Evolution And Evil: Room For God

On the separate worlds of science and religion.

Philosophy blog: Francisco J. Ayala science religion evolution evilFor what reads like a fluff piece, Cornelia Dean’s portrait of evolutionary biologist and author Francisco J. Ayala manages to press some pertinent buttons. Specifically:

1. The title “Roving Defender of Evolution, And Room for God” might mislead. It seems to imply that Ayala speaks not just as a scientist but as a believer. But the piece closes as follows: “Dr. Ayala will not say whether he remains a religious believer. ‘I don’t want to be tagged,’ he said. ‘By one side or the other.’”

2. Ayala makes some curious statements about evolution and evil. As Dean reports “If God or some other intelligent agent made things this way on purpose, [Ayala] said, ‘then he is a sadist…’” And quoted Ayala from his book: “Evolution ‘provided the ‘missing link’ in the explanation of evil in the world.’”

3. And, in passing, Dean inserts this dramatic and non-trivial opinion: “‘Science and religion concern nonoverlapping realms of knowledge,’ [Ayala] writes in the new book. ‘It is only when assertions are made beyond their legitimate boundaries that evolutionary theory and religious belief appear to be antithetical.’”

Philosophy blog: NY Times logo editorial quality on-line newsThe NY Times exhibits poor editorial judgment in publishing the piece under the chosen title. I don’t know whether the Times is diluting its editorial expertise in the move to become an up-to-date on-line news resource. And I don’t have an assiduous record of the editorial quality of the paper. But it’s my passing impression that the mismatch between titles and content is happening somewhat frequently on-line. I don’t ever recall it happening in the printed paper. The piece itself is less focused and on-point than one would expect from a top notch news source. In an Internet world overflowing with dubious content, these things matter enormously.

Philosophy blog: Charles Darwin evolution evil science religionI’m fascinated by Ayala’s equating of evolution with an explanation for evil. Given the sketchy coverage of Ayala’s views and opinions, I’m guessing that he has much more to say on the subject. But from the little we have to work with Ayala seems to be saying that evolution lets God off the hook for being the source of evil.

This brings us to the third point. If science and religion concern nonoverlapping realms of knowledge then on what basis can we cross-reference evolution and evil?

Here are my specific responses:

a. Religion is not a realm of knowledge, it is a realm of belief. In furthering human understanding and combating intolerance, we must resist the confusion of scientific and rational knowledge (which is grounded in a common and reproducible perception of the world we live in) from religious belief (which is not).

b. Evil is a human construct related to belief and doesn’t “exist” other than as a concept. To casually conjoin the concept of evolution with the concept of evil overlaps science and religion in exactly the way that Ayala seems to decry.

c. I agree that denouncing religion in the name of science isn’t particularly helpful. But neither is it helpful for a renowned scientist to use his scientific credentials to explicitly “make room” for religion while being coy about his own beliefs.

As a side note, moral concepts arise out of our experience of the world around us. Morality is our way of making sense of the way that life seems to operate. If we explore the origin of the concept of morality we find that it has its fundamental grounds in the principles of space and time. Working rationally we can define a moral framework that relies only on logic and promotes ideas about goodness that reflect life as it is not life as we’ve been told it should be. — I describe this approach in detail in my book - LIFE!

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