Thursday, May 01, 2008

Francisco Ayala on evolution, science, and religion

While controversies regarding evolution/ID make a bigger splash, here is a refreshing story about Francisco Ayala - an evolutionary biologist/geneticist and a former Dominican priest (and while we are at it, he is also on the boards of Opera Pacific and the Pacific Symphony and owns vineyards in California! Hey forget about the idiotic evolution/ID controversies, he would be an interesting person to talk to about pretty much any thing). He makes it clear that evolution does not make belief in God impossible (also see his book, Darwin's Gift: to Science and Religion). Again this underscores the fact that evolutionary biologists have a spectrum of beliefs - and all these views should be respected. In fact Ayala, goes a step further and believes that the evolutionary theory can actually provide a solution to the pesky problem of evil:

Dr. Ayala, a former Dominican priest, said he told his audiences not just that evolution is a well-corroborated scientific theory, but also that belief in evolution does not rule out belief in God. In fact, he said, evolution “is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for.”

Consider, he said, that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy, Dr. Ayala said, “God is the greatest abortionist of them all.”

Or consider, he said, the “sadism” in parasites that live by devouring their hosts, or the mating habits of insects like female midges, tiny flies that fertilize their eggs by consuming their mates’ genitals, along with all their other parts.

For the midges, Dr. Ayala said, “it makes evolutionary sense. If you are a male and you have mated, the best thing you can do for your genes is to be eaten.” But if God or some other intelligent agent made things this way on purpose, he said, “then he is a sadist, he certainly does odd things and he is a lousy engineer.”

That is also the message of his latest book, “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” (Joseph Henry Press, 2007). In it, he writes that as a theology student in Spain he had been taught that evolution “provided the ‘missing link’ in the explanation of evil in the world” — a defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence, despite the existence of evil.

“As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life,” he writes. “They were not a result of a deficient or malevolent design.”

Again, one doesn't have to subscribe to his theistic views, but it is interesting to see him applying evolutionary ideas to religious problems. But he does see a problem when evolution gets linked to atheism:

He said he was saddened when he saw the embrace of evolution identified with, as he put it, “explicit atheism,” as in the books of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins or other writers on science and faith.

Neither the existence nor nonexistence of God is susceptible to scientific proof, Dr. Ayala said, and equating science with the abandonment of religion “fits the prejudices” of advocates of intelligent design and other creationist ideas.

Read the full article here.