"If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for," says biologist.

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The anti-evolution "documentary" Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (which alerts viewers to its subject matter with its subtitle), opened little more than a week ago. Supporters are claiming that its opening weekend is either "the second largest gross box office receipts on opening weekend of any political documentary ever" and/or it "is now #26 on the all-time box office list of documentaries. Among those documentaries, only Fahrenheit 9/11 and Tupac The Resurection had better opening weekends." Total receipts for the weekend: $3.2 million.

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One the movie's shticks is to grill atheist advocates of biological evolution as a way to warn viewers about the corrosive effects on science on religious belief. But are faith and reason incompatible? Not all scientists think so.

The New York Times has a nice profile of evolutionary biologist, National Academy of Sciences member, and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Francisco Ayala who spends a great deal of time trying to explain evolutionary biology to the public. From the Times profile:

Dr. Ayala, a former Dominican priest, said he told his audiences not just that evolution is a well-corroborated scientific theory, but also that belief in evolution does not rule out belief in God. In fact, he said, evolution "is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for."

Consider, he said, that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy, Dr. Ayala said, "God is the greatest abortionist of them all."

Or consider, he said, the "sadism" in parasites that live by devouring their hosts, or the mating habits of insects like female midges, tiny flies that fertilize their eggs by consuming their mates' genitals, along with all their other parts.

For the midges, Dr. Ayala said, "it makes evolutionary sense. If you are a male and you have mated, the best thing you can do for your genes is to be eaten." But if God or some other intelligent agent made things this way on purpose, he said, "then he is a sadist, he certainly does odd things and he is a lousy engineer."

That is also the message of his latest book, "Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion" (Joseph Henry Press, 2007). In it, he writes that as a theology student in Spain he had been taught that evolution "provided the 'missing link' in the explanation of evil in the world" — a defense of God's goodness and omnipotence, despite the existence of evil.

"As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life," he writes. "They were not a result of a deficient or malevolent design."

Despite his religious training, the Times notes:

Dr. Ayala will not say whether he remains a religious believer.

My review of Expelled here. Some of my thoughts on the two non-overlapping magisteria argument. The Times' Ayala profile here.

Addendum: Charles Darwin was also troubled by the cruelty of nature. He cited the example of the ichneumon wasp which paralyzes caterpillars live and lays its eggs in them. Its offspring then dine off the tasty live caterpillars as they mature. In his 1860 letter to Asa Gray, Darwin wrote: 

"With respect to the theological view of the question: This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically, but I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice… On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance."