Thursday, January 24, 2008

Book Review: Relics of Eden

Whether believers are comfortable with it or not, biological evolution is an issue that is not going away anytime soon. As the very strong case for common descent settles down upon the church in the coming years, many will be deeply troubled by it’s implications. To dismiss the issue as inconsequential ignores the impact it will have on the faith of many. The head-in-the-sand approach of many believers who refuse to study the question, choosing to hold on to their long-held beliefs strikes me as dangerous. For this reason, I am suggesting to my friends who wish to be informed on this subject this book, Relics of Eden by Daniel J. Fairbanks.

I read
Relics of Eden (Prometheus Books, 2007) upon the recommendation of my friend, Gordon Glover. Fairbanks, writing from his perspective as a research geneticist, lays out in layman’s language some of the basic building blocks for reconstructing the history of life on our planet from DNA. He proceeds to give the reader an overview of what DNA tells us about the interrelatedness of species. I found the book easy to read, and informative. Some of the early chapters (as he develops the building blocks of genetic understanding) are somewhat technical. But the payoff comes as he demonstrates how these bits of information are used to paint a remarkably consistent picture of our past.

As I have said elsewhere, I consider common descent to be undeniable in the face of DNA evidence. Either humans share a common ancestry with all living things, or God went to a great deal of trouble to make it look that way, right down to the tiniest details of our DNA. If evolution did not happen, then the Creator is a trickster and a deceiver, and all science is rendered meaningless.
Relics of Eden powerfully confirms this understanding (Fairbanks describes the mounting evidence as “spectacular”). But the trail of DNA science does not stop there. Comparative DNA is like an accurate time clock, giving us strong clues regarding the “when” of various evolutionary events. This growing treasure trove of information is also being used to reconstruct the great human migrations across our planet, and to do so with a precision which has never been possible for the anthropologist before. And perhaps most significantly, DNA science today is able to trace the history and development of various diseases, and offer up new ways of combating them. It is ironic that so many who resist what DNA is telling us about the history of life are more than ready to accept the great medical advancements of our day which are based upon the same science. Modern medical science is built upon the evolutionary model.

The final two chapters consist of an appeal to both sides of what Fairbanks characterizes as a false dichotomy: that somehow
faith and reason cannot co-exist. Without detailing his own beliefs, Fairbanks makes it clear that he is a man of faith who believes in God as Creator. He appeals to those who choose to perpetuate psuedo-scientific creationism and Intelligent Design to reexamine the evidence, and lay down their battle-axes. I say, “Amen!”

8 comments:

Steve Martin said...

Thanks Cliff. Good review - maybe I'll have to push it up higher on the "to-read" stack. On the other hand, it looks like this is more of a "straight science" book & it doesn't tackle the theological issues that much. Is this correct? And since right now its the theological issues I'm more interested in, I would put it right at the top. Like you implied, the scientific evidence isn't really that controversial if you look at it objectively.

Cliff Martin said...

You are correct. The book does not deal with theology, but is definitely theistic. But it does an excellent job in dealing the way DNA is compared, how quirks in DNA happen, and how telling all of this is in reconstructing the history of life.

Since you have read most of Polkinghorne's writings, I do not know where else you might go for the theology of evolution. There is a dearth of writers tackling this subject. It is certainly one of the key questions I am trying to answer here. And Gordon is working on this over at Beyond the Firmament. I will be interested to see where each of us comes out on the theological implications of the history of life. It certainly says some significant things about the Creator, his creation, and his purpose.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Steve, Cliff,

By now, you both are aware of the project I'm working on. I agree that this is of utmost importance. Most theologically-conservative evangelicals will never read a book like this -- which is why I hope to fill the niche with something thoughtful and pick up where BTF left off.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

As the very strong case for common descent settles down upon the church in the coming years, many will be deeply troubled by it’s implications.

That's already happening, as you may know.

There's a blog called "Debunking Christianity"; all of the contributors are former evangelical Christians. It's a sad read: most of them have left because they eventually rejected the church's absurd rationalizations on evolution and other such issues; and most of them are now totally closed-minded in their antipathy to Christianity.

That's what happens when you feed people bogus answers to real issues. Once they catch on that they've been duped — good luck persuading them to consider a more rational version of the faith. They're too angry and disillusioned for that.

Mike Beidler said...

Cliff,

I'm currently reading Relics and am finding it quite enjoyable, although I've had to read the first few chapters twice in order to digest the "straight science," as Steve calls it. I'm still struggling to grasp what I learned in high school biology almost 25 years ago, e.g., the relationships between DNA, RNA, genes, chromosomes, the genome, mitochondria, etc.

Of course, I'd love to hear ID explanations of "junk DNA" in order to ensure I receive a well-rounded education on the issues. Anything you might recommend?

Cliff Martin said...

Gordon and Stephen,
Thank you for your comments. Yes, Stephen, I am aware that the crisis for faith is already upon us ... but thank you for making that case here.

Mike,
Welcome, and thank you for your comment. I do not know of any books giving the Creationist and/or I.D. side of the DNA evidence for evolution. But there are some websites that do so. An I.D. response can be found at the IDEA Center. A more general Creationist response by YEC David A. Plaisted can be found at A Creation Perspective. Finally, an explanation of DNA evidence and a discussion of Creationist objections is at Talk Origins Archive. I do not know how up-to-date any of these articles are. The state of this science is constantly changing.

bi0dr0ne said...

Cliff, you mentiond ID along with Creationism. Does the authors interpretation of evolution depend on random chance mutations in DNA? Also you mention that the author believes God created the world. Does he mention if he thinks God began creation and let it develop on its own? or Does he say that God had a hand in creating all species?

thanks

Cliff Martin said...

bi0dr0ne,

Does the authors interpretation of evolution depend on random chance mutations in DNA?

Yes. I believe that Fairbanks would contend that randomness is necessary to provide the wealth of raw material upon which natural selection could work.

Does he mention if he thinks God began creation and let it develop on its own? or Does he say that God had a hand in creating all species?

Fairbanks, as a believer in the Creator, would contend that God began creation. How much of an active hand he has had since the very beginning would be difficult to say. But Fairbanks (and others) might suggest that if he created well at the very beginning, it would not have been necessary for him to ever interrupt the process.