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Life'S X Factor: The Missing Link in Materialism's Science of Living Things.

LIFE'S X FACTOR: The Missing Link in Materialism's Science of Living Things by Neil Broom. Wellington, Aotearoa, NZ: Steele Roberts, 2010. 192 pages, notes, index. Paperback; $29.99. ISBN: 9781877577208.

One is hard pressed to escape the highly public clamoring that says science and religion have been and always will be at war. PSCF readers are well aware that the war is a manufactured one and that it is inaccurate to characterize science and religion broadly in this way. Reality reveals a relationship that is much more complex. The absence of war does not imply peace, however, and there are real and potentially heated debates in some areas of science and religion.

One particular realm of heated discussion occurs within philosophy, a potentially fruitful area of mediation between science and religion. On the one hand are atheists who posit Darwinism as the "universal acid" that dissolves all meaning and fuels the fire of their reductionist materialistic philosophy. On the other hand are Christian philosophers who claim that all meaning is grounded in God and (for some) that the Bible specifically dictates antimaterialism (usually, dualism). Ironically, both agree that materialism and meaning are antithetical, but because these Christians are committed to antimaterialism they reject evolution. Although less well known publicly, there is a potentially constructive middle ground composed of both religious and nonreligious persons, who believe that there is an intermediate philosophical position between reductionist materialism and dualism, or that dualism and evolution are not mutually exclusive.

Neil Broom's Life's X Factor: The Missing Link in Materialism's Science of Living Things fits into that philosophical arena. Broom is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Auckland and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Intellectually, I was very excited to read Broom's book, as its description anticipated a synthetic and forward-looking account of how philosophical principles of purpose, intention, and mind could be wedded with evolution. Furthermore, I sincerely appreciated his motivation in writing the book and his concerns regarding popular-level treatment of evolution. For instance, I agree that the mechanism of natural selection can be overused and misapplied to suit the desires of its employer. Also, science for a general audience is too often written in an oversimplified and too optimistic manner, especially in the area of scientific origins. Last, it is true that the majority of popularlevel science writers say that evolution is mindless, pointless, and impersonal and that this truth necessitates assent to atheism and its evangelical promotion. Nevertheless, despite my appreciation of these concerns and my enthusiasm in reading Life's X Factor, it is unfortunate that there are serious issues throughout and, as such, I cannot recommend the book.

Broom's thesis is twofold. First, the philosophy of "biological materialism" blinds its proponents to teleological qualities clearly observable in the living world. Second, authors such as Dawkins who believe that evolution is mindless and nonteleological really betray this when they write phrases such as "cells within a developing organism know where they are in the embryo" or that "cells explore their environments." Broom's solution is to revisit William Paley's natural theology and to revitalize vitalism, an ancient philosophical notion that the/some functions of an organism are due to a principle distinct from biochemical reactions, which is not describable by physical and chemical laws. This antimaterialistic belief was refuted in the nineteenth century with the advent of the germ theory of disease by Robert Koch and others as well as Louis Pasteur's disproval of spontaneous generation. Broom's supporting argument amounts to a vitalism of the gaps, which is not surprising considering his early work promoting intelligent design. Throughout the book, Broom attempts to highlight areas of biology that he says are not explainable by natural mechanisms and thus point to mind behind it. This is a flawed attempt to integrate within biology a long discredited and unnecessary doctrine.

Methodologically, my biggest issue with Broom's book is that he oversimplifies materialism. First, Broom makes no distinction between the methodological naturalism that is required for science and the metaphysical naturalism that is materialism. Second, Broom equates materialism with reductionism, ignoring a wealth of work on ideas such as emergence, holism or organicism, and philosophies that maintain high respect for science that address Broom's motivations for writing Life's X Factor in the first place. Claiming that materialism is necessarily reductionist is false and thus a straw-man attack. Broom does a disservice to his readers by not engaging with (or even mentioning) Christian philosophers who subscribe to nonreductionist materialism, such as Nancey Murphy and Kevin Corcoran. A better solution would be to engage with current philosophical ideas, especially emergence, which multiple disciplines such as biology, philosophy, psychology, and theology are all finding to be fruitful. Even the textbook that I use in my freshman-level biology class notes the importance of emergence in organisms and how different levels of biological organization interact with each other to produce the emergent properties Broom believes require an immaterial life force.

In addition to his inadequate treatment of materialism, Broom's arguments against it and for vitalism were not convincing. In multiple instances, Broom delves into antievolution rhetoric, which is fine by itself, I suppose, but distracts heavily from the overall argument he is trying to make. It is clear that he has an agenda when he uses terms such as mainstream naturalism, scientific doctrine, orthodox and establishment scientists; I was repeatedly frustrated at the hand grenades that he lobbed at my biologist colleagues and me. Broom's grasp of evolution and natural selection is unclear. He does not seem to understand artificial representation of natural selection in experiments or Dawkins's computer simulations, and he equates survival with teleological purpose. Broom also criticizes evolution by discussing chemical evolution and origin-of-life science, areas that are only peripherally related to biological evolution. It is not enough to make a case for vitalism simply by attacking evolution. One needs to make the argument that materialism (reductionism in particular) fails as a philosophy and that vitalism is a better alternative; Broom has not done this.

In summary, I appreciate Broom's motivations for writing this book. I also found his prose to be lively and fast paced. His use of figures and photos throughout made for an enjoyable read. However, I do not believe Broom's solution is the way forward. Greater engagement with philosophy and a respect for methodological naturalism and evolution is essential, not a revival of vitalism or the natural theology/intelligent design of Paley. Evolution by natural selection has such unifying explanatory power in all of biology. Can it do the same and illuminate other areas of inquiry such as art and aesthetics, philosophy, ethics, psychology, or religion? For those interested in a comparative, better, and more engaging treatment of these ideas by authors sympathetic to Broom's concerns, I recommend Conor Cunningham's Darwin's Pious Idea or Alvin Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.

Reviewed by Justin Topp, Associate Professor of Biology, Gordon College, Wenham, MA 01984.
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Author:Topp, Justin
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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