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Genes, Genesis, and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History [Paperback]

Holmes Rolston III

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Book Description

13 Feb 1999
Holmes Rolston challenges the sociobiological orthodoxy that would naturalize science, ethics, and religion. The book argues that genetic processes are not blind, selfish, and contingent, and that nature is therefore not value-free. The author examines the emergence of complex biodiversity through evolutionary history. Especially remarkable in this narrative is the genesis of human beings with their capacities for science, ethics, and religion. A major conceptual task of the book is to relate cultural genesis to natural genesis. There is also a general account of how values are created and transmitted in both natural and human cultural history. The book is thoroughly up-to-date on current biological thought and is written by one of the most well-respected figures in the philosophy of biology and religion.

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If you're going to draw together genetics, science in general, ethics, and religion, it's not going to be a simple read. Having said that, Genes, Genesis and God is so well written that the intelligent lay person can grasp the author's arguments.

Holmes Rolston III is a Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University. This book is based on his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1997. What role, he asks, do genes play in the evolution of mankind? For Rolston, man is not seen just as a superior animal, but as both a creator and creature of culture; this is what distinguishes us from the beasts.

He examines carefully recent evolutionary theories, including Richard Dawkins' "selfish gene" concept, which he finds not only misnamed but misleading. The first couple of chapters look at genes, what they are and how they work, what they do and don't do. From this he moves onto the genesis of human culture, and then to the "evolution" of scientific ideas, ethics, and finally religion. Religion, he concludes in his final deeply-thoughtful and clearly-argued chapter, which will annoy atheist evolution advocates and fundamentalist creationists alike, does have a survival value for mankind, and is not in any way incompatible with genetics or evolutionary theory.

This book is a valuable contribution to the philosophy of science. A single criticism would be that there is no reference to the recent work of Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, who pursue a very similar path of enquiry into the "evolution of the curious mind" in their Figments of Reality. --David V Barrett


'This book … is a full and fair natural theological attempt to understand modern biology and its relevance for social, ethical and religious thought.' The Philosophical Quarterly

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rolston challenges the sociobiological orthodoxy. 25 April 1999
By Billy Grassie <> - Published on
Rolston's 1997 Gifford Lectures and now book challenge the sociobiological orthodoxy. He interprets genetics and evolutionary biology to present the possibility of transcendent values operating in nature and culture. Unlike many other works of science, philosophy, and theology, Rolston's book is also well-crafted with powerful prose and provocative turn of phrases reminiscent of Loren Eisley. Whatever you think you know about the troubling interface between religion and evolutionary biology, prepare to be challenged. This book is a must read.
You can listen to Rolston discuss his book on the Internet as a RealAudio broadcast at [...] . Rolston is also "appearing" on the Meta List on Science and Religion to discuss the book in May of 1999 [...] . On the Meta List in the archives, you will also find a lengthy review written by Michael Ruse (see Meta 073:1999).
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Morality Emerging 31 Aug 2004
By Thomas J. Oord - Published on
This text is the product of Rolston's Gifford Lectures of 1997. His basic task is to relate cultural genesis to natural genesis and understand how value in culture has its links to value in nature. While Rolston argues for a continuity of culture and biological nature, he also contends that culture exceeds and emerges out of biology, so that genuine novelty occurs. In fact, Rolston believes that science, ethics and religion are emergent phenomenon in culture. He uses these three domains "for the generating, conserving, and distributing of values as test cases, demanding their incorporation into the larger picture of what is taking place on our planet" (xiii).

Much of the first third of the book addresses genetic theory, and Rolston surveys a wide variety of literature in this field. Perhaps one of the strengths of this book is the author's command of the wide literature pertaining to the subjects he addresses.

The final third of the book addresses issues related to ethics, love and religion. Although Rolston affirms value in nature, he does not believe that there is any ethics in nature. He examines and critiques various biological theories related to egoism and altruism. In the model he promotes, "one needs value naturalized as well as ethics humanized; then ethics will require appropriate respect for value, whether human or non-human" (280).

