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Book Review: General Biology