Book Review: Thank God for Evolution

When I was six or seven years old, my aunt took me and my sister to the Coney Island Aquarium in New York City. Aunt Lucille was a biologist of some renown; she had discovered a unique method of staining DNA for the electron microscope, and as far as I am aware, her discovery was still in use a few years ago.  She taught biology at a local university, but had been a first grade teacher and a high school teacher before embarking on her professorship.  I loved spending time with her and a trip to the aquarium, as far as I was concerned, was a fantastic way to spend the day.

Did I mention that in addition to these credentials she was a Roman Catholic nun?  She was a sister from Amityville, New York, of the Order of Preachers – Dominicans.

I remember standing with her next to the shark exhibit, watching the fearsome creatures swim about. She read to me from the plaque next to the exhibit about how sharks were descended from creatures millions of years old.

“But,” I asked her hesitantly, “How can that be when the Bible says that the world was made in seven days?”

I had inadvertently stumbled directly into the mire that is the evolution versus creationism debate. But my aunt, wise as always, said in language that my little child self could understanding, “God’s days aren’t our days, and a year in God’s time isn’t our time.  But the order of the Bible story is still correct; the heavens came first, then the earth, then the seas and the dry lands…”

So evolution was okay with me.  It made sense the way my aunt, my trusted authority on all things spiritual and all things scientific, explained it.  As time went by, I never had any doubt that God did indeed make us, but that he also made evolution; and Darwin wasn’t to be feared, but rather considered thoughtfully, like all scientists who present theories.

Time went on. I learned about evolutionary theories in my public high school; as a Catholic kid growing up on Long Island, it wasn’t a big deal. Years later, my husband read something in a book which said that the Hebrew word in Genesis that modern linguists translate as “day” (as in God made stuff on Day One, Day Two, etc) actually means eons, or an unspecified length of time.

It seems that Genesis had it right, after all.

Now what does all this have to do with a book review? Thank God for Evolution is an unusual book in that it tries, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully, to bridge the gap between what Michael Dowd, the author, calls “flat earth thinking” (traditional religious thinking) and evolutionary, now thinking.  Dowd, ordained as a minister, travels with his atheist wife around the country preaching what he calls the Doctrine of Evolutionism.

I did bristle at Dowd’s language, calling my faith and other traditional faiths “flat earth thinking”, as if we were still so mired in the past that we thought the world is flat.  If there’s one thing Catholics believe in, it is science; all those myths about scientists persecuted and burned at the stake are myths, frankly, and many great scientists were monks and nuns.  Religious inquiry in my experience doesn’t negate scientific inquiry.

Dowd strives to make the story of creation and the story of evolution one, complimentary, and coexistant. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  I liked his notion of holons, or worlds within worlds.  We live in the greater holon of our society, but inside our bodies are holons or complete worlds too. The bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our holon view it as their complete world too. It made me think of Madeline L’Engle’s book, A Wind in the Door. Same notion, just explained in different ways.

Where Dowd’s thesis unraveled for me was at the end when he urged us to think of climate change and environmental destruction as sins, and when he put forth ideas such as repopulating elephants into North America to fill the ecological niche that previous peoples (the Clovis people of thousands of years ago) had caused with the extinction of the mammoth.  Now, I’m all for protecting the planet, and for protecting endangered species, but I draw the line at repopulating animals that died out thousands of years ago. Bringing wolves back to Yellowstone was one thing; elephants aren’t mammoths, and the havoc they would wreak among the ranches is unimaginable. We’re not the Clovis people; we are 21st century Americans. It won’t work.

Basically, Dowd’s book confirmed for me what my aunt explained to me all those years ago. I loved his description of how stars are born, and the fact that we are indeed “stardust” like the old 1960s song sings; our bodies are comprised of star dust and cosmic material made long ago.

Are we continually evolving? Perhaps. But I don’t feel like I am ready to embrace his rather far-out quasi religion.  I think that creation and evolution can peacefully co-exist.  It is indeed, as Dowd posits, the stories we tell ourselves that matter, and our story as a people is vitally important.  But as far as waging war against evolution, I was never one for that stance, nor was I on the other side, waging war for a Biblical-only interpretation.   Neither worked for me and I am grateful my aunt was able to bridge the two for me when I was but a child.

I do recommend this book, however. Even if it just gets you thinking about the miracle of the world around you, the life that hides in every niche and corner of the planet, and the miraculous nature of it all, it is worth a read.

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