Rolston argues that ethics arise out of evolutionary natural history. It is a history in which values have already been arising. "Such genesis of ethics, distinctive to the human genius, testifies both to human uniqueness, emergent from natural history, and to the creative power evidenced in the spontaneous genetics, the primal source now transcended with the appearance of genuine and universal caring and altruism" (280).

From ethics emerges religion, and the capacity to be religious evolved within or emerged out of natural systems where there was no such capacity in non-humans. Rolston advocates a naturalizing of religion, by which he does not mean that religion can be explained away naturalistically. Rather the naturalizing of religion means that religion is generated by the human confrontation with the forces of nature. This means that religion comes as a response to prolific Earth.

While religion involves more than altruism, Rolston argues that altruism plays an important part in a variety of religious traditions. Religion functions to generate innovative ethical behavior, which in turn makes possible the human spirit. This spirit cannot exist outside a social covenant, however. Religion, then, is an emergent property from complex biodiversity through evolutionary history. In this emergence, God plays a role.

Thomas Jay Oord
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How can something arise out of nothing? 5 Jun 2004
By "stephenlill" - Published on
Holmes Rolston (Templeton prize 2003) is a Philospher who uses a Dawinist perspective to analyse its implications for the nature of Humans whom he indicates are far above other creatures in key mental capacities. In particular he is interested in the origins of science (which evaluates the "is" of life), ethics and religion (which evaluate the "oughts" of life).
The driving force behind evolution is survival. If Darwinism struggles to find an explanation for human scientific rationality it goes into shear fits when it tries to explain ethical behaviour. Rolston devotes a chapter to each of these. In Darwinistic terms ethics and religion must be present or have persisted for some survival advantage. If the modern mankind now concludes that neither is strictly necessary does this mean that their genetic line is doomed for evolutionary extinction?
One of Rolston's key conclusions is that just as the qualities of oxygen and carbon don't give us any hint at what life forms might be like, in turn simple life does not predict the genius of the human mind including intentionality -we know there are other minds. The transitions from atom to life to mind reveal marked transitions each associated with a huge addition of information, genetic at the first level and cultural/historical at the next level. Such information requires a source.
Here are some quotable quotes:
"Why not recognise that there is a human genius, exemplified by science, that does transcend biology?"(p197)
"No theory can look at a protozoan and deduce an eye or a brain. There is no argument why this has happened, nor that it ought to have happened. There are no equations into which one can introduce amino acids, or microbes, or trilobites as initial conditions to specify variables and then solve them to produce dinosaurs, or mastodons, or persons." (p210)
"But the same science that demands a conscience has difficulty explaining and authorising conscience, for we struggle to understand how amoral nature evolved the moral animal,.."(p 215)
"Ethics is as undeniably present, ideal and real, as are genes, and just as much among the wonders of creation"(p283)
"..we still need to ask whether the animal in which such faith emerges, Homo Sapiens, is coping now because it is detecting the truth:there is a divine will for life to continue."(p296)
"It is implausible that life should have evolved a bad computational logic that is a good adaptive fit."(337)
"The idea of God has been among the most fertile in shaping history. That is the fertility that ultimately needs to be explained"(p348)
"For in fact, on Earth, there really isn't anything in rocks that suggests the possibility of Homo sapiens, much less the American Civil War, or the World Wide Web, and to say that all these possibilities are lurking there, even though nothing we know about rocks, or carbon atoms, or electrons and protons suggests this is simply to let possibilities float in from nowhere"(p352)
"Looking at a pool of amino acids and seeing dinosaurs or homo sapiens in them is something like looking at a pile of alphabetical letters and seeing Hamlet. In fact Hamlet is not lurking around a pile of A_Z's; such a play is not within their possibility space - not until Shakespeare comes around,.."(p355)
"For the lack of better explanations, the usual turn here is simply to conclude that nature is self-organising (autopoiesis), though, since no 'self' is present, this is better termed spontaneously organising. An autopoietic process can be just a name, like 'soporific' tendencies, used to label the mysterious genesis of more out of less, a seemingly scientific name that is really a sort of mystic chant over a miraculously fertile universe."(p359)
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant 13 April 2004
By A Customer - Published on
As a biochemist with a keen interest in philosophy and ethics I whole-heartdly devoured this book when I first becmae aware of it (after 2003 John Tempelton award was announced). Rolston (the founder of environmental ethics) expertly exposes the soft-underbelly of dominant voices and theories of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Offering a point for point refutation and showing a mastery of both science and philosophy Rolston makes a wonderful case in a series of chapters that comprised his Gifford Lectures.
I do believe the reviewer below me has missed many of the points of the book and does not understand what Rolston was attempting to show with the misplaced quotes below. Rolston never argues science away, rather biologic evolution is the foundation for his central thesis (scientists such as Ayala and Gould have also argued convincingly against the same flawed presuupositions esposed by Alexander, Wilson, Ruse et Al from a purely biologic standpoint).
The book needs to be read to truly appreciate the scope of its endeavor, my only regret is that Rolston published prior to the release of Consilence. It would have been interesting to see what Rolston (like Berry) would make out of Wilson's latest effort.
17 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars scholarly writing; questionable logic; conclusions lacking 14 May 2002
By Christopher C. Branch - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It seems clear that the author knows his subject matter and the issues surrounding evolution and genetics as well as philosophy and ethics. It's much less clear that he has anything useful to add to the discussion. Instead, he devotes much of the book to quoting other scientists and writers, then criticizing their terminology and logic as being misleading or incomplete. Often it seems that he's missing the point of what those authors were trying to say; other times he's simply refuting an obvious misinterpretation.
The first 100 pages or so are spent in arriving at the following conclusions:
1. Life becomes more complex.
2. The word "selfish" should not be used about genes, because someone might mistakenly take it literally. Likewise the word "blind".
Regarding 1: Okay, I realize there is some debate about the reason for this and whether this is inevitable, but it seems clear that this has happened in our case, so why belabor the point?
Regarding 2: Well, if the intended audience for this book is those who might take it literally, I guess this was worthwhile. But then Rolston is doing a disservice to those of us who were never in danger of thinking that genes could be literally selfish. And, even worse, after firmly denouncing this terminology and taking shots at Dawkins for using it, he proceeds to infuse the entire remainder of the book with statements that genes are anything but selfish, rather they are "sharing". And far from being blind, genes are "smart". The author needs to read his own argument about mistakenly assigning human values to genes and apply it to this book.
On p. 141, Rolston asks "What is happening when a developed nation sends food to those underfed in a developing nation?" And responds with " no longer seems plausible to hold that the principal determinant is producing more offspring in the next generation." Again, does anyone actually think that? In a similar question on p. 267: "But then just where is Wilson getting these oughts that cannot be derived from biology, unless from the insights of ethicists (or theologians) that transcend biology?" The answer should be clear: all humans including scientists get their oughts from our genetic heritage. In the ancestral environment, it was an advantage to have these "moral" tendencies, and now we try to use logic to apply it to the whole world, even though it only evolved among small groups. Nothing more to it than that.
On pp. 192-211, Rolston contends that human minds evolved to use science, then argues that science is the result of "evolution transcending itself". But human minds did not evolve to use science. They evolved to help humans survive in the ancestral environment. Now we use them for other things, such as science, and again, I don't think the reader should ever have been in danger of thinking that this is the best way to use our minds in order to maximize our offspring. So what is the point of refuting this?
I'm afraid that much of this book falls into this pattern of quoting others, musing about possible failings in their logic, then moving on to the next subject as if the conclusion is left as an exercise for the reader. In fact, I'm not entirely sure what the conclusion of this book is. If I had to guess, it would be "science is not sufficient to address moral questions". While that may be true in some sense, the criticism in this book leveled at scientific writings on the subject is not convincing, nor even particularly relevant to that issue. Science does have something to tell us about morality - though Rolston, and indeed many of us, might not comfortable with what it's telling us.
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