In Genes, Genesis and God, Holmes Rolston III investigates the development of diverse and complex species on earth, as well as the genesis of cumulative, transmissible culture and particularly the emergent phenomena of science, ethics, and religion. Behind his analysis lie a number of questions, particularly the suitability of contemporary neo-darwinist genetic theories to account for these events. How does more arise out of less? Are genes best described as blind and selfish? What is the relationship between natural selection and the minds emerge from it? Quite naturally, these scientific questions are full of philosophical significance; a significance which can go unnoticed or unacknowledged in some discourse.
First genetics and natural history are explored with reference to the question of ‘value’, in the sense of the ability to value life - seeking and protecting existence, rather than the narrower sense of being able to feel value. Genes store information but are themselves not the most helpful category for understanding this valuing phenomenon. Rather than existing at the genetic or even somatic level, genetic identity is instead ‘shared’ and ‘distributed’ over kin, population, and species groups. This recognition undermines the ‘selfish’ gene mantra, and challenges contemporary accounts of natural selection to explain natural history.
Second, human culture is investigated in its unique ability to transmit cumulative symbolic information neurally rather than genetically. Although knowledge and culture may possess survival value, they are not easily explained by natural selection. Human awareness of evolution allows for its transcendence by cultural values and its eventual relegation to a position of non-ultimacy. “Science is both evolution becoming conscious of itself and evolution transcending itself.” (p. 211) This further weakens those scientific approaches which seek to use the supposedly selfish genetic phenomena as determinative for cultural valuing.
Science can often be driven by cultural, ethical, or religious factors quite independent of survival value. Scientific innovations or discoveries frequently leave us with moral challenges, but science itself struggles to explain or authorise morality. Just as challenging for naturalistic accounts of human genesis, most religions promote altruism and censure selfishness. Ultimately explanation from below does not get us very far; plant life struggles to account for morality and religion just as mineral structure or geology cannot explain photosynthesis.
Rolston demonstrates the importance of evaluating scientific metaphors and the fact that scientific enquiry is not as value-free and neutral as is sometimes claimed. An important implication of this investigation is to reconsider the proper domains of different intellectual pursuits. Biological history may tell us what life is and has been but struggles to tell us what life should be. The sciences can tell us how to achieve what we want, but not what to want. Although it is capable of remarkable things, “science struggles to tell humans what they most need to know: the meaning of life and how to evaluate it." (p. 161) Genes, Genesis and God demonstrates the inadequacy of certain accounts to explain life’s meaning, and in our contemporary world it emphasises the need to reconsider these vital questions which might for a time have seemed closed to serious intellectual enquiry.