Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Thank God For Evolution - book review

In case you didn't know its a book by Michael Dowd. I have to say that I admire the goal of this book. The Eco aware and inclusive theology that Dowd is trying to build is an admirable thing. However I fear that is has some rather serious problems as its based on a combination of bad science and misappropriated theology.

Firstly the Science. Dowd is a fan of evolution. However he tries to make the leap from Darwinian evolution, an established biological process, to evolution as the underlying principle of the universe. And here we have made the error that Creationists love to see. Because quite frankly Evolution as a paradigm of everything is not a scientific theory, and can be easily blown out of the water. Doing so does nothing to biological evolution,despite what Creationists would like you to believe.

In any case Dowd's evolution seems to be a synonym for emergence and the argument that the Ultimate Reality which is God and the universe simultaneously (Dowd is a pantheist), is evolving. This seems flawed as by definition Ultimate reality is a closed system, and being closed is subject to the second law of thermodynamics. For me that really is the end of that one. Note this same, creationist argument is wrong when applied to Biological evolution as the Earths biosphere is not a closed system, it receives energy from the sun, and emits waste energy back into space constantly.

Dowd then spends a lot of time on the ideas of Evolutionary Psychology, which is a relatively young approach and does have its detractors. But simply we have the old nature vs nurture debate and the fact that we are not certain how our behavior is shaped by our genes and experiences.

Despite this, his view of self growth is quite a compelling one. The basic idea is to look at places where you had the wrong reaction (in hind sight) and ask why, then answer along the lines of, I had this reaction because of my evolutionary legacy, and the fact that this same pattern of behavior allowed my distant ancestors to survive. Its an interesting way of accepting the past without assigning blame to yourself or others, and in some cases might by just what you need to do.

The danger here for Dowd is that he has pinned his argument on contentious science. And if Psychology decides that the evolutionary approach is not useful, then Dowd's entire argument will become irrelevant. All in all I really feel this is pseudoscience pretending to be the real thing. And in this regard is not any better then Scientific Creationism.

This is followed by a number of practices, including generic meditation and self honesty aimed at self improvement. They seem like good solid things to do, and I have to say I lack the courage to attempt some of them. I haven't however read enough self help literature to know if there is anything new here or not.

Finally we come to Dowd's theology. And here I do not think he is being intellectually honest. The problem being that Dowd desperately wants to cling to the conviction that his pantheistic, miracle free, uncommitted about any afterlife theology is still a Christian Theology. So we have several chapters on how selected stories from the bible can be interpreted as metaphors for the evolutionary emergence of human being and human morality. Granted Maybe my personal reactions against the Christian myths is causing me to be overly bias, but I just cant see this working.

The problem for Dowd I believe is that every Christian authority I can think of has, at some stage or other, denounced pantheism. Most recently they did so in response to the move Avatar. Yes it had pretty pictures but there was no plot people, let alone a theological message worth mentioning. So he is trying to take Christianity that it has already looked at and rejected.

And in the end I would have to agree that when you take the Christian message, then take away all literalism. When you argue that the virgin birth and resurrection where just put in because 1st century people would not take the message seriously with out it, what you have left is a great idea but its not what it was.

Dowd's theology is not bad. It is in my opinion quite good but it needs its own myths and stories. Indeed his website tries to provide several. And if your going to do this shackling yourself to a two thousand year old book is really more trouble then its worth.

So to sum up. I like the theology Dowd is trying to build. His practices for personal development are great. However the over reliance on evolution as a model of everything makes it scientifically questionable. And the attempt to dress it up in Christian language seems redundant, and possibly counter productive.


Michael Dowd said...

Thanks for the mostly positive review, Konrad! I suggest that you are wrong, however about your claim that my science is controversial and questionable. This is hardly the case, as evidenced by the fact that six Nobel laureates and other science luminaries, including renowned skeptics and atheists, have enthusiastically endorsed my book.

It seems that you are not familiar with the discipline of Big History. I suggest you see the wikipedia pages on "Big History", "Epic of Evolution", and "Religious Naturalism". I also invite you to see some of the resources here: http://thankgodforevolution.com/node/1520

Thanks again for your post!


~ Michael

Konrad Zielinski said...

I'm quite honored to have the author reply to my review. And I'll be looking into big history section as You suggested. It is indeed an intriguing area.

As to the science being controversial. The issue is Evolutionary Psychology. Interestingly enough Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to criticism of this approach http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology_controversy .