Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History

By Holmes Rolston III

Cambridge. 1999. 400 pp. $18.95.
ISBN 0-521-64674-x

Reviewed by Donald L. Mykles


As a molecular biologist, I have grown to appreciate the complexity of genetic mechanisms underlying biological processes. No one doubts that molecular biology has revolutionized the biological sciences in the 20th century. We know a great deal about how genes are expressed, replicated and transmitted.

Cloning genes is now routine. About half of the human genome has been sequenced, and many of the genetic defects that cause disease have been identified. We have a greater understanding of the genetic basis of organismal diversity, complexity and evolution. Armed with this knowledge, can all of human endeavor be explained in genetic terms? In Genes, Genesis and God, Holmes Rolston III examines the implications of molecular genetics on the origin and development of ethics and religion in human cultures. He challenges the notion of “selfish genes,” a central tenet of sociobiology, which seeks to explain human behavior and culture as a product of our DNA.

In standard fashion, he begins by defining genetic values and identities at various levels. He presents arguments that genes are “. . . loci of intrinsic value, expressed and defended in individuals and also inclusively present and distributed in family, population and species lines.” Genetic identity is considered as a function of different levels of biological organization (e.g., individual, family, species, ecosystem).

Next, he explores the relationship between genes and human culture, which is largely transmitted intergenerationally through language. This contrasts with biological nature, driven by Darwinian evolution, in which information is largely transmitted by genes.

Lastly, he devotes the remainder of the book to three ultimate products of human culture: science, ethics and religion.

Although genes are essential, cultural development and complexity transcend genetics. As Rolston succinctly states: “The genes outdo themselves.” In the final chapter he considers the question of God, a divine being who inspires the self-creativity that abounds in the genesis of life.

This is a scholarly work by one of the foremost philosophers of biology and religion today. Although his narrative style is lively and informal, it may still be a challenge to readers with limited backgrounds in molecular biology and evolutionary theory. However, Rolston knows his genetics, and is masterful in presenting complex biological concepts in a highly readable and non-threatening way. It is certain to provoke vigorous discussions between philosophers, theologians and scientists. It’s something of which we need more.

Reviewed by Perry Biddle


Holmes Rolston III, a Presbyterian minister and philosopher, is the first American Presbyterian ever to deliver the world-acclaimed Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland. Entitled “Genes, Genesis and God,” the lectures were given at the University of Edinburgh in November 1997. They were published under the same name in March 1999.

Rolston, who is recognized as the “father of environmental ethics” as an academic discipline, is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University. He is in demand as a speaker on environmental issues around the world, and will be honored as “Presbyterian Writer of the Year” by the Presbyterian Writers Guild during the General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas.

Rolston raises the question of genetic creativity over Earth’s evolutionary history and its relationship to human cultural creativity, especially in science, ethics and religion. Evolutionary history is interpreted as the genesis of natural value. This natural value is conserved, enriched and distributed over time. Such values in nature, says Rolston, ought to be conserved, enriched and appreciated by humans using their capacities for science, religion and ethics.

There are two competing or complementary explanations of this genesis: a scientific and a religious one. Science uses the term “gene” while religion uses “God.” Rolston uses the term “genesis” to mediate between the two and to keep them in dialogue.

Beyond the riches of biodiversity, says Rolston, the genetically based creativity on Earth strikingly produces persons in cumulative transmissible cultures. The genes generate the human genius or spirit (geist in German). Humans, paradoxically, transcend their genetic sources. This is true especially in their capacities for science, ethics and religion. Humans critically reflect over who they are, where they are and what they ought to do.

Despite important insights, says Rolston, evolutionary biology is troubled by the appropriate models with which to interpret natural history, and the cultural history that emerges from it. According to him, some biologists mistakenly transfer cultural phenomena back into biological phenomena and misinterpret what is going on. They call the genetic defense of organismic life “selfish.” Richard Dawkins does this in his book The Selfish Gene. Rolston challenges Dawkins, arguing that genes generate and pass on information rather than being “selfish” or the product of a “blind watchmaker.”

Rolston’s work is an effective antidote to ultra-Darwinists such as Dawkins who find all human behavior so pervaded with genetic self-interest that this is invariably the dominant determinant in human affairs, including science, ethics and religion.

According to Rolston, this can lead to a mis-valuing of what is legitimately to be appreciated in both nature and culture. With insufficient discrimination of the relevant categories, one fails to understand what is of value in each domain, and how these values are transmitted and shared. With a more philosophically careful account, says Rolston, the discoveries of biological science invite both ethical and theological reflection. Rolston is poetic in his use of words as he deals with symbols and abstract ideas. He points us to a deeper understanding of where we have come from and where we are going as a human race and as partners in caring for creation.