisation of different behaviours. But I also don’t really care as long as the secular separation is concrete. To me, the oddness of psychology that permits a scientist to hold religious views is of only passing interest.
If however, you choose to declare that these states are logically compatible and volunteer a defence of this, you’d better have a good game. Evolution and Belief by Robert Asher appears to be such a defence, and its subtitle “Confessions of a Religious Palaeontologist” is a tantalising tease – what is he going to confess?
But there is no revelation. Anyone hoping for personal or theological insight into this riddle will be disappointed, as there are no confessions, nor is the fact of Asher’s faith relevant beyond the prologue. Stating the roughly Deist view that nature is the expression of divinity is not new, interesting or scientific.
Evolution and Belief is successful as a sturdy analysis of the ongoing battles between creationism and fact, including creationists’ recent attempts to inveigle their way into scientific respectability with the avatar “Intelligent Design”. Page after page of the most brilliant science is eloquently and knowledgeably explained, with myriad demonstrations of why there is vanishingly little cause to doubt that evolution is true: from fossils, from DNA, from whales, marsupials, horses, from Gould, Dawkins, Darwin and the litany of evolutionary biologists who have refined his big argument. It’s also punctuated with arguments as to why creationism is not true. That format is similar to Jerry Coyne’s masterful and unequivocally titled book Why Evolution is True. But biblical creationism is a minority view amongst both Christians and Christian biologists.
It is a shame that such interloping is needed in either book, as if the glory of life can only be appreciated in opposition to a stance politely described as bewilderingly idiotic. Coyne, alongside other doyens of popular evolution books, is a vocal atheist. Perhaps Asher’s book will work better for those who are ignorant of the truth of evolution, but hostile to its association by authorship with atheism. But in this overcrowded field, you’d better have something new to say, or else natural selection will take its course.