Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Back to Darwin

Back to Darwin: A Richer Account of Evolution
John B Cobb, editor
Grand Rapids (MI): William B Eerdmans, 2008. 434 pages
Reviewed by
Timothy Shanahan

Back to Darwin: A Richer Account of Evolution consists of a collection of two dozen papers presented at an academic conference on evolution and religion organized by the Center for Process Studies at Claremont, California, in October 2004. The volume consists of an editor’s introduction, four topical sections containing four to nine essays each, plus an appendix. Most of the essays are contributed by authors whose names will be familiar to anyone who has browsed the literature in what might be called “the reconciliatory genre of science and religion writing,” especially as it concerns evolution. The editor makes no bones about the fact that whereas he has attempted to honor the integrity of each author’s contribution(s), he has also selected, organized, and contextualized this material in order to highlight how a “process perspective” can remedy some of the defects of current neo-Darwinian thinking. (“Process thought” is an elaboration and application of ideas developed by Alfred North Whitehead in the 1920s that takes events, processes, and integration rather than materialistic and dualistic ways of thinking as metaphysically basic.)

Section I consists of “Background Materials. ”The essays in this section seek to convey a history of the problem of science and religion, to provide the basics of contemporary evolutionary theorizing, and to survey some of the tensions between Darwinian ideas and religious belief. Section II aims “To Broaden and Diversify Evolutionary Theory” by integrating scientific ideas from thermodynamics, quantum physics, and chemistry into evolutionary thinking, as well as by promoting the underappreciated biological ideas of neo-Lamarckism, symbiogenesis, Gaia, and the Baldwin effect. Section III takes up “The Philosophical Challenge to Neo- Darwinism.” The inclusion of the term “Neo-Darwinism” in the title of this section alerts the reader to expect a critique, as this term is seldom used by contemporary biologists in describing their work, but occasionally crops up in the writings of authors providing an historical account of the synthesis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection with Mendelian genetics, or by those about to launch into a critique of Darwinian ideas and who therefore need to fix in their sights the intended target. In this case it is the latter. The main theme of the essays in this section is that Darwinism, as currently conceived, needlessly narrows and limits the nature of evolution in a way that excludes all consideration of subjectivity, emergence, and purpose. The final section, Section IV, addresses the issue of “Evolution and God” by posing the question, “Can a scientific account of the world be incorporated into a theistic one?”The essays in this section tend to answer that question in the affirmative by seeking to modify both theology and science in order to integrate them into a unified vision of reality.

It would be impossible to summarize each of the individual essays here. But certain recurring themes stand out. Unlike books by outspoken atheists (such as by Richard Dawkins) that attempt to use Darwin to demolish religious belief, the contributors to this volume seek to find a rapprochement between an affirmation of Darwin’s fundamental ideas and religious belief. Its spirit is fundamentally reconciliatory rather than antagonistic — seeking integration rather than opposition. What unites the essays (and accounts for the volume’s title) is the contributors’ affirmation of Darwin’s demonstration of the fact of biological evolution conjoined with a concern to correct certain assumptions and overstatements in the development of evolutionary theory after Darwin. Of particular concern are certain “extreme” statements of evolution according to which genes are conceived as being unaffected by their environments, and in which more inclusive life-forms (for example, organisms) essentially disappear from explanations of evolutionary change. Hence the authors propose to “go back” to re-affirm Darwin’s major, distinctive ideas without necessarily embracing subsequent restrictive extensions and elaborations of Darwin’s ideas that underwrite (or presuppose) atheistic views.

The volume will be of interest to anyone concerned to explore alternatives to the science–religion debate as framed by the most uncompromising proponents of godless evolution, on the one hand, and by advocates of “creation science” or “intelligent design”, on the other. Perhaps of particular interest for readers of this journal are the views of the volume’s editor concerning the teaching of evolution in public schools. While agreeing with the vast majority of biologists that “creation science” and “intelligent design” have no place in public school science education, and affirming that schools should avoid teaching that evolution shows signs of being directed or guided by an intelligent agent, he nonetheless maintains that the teaching of evolution in public schools should also avoid saying or implying that the evolutionary process is wholly purposeless and devoid of values. Yet rather than leave it at that, as many educators might be inclined to do, Cobb explicitly harnesses the essays in the book to show how such a stance can be underwritten by a theistically-friendly- yet-neutral metaphysics (process philosophy) that gives each side in the evolution-creation/ design debate something (but not everything) it wants: naturalism (of a sort) without dogmatic atheism; purpose and values without fundamentalism or refurbished natural theology.

Of course, precisely because this approach attempts to chart a middle course between the polarized extremes in the evolution-creation dispute, it will seem satisfactory to neither side. More generally, as an attempt at a philosophical via media it is bound to suffer from the fate of nearly every such attempt; or as I explain to my students, it will be yet another confirmation of what I like to call “Shanahan’s Law”: For any fundamental philosophical problem, there will be solutions that lie at either extreme that are admirably clear but which lead to enormous difficulties and hence will be hard to justify; and there will be a range of intermediate positions with greater but varying degrees of plausibility, but burdened by corresponding unclarity sometimes bordering on outright obscurity. The philosophical dilemma of clarity versus plausibility is hardly unique to the science-religion dispute, or to the project of this book, and therefore should not dissuade readers from plunging in. Indeed, to the extent that this volume encourages readers to consider intriguing alternatives to the most vocally defended poles of the debate about the teaching of evolution in public schools, this volume deserves a wide readership.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.