Lindsay (dragonzuela) wrote,

Book Review: The Science of God

The author is Gerald L. Schroeder. ISBN: 0684837366

The title of this book is a little deceptive. The basic thesis is that everything in the Old Testament/Torah is completely accurate, and if it seems to conflict with science it is because we're interpreting the book the wrong way, or in some cases because science is wrong. (I say deceptive because many non-Abrahamic religions and belief systems also include God. Speak for your own God, buddy!)

The beginning of the book seemed good and really had me interested. It is clear that this guy has an advanced understanding of the scriptures to which he refers. For someone like me who has a limited exposure to Abrahamic religion in particular and organized religion in general, it is easy to take a simplistic and straight-forward interpretation of the Bible, say, "well, that contradicts itself and doesn't make any sense," and then dismiss the whole thing. This guy takes all the illogical weirdness and looks a lot deeper at it, with the help of various ancient scholars.

Chapter 3: "The Age of Our Universe: Six Days and Fifteen Billion Years" was really impressive. Like, "Oh crap, Genesis isn't just mythology? There actually is supernatural or extraterrestrial knowledge in the Bible?" impressive. It talks about how time is distorted by the expansion of the universe, such that time as measured by the ambient radiation from the Big Bang passes much more slowly than time as we see it. In this system, the universe is six days old and all the events of those first passages of Genesis happen on the correct "day."

He writes about evolution in subsequent chapters, but seems to be confused about where he stands. Here is a summary of his arguments:
  • It is not possible that life as it exists today arose entirely from natural selection. This is because there are gaps in the fossil record. He also makes up some math to show that convergent evolution isn't possible.

  • Abiogenesis is not possible because bacterial fossils are present as soon as the Earth should have been able to support life, while it should have taken billions of years for a bacterium to arise by chance. Also, there are peer-reviewed journal articles stating that a single cell could not have been assembled by chance. [He manages to put this out of context, ignoring the possibility of self-catalyzing reactions existing before cells.] But the Bible/Torah doesn't have any problem with abiogenesis because "the Earth brought forth life."

  • Amoebas have really big genomes, and because (in 1997 when the book was published) we don't know what's in there, it probably contains a lot of latent genes that don't do anything for the organism. [In reality, of course, any gene without a function will be lost to mutation.] In the Cambrian explosion, God made some mutations to activate these genes and create all the basic body plans of life, like arthropods and vertebrates. These evolved and speciated on their own for awhile.

  • Humans and chimps cannot share a common ancestor, because of some calculations he did involving mutation rates, time since we were supposed to have diverged, and genome similarities.

  • Adam indeed lived 6000 years ago. Before him and during his time there were "human-like" "animals," by which the author means biological humans without souls. (More specifically, they just had animal souls, nefesh, and not human souls capable of spirituality, neshama.)

Ah, found this bristle-inducing quote while flipping back through the book: "As fate would have it, the race between [Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals] for dominance appears to have been played out in the Middle East, the same region of the world where in later days the battle against paganism was to be staged."

But anyway, what was really disappointing about the whole evolution section is that the author seems to be willfully ignorant of population genetics. He is a physicist, and much of pop gen is just algebra and mathematical common sense, so I'm sure if he tried he could pick it up in a couple afternoons and a few cups of tea. Instead he takes an advanced high schooler's understanding of molecular genetics and makes up his own mathematical model about how alleles come to fixation in a population. I don't know if this book is worthy of Richard Dawkins' time, but I hope that if he read it he got a good laugh rather than becoming frustrated that Simon & Schuster would publish this sort of thing. Schroeder's sloppiness with evolution unfortunately makes me wonder whether he's also misrepresenting physics and the history of the universe earlier in the book in order to prove his point.

Then there was stuff about quantum physics and how a lack of complete causality means that we have free will. I would argue that it could just mean that are choices are governed in part by random events at the atomic level. The book ends with a big flourish of wonderful facts about our universe, without much of a synthesis of the ideas presented. The appendices discuss how Genesis mentions dinosaurs and how it could have been biologically possible for someone to live 900 years.

There, I read a book and had thoughts about it! I'm not just a lazy internet-surfing bastard. Now I need to find more polite and mature ways to express my thoughts to the family friend who lent me the book.

Also, Eat, Pray, Love: way too much of a fairytale ending, as would be expected of a woman who seems to do everything to excess. Some good spiritual nuggets though. But dood, is she still with the guy? Or did it end in a calamitous mess and did she have to go to three other countries to fix it? Fine, fine...
Tags: books

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