Review of Stephen Jay Gould’s “Rocks of Ages”

Review of Stephen Jay Gould’s “Rocks of Ages”

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Stephen Jay Gould is justly honoured not only for his contributions to science but also for his sensitive and humane spirit, something which shines forth from his popular writings – especially his monthly column in Natural History.  Nor should we forget his many activities on behalf of tolerance and understanding.  Not the least is the work he has done to support the harmonious and fruitful mutual existence of science and religion.  One of the proudest moments of my life was to stand shoulder to shoulder with Gould in Arkansas in 1981, as we appeared as expert witnesses for the American Civil Liberties Union in its successful attack on a law demanding that children of the state be taught Creationism alongside evolution in their biology classes.

Recently, Gould has tied things together in a short book – Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life – in which he expounds the principle by which he tries to preserve harmony and dignity between science and religion.  Essentially his principle is one of separation: good fences make good neighbours.  He thinks that science and religion speak to different dimensions and properly understood do not and cannot overlap and conflict.  He speaks of science and religion as separate “Magisteria” – domains of understanding — and Gould advocates the principle of “NOMA” – Non-Overlapping Magisteria.  Science has its dimension and religion has its dimension and ne’er the twain shall meet.  Creationism must be wrong because it is a Biblical (hence religious) doctrine presuming to speak of astronomy and biology (scientific doctrines).

Obviously, things cannot be quite this simple.  Even if one ignores what Ian Barbour has shown us in a helpful taxonomy, namely that Gould’s NOMA is not the only possible stance on the science/religion relationship, the Gouldian separation ploy requires some further work.  Prima facie, Genesis does tell us things which conflict with science – six days of creation, humans last, world-wide flood, tower of Babel, and so forth.  If you are to insist that there is no conflict – and, in respects, I am happy to go along with Gould on this – then you have got to work to show that Genesis properly understood and science properly understood do not conflict.  Prima facie conflict is no more than that — prima facie — and not definitive.

But note now what usually happens, historically and conceptually, when you try to rule out conflict.  It is religion which has to modify, in order to fit in with science unmodified.  The scientist tells us that the universe is fifteen billion years old or whatever, and the religious believer shifts the interpretation of Genesis.  The scientist tells us that evolution rules okay, and the religious believer shifts again.  The scientist nixes the Flood and again the believer falls into place.  And so on and so forth.  This is fine and dandy, but what if the believer wants to go the other way?  What if the believer insists that the science has to yield rather than the religion?  I suspect that most people who work on the science/religion relationship from the science side of the divide, including both Gould and myself, would get very tense at this point.  We would insist that, in the empirical realm, it is science which rules supreme and religion must make way.  That is all there is to it.  I suspect that if we are ourselves believers we would add something about our powers of reason being a gift from God, and hence – far from being a denial of true religion – this advance of science is a wonderful affirmation of our respect for God.  God did not expect us to sit on our bottoms in ignorance, but to go out and to explore the wonderful creation.

But does this mean that – for all that you are trying to convince yourself that this is what you wanted all along – the person working from the domain of religion must simply give way passively, never revising his or her beliefs except to trim yet more from the content?  Is he or she at no point to look across to science for inspiration and understanding?  This seems to be Gould’s understanding of NOMA, and I confess that here (although I too come to the issues from the side of science rather than religion) I cannot follow him.  If you interpret the divide in this stringent way, then I fear that science is unjustifiably constraining the freedom of the theologian or the person of religion.  One is denying him or her the right to revise and reinterpret one’s faith in the light of scientific advances.

Perhaps, if like certain liberal theologians of the last and present century, you are able to understand your faith solely in terms of ethical principles – Christianity reduces to moral sentiments about loving your neighbour and so forth – then probably you can go along with Gould.  But if you think your faith makes existence statements – ontological commitments to such things as God’s being creator of heaven and earth, of Jesus being the divine incarnate, and of the promise of eternal life for the saved – then I simply do not see how you can avoid trying to understand these statements and commitments in the light of the existence statements, the ontological commitments, of science.  Comparison and influence comes with the territory.

To show my unease, take the discussion at the end of Rocks of Ages.  Gould speaks harshly of the contributions of speakers at a Templeton-sponsored conference, “Science and the Spiritual Quest,” held at Berkeley last summer.  Although I did attend some of the earlier workshops leading up to this conference, I was not at the main event.  Hence, I cannot speak to the overall quality and content of the presentations.  But consider what Gould has to say in reaction to reports of various offerings.  First, he is very critical of the attempt (by F. Russell Stannard) to interpret the God/Jesus relationship in terms of the complementarity of the wave and particle natures of the electron.  “Wooly metaphor misportrayed as decisive content” says Gould.  “I don’t see what such a comparison could indicate except that the human mind can embrace contradiction (an interesting point, to be sure, but not a statement about the factual character of God), and that people can construct the wildest metaphors [216].”

But with respect, why should not Stannard play with such ideas and metaphors and analogies?  Frankly, I do not know if it makes ultimate sense to talk of the Trinity.  How can one thing be something else at the same time?  Generations of critics — many inspired by science — have gone after Christianity on precisely this point.  Yet, if it turns out that scientists are now playing this game, talking about something apparently having contradictory properties, why should not the Christian see if there is help and understanding in the new science for the old religious belief?  Is the wave/particle complementarity of the electron precisely what Christians have been claiming?  You may not illuminate anything in the end — strictly speaking the point about Heisenberg’s Principle is that if an electron is taken as a wave at some instant then it is no particle, and conversely.  There is no claim that the electron is a wave and a particle at one and the same time.  This may all be too weak for the Christian.  But surely it is legitimate for the believer to try to see if modern physics has a kind of understanding which throws light on Christian claims.

Next Gould criticizes Arthur Peacocke when he argues that modern biology suggests that Gould creates in a sequential fashion rather than all at once.  “Has the factuality of an old-fashioned creating God been proven because Darwin used developmental language to describe the genealogical history of life?”  Rhetorically, Gould asks: “Is Mr. Peacocke’s God just retooling himself in the spiffy language of modern science [217]?”  Well, yes of course he is in a sense, but what is wrong with that?  As a devout Anglican, Peacocke believes that God was creator.  How can he fail then to ask how God was a creator?  Modern science tells us that instantaneous creation is not on.  What else is Peacocke to do but to ask if then God creates in an evolutionary fashion?  Why should one not say, as does Catholic priest Ernan McMullin, following Saint Augustine, that however God created it was one which only unfurls gradually, as we get the expression of the seeds of development.  And why should not Peacocke not now turn to science to find out how precisely this Augustinian suggestion this should be understood.  Is one simply to remain silent?

Third, I will mention Gould’s comments on the anthropic principle, an idea which he considers either “utterly trivial” or “completely illogical [218].”  Now let me say that this is a negative position not that far from my own.  Despite the efforts of John Leslie, my long-time colleague and friend at the University of Guelph, I am inclined to think that the physicists of today are trying to resurrect arguments that the biologists of yesterday showed to be fallacious.  And before them, David Hume cast a very cold, sceptical eye on this kind of caper.  But one of the main reasons why I have never written formally on the topic of the anthropic principle, and probably never will, is simply because I do not know enough physics to give a formal proof of my suspicions and prejudices.  I leave that to others and so I think should Gould.  It is not enough simply to sneer and then dismiss.

The people promoting the anthropic principle are serious thinkers, often knowing a lot of physics.  To show them wrong, you too need to know some physics.  Just as Gould would (rightly) claim that, if you are going to show the Creationists wrong about the fossil record, you need to know some palaeontology.  Phillip Johnson’s ludicrous claims about Archeopteryx are refuted by an understanding of avian evolution.  Not by sneer and bluster.  The same is true of physics.  In any case, even if you can show that the anthropic principle does not do what its supporters claim, it is still open to the believer to argue that the design-like nature of the universe fleshes out one’s faith, giving it deeper meaning.  The same is true of the organic world.  This has surely been the position of most sophisticated believers since Aquinas.  Natural theology complements revealed religion.  It does not replace it.

No one has more respect than I for Stephen Jay Gould.  I fear however that the fence he would build between science and religion lies too far on one side’s land and not enough towards the middle.  This is no trivial matter.  There are some really serious issues still facing the person concerned to harmonize science and religion — serious issues which the Creationist debate about Genesis does us all a disservice by drawing attention from them.  Crucially, it is part of Judaeo-Christian theology that humans are not simply animals like any other, nor is our existence on this earth simply a matter of contingency.  We are made in the image of God (whatever that might mean) and, although the universe may not exist for our special benefit, we humans do have a rather special place in the scheme of things.

Yet it is Gould most prominently who has been preaching the non-directedness of evolution and the absolute radical contingency of our own existence.  “Since dinosaurs were not moving toward markedly larger brains, and since such a prospect may lie outside the capabilities of reptilian design …, we must assume that consciousness would not have evolved on our planet if a cosmic catastrophe had not claimed the dinosaurs as victims.  In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars [Gould 1989, 318].”  (Gould is here referring to the asteroid which hit earth about 65 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs and making possible the rise of the mammals.)

I simply do not see how the Jew or Christian can or should leave matters untouched at this point, passively accepting the science as given and gutting the religion of absolutely central content: evolution is contingent and hence we humans cannot make claim to special status.  As it happens, there are a number of options which present themselves here to the believer.  (I discuss the various options in some detail in a book to appear next year: Can a Darwinian be a Christian?)  Holmes Rolston I suspect would want to modify the science, making room for progress.  But, as I explained above, people like Gould and myself would feel uncomfortable about altering our science purely to accommodate religion.  Even if things work for the moment, you lay yourself open to the possibility of another theory next year which spoils everything.  Another option, one I favour, is to argue t at Gould’s scientific contingency says nothing about the theological non-contingency of Judaeo-Christianity.  But if you are going to go this route – or any other – you are surely going to engage in precisely the kind of enterprise for which we have just seen Arthur Peacocke criticized.  In Gould’s rather unkind way of putting things, you are going to have to reinterpret your faith in the “spiffy language of modern science.”  My point is that I do not see how you could avoid doing this, which leads me to conclude that Gould’s NOMA is a lot less balanced and fair-minded than appears at first sight.

Both Stephen Jay Gould and myself would describe ourselves as “agnostics” – how I hate that word with its odour of indifferent fence-sitting, true of neither of us – and I suspect that we both find as offensive the militant atheism of a Dawkins as the strident literalistic Calvinism of a Plantinga.  But we must take care not to deny those who do not share our scepticism the right to explore and develop their beliefs in the light of modern science.


Barbour, I.1988. “Ways of relating science and theology.”  Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding., 21-48. Vatican City: Vatican Observatory.

Gould, S J. 1999. Rocks of Ages:  Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine.

—. 1989. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton Co.

McMullin, E. 1993. “Evolution and special creation.” Zygon 28: 299-335.

Rolston III, H. 1999. Genes, Genesis and God: Values and their Origins in Natural and Human History.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press.