BOOKS AND ARTS
19 July 2012, Review by Denis Alexander
How else do you explain kangaroos?
Evolution and Belief: confessions of a religious paleontologistRobert J. Asher
Cambridge University Press, £15.99
Tablet bookshop price £14.40 Tel 01420 592974
The American author of this fine new book has a Jewish father, a Christian mother, and was raised a Presbyterian in a small conservative town in western New York State. He counts himself as religious. We learn all this in the first two sentences of the Prologue and it is indeed important background for understanding the shape and direction of the rest of the book.
The author, who lectures in palaeontology at the Department of Zoology in Cambridge University where he is curator of vertebrates in the Museum of Zoology, critiques creationism and intelligent design (ID), but at the same time points out the irrationality also found among those who seek to invest the evolutionary narrative with an atheistic rhetoric. In the process, the author draws very effectively on his own professional expertise in vertebrate palaeontology in general and in mammalian evolution in particular.
The first two chapters set the scene by sketching out the author’s own position on how science and religion interrelate, with some initial salvos against both creationism and ID – the idea, that is, that certain biological entities are so complex that they could not possibly have come into being by a gradual process of incremental Darwinian evolution. One gains a strong impression from these initial chapters that the author is launching out on his own exploration of faith as it relates to science.
That being said, I am not suggesting that the book should not be read by those who have always happily incorporated evolution within the theistic matrix provided by their Christian faith. They will find much to learn from Evolution and Belief, especially from the scientific core of the book in chapters three to seven, where the author provides an excellent overview of that mass of vertebrate palaeontological data which only make sense within an evolutionary framework. Here, Asher is clearly on his home turf, and it tells in the thoroughness of the analysis,
To give a flavour of these chapters: there is plenty of information here about the evolution of mammals, of whales and of elephants; about the relationships between marsupials and placentals, and about the similarities between crocodile jaw bones and mammalian ear ossicles. Did you know that there are about 5,000 species of living placental mammals and only about 300 species of marsupials (like the kangaroo)? Did you know that the closest living relative to the whale is the hippopotamus? The fossil record is well described, together with concepts such as microevolution and macroevolution (a distinction deemed to be less than useful), and punctuated equilibrium; and a section which provides the author an opportunity to illustrate some of the more egregious creationist quotes of scientists taken out of context.
If you want to know how pelycosaurs, therapsids and cynodonts are all synapsids that belong on the lineage leading to modern mammals, then this is the section for you. It is not the author’s fault that palaeontologists embed their subject in a nest of technical names, not all of which roll off the tongue with equal ease. These chapters taken as a whole act as a powerful counter-argument to the suggestion by ID proponents that evolutionary biology provides no explanation for the origins of new information. In reality the record itself displays new information at every twist and turn of the evolutionary tree.
The remaining four chapters focus on the failure of creationism to provide any kind of rational account of the abundant evidence for evolution. Useful in this respect is a substantial table (8.1) listing 130 out of the many hundreds of reports in the scientific literature describing fossil animals that have anatomical features present in living groups, thereby helping to assign their positions on the evolutionary tree of life. A further summary table (10.1) provides dozens of examples from the 2009-2010 literature showing how novel information has arisen from well understood molecular events.
The space given to the origin of such information is a particularly useful feature of the book as so often it is this topic which is promoted as a “problem” for evolution by the creationist and ID lobbies. As the author points out, Darwinian evolution refers not to the origin of life, but to the evolution of living organisms once they became established on this planet; yet even within this evolutionary tree of living organisms, the generation of new information has been huge.
Evolutionary history is also highly constrained by the adaptive necessities of organisms living in ecological niches with well-defined properties. Asher cites the fine work of Simon Conway Morris on convergence, the repeated evolution of the same or similar organs or biochemical pathways in independent evolutionary lineages. Yes, the particular features of particular organisms are contingent, but taken overall, the Darwinian process is very far from being a random process, a windmill against which creationists are wont to tilt.
This is not a book for in-depth analysis of the theological challenges that evolution poses to some traditional Christian doctrines; there are no attempts here to probe doctrines of original sin or the nature of the first humans made in God’s image.
The author is also scrupulously honest about his own pilgrimage of faith. The strengths of Evolution and Belief lie more in its rigorous attention to the scientific data and in its polite but insistent message that creationism and ID are hopelessly inadequate to give a rational account of the rich tapestry of life’s diversity.
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