Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Thank God for Evolution – Michael Dowd ***

This book is hard to review, because it’s the wrong book on the right subject. The thesis of the book is excellent, but unfortunately the way it’s written won’t easily get that thesis across – at least, not to the science book reading community.
Michael Dowd achieves the remarkable feat of being able to quote Richard Dawkins in support of his religious idea. Dowd proposes an approach to religion that absolutely accepts evolution. More than that – he proposes that our starting point of religious revelation should be scientific data, rather than the sort of personal revelation that has shaped religions to date. Yet this is no ‘God of the gaps’ he proposes, dealing with the bits that scientific theory hasn’t rendered unnecessary. Instead, Dowd suggests that we should draw a parallel with the way complex and intelligent systems – like an ant colony or a human being – are built from small, simple structures which of themselves have no intelligence. God, he suggests, is the synergetic sum of the whole universe.
To an extent this sounds like pantheism, but Dowd takes it further, putting scientific theories at the heart of his religious exposition. However, he doesn’t suggest throwing away existing religions, suggesting that they give us the kind of metaphorical story-based understanding humans need – but that we should always be aware we are dealing with metaphor, rather than literal truth.
This is a version of religion that I suspect is more likely to appeal to those in (or interested in) science than creationists or other fundamentalist believers, as it requires them to throw away their belief that religious texts are literal – which is why I say it’s the wrong book, because it is written very much in the style of books aimed at religious believers. Dowd’s language veers between syrupy and overblown, and the whole feel is wrong for a title that should really appeal to the popular science audience if it were only written right. But because the ideas are so interesting, I would encourage the reader to persevere, even though it can be hard going.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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