International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Life Evolving: Molecules, Mind, and Meaning

by Christian de Duve

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

Christian de Duve won the Nobel Prize in 1974 for his work on the organization of the cell. He has, however, always been far more than a mere bench scientist and is  interested in the humanistic side to empirical inquiry – philosophy, theology, and more.  This gracious book is a good representation of his wide-ranging and humane understanding. Above all, the man’s towering integrity shines through on every page.  He started, as he tells us, in a very confined Catholic milieu and through his life has had to face up to the limitations of his early faith and the challenges posed by science. He ends now as an agnostic, perhaps an atheist, but so far from the so-called New Atheists that really one should find another word. One is reminded of a favorite saying of the late Ernst Mayr, the great evolutionist: “It is possible to be intensely religious in the total absence of faith.”

The bulk of Life Evolving is a trip through the nature and meaning of life. The one outright untruth in the book comes when the author avers that he no longer keeps up with cutting-edge science. One wishes that one’s students had such an attitude to learning! We begin with the origin of life itself, with the emphasis on information – it is not so much what you have but how it is ordered and what you can do with it. Life is not a mysterious substance, but things put together in certain ways so that they work, they function. We do not yet have the full story on the origin of life but, as de Duve makes very clear, we know a huge amount more than we did fifty years ago. 

We next get a discussion of the development of the cell and, after that, move rather quickly up to the evolution of humans. The sense is that the author is not impressed with claims by people such as the late Stephen Jay Gould that evolution is all a matter of chance. He does not want to swing to the other extreme, however, finding some kind of divine direction in every significant evolutionary change. But de Duve is sympathetic to the kind of thinking exhibited by paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, namely that there is a kind of inevitable direction upwards, thanks to constraints that arise internally (in development) or externally (through ecological niches).

In the culmination of the book, the author tries to put it all together in a theological or philosophical sense. He is remarkably clear-headed about notions like the anthropic principle and can see the attractions, although in the end he cannot buy into them.  Indeed, one senses that de Duve takes a somewhat hard-line position here. It is not that he thinks that we could reconcile science and religion were it not for other reasons to discard religion (like the traditional philosophical problems such as the problem of evil).  It is rather that he thinks that science and religion are incompatible. Notions like life after death just don’t work anymore in an age of science. But as noted at the beginning, for de Duve this is a place to come to with reverence not scorn.

All in all, this is a very satisfying book that should be read by all concerned with the science-religion relationship.