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See Inside November 2008

The Christian Man's Evolution: How Darwinism and Faith Can Coexist

A geneticist ordained as a Dominican priest, Francisco J. Ayala sees no conflict between Darwinism and faith. Convincing most of the American public of that remains the challenge



Courtesy the University of California, Irvine

Francisco J. Ayala pulls open the top drawer of a black cabinet and flips through nearly a dozen files, all neatly titled by publication and due date. These are the essays on evolution he has been churning out over the past six to eight weeks for popular books and magazines. “Hack jobs,” he calls them with a smile, bragging that each one takes only a day or two to complete.

After some 30 years of proselytizing about evolution to Christian believers, the esteemed evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, has honed his arguments to a fine point. He has stories and examples at the ready, even a shock tactic or two at his fingertips. One out of five pregnancies ends in spontaneous miscarriage, he often reminds audiences. Next he will pointedly ask, as in an interview with U.S. Catholic magazine last year, “If God explicitly designed the human reproductive system, is God the biggest abortionist of them all?” Through such examples, he explains, “I want to turn around their arguments.”

The 74-year-old Ayala is preparing for an exceptionally busy 2009. The year marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birthday and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, and the battle over the teaching of evolution is sure to heat up. Ayala says the need is especially great for scientists to engage religious people in dialogue. As evidence, he lugs over the 11-by-17-inch, 12-pound Atlas of Creation mailed out by Muslim creationist Adnan Oktar in Turkey to scientists and museums across the U.S. and France. This richly illustrated tome not only attacks evolution but also links Darwin’s theory to horrors, including fascism and even Satan himself.

In the U.S. the intelligent design–promoting Discovery Institute in Seattle has published biology textbooks questioning evolution and has promoted the 2008 film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed to make the case that anti-Darwinist scientists are persecuted. (For a rebuttal, see “Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Integrity Displayed,” by John Rennie, and related articles.) Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has said she believes that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in schools. One in eight high school biology teachers already treat creationism as a valid alternative, according to a Pennsylvania State University poll.

Despite outreach efforts by scientists and constitutional rulings against them, creationists and intelligent design advocates “are not getting weaker,” Ayala says. “If anything, they’re more visible.”

But Ayala thinks that scientists who attack religion and ridicule the faithful—most notably, Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford—are making a mistake. It is destructive and gives fodder to the preachers who insist followers must choose either Darwin or God. Often students in Ayala’s introductory biology class tell him that they will answer test questions as he wishes, but in truth they reject evolution because of their Christian beliefs. Then, a couple of years later, when they have learned more science, they decide to abandon their religion. The two, students seem to think, are incompatible.

That saddens him, Ayala says. Instead he would like believers to reconcile their faith with science. Drawing on five years of study in preparation for ordination as a Dominican priest, Ayala uses evolution to help answer a central paradox of Christianity—namely, how can a loving, all-knowing God allow evil and suffering?

Nature is poorly designed—with oddities such as blind spots built into the human eye and an excess of teeth jammed into our jaws. Parasites are sadists. Predators are cruel. Natural selection can explain the ruthlessness of nature, Ayala argues, and remove the “evil”—requiring an intentional act of free will—from the living world. “Darwin solved the problem,” Ayala concludes. He refers to science-savvy Christian theologians who present a God that is continuously engaged in the creative process through undirected natural selection. By addressing religious people on their own terms, Ayala aims to offer a better answer than intelligent design or creationism.

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