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A review of Joan Roughgarden
'Evolution and Christian Faith'

Joan Roughgarden (2006) Evolution and Christian Faith. Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist,
Island Press, hardback 155 pages, printed on recycled, acid-free paper.
Review by Gert Korthof, 17 May 2007 (updated 20 May 2007)

Roughgarden Joan Roughgarden is a Christian and an evolutionary biologist. Roughgarden has published books on population genetics, theoretical ecology and sexuality and gender in nature and people. According to Roughgarden two parts of evolutionary biology have been demonstrated as true: one family tree unites all of life and species change through time and place. Those facts should be taught in all our schools and that to not do so is like failing to teach that the earth is round. Those parts constitute 90% of the theory of evolution. The rest, 10% is inadequate or probably wrong.

I summarize chapters with quotes and I present comments in a different colour. Page numbers of quotes are in a dimmed font to avoid disrupting the reading.

      Chapter 1: Science with Religion

I'm an evolutionary biologist and a Christian (3). I simply would not participate in evolutionary biology if I thought it somehow undercut Christian faith or was in any way immoral or destructive to our shared humanity. (10). I don't think we need more evidence for evolution. (12)

      Chapter 2: Single Tree of Life

"Genesis doesn't speak one way or the other about whether the plants and animals that God has placed on earth are related to one another. Surely God could create all of life as a single family tree if he wished." (16).
"We inherit our bodies from ancestors who where also the ancestors of other species. We do not inherit our souls from ancestors" (17).
"God gave us our souls even though building us from the substance of the earth." (17). "The family tree is a material relationship, not a spiritual relationship" (17). When did humans acquire a soul? Since sperm and the egg don't have souls, "sometime after sperm and egg unite, or as they unite, the soul enters the embryo" (18). In chapter 2 Roughgarden offers intriguing readings from the Bible that are in harmony with common descent and why Christians have responsibility for stewardship for all animals and plants.
Comment: The statement 'God could create all of life as a single family tree if he wished' is an ambivalent statement. Did God create animals and plants as if they originated via common descent or did God allow evolution to produce all animals and plants?
In Roughgarden's view there is a discontinuity of souls contrary to genetic continuity of bodies. Roughgarden states that sperm and egg have no souls. Why? Where is the evidence? A question of logic? If the father and the mother produce sperm and eggs with a copy of their souls, then the union of sperm and egg would produce a 'double-souled' embryo. So, this must be wrong? I don't know. Maybe, sperm and egg contain half a soul and the union produces a complete soul? Half a soul does not exist? I don't know. What does it mean 'the soul enters the embryo'? What is the soul anyway? Roughgarden does not define the soul. Is it different from the mind? If immaterial, then what does it mean that something immaterial 'enters a material body'? Does an immaterial thing have spatial dimensions? If an embryo can exist without a soul (before the soul enters the embryo), then a soul is apparently not necessary for the living state. The same holds for sperm and egg. The biochemistry of a body does not need a soul. This is also apparent from the closely related chimp embryo. Chimps do not have souls.

      Chapter 3: Species change

The difference between living and nonliving things is that living things change and nonliving things do not change. Does the Bible say species can't change? "I think the Bible is perfectly consistent with the two main facts of evolution - that all of life belongs to a common family tree and that species change over generations." (29). What about the Bible passage 'after their kind'? The Bible in no way defines what sort of grouping "kind" refers to. Some read "kind" as a phylum, I think "kind" refers to varieties within a species (26).
Comment: But if that means that species are directly created by God, it means that evolution did not create species. This is highly unusual. Even people like Paul Nelson claim that creation was done at the family level. Roughgarden ought to give more clarification here! She needs to explain how creation at the species level is compatible with one tree of life. What is the meaning of one tree of life if each species is created supernaturally? 'Species change' is really too vague. Does evolution create species, yes or no?

      Chapter 4: Taking the Bible literally

The approach I take, called "Theistic evolution" by creationists, is the theological position that God creates the world according to a plan that continues to unfold, in the fullness of time, through natural processes that science studies. (34)
Concerning biologcial evolution itself, the key facts are that all life belongs to one family tree and that species change through time. These facts of biological evolution don't conflict with the literal text of the Bible. (34) Theistic evolution is not a compromise. (35)

      Chapter 5 & 6: How change happens & Random mutation

"90% of the theory of evolution is correct" (36). Roughgarden prefers the phrase "natural breeding" instead of "natural selection". Just as Jesus employed the natural breeding metaphor in his teaching, he also employed the random mutation metaphor in a parable (45). For biologists saying mutation is random has nothing to do with whether evolutionary change is fulfilling God's purpose (48).

      Chapter 7: Evolution's direction

Evolutionary biologists disagree whether evolution has a direction. According to Roughgarden, evolution usually has a direction of progressive adaptation to environmental conditions, but other biologists ('anti-directionists') point to nasty but successful genes. Thus evolution is not automatically in opposition to religion concerning a direction for evolutionary change (52).
Comment: Usually 'direction' in evolution means whether for example the origin of humans was an accident or inevitable. Unfortunately, Roughgarden does not talk about that.

      Chapter 8: Roman Catholic Position

Pope John Paul II wrote: "If the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God" (55) Roughgarden quotes Cardinal Schönborn: "his main concern was to criticize atheistic materialism as the dominate philosophy of today's secular societies" (58). Roughgarden criticizes Schönborn's misunderstandings of evolution: "evolutionary theory does not assert that the complexity of life is a "mere random process". It asserts only that the mutation process is random, not that evolution as a whole lacks direction (59).
Comment: 'Evolution as a whole lacks direction': that is different from 'progressive adaptation to environmental conditions'. There is no direction in evolution in the sense that humans are an inevitable outcome of evolution. That has nothing to do with better adaptations. It is clear from the quotes above and Roughgarden agrees, that science is restricted to "the material", therefore it is 'materialistic'. So, the soul is immaterial. So, the soul is a non-scientific concept. It looks as if 'soul' is a religious core concept. Reject the 'soul' and religion evaporates. If the soul is directly created by God, this statement does not touch science. However, statements like 'the souls enters the embryo at x weeks' seem to be an illegitimate mix of scientific and religious language. Even when viewed as a pure theological matter, many questions arise. What does a soul do? Does it think? see? feel? hear? sleep? What is the soul of a person in coma doing? How many souls has a conjoined twin? How many souls has a conjoined twin with only one body and two heads? And where are those souls located? In both heads? For a scientist these are nonsensical questions, but they seem to be unavoidable for theologians once the language of soul is started.

      Chapter 9: To-do list for theorists

To have a fair and balanced view of evolutionary biology today, we need to see not only its successes, but also its current limits. (66) The theory of evolution has its limitations, specifically difficulties arising out of the concept of an 'individual'. (66) For moths, success or failure at breeding depends only on individual performance. (73) Successful breeding in an ant colony is the total number of offspring the colony produces, not the offspring of an individual worker which is zero. (73) Many other species (wolves, fish, birds) fall between these extremes. Competition is mixed with Cooperation. (74) More of our genes come from our mother than from our father! (77) Evolutionary biology needs to think more about the question 'What is an individual?' (78)
Comment: Indeed: "natural selection acts only on individual organisms" is standard neo-Darwinism. (see: Stephen Jay Gould as a critic of orthodox neo-Darwinism)

      Chapter 10: Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design is a political movement and makes up problems with evolutionary biology, that do not exist. (78) Intelligent Design is destined to fail as a scientific project because no conceivable data could ever prove the existence of God, for God belongs to a spiritual realm and scientific data belong to a material realm. (83)
Comment: However, if ID is detecting 'design', and 'design' is defined observationally, then it could be science, although not necessarily interesting science. In that case the relation with God is unclear and undefined. At the moment ID introduces 'supernatural forces, agencies, intelligences' it is not science anymore.
Instead of finding evidence for their own theories, intelligent design advocates spend their time attacking neo-Darwinism. Scientifically, the hypothesis of intelligent design will have to stand or fall on its own merits. (88)

      Chapter 11: Gender and Sexuality

Sexual selection theory is the only part of Darwin's work that is so seriously incorrect that it cannot be updated or revised to make it right. (101,102) So where does all homosexuality fit into Darwin's theory of universal sex roles for animals? It's a problem. According to Darwin, lots of species must be very confused. Well, I think the factual case against the universality of the Darwinian sex roles is overwhelming and should be enough to falsify sexual selection theory on the spot. (111)
Darwinism views males and females as being in fundamental biological conflict. I view the male-female relationship as fundamentally one of cooperation that may degenerate into conflict but not necessarily. (115)
Many people assume the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. (115)
Jesus himself does not condemn or even mention homosexuality. (119)
So, I wind up with a hopeful vision of unity between a revised understanding of family, gender and sexuality in both evolutionary biology and Christian teaching. It seems to me the facts of nature support a much more optimistic view of whether approaching the ideal of cooperation between man and woman in marriage is possible than standard sex-role theory in biology advises, and passages of the Bible support a much more inclusive welcome to persons of varying gender expression and sexuality than some denominations currently take as policy. (123)
Comment: her criticism of sexual theory is worth studying in detail, but I don't agree with her conclusion that sexual selection theory is falsified. Darwin admitted rare exceptions. Nowadays there are a lot more exceptions. But all sexual reproducing animals still have egg-bearing and sperm-bearing individuals. Darwinian sex roles may not be universal, but they are still very widespread. Homosexuality may be a bit of a problem for Darwinists, but the peacock's tail is not. Roughgarden did not yet elaborate a good alternative. Cooperation as the basis of a reproductive male-female pair is plausible because of a shared interest in progeny, but evolution ended up with unequal costs for males and females due to internal fertilisation, internal gestation, and lactation. See also: Joan Roughgarden (2004) "Evolution's Rainbow" (1). See an explanation for sexual selection in different organisms: (6)

      Chapter 12: Future directions

I suggest we first identify positions that needlessly provoke polarization and learn to avoid them. (125)
Selfish-gene philosophy distorts evolutionary biology, and the wrathful God theology distorts Christian teaching. Just as the tales of selfish gene energize opposition to teaching evolution, threats of God's vengeance energize opposition to religion. (132)
Comment: I agree. Dawkins did a lot of harm to evolutionary biology by emphasizing individualism and competition and deemphasizing cooperation. (5). No wonder a lot of Christians hate Darwinism. Roughgarden shows a way out.
One of the major moral issues facing Christians today - how to care for God's creation in view of the sheer magnitude of human activity on the planet. (145)
Comment: Roughgarden belongs to a growing group of Christians who care about the environment. (2)

      Some conclusions

The reason Roughgarden accepts only 90% of evolution has nothing to do with her being a Christian, but with scientific arguments against the theory of sexual selection, powered by a personal problem with prevailing sex roles. Joan Roughgarden is a male-to-female transgender born Jonathan (3). I agree with her observation that Dawkins developed a version of Darwinism that is repellent for many Christians (and laymen). I hope her alternative is scientifically and psychologically more satisfactory. There are many similarities between Roughgarden's version of 'Theistic Evolution' and Francis Collins' version (4). However, for Roughgarden altruism is not an issue. Surprisingly, 'altruism' is not discussed at all. It could function very well as an antidote to Dawkins selfish-gene-universe. Certainly, Roughgarden would never use altruism as a proof of God, since "no conceivable data could ever prove the existence of God".


  1. See here for short review.
  2. Turning swords into plowshares; The Sandy Cove Covenant and Invitation (June 2004) [link to NAE, National Association of Evangelicals no longer exists]; Theology & the Environment (this link was kindly supplied by Peter James Causton).
  3. Amazon lists 6 titles with author name 'Jonathan Roughgarden'. Her book "Evolution's Rainbow. Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, was published in 2004 under the name Joan Roughgarden.
  4. Review of Francis Collins (2006) The language of God.
  5. Jerry A. Coyne wrote about the Selfisch Gene: "the book's title led people into two errors. The first was to believe that genes themselves are selfish. This is nonsense, of course, for genes are simply mindless molecules." "The second misunderstanding of Dawkins's book was the notion that selfish genes must inevitably produce selfish behaviour." [third:] "The Selfish Gene has led many people to worry that we may indeed be robots controlled by genomes that evolved in our savannah-dwelling ancestors". (TLS).
  6. Douglas J. Emlen et al (2012) A Mechanism of Extreme Growth and Reliable Signaling in Sexually Selected Ornaments and Weapons, Science 17 August 2012. See also: Further Reading #14.

      Other reviews

  • See here for a list of reviews. [Evolution and Christian faith: time out.]

      Further Reading

  • Evolution and Christian Faith (nice and short summary of the book by the author). [Evolution and Christian faith: time out.]
  • Joan Roughgarden in wiki
  • News feature. 'Joan Roughgarden profile: A plea for diversity', Nature 422, 368-369 (27 March 2003): "Joan - formerly Jonathan - Roughgarden rejects established evolutionary ideas about gender roles and sexuality. Everyone wants to discuss the parallels with her personal experience. But the science speaks for itself, she tells Virginia Gewin."
  • Joan Roughgarden, Meeko Oishi, Erol Akcay (2006) 'Reproductive Social Behavior: Cooperative Games to Replace Sexual Selection', Science Vol 311 17 Feb 2006 p965.
    • "Theories about sexual selection can be traced back to Darwin in 1871. He proposed that males fertilize as many females as possible with inexpensive sperm, whereas females, with a limited supply of large eggs, select the genetically highest quality males to endow their offspring with superior capabilities. Since its proposal, problems with this narrative have continued to accumulate, and it is our view that sexual selection theory needs to be replaced. We suggest an approach that relies on the exchange of direct ecological benefits among cooperating animals without reference to genetic benefits. This approach can be expressed mathematically in a branch of game theory that pertains to bargaining and side payments."
  • Letters: Debating Sexual Selection and Mating Strategies, Science 5 May 2006 689-691 ROUGHGARDEN ET AL. (REVIEWS, 17 FEB., P. 965) CLAIM THAT COOPERATIVE GAME THEORY IS an ideal replacement for sexual selection theory.
  • Marlene Zuk (2002) Sexual Selections What We Can and Can't Learn about Sex from Animals: "I am both a feminist and an evolutionary biologist interested in animal behavior".
  • Female Choice is Chapter 7 (full text) of Joan Roughgarden's Evolution's Rainbow at the site of University of California Press.
  • My Review of Francis Collins (2006) The language of God.
  • My Review of Bruce Bagemihl's (1999) Biological Exuberance. Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity
  • My Review of Louis Berman (2003) The Puzzle. Exploring the Evolutionary Puzzle of male homosexuality.
  • My Review of Young & Edis (2004) Why Intelligent Design Fails
  • Tim Clutton-Brock (2007) 'Sexual Selection in Males and Females', Review, Science, 21 December 2007.
    "Roughgarden et al. (2006) recently argued [see: F.R.#4] that "sexual selection theory is always mistaken, even when gender roles superficially match the Darwinian templates" and went on to advocate its replacement by a novel theory of social selection. That 40 evolutionary biologists cooperated to write 10 letters rejecting these criticisms shows that Roughgarden's views are unusual (17), but it is clear that the mechanisms underlying sex differences in reproductive competition and the traits associated with them are both more diverse and more complex than was initially realized. In the wake of Roughgarden et al.'s review, both the exceptions to the basic structure of sexual selection theory and the operation of sexual selection in females deserve further attention."
  • Joan Roughgarden (2009) 'The Genial Gene. Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness', University of California Press.
    "This scientifically rigorous, model-based challenge to an important tenet of neo-Darwinian theory emphasizes cooperation, elucidates the factors that contribute to evolutionary success in a gene pool or animal social system, and vigorously demonstrates that to identify Darwinism with selfishness and individuality misrepresents the facts of life as we now know them."
  • Elizabeth Pennisi (2012) Insulin May Guarantee the Honesty of Beetle's Massive Horn, Science 27 July 2012.
    (Work presented at the meeting shows that the nature of the developmental pathway that leads to sexually selected traits related to size may be what makes these traits reflect health and stature.) Rhinoceros beetle horns are eight times more sensitive to insulin signaling than the rest of the body, Because the insulin pathway directly links nutrition to cell growth, it becomes impossible for a malnourished beetle to fake its fitness by growing a big horn. The insulin pathway keeps the signal honest.
  • Michael J. Wade (2012) Constraints on Sexual Selection, Science 9 November 2012
    Ever since Darwin identified female choice of mates as a mechanism of sexual selection, it has been a challenge for evolutionary biologists to quantitatively integrate sexual selection, acting on reproductive fitness at the time of mating, with natural selection, acting on viability at other times in the life cycle. Byers and Dunn show how female choice of mates and offspring mortality together affect the strength of selection acting on male pronghorns, Antilocapra americana.
  • Sally Lehrman (2008) The Christian Man's Evolution: How Darwinism and Faith Can Coexist, Scienctific American, Oct 2008. A geneticist ordained as a Dominican priest, Francisco J. Ayala sees no conflict between Darwinism and faith. Convincing most of the American public of that remains the challenge.
  • ScienceDaily: Birdsong is not all about sexual selection: Female birds sing much more often than previously thought, March 5, 2014
  • Claire Ainsworth: Sex redefined. The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.
    "I think there's much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can't easily define themselves within the binary structure," says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London's Institute of Child Health.
    "The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females," says Arthur Arnold at the University of California, Los Angeles." Nature, 19 Feb 2015.


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Copyright ©G. Korthof 2007 First published: 17 May 2007 Updated: 20 May 2007 F.R./Notes: 19 Feb 2015