19 September 2011

Evolution: The Great Debate

Continuing my season of old book reviews, here is one I wrote for Science and Christian Belief:

Evolution: The Great Debate
by Vernon Blackmore and Andrew Page
Lion, 1989

Evolution has been given the Lion treatment. This very attractive large format paperback is typical of the sort of publication for which Lion is justly renowned. It is well illustrated, clearly written and additional information is set apart from the main text in coloured boxes. All in all it could have been designed to compete in the secular coffee table book market.

But that very fact immediately raises a question in my mind. Given that this is the product of a Christian publisher, what is its purpose? The title suggests that it is yet another contribution to the long-running creation–evolution debate. However, that suggestion is firmly denied by the authors (p. 7). Instead they offer to take us on a guided tour of the history of the idea of evolution.

With that in mind, let us turn to the content of the book. Three introductory chapters set the scene for Darwin, tracing the history of evolutionary speculation and associated ideas from classical Greek times to the beginning of Darwin’s career as a natural historian. Chapters 4 and 5 examine first the historical development of Darwin’s theory and then its central feature: natural selection as the driving mechanism for evolution. Chapters 6 to 8 continue the history of evolution with an account of the post-Darwinian debates (both religious and biological) to the present day. The final chapter is more philosophical in tone, examining some of the speculation which has been associated with the espousal of Darwinism.

I have little to say about the book's account of evolution as a biological theory. The authors’ material is straightforwardly written, readable and accurate. In fact it would make a good A level textbook on the subject.

However, Christian readers will expect more than that from a book published by Lion. The authors deny that the book is about the rights and wrongs of creationism and evolution. Nevertheless there is far more about the religious implications of evolution than one would expect in a secular book on the same theme.
Thus one might expect to find an objective report of the development of Christian responses to evolutionary thought. However, this is not in fact the case. The bulk of the religious material has to do with the development of creationism. Far from presenting it objectively, the authors are clearly critical of this particular response to the theory of evolution. On the other hand, recognising that their brief was not to take sides, the authors refrain from making out a convincing case for theistic evolution. That the latter is their preferred option is clear from their sympathetic account of it on p. 186f. Unfortunately they refer readers to the work of Arthur Peacocke for further information about this option. Peacocke is a highly respected writer on science and religion, but his mixture of liberal Anglicanism and process theology is unlikely to commend theistic evolution to evangelical Christians.

For a book that contains so much about the religious implications of evolution it is remarkably thin on theology. The authors tend to ask questions rather than make theological suggestions. This could be good teaching technique or it could mask a reluctance to tackle the theological issues.

The historical nature of the book also tends to obscure the theological side of the debate.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a historical account of evolution with rather more than usual about the religious dimensions of the theory this might be the book to begin with. For theology, you will have to look elsewhere.

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