Review: Mapping the Origins Debate

 

When it comes to books (written by a single author) claiming to offer a balanced view of contentious topics within Christianity, my default attitude is skepticism. Many times, the author has an ax to grind and attempts to cleverly disguise that fact by presenting all sides of the issue, often leaving out important information or making straw men of all but his preferred view. However, I’ve continued to hold out hope that an objective and accurate portrayal of the raging debate over the proper way to integrate (or not) science and Christianity would eventually  appear. When Dr. Gerald Rau‘s book, Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything, made its debut a few months ago, I immediately added it to my “Urgently Needs Reading” pile. I opened it with a hyper-critical eye, expecting to be disappointed but hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

My hopes rose while reading the very first page, where Rau says:

This book presents the full range of possible models and demonstrates how our religious and philosophical presuppositions, rather than the evidence, dictate our preferences.

At the end of the Preface, he offers a caveat:

Those who are specialists in one area or have read widely in this field will undoubtedly feel this book is too simplistic, overlooking important distinctions, missing vital nuances or not presenting enough details. Please forgive me, but this book is not intended for you.It is a simple map to help high school or college students find their way through hotly disputed territory, to guide their journey from the one-sided and greatly oversimplified arguments they have heard in science textbooks or church sermons to the depth of scientific, theological and philosophical literature that exists.

As a reader who did my graduate work in this area, I understand what Rau means by this statement, but having read the book, I found only a handful of instances that caused me to pause and think, “Hmm, he should have said just a bit more about this philosophical point or more precisely defined this term.” Overall, I can’t imagine a better treatment of this subject written at such an accessible level, in the space of only 200 pages (plus charts and glossary).

Content

True to its title, the book functions as a precisely drawn map, flowing logically and using well-defined subheadings that keep the reader oriented from beginning to end. Here’s the table of contents:

Contents Edit

 

Contents Edit 2

Now, one thing that I was highly skeptical of from the beginning was the fact that Rau suggests six viewpoints on origins. I, on the other hand, am fond of saying, “There are about as many views on origins as there are Christians who hold a view.” But my doubt was unfounded. The main categories Rau uses in the book actually do encompass most every nuance I’ve heard of. They are:

1. Naturalistic Evolution (NE)–the atheistic view

2. Nonteleological Evolution (NTE)

3. Planned Evolution (PE)

4. Directed Evolution (DE)

5. Old Earth Creationism (OEC)

6. Young Earth Creationism (YEC)

The main evidence related to the four areas of origins (origin of the universe, origin of life, origin of species, and origin of man) is set forth and discussed in light of each of the models. This is the main (and best) feature of the book; Rau does a bang-up job of describing how each camp handles the evidence and the philosophical and theological presuppositions that dictate their approach.

The charts at the back of the book are excellent. I am a visual learner, so charts are extremely appealing to me. The glossary will be helpful to those that are not widely read on this subject.

Now for Some Nit-Picking

Here I’ll mention a few minor points that I didn’t completely agree with.

1. When discussing Intelligent Design, Rau says (on page 53) that the philosophical axiom of ID is: “Design in nature is empirically detectable, and provides evidence for the existence of the supernatural.”

Now, this is accurate as far as the theist ID advocate is concerned, and to be sure this is the group Rau is referring to, but I think it should be pointed out that ID doesn’t require the postulation of the supernatural (God). Rather, it only infers an intelligent designer from the available evidence. Evolved extra-terrestrial engineers of  terrestrial life would be another explanation compatible with ID theory. Here’s a recent article that discusses this. If you’ve seen the movie Prometheus, you will have a very good idea of what I mean. That theory faces the problem of an infinite regress, but that’s for other books to deal with.

2. Related to the above is the assertion that implicating God as the agent behind origins is a “God of the Gaps” argument (page 97). Rau is very fair in pointing out that the naturalist’s denial of a designing intelligence in favor of waiting hopefully for a material explanation is a “naturalism of the gaps.” But, I disagree that ID is itself a gaps argument. ID only makes the minimal claim that there is a designing intelligence, and makes an abductive argument based on what we DO know about marks of intelligence and features of biochemistry. The theist, however, can pair the ID conclusion with a valid philosophical argument for believing that this designing intelligence is, in fact, God. I would refer the reader to the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument for further details. (On Guard by William Lane Craig gives a lay-level explanation of Leibniz’s argument.)

3. On page 136, Rau speaks of “art objects and signs of ritual burial” being associated with Homo sapiens and with Neanderthal. However, such evidence for symbolic thought in Neanderthal is highly contentious. I personally don’t find it very compelling, due to difficulties with artifact provenance, a low volume of evidence, and questions of later human occupation of Neanderthal sites. The evolutionary community doesn’t unanimously agree on the proper interpretation of this evidence.

4. On page 147, Rau says, “Generally OEC considers all Homo fossils to be human, whereas YEC is more likely to consider only Homo sapiens to be human. This is exactly backwards. Old-earth creationists see the hominid forms as lower animals that have gone extinct, and only Homo sapiens as creatures created in the image of God (see Fazale Rana’s book, Who Was Adam?) Young-earth creationists accept many of the Homo genus fossils as variations of fully human individuals. Perhaps Rau knows of some OEC and YEC advocates who match his description, but I have yet to encounter such.

My Recommendation

Anyone seeking clarity and a deeper understanding of how the various origins models approach the evidence would greatly benefit from this book. Specialists who need an objective, succinct resource to recommend to non-specialists need look no further. Although Rau says that he intended the book for high school and college students, I think the text is best suited for college students and other adults. It is a fantastic choice for Christian leaders and parents who need a better understanding of the origins debate (a large majority, in my experience).

The goal Rau stated in the preface, about helping Christians “find their way through hotly disputed territory, to guide their journey from the one-sided and greatly oversimplified arguments they have heard in science textbooks or church sermons to the depth of scientific, theological and philosophical literature that exists” is, in my opinion, beautifully accomplished.

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