I recently had the opportunity (courtesy of the good folks at Booksneeze and their complementary reviewer’s copy) to read The Selfless Gene, Charles Foster’s retort to Darwinist absolutists and other atheists like Richard Dawkins who have been having such a literary field day lately. The short version of my review is: He had me, then he lost me. The extended version follows below.
What drew me to the book was the strongly stated premise that religion and science don’t have to be enemies. But in so many cases, even when a believer is trying to seem open minded and reasonable, their acceptance of evidence in support of evolution sounds like a shoplifter’s acceptance of surveillance camera footage. Foster, though, offers not a grudging acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution, but a full-throated academic endorsement.
Early in the book, Foster pretty thoroughly eviscerates the evolution-rejecting young earth creationists with a few scientific facts. I think that science can be, and is, wrong about a lot of things (I might be thinking about something that rhymes with flobal schmorming), but I think that you have to admit that if the universe isn’t ten billion years old, God made it to look like it was ten billion years old.
But Foster isn’t completely sold out to Darwinism either. He points out some of the gaping holes in the theory, most especially its very weak explanations for the existence of altruism and cooperation. If the only driving force for biological life is survival of the fittest, then why would one organism ever do something generous for another? Under pure Darwinism, it wouldn’t. And yet here I am, one of nature’s most highly evolved life forms, and I’ve got two weeks to figure out what to get my wife for Valentine’s Day.
All the arguments for and against are presented thoughtfully, and I was eager to read Foster’s argument for synthesizing these disparate views. But then he started making it. And the second half of the book was spent tossing out all the goodwill he built up in the first.
For some reason, he spends a sizeable chunk of the book expounding on the dilemma of animal suffering, and how a good God could allow it. Now, I’m not in favor of the suffering of any life form (insert Kardashian joke here), but I don’t think that this is that much of a stumbling block to the understanding of God as the benevolent Creator. The Bible pretty clearly puts mankind on a separate plane from the animal kingdom, and man and animal seem to be pretty obviously governed by a different moral rulebook. So to my mind, all the pages devoted to discussing the place of animal suffering could just as well have been given over to recipes or amusing pictures of a large clown riding on the back of a small clown.
But the biggest disappointment was the twist ending in which Foster gives his explanation of how evolutionism and creationism can both be right. Drumroll: it’s because man was created by God in a state of nature, and evolution has taken us not forward through more and more improvements, but backward, devolving us farther and farther away from God’s ideal.
Now, granted, that doesn’t sound that crazy, and in many ways it’s probably true. But in Foster’s world, Adam and Eve are cavemen, and they turned their backs on God by walking out of the cave and getting all modern by inventing fire and combs and penicillin. Neanderthal man is the Creation, and evolution is the Fall.
As someone who very much enjoys living in a house with all my teeth rather than living in a cave with an infected toe that kills me at age nineteen, I have a much higher view of modernity than Foster does in this book. In fact, I consider many aspects of modern life as blessings from God rather than side effects of the fall. So while I appreciate the author’s efforts, I think there are better ways to bring science and religion together than to turn Eden into Clan of the Cave Bear.