International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins In Natural and Human History

by Holmes Rolston III

Introductory Essay by Frederick Ferré

This book begins by considering “Genetic Values.” Genes are amazing, since through them information can be transmitted and something can be learned. Their appearance was a unique event in the history of the known universe. There had been plenty of change, diversity, increase of complexity, before the arrival of life (with its information coded into genes) but from all this preorganic tumult nothing could be learned. What is learned from genes is how to expand, improve fitness, invade new niches, innovate, become alert to vital changes, and communicate. Rolston challenges any who try to minimize the factual reality of novelty or the tendency of life to expand in richness of diversity and complexity. This book targets the oft-heard canard that there is no discernable thrust to the story of life. True, there is no pre-set direction. Life burgeons in all directions. But the general trend, despite detours and setbacks, is toward complexity and toward a qualitative increase in repertoires.

The second general target of this book is the popular cynicism one hears about the “selfishness” of genes. Rolston goes after the purveyors of psychogenetic egoism, above all Richard Dawkins, and is merciless in his dissection of such views. In a running battle that begins in his second chapter, “Genetic Identity,” Rolston opposes them. The facts, he argues, do not require that we see the living world merely as a single-minded struggle to maximize genetic identity. If that were the case, sexuality, which dilutes every individual’s genetic information to insignificance as the the generations pass, would be the ultimate self-defeating mechanism. Cloning, not mating, would express genetic selfishness far more effectively.

In the third chapter, “Culture,” the battle continues. Reductionists like Dawkins admit that ideas (which he calls “memes” to parallel “genes”) have an evolutionary power of their own. But still they insist on the necessarily “selfish” character of “memes” as well. The successful ones are merely the memes which exploit the cultural environment to their own advantage. Significantly, Dawkins hopes that once this “fact” is exposed, we can overcome the dangerous selfishness of our memes, but Rolston catches Dawkins in his self-contradiction: where, in Dawkins’ unremittingly selfish universe, could the unselfish “good” ideas come from that could overturn the “bad,” selfish memes?

The final three chapters explore three great cultural phenomena, science, ethics, and religion. Rolston “naturalizes” each by placing it into the context of the wider evolutionary story; he “socializes” each by placing it into its functioning cultural context; and he “evaluates” each by showing its own special importance. In the end Rolston’s approach to God is not through classical “arguments” but through the many-splendored portrait of nature that this book as a whole paints. Repeatedly we encounter the self-transcending creativity epitomized by our initial realization that “informationless matter-energy is a splendid information maker.” This pressure toward creativity is the kind of God that the exuberant Earth reflects.