Off the shelf by Lynn McKeown


An intelligently designed book on science and religion


Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages, Library of Contemporary Thought, 1999.


Stephen Jay Gould was for many years a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard and a prolific writer of books and articles on evolutionary biology for the general reader. Gould, who died in 2002 after a long struggle with cancer, had a special interest in the history of science, which is reflected in this book, and was active in the opposition to “creationism,” even testifying in court cases involving science teaching in schools.

This book, one of his last, is a thoughtful discussion of the conflict between evolutionary science and religious fundamentalism in the U.S. over the years since Darwin' s works were first published, and it includes a few comments on Knox College that may be of local interest.

The title of the book, itself, is a clever pun, suggesting as it does the old Christian hymn “Rock of Ages,” as well as the study of fossils that occupies scientists such as Gould.

To summarize Gould’s argument briefly, he says that science (including evolutionary theory) and religion are two different types of study and teaching, two different “magisteria,” to use the old term that he employs. He does not see science as a threat to religion in any essential way. In his own words, “Darwin did not use evolution to promote atheism, or to maintain that no concept of God could ever be squared with the structure of nature. Rather, he argued that nature’s factuality, as read within the magisterium of science, cannot resolve, or even specify, the existence or character of God, the ultimate meaning of life, the proper foundations of morality, or any other question within the different magisterium of religion.”

There should be no conflict between science and religion, according to Gould. They are just different. The “supposed conflict between science and religion’’ is ‘‘ a debate that exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects.”

Gould notes that a great number of religious people do not take the creation stories in the Bible as factual truth, but that “a few groups — mostly Southern, rural, and poor,... have dug in against all “modernism” with a literalist reading not subject to change, or even argument, ‘Gimme that old-time religion.’” And he notes that real “political clout” was given to this faction with the rise to prominence of the great nineteenth-early twentieth century political figure William Jennings Bryan (a frequent visitor to Galesburg), remembered by many for his part in the famous Scopes ‘‘Monkey Trial’’ of the 1920s, where Bryan debated attorney Clarence Darrow on the subject of evolution.

Gould gives Bryan a bit more credit than some have — noting that, while his Bible literalism was questionable, he had other qualms about Darwinian theory which are at least more understandable. Darwin’s ideas, in Bryan’s mind, were contributing to an attitude of “might makes right” among world leaders such as influential people in Germany who were justifying the growing militarism in that country.

Gould discusses briefly a Knox College connection to the famous Scopes Trial, made famous by the play and movie “Inherit the Wind,” which Gould notes was slightly “distorted” in its view of the actual events. The trial concerned use of a biology textbook that violated Tennessee law because it included a section teaching Darwinian evolutionary theory. The textbook had been written by a Knox College professor, George William Hunter. Gould notes that the book, though in many ways sound, contained a few passages on humans, and the supposed superiority of some races over others, which reflects attitudes prevalent at the time but now considered inaccurate and reflecting a form of racism.

Rocks of Ages is a thoughtful and enlightened view of the supposed conflict between evolution and creationism, science and religion. It is especially worthwhile because it puts the conflict in historical perspective. The book was written before the theory of “intelligent design” had achieved the prominence it now has, but much of what Gould has to say would apply to that as well.

Incidentally, Galesburg was apparently not terribly opposed to evolutionary theory, even in early times. The new Galesburg Library building constructed in the first decade of the twentieth century contained names of great writers and thinkers carved into the stone facade just below the building’s roof. Along with the names of Shakespeare, Emerson, the great religious poets Milton and Dante and others was the name "Darwin."

A few reflections on this conflict, my own, not those of the author of this book, though reading it and others have undoubtedly influenced my thinking:

Science, including evolution theory, proceeds by inductive reasoning and is completely intellectual and unemotional. It is concerned with what is immediately observable and can be measured mathematically. Science can’t find God, but science isn’t looking for God.

Religion, at its best, isn’t concerned with immediately measurable things but rather with how to live our lives, how to deal with the struggles of life and death. It uses the arts, ritual, prayer, contemplation, and practice to achieve its spiritual and emotional ends, the well-being of the individual and community.

Religious fundamentalists often seem to be carrying on a war against what they see as error, but evolutionary theory, the basic Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection, is a central theory of science that has proven sound.

The recent theory of intelligent design is a sort of strategic retreat by religious fundamentalists, who are attempting to attack evolutionary theory in a different way. It is somewhat like the old deism of the U.S. Founding Fathers, but it belongs in church or the philosophy classroom, not the science classroom.

Evolutionary theory comes into conflict with religion only if religion is still only on a childish level. A more mature level of religion recognizes that science, including evolutionary theory, has a place and value. It might even be said that science is a proper exercise of the most powerful gift of God to man — intelligence.

In medieval times, there was a popular thought that may still have some relevance. Human beings, they believed, are in a position between the “beasts” and the “angels.” We have evolved to a point where we can look up and down, backward and forward. Both science and religion contemplate, in their own way, the wonder and mystery of the universe.


This book is available from the Galesburg Public Library.