I love going to the Prince George Public Library, wandering upstairs, and browsing through the wide variety of suggested books on display. The librarians make great suggestions, and I never know what will catch my eye. 🙂 A couple of days ago, two books got my attention:
- Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? … and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory
- Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle
Having now gone through them both, here are some brief thoughts about each one.
Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?
Written by two Jesuit scientists (one with a PhD in planetary science, and the other with a PhD in the history and philosophy of science), this book is organized around six of the most common questions they have received over the years. Its strength and its weakness is that it took almost 300 pages to answer six questions (Big Bang, Star of Bethlehem, end of the world, aliens, and more). Had the book been 1/3 to 1/2 the size, it would have been much better; much of the dialogue was too wordy and borderline irrelevant. That was the downside.
The upside, however, was when the authors focused on the questions at hand, they often did a great job of creatively exploring the questions and describing the historical context and culture behind each one (and behind their answers as well). It was also great to see how they wove their faith and their science together. In fact, the best feature of the book was being able to read how each author’s deep faith influenced their scientific thinking, and how their deep scientific understanding influenced their personal faith (which is fitting, since they are both Jesuits).
What is my final verdict? I give Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial a solid B+. Had it been less wordy and more focused, the grade would have been an A. 😉
Arrival of the Fittest
Written by a highly qualified evolutionary biologist, the premise of this book is that “natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest” (quote from the geneticist Hugo de Vries). The author believes that 3.8 billion years is not long enough for natural selection to result in the complexity of life that now exists, and that through the latest computer models, his team is discovered a set of natural laws that explain the speed and efficiency of evolution.
In terms of evolutionary biology, individual and population genomics, self-organization, hyperastronomical mathematics, and more, the book is fascinating. The author does a great job of describing the complexity, precision, and creativity of life. He also does well at suggesting a new solution to one of the missing pieces in current evolutionary science.
Where the book is a bit of an unsurprising disappointment though, is in the author’s sometimes misinformed assessments of Christian interpretations of the biblical text. While some of his accusations are unfortunately correct (the public relationship between science and Christianity has not always been, um, positive), he falls victim to his own assessments. Ironically, whereas he believes that Christians are scientifically naive, his references to the Bible show he is equally unaware of the biblical text and its interpretations.
When the author stays within his area of expertise – evolution – the book is well-written, insightful, and thought-provoking. When he steps beyond science into philosophy, cosmogony, etc, he is in unfamiliar territory. The natural laws he suggest still rely on the spontaneous creation of life, and they can’t explain the origin of the material (either organic or inorganic) necessary for evolution to start.
In the end, I give Arrival of the Fittest two grades: In terms of evolutionary biology, an A, but in terms of anything beyond that, a C.