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Evolution and Belief

Evolution and Belief [Kindle Edition]

Robert J. Asher
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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'Evolution and Belief is a great read. There is a lot of serious science, there is sensible thinking about religion, and above all there is a humility before the big questions that comes from strength of intellect and purpose. I recommend it strongly.' Michael Ruse, Florida State University and author of The Philosophy of Human Evolution and Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science

'Rob Asher writes as a scientist who is also religious, as a great many are. His brief in this book is to show other believers how science is done and how real religious faith should not see it as a threat. The main thing, though, is that this is a really good book on evolution, particularly the evolution of mammals, with many wonderful insights that will be new to readers.' Kevin Padian, Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley

'Page after page of the most brilliant science is eloquently and knowledgably explained, with myriad demonstration of why there is vanishingly little cause to doubt that evolution is true.' New Humanist

'Written from a theistic perspective, Asher's account is a richly detailed and authoritative source book on the evolution of mammals. He carefully distinguishes between cause and agent, explaining that evolutionary theory treats the 'how' but appropriately leaves the question of 'why' to the philosophers and theologians.' Owen Gingerich, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and author of God's Universe

'Robert Asher's Evolution and Belief offers a sure-footed, faith-friendly, and articulate presentation of the evidence for evolution as good as any in print. Asher, a respected paleontologist and religious believer, writes as an insider from both perspectives. He charts a most helpful course between his atheistic colleagues who wrongly suppose that evolution rules out a Creator, and his fellow believers attracted to the uninformed pseudo-science of the Intelligent Design movement. Along the way he provides an up-to-date primer of the current state of evolutionary theorizing sprinkled with tactful demolitions of the standard arguments against Darwin's Theory. I highly recommend Evolution and Belief as a balanced and most helpful contribution to this important conversation.' Karl Giberson, author of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age

'NS recommends: This book is a very useful contribution to the often sterile debate about the relationship between science and religion.' New Statesman

'Readers without prior knowledge of the subject would be hard pressed to find a clearer and more persuasive introduction than this.' BBC Wildlife Magazine

'The strengths of Evolution and Belief lie in its rigorous attention to the scientific data and in its polite but insistent message that creationism and ID are hopelessly inadequate to give a rational account of the rich tapestry of life's diversity.' The Tablet

'… Asher does a truly excellent job with many aspects of this book. It is commendable for a religious scientist to articulate so adequately how to embrace both scientific and religious world views … [He] does a spectacular job documenting a wealth of cross-disciplinary data that support evolution.' Reports of the National Center for Science Education

'… the author's thorough command of fossil and genetic evidence is the most impressive strength of the book.' John R. Schneider, The Quarterly Review of Biology

Product Description

Can a scientist believe in God? Does the ongoing debate between some evolutionists and evangelicals show that the two sides are irreconcilable? As a paleontologist and a religious believer, Robert Asher constantly confronts the perceived conflict between his occupation and his faith. In the course of his scientific work, he has found that no other theory comes close to Darwin's as an explanation for our world's incredible biodiversity. Recounting discoveries in molecular biology, paleontology and development, Asher reveals the remarkable evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution. In outlining the scope of Darwin's idea, Asher shows how evolution describes the cause of biodiversity, rather than the agency behind it. He draws a line between superstition and religion, recognizing that atheism is not the inevitable conclusion of evolutionary theory. By liberating evolution from its misappropriated religious implications, Asher promotes a balanced awareness that contributes to our understanding of biology and Earth history.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2894 KB
  • Print Length: 324 pages
  • Simultaneous Device Usage: Up to 4 simultaneous devices, per publisher limits
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (23 Jan 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0083QZT6S
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #447,908 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Say no to NOMA 11 Feb 2013
By Sphex
Throughout this book, Robert Asher displays a great knowledge and understanding of palaeontology and Darwin's theory of evolution, and reveals a tremendous commitment to scientific principles of evidence and logical inference in that domain. In parts it reads more like a textbook, and a tedious one at that for a lay reader, but this is not my main objection. The book's worst fault is that it celebrates an intellectual double standard. Asher is eager "to point out that religion and science can be compatible" but he succeeds only in showing that some scientists happen to hold religious beliefs, not that religion and science are compatible at a deeper level. Indeed, he unwittingly achieves the opposite of his stated goal, by demonstrating the deeper incompatibility: on the final page, he admits to accepting "the existence of a deity behind life" on the basis on his own intuition, which he claims to be "entirely rational." Really? Entirely rational? Yes, he argues, because science is a subset of rationality. Unfortunately, logic is not on his side: the premises "science is a subset of rationality" and "intuitions are non-scientific" do not logically entail the conclusion that those intuitions must therefore be rational, let alone entirely rational. They could be irrational. Lest we forget, being rational (the root of this word is ratio) means being committed to holding beliefs in proportion to the evidence. Having faith means believing in the absence of evidence or in the face of evidence to the contrary. The compatibility Asher asserts is ultimately unconvincing because his arguments rely on one set of standards for religion and another for science, regardless of the kinds of questions each is supposed to address.

Can intuitions be "entirely rational"? In a word, no.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 1 April 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book. Academic in feel, but accessible in style. Plenty of content on the current discussion of evolution and theism. Evolution, in Asher's view, is the most likely mechanism of life. He strongly argues, however, that this does not answer the question concerning the agency behind it.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A "God Was Behind IT" Lucid Analysis of Evolution and the Fossil Record 9 July 2012
By Jan Peczkis - Published on
The author insists that a natural cause does not eliminate God as the First Cause, because both causes can co-exist. For example, one can understand the function of a light bulb with or without believing in the existence of inventor Thomas Edison. At the same time, he discounts any teleological explanations for living things because of such things as pseudogenes.

Asher's strength is his ability to describe evolutionary processes in lucid detail. He also surveys the fossil record, focusing on mammal-like reptiles, whales, DNA-based phylogenies, origins of biological novelty in evolution, and more. EVOLUTION AND BELIEF can serve as an excellent textbook in a college biology class.

The book is supported by many footnotes from an extensive bibliography of up-to-date works.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lot about evolution and very little about belief 28 Jan 2013
By Paul R. Bruggink - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
You know you're in for a workout when there are 21 end notes in the Prologue. However, Asher's book is basically layman-friendly, except for his habit of introducing new terms without defining them.

Asher's purpose in writing this book is to make two points: (1) "that evolution is true as a mechanism that explains how living things on our planet have been derived from similar living things that came before them," and (2) "that understanding how evolution works does not address the potential `who' and `why' behind it." His book succeeds in making both points, emphasizing that "evolutionary biology is about explaining natural cause, not divine agency."

For the most part, his book is a well-written survey of current research in mammalian evolution, including, for instance, a six-page table of 137 "fossil animals known to mix anatomical features present in living groups, along with citations documenting current ideas on their place in the vertebrate Tree of Life," in order to counter the common creationist claim that transitional sequences are rare at best.

Asher also includes a three-page table listing 38 peer-reviewed, scientific publications from 2009-2010 "of cases in which genetic and phenotypic `novel information' is shown to be linked to natural processes," in order to counter the common creationist claim that evolutionary biology cannot account for novel information. He also has a detailed discussion of an example of misrepresentation of the scientific literature in the anti-evolution biology textbook "Explore Evolution."

Asher points out that the young-earth creationist pronouncement, "I don't believe in evolution because God did it" is just as wrong as the atheist pronouncement, "I don't believe in God because evolution did it."

The book includes 37 pages of end notes, a 28-page bibliography, and a 4-page index, and it is well illustrated with photos and evolutionary trees.

The title and the sub-title are misleading in that the book contains a lot about evolution and very little about belief. I recommend this book for anyone interested in a convincing case for the explanatory power of biological evolution (particularly mammalian) and the independent sources of evidence for it. If you are looking for approaches to integrate biological evolution with Christian faith, this book will not be helpful.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another in a line of books adding to an unproductive discussion. 22 Jun 2014
By eagseags - Published on
By now we have seen many books, aimed at a popular audience, explaining how the facts support the idea that all life on earth evolved from a common ancestor, and how the mechanism for evolution is almost certainly natural selection.The peak time for such books was about seven years ago. I could speculate that was because, during the George W. Bush administration, religious conservatism was also at a peak, and popular science writers felt they needed to fight back against a "War on Science." Or it could be a complete coincidence.

I admire how well the authors of these books present reams of very complicated evidence, from disparate fields of study, in a clear way. Some of this evidence was cited by Darwin himself 150 years ago. Some evidence is new, based on molecular biology and other fields of study Darwin never dreamed of.

Apart from presenting the facts, any given author may push a particular philosophical "frame." One particular sub-type of those books, particularly those by Richard Dawkins, argues that the Theory of Natural Selection allows one to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist. Therefore, to take this another step, it almost requires one to become an atheist. I have some sympathy for this viewpoint, but it can be taken too far, especially if one considers it a license for the author to tell people in the target audience how foolish and irrational their beliefs are. This probably works against author's purpose of reaching the audience and perhaps changing their mind.

Another particular sub-type of those books are those that argue that:
Evolution is obviously "true".
Believing in evolution and having a belief in a personal god are not contradictory.
One of the earliest of that type was "Finding Darwin's God" by Kenneth R. Miller (1999). To me the logic is obvious. Ultimately, Science cannot address the supernatural, morality, or any other idea not subject to disproof. Also, the only type of religious thought in direct contradiction to evolution (and geology, astronomy, etc.) is Biblical literalism, which is a minority view, although a very vocal one in the United States. Five hundred years ago, thinking the sun was the center of the solar system was taken as contrary to religion, but everyone got over it eventually. We probably will do the same with evolution.

A new book in the "non-contradiction" sub-type is "Evolution and Belief" by Robert J. Asher. Asher is the Curator of Vertebrates in the Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. He also "confesses" to be a practicing Anglican, but doesn't have a belief in literal miracles. One especially good logical point he makes is the distinction between "cause" and "agency". The most vivid example from the book is this: We know that lightbulbs work by electricity flowing through a filament and heating it until it emits visible light. However, this knowledge does not rule out the idea that there was a person Thomas Edison who invented such a device.

One interesting bit of history in the introduction has to do with Williams Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor at the Scopes "monkey trial." Bryan is often portrayed as a fundamentalist fool, in particular in the play (and movie) "Inherit the Wind." However, the truth is not even close to that portrayal. Scopes was teaching from a textbook "A Civic Biology," which used evolutionary theory as an argument for eugenics. Bryan, a populist and what we would now call a social liberal, but definitely not a Biblical literalist, opposed teaching evolution in school because it might lead, by encouraging eugenic thought, to massive social inequality. This makes him a much more sympathetic character.

The meat of "Evolution and Belief" covers the type of evidence for common ancestry and against "design" (in the sense that each species is a separate creation specific to its environment). Nature is full of such examples and no one book can cover them all. I will mention only two sections that struck me as different.

As an example of the anatomy of animals more closely reflecting their ancestry than lifestyle, Asher cites the skulls of the galago (Africa), the tarsier (Asia), and the squirrel monkey (South America). All hunt insects by night and have enormous eyes. The galago has a tooth comb (elongated lower incisors) and open eye sockets consistent with being related to lemurs. The galago also has a reflective layer behind the retina, the tapetum. The tarsier is a more advanced primate, near the ancestry of monkeys and apes, that lacks a tapetum and has short incisors and a closed eye socket. The squirrel monkey is a fairly advanced primate and has features associated with them: large brain, etc.

There is a short chapter on whales. The major point is not there are many fossil whales with a mixture of primitive and advanced characters (although there are and these are discussed), but that balene whales sprout teeth as embryos, and still carry genes for enamel production, although they have no teeth as adults. This brings up the whole field of pseudo genes, which we know about only because so many genomes have been sequenced. Pseudogenes are DNA segments that resemble known genes but are "broken" or not expressed. Their presence means organisms are carrying things that have no functional use. (This is the molecular biology equivalent of Darwin's example of "vestigial organs".) Clearly this is contrary to the idea of conscious design. In the words of the author "You don't find a mainsail stuck inside a stealth bomber somewhere because such a mechanism has no relevance to the end product in the mind of a human engineer".

This book has a number of useful tables. One is a list a hundreds of fossil and living animals that show a mosaic of primitive and advanced features. This is presumably to show, once and for all, that the creationist claim that there are no "intermediate forms" is totally false. In this it summarizes the content of books like "Evolution. What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters" (2007). There is also a list of several dozens examples, published in one year, where "novel information" appears in the genome (hermaphrodism in nematodes, color vision in certain mammals, etc.). This to counteract the persistent creationist idea that natural selection cannot create anything.

So a thumbs up for this book, which is as least as good as all the others in this genre.

Now a final comment on this trend in scientific literature. Why do we need book after book on evolution with a theological "hook"? Whatever the book, I consistently find the theological bits unconvincing on either side of the aisle: We cannot rule out an ultimate Designer of Life, but there is no objective evidence for one either. Or even if there is a Designer, there is no unambiguous way to know whether such an entity cares about individual human beings. It is purely an issue of personal belief on the part of the author. This is not science, so it should not be included. We don't see the author discussing religious view in books about astronomy, geology, or quantum mechanics, which are equally contradictory to Biblical literalism.

Ultimately, it has to be a matter of target audience. Science writers and publishers believe that there is a segment of the population that accepts all type of scientific results, but is stuck on evolution specifically because it would require them to give up their religious world view. If it was suggested that they would not have to give up that world view, they might go along if the evidence for evolution was presented in a certain way. I hope this true and more people can be persuaded.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting 6 Jan 2014
By Steve L. - Published on
It should be old news by now that there are good reasons to believe that science and religion are complementary, not contradictory. But I guess there are plenty of ultraconservative Christians out there who haven’t heard the good news yet, so maybe this book will help in that regard.

Asher’s bottom line is that science generally focuses on “how” questions, while religion generally focuses on “why” questions, and therefore evolutionary theory neither confirms nor denies the existence of a deity. This is hardly a new idea. Richard Dawkins has been saying pretty much the same thing for decades. Why so many Christians seem to have such a hard time understanding that is a real mystery.

In addition to Asher’s philosophical arguments, he also describes some of the scientific evidence for evolution. Asher’s evidence is plentiful, skillfully presented, and well worth reading, though I think there are a couple of bloopers. He sometimes seems to conflate evidence for common descent with evidence for natural selection, and his discussion of punctuated equilibrium makes it appear that it is a problem for Darwinian gradualism, when in reality Darwin himself repeatedly stated that his view was that evolution did not always proceed at the same tempo. Indeed, Darwin's own words in describing evolution are a pretty good description of what we now call “punctuated equilibrium.”

Despite the occasional blooper, however, the wealth of detail still makes it well worth reading.
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