Evolution and Belief: Book review

The subtitle of this book is “Confessions of a religious paleontologist,” but you will find only one confession: that the author, Robert Asher, believes in God. More on that later.

The heart of the book is 8 chapters that irrefutably demonstrate descent with modification. I found much of the book compelling, but also fairly difficult and much more detailed than I thought appropriate for a lay audience. A number of times, Asher uses a term that is obviously well known to biologists, but known to me only vaguely if at all – and I have been a fellow traveler in biology for approximately a decade. Pseudogene, for example, appears, undefined, in the very last sentence of the chapter that describes the evolution of whales from terrestrial to marine animals. I looked it up in the index and found that it is defined, implicitly at best, 50 pages later.

Elsewhere, Asher tells us that platypuses and echidnas are monotremes; the context cries out for an explanation, but all we get is the statement that the term “hints at” the fact that “the digestive and reproductive tracts coalesce into a single channel….” OK, but precisely what distinguishes them from reptiles and from other mammals? Finally, Asher mentions a number of organisms and sometimes uses terms that are probably unfamiliar to most readers. I am afraid he has occasionally forgotten that what is trivial to him is not necessarily trivial to an uninformed reader.

For all that, the book establishes the fact of evolution by showing how similar trees of life can be established by examining the fossil record, anatomy, and DNA. Along the way, Asher describes the evolution of mammals and, in particular, discusses the evolution of mammalian ear bones from certain reptilian jaw bones; I have known about this discovery for years, but never before seen it laid out in such detail. Asher goes on to describe the evolution of elephants and whales, and, for example, seizes on the existence of inactive genes for teeth to show that toothless baleen whales must have evolved from toothy ancestors. A nice chapter on biology and probability shows why evolution is not random and discusses the well known selection for spines and armor in stickleback fish.

Asher takes on the creationists from time to time, and a chapter called “The fossils still say no!” certainly takes care of one or two buffoons. Other sections effectively refute creationist arguments, in particular, Behe’s irreducible complexity in a chapter on biology and probability. Asher is not otherwise effective against old-earth creationists, including intelligent-design creationists, who accept descent with modification but deny that it could have happened by natural causes.

The paleontology book I have just described is wrapped, like the Book of Job, in a prologue and an epilogue, though, unlike the Book of Job, the entire book was written by one person. The confession in the subtitle is presumably Asher’s admission that he believes in God, an admission about which he is at least somewhat defensive. Indeed, he is at pains to show that a belief in God is neither “schizophrenic” nor irrational, though he argues (and I could not agree more) that any religious belief that denies scientific facts is inherently irrational. Indeed, he categorizes a great many religious beliefs other than his own as superstition (and again I cannot agree more).

Asher admits that he cannot prove the existence of God but uses analogies to support his position. There is nothing wrong with analogy, but analogy has to be apt, and Asher’s are anything but. For example, he affirms (at inordinate length) that he loves the Buffalo Sabres and considers that statement to be a “truth.” Well, yes, it is a truth, but there is one major difference between his love of the Buffalo Sabres and his love of God: we know that the Buffalo Sabres exist. As I have noted elsewhere, internal reality does not necessarily correspond with external reality; if it did, then hallucinations would be real.

Similarly, Asher makes a very fair distinction between an agent and the mechanism (or cause) by which the agent’s invention works. He points out, correctly, that saying “God did it” gives no information about the mechanism – a fact that is lost on many creationists. The statement that Thomas Savery invented the steam engine says nothing about how the steam engine works, but neither does your understanding of the steam engine imply that Thomas Savery never existed. Similarly, says Asher, your understanding of the mechanism of natural selection does not imply that God never existed. True enough, but if I do a little research, I will find that Thomas Savery indeed invented the steam engine. (Savery, agent, cause, and steam engine, incidentally, are among several terms that are not found in a fairly weak index.) By contrast, I can look high and low for God and not find a shred of evidence for the existence of such an entity. Asher’s response to this argument is that we cannot expect God to have humanlike characteristics, and maybe he does not leave any traces; to that somewhat weak defense, I can only recommend Antony Flew’s essay, “Theology and falsification,” about which I have written here.

I cannot fathom exactly what Asher believes, but I take it that it is close to deism (yet another term that is found in the text but not in the index). I agree with Asher that is not irrational to believe in God, as long as your belief does not contradict known facts. But neither is it rational, so I prefer to think of a belief in God as nonrational. It would be substantially more rational, however, for a scientist such as Asher to take the approach that his belief in God is a hypothesis rather than a belief: I can see no reason for a good scientist, such as Asher, to believe in an entity that may not exist.