Book Review: Am I a Monkey? by Francisco Ayala

This week, I had the pleasure of taking a little break from Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, and I read a short book by Francisco Ayala called Am I a Monkey?: Six Big Questions about Evolution. It’s a cute little book in which the author explains evolution as simply as he can to the layperson. I think these explanations benefit not only those who don’t believe in evolution because they don’t understand it, but also those like me, for whom a refresher could never hurt.

The six questions that Ayala answers are:

(1) Am I a Monkey?
(2) Why Is Evolution a Theory?
(3) What is DNA?
(4) Do All Scientists Accept Evolution?
(5) How Did Life Begin?
(6) Can One Believe in Evolution
and God?

Reading through those questions, you may have thought that one question was not like the others, but we’ll get back to that later.

I’m going to give you a tip, if you want to know the answers to these questions, but don’t have time to read even an 83-page book. That is, look at the first sentence of each chapter, and it will answer the question in that chapter’s title. For example, Chapter One: Am I a Monkey? begins, “I am a primate. Monkeys are primates, but humans are not monkeys. Primates include monkeys, apes, and humans.” If you picked up this book wondering whether you are a monkey, you really don’t have to get far to find out.

Most of the book is explained with this type of language: simple and clear, even if it means a sacrifice of fervor. This book won’t keep you on the edge of your seat, but it does something very important, and that is clear up things about evolution that you really ought to know, like what it means to be a scientific theory (and in a way, a fact), how we think RNA may have originally formed, and how DNA works. At times, I felt like I was reading a Wikipedia entry on evolution, but I enjoyed that it was concise and didn’t go too in-depth on scientific topics that are too complex for me.

This feeling ends with Chapter Five. That is, the book may have been more appropriately called, Five Big Questions about Evolution, and Why It Is Compatible with Belief in God. I don’t think it’s too surprising that the idea of religious belief would come up in a book on evolution, but I didn’t expect it to warrant its own entire chapter, and especially not a chapter in favor of the existence of the Christian god. I know that plenty of scientists reconcile their scientific and religious beliefs, but I can’t help but find it jarring to read as someone spends a book explaining why life could have arisen without a Creator, only to end it with “but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one!” (This happened in Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory as well.)

I knew throughout the whole book that this was coming, as the introduction chapter ends with,

The second point, to which I dedicate only the last chapter of the book, is related to the first. Science and religion need not be in contradiction. Indeed, if they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because they concern different matters. Successful as it is, and as universally encompassing as its subject is, a scientific view of the world is hopelessly incomplete. Matters of value and meaning are outside science’s scope. In order to understand the purpose and meaning of life, as well as matters concerning moral and religious values, we need to look elsewhere. For many people, these questions are very important, even more important than science per se.

If you know me, then you might be able to guess that I disagreed with pretty much this entire paragraph. I was also surprised to see this persuasive language in a book that was otherwise strictly informational. I can say, however, that this did have me intrigued.

It shows in this blurb and in Chapter Six that Ayala is a big believer in the principle of non-overlapping magisteria, or NOMA. NOMA is the idea from Stephen Jay Gould which states that matters of science and religious belief need not contradict, because they address entirely different matters. You may have heard the Galileo quote: “The Bible teaches how to get to heaven, not how the heavens go.” I wish I could agree with this and believe that science and religion could live in harmony, but I think that this idea conveniently ignores exactly what it needs to. I think that scientists who also believe in the Christian god can only do so if they turn a blind eye to the parts of the two that really do contradict.

Sure, the Bible focuses much more on “moral lessons” than science lessons, but it does make scientific statements that directly contradict, well, actual science. The most popular example, of course, is that God is said to have created light before creating the Sun, which, if you didn’t know, is not how light works. On the other hand, Ayala says that science cannot account for moral values. While the field of psychology has a very far way to go in explaining our morals using science alone, and maybe it will always feel too complex to explain using only neural synapses, evolution and psychology can explain a lot more about morals than Ayala probably thinks.

Ayala finishes off the book with one of the weirdest arguments I’ve ever heard, and that is that evolution solves, or at least helps with, the problem of evil. He writes:

If we claim that organisms and their parts have been specifically designed by God, we have to account for the incompetent design of the human jaw, the narrowness of the birth canal, and our poorly designed backbone, less than fittingly suited for walking upright. People of faith would do well to acknowledge Darwin’s revolution and accept natural selection as the process that accounts for the design of organisms, as well as for the dysfunctions, oddities, and cruelties that pervade the world of life. Evolution makes it possible to attribute these mishaps to natural processes (which have no moral implications) rather than to the direct creation or specific design of the Creator.
Come to think of it, Ayala looks a lot like my old apologetics teacher

He goes on to acknowledge that he is well aware that some (like me) might argue that this doesn’t excuse God, even if you do use evolution to explain away the cruelties of our world within a theistic worldview. He knows that God would still be responsible because he “is the Creator of the universe and thus would be accountable for its consequences, direct or indirect, immediate or mediated.” He responds to this in two ways: first he gives the spiel of “God’s mysterious ways,” immediately with the confession that “this answer may seem to many unsatisfactory, because it simply evades the question instead of answering it.”

Predictably, his second explanation is that evil has to exist because it is a by-product of free will, and it’s not God’s fault. He says, “one could reasonably argue that ‘humans’ without free will would be a very different kind of creature, a being much less interesting and creative than humans are. Robots are not a good replacement for humans; robots to not perform virtuous deeds,” to which I added in my margin, “or school shootings.”

Similarly, he excuses the view that a benevolent God would have caused the tsunami that killed 200,000 Indonesians in 2004, because natural catastrophes come about by natural processes. Again, Ayala anticipates critics who may content that God could have made a world without catastrophes, but that would not be a “creative universe,” which is “more exciting than a static world.” I bet that tsunami was really exciting for everyone involved, Francisco.

In short, I enjoyed the first five chapters of this book, but not so much the final chapter, which was not only confusing and random, but didn’t even concern the same subject matter as the rest of the book. Of course, the author can write whatever he pleases, but I think that it felt out of place. Perhaps if Ayala believes that science and religion exist in different disciplines, maybe they should stay in separate books.

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Am I a Monkey? by Francisco Ayala

  • What I never understand about people who make these kinds of argument, is that you could just remove the Creator all together and absolutely nothing changes. Whether or not you believe that science has nothing to say about value and meaning (I think it absolutely has something to say), there would be nothing preventing you from thinking that you should be an artist, a dancer, a doctor, etc. Humans would absolutely attach meaning to things and let those passions drive them through life. No religion needed…no belief in a creator needed. God is simply parsley garnishing the plate, and is absolutely inconsequential to the meal. Should such a being, even if it could be proven to exist, be worthy of worship?

    Liked by 2 people

  • I have noticed in recent times that a lot more Christians are embracing evolution and LGBT people (at least in my neck of the woods), which I think is a real positive step. When it comes to science though, the Bible says some stuff that is clearly against modern science. You can say religion and science aren’t incompatible with each other in a very general sense, but when it comes to Christianity or the other major religions, it doesn’t work.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Also, I don’t like to be that guy again, but I hope you pay to use the pictures you use on your website. This isn’t common knowledge, but blogs like yours can and do get sued for big bucks over copyright violations. Maybe do a quick Google search and then weigh the costs and benefits of paying, if you’re not.


  • I think Coyne’s book Why Evolution Is True also concludes with some reflections on religion and evolution. It’s difficult for popular authors on evolution not to conclude with some such comment, since religious conviction is by far the most common reason why people reject evolution.


  • …I wish I could agree with this and believe that science and religion could live in harmony,..

    Science and religion ARE different; I am comfortable with that; why do they NOT live in harmony?

    Liked by 2 people

  • What I find most interesting here is not this guy’s book. It’s that your reaction is so different from mine. I was never a fundamentalist or literal biblical believer.
    I have never seen evolution as evidence for or against a god’s existence (nor jaws, backs, teeth, or eyeballs). I never experienced your struggles and I still do not.
    I separate three things: religion (pick your poison), the actual existence of gods (maybe, maybe not), and science (maybe right, often wrong or dishonest). All three are creations of humans. I enjoyed the read, but prolly not gunna buy the book.

    Liked by 4 people

    • My idea of science is fluid. It’s always a search for stuff we almost know, and even when we find that the socks in the drawer do indeed match, it’s always about the next step, the next “why” in the list. People tend to treat it as a fixed event, and yet it changes constantly, as we learn new things.
      When I was kid, the periodic table had huge gaping spaces in it. We KNEW there were things to go in there, we just hadn’t found them yet. That’s what science is.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Science is fluid. It’s very hard to pin down to any one definition, because as soon as you discover that the socks do indeed match, then you have to figure out why.

      I think too many people see it as a fixed process when actually it’s always changing, always collecting and discarding and discovering…

      Liked by 1 person

  • Earlier this year I read ‘why evolution is true, by Jerry Coyne. This was a massive eye opener for me, and I now strongly believe that evolution is at the coal face of atheist apologetics.

    It sounds like this kind of book helps us to understand why there are people who fully believe in the scientific evidence for things, yet cling to the faith of their fathers for purpose and comfort.

    I’m not saying I agree that they do so. I am just glad that they are willing to take the time to inform us, so that we can learn and one day have a good conversation.


    Liked by 2 people

  • Yes, I’m a monkey.

    It really depends on what we mean by “monkey”. In ordinary language, “monkey” is distinct from “ape”. But there’s a technical sense in which apes are a subclass of monkeys. I’m a monkey in the same sense that I’m a mammal and I’m a vertebrate.

    As for NOMA — in principle, I like that idea. But the difficulty is that the religionists don’t like. They insist on attacking science as being contrary to their religion. And if religionists reject NOMA, then that idea cannot work.

    Thanks for that review.


  • Under the rubric of “Are you gonna believe the word of God or your lying eyes?” I ask theists if “God’s Creation” could have been made exactly the way we perceive it? Is God powerful enough to have done that? If they answer “no” then they are clearly worshipers of the Bible and further discussion is not going to be fruitful. Anyone who comes down on the side of the Bible instead of God’s creation is locked into his ideology.

    Any believer who wants to accept the testimony of God’s Creation and have their belief and reality too. Conflicts between what we see with our own eyes and the Bible mean that the Bible must have gotten it wrong and there is far too much evidence pointing to things the Bible got wrong (even Jesus gets things wrong) to support an “inerrancy” claim for that book. If they want to hang onto inerrancy, then science will slowly gobble up their faith, so they will have to stop looking, they will have to close their lying eyes.

    Liked by 3 people

  • they cannot be in contradiction because they concern different matters”. Actually one is an outer truth and the other is an imagination. Faith is merely the ability to powerfully imagine what they imagine; ie, an inner truth.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Precisely, Jim. For the faithful, there is this world and the imaginary world; this life ad the next life. Faith: The delusional belief that what you have been led to believe is true, is true. GROG

      Liked by 1 person

  • You could take away religion and science would function perfectly well, ”thank you very much”, but if you took away science and were left with religion there would be chaos and eventual catastrophe.

    People such as Ayala come across as saccharin sweet but in truth they are somewhat disingenuous.
    They should be kept away from children and other vulnerable types.

    Liked by 2 people

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