Biology and Theology Today

Written by Celia Deane-Drummond Reviewed By Philip Duce

This book, by a professor in theology and biological sciences at Chester College of Higher Education, ‘is designed to be accessible to undergraduates and those interested in issues of public concern, including the new genetics and environmental issues’ (xi).

Refreshingly, the author resists the popular views that science and theology either belong to separate domains, or are ‘complementary’ perspectives on the same domain, including creation. Such models render genuinely creative dialogue impossible, because they minimise or ignore key issues: that science as practised shows a religious dimension, shapes our culture, and has values which feed off, and influence, that culture; that religious beliefs can be the object of (social-) scientific study; and that the mutual influences of science and theology are often largely unnoticed (xv–xvi).

To begin, chapter 1 surveys how human perceptions of the natural world have changed significantly over the centuries, and then asks how far such syntheses are compatible with the contemporary practice of science. Chapter 2 asks questions about values in science and also introduces ‘the twin focus of the book:’ genetics and ecology. Chapter 3 explores genetic engineering and its applications, along with areas such a cloning, in order to ground subsequent ethical and theological discussion. Chapter 4 examines the responses to genetic engineering by the churches, and argues that the ecumenical dialogue may be developed further through rediscovery of the Wisdom traditions of the church, particularly in Aquinas and Russian Orthodoxy. Chapter 5 then reflects on theological issues in the genetic modification of food, and the cloning of animals—and possibly humans. Chapter 6 grapples with approaches to ethical dilemmas in genetic engineering (consequentialism, deontological ethics), and seeks to develop Wisdom as an alternative ethical base.

Chapter 7 marks the transition to a new way of approaching biological science, in examining the controversial Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock. The extent to which Gaia becomes ideological reflects the philosophical presuppositions of the scientists involved, and Chapter 8 moves into theological, philosophical and ethical debates surrounding Gaia.

Gaia is especially significant in the work of some feminist theologians, who also draw on postmodernity and the deconstruction of science. Chapter 9 explores a subject much neglected in typical science-and-religion texts—the role of women in science—with a historical perspective and surveys of feminist critiques and philosophies of science.

Chapter 10 gathers up the themes of the book and argues for a holistic approach to science, informed by the current debates in the humanities rather than dismissive of them. It is rightly affirmed that science can never become totally value-free, even if its goal is to become totally objective. However, ‘while there are some scientists who acknowledge the culture of all science and realise that this culture will help solve the questions it sets itself, many ordinary practising scientists still see science as somehow being a superior form of knowledge, beyond culture’ (212). Indeed they do—and the same could be said for some commentators on science and theology.

In sum, the new biology challenges our anthropology—how we think about our relation to God, humanity and the earth; and ‘Wisdom, as an anthropological term as well as a theological term, reminds humanity of its frailty before God. For the Wisdom of theology is also the Wisdom of the cross’ (220). Overall, then, while one might disagree with some statements or aspects of the analysis, or wish for more interaction with evangelical contributions to the debates, this is a valuable, stimulating and challenging book, well worth reading by anyone grappling seriously with the issues.

Philip Duce