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Book Review

Rocks of Ages. Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Stephen Jay Gould, 1999, Ballantine Books, New York

Stephen Jay Gould is a paleontologist and a well known evolutionist. He has written several books and numerous articles on evolution. He contends that it is a completely random process, without any large component of directionality such as "survival of the fittest", and of course without help from "higher powers". His theory of punctuated equilibria basically says that evolution is not a gradual, continuous process, but occurs in spurts; thus, speciation occurs rarely but rapidly when it does happen. Speciation tends to be favored by catastrophic events on earth. He sees the appearance of humans as a fortuitous event. If evolution could be replayed, its randomness would make it highly unlikely that anything like humans would appear again.

This is valuable background for considering the issues raised in Rocks of Ages, Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Although this book is not about the evolutionary process, evolution and creationism and their relationships to science and religion are touched upon throughout the book.

Gould’s main thesis in this book is that there cannot be any conflict between science and religion because they deal with completely different spheres, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), as he refers to them. The magisterium of science ". . . covers the empirical realm; what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value." He emphasizes that religion operates with subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve; and that the validity of ethical principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.

These are remarkably strong statements from Gould, the scholarly person. On the surface, there are no reservations, no hedging, no doubts. He goes on to make the argument that the conflict between science and religion has centuries-old roots which have no validity today, with the exception of the conflicts generated by relatively few extremists from both camps. Gould does little to clarify what he considers to be extremism, but mentions that they include creationists from the Christian right as well as some militant atheists among his scientific colleagues.

Gould makes it so simple. If we all accept his NOMA concept and respect each other’s views, most conflicts between science and religion would dissolve, and the two could coexist peacefully. By keeping them separated but accepting them both we can have a more meaningful life. But when he lays out his NOMA concept in more detail and proceeds to build a defense for it he concedes that there are blurred areas of overlap where claims for authority are not easily resolved.

Gould discusses some of the intertwined historical foundations for the conflict and for NOMA. In essence, the conflict started with Galileo. Up to that point there was one magisterium only, religion. Gould gives an illuminating account of the clash between Galileo and the church, Galileo’s predicament and how it defined issues concerning the roles of science and religion that subsequently evolved. Gould describes some of the inputs to this process and the concept of NOMA from other great thinkers, such as Charles Darwin and Thomas H. Huxley, and from various popes. His wanderings in history and philosophy, including a visit to the Scopes trial, give interesting tidbits and a better understanding of Gould’s positions.

However, this all does not reduce my concerns about the practicality of NOMA. One concern is that the borders of the magisteria are and always will be poorly defined. What belongs in each one? How issues are assigned to a magisteria S by Gould or by anybody else S is arbitrary, dependent on the state of knowledge at any particular time. For instance, when Gould declares as an example that science cannot bring into its magisterium the origin of the universe, he is on shaky ground indeed. This is a problem which theoretical astrophysicists, mathematicians and other scientists are dealing with and which probably will be solved in the distant future. There is a real possibility that the formation of matter de novo will be understood eventually, although probably not in our lifetime. Science appears not to have advanced close to that stage yet.

With the limitations and boundaries inherent in the scientific method and science as a philosophical tool, science rarely gets involved with religion. For example, it is not interested in proving or disproving the existence of a god; this is a supernatural issue outside the realm of science. On the other hand, religion always has meddled with science and the natural world, does so now, and very likely will continue to do so in the future.

If the magisterium of religion were replaced by a magisterium of ethics, I would be more inclined to go along with Gould. But religion is going to be with us, and have its not so humble magisterium, for a long time to come. Gould half-heartedly admits that an ethics magisterium may be acceptable S for some. But he, himself, a self-declared agnostic (he cannot know), seems to have a subtle, unstated deist tilt: God created the world, and then let it run unguided. Perhaps I am misperceiving his attitude, but Gould seems too eager to emphasize that there must be a "meaning" to life, a phrase he uses repeatedly, and that this can be sought in the magisterium of religion. Nowhere does he express that this "meaning" can be found in nature once belief in the supernatural is rejected. The magisterium of ethics which we are then left with has few if any conflicts with science.

Nevertheless, the core of Gould’s message has many good points, and he has raised some important issues for debate. As usual, his writing is elegant and provocative, peppered with good analogies, anecdotes and metaphors. The book is a delight to read.


Edvard A. Hemmingsen, Emeritus Physiologist, UCSD.