Biology and Religion: The Case for Evolution

  • Francisco J. AyalaEmail author
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 1)


The theory of biological evolution is the central organizing principle of modern biology. In 1973, the eminent evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously asserted that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Evolution provides a scientific explanation for why there are so many different kinds of organisms on Earth and gives an account of their similarities and differences (morphological, physiological, and genetic). Science has demonstrated again and again, beyond reasonable doubt, that living organisms evolve and diversify over time, and that their features have come about by natural selection, a process that accounts for their design. Yet, there are many people of faith in the United States and elsewhere who think that science, particularly the theory of evolution, is contrary to the teachings of the Bible and to religious beliefs, such as creation by God. Well before the formulation of the theory of evolution, religious authors over the centuries used the “argument-from-design” to demonstrate rationally, without reference to faith or divine revelation, the existence of God, as the author of the design of organisms. The argument from design has two parts. In one familiar form it asserts, first, that organisms evince to have been designed; second, that only God could account for the design. The argument from design was advanced, in a variety of forms, in Classical Greece and early Christianity. Its most extensive formulation is due to William Paley in his Natural Theology (Natural theology, or evidences of the existence and attributes of the deity collected from the appearances of nature. American Tract Society, New York, 1802). The eye—as well as all sorts of organs, organisms, and their interactions—manifests to be the outcome of design and not of chance, thus it shows to have been created by God. In the 1990s, the design argument was revived in the United States by several authors. The flagellum used by bacteria for swimming and the immune system of mammals, as well as some improbability calculations, were advanced as evidence of “intelligent design,” on the grounds that chance processes could not account for the phenomena to be explained. In The Origin of Species, Darwin (On the origin of species by means of natural selection. John Murray, London, 1859) advanced a scientific explanation of the design of organisms. The adaptations of organisms are outcomes not of chance, but of a process that, over time, causes the gradual accumulation of features beneficial to organisms, whenever these features increase the organisms’ chances of surviving and reproducing. There is design in the living world: eyes are designed for seeing, wings for flying, and kidneys for regulating the composition of the blood. The design of organisms comes about not by intelligent design, but by a natural process, which is creative through the interaction of chance and necessity. Organisms are pervaded by imperfections, dysfunctions, cruelties, and even sadism. The theory of evolution accounts for these mishaps by natural selection, as outcomes of natural processes, so that they need not be attributed to God’s explicit design. The theory of evolution perceived by some people of faith as contrary to religion, may thus be acknowledged as their “disguised friend.” The theory of evolution accounts for the design of organisms, but also for the dysfunctions, oddities, cruelty, and sadism that pervade the world of life, so that these deficiencies need not be attributed to specific agency by the Creator, which might implicitly amount to blasphemy. The foregoing considerations are important both for understanding and for accepting evolution as a fact of life, and should be taken into account by science educators and teachers.


Natural Selection Scientific Explanation Intelligent Design Natural Theology Living World 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaIrvineUSA

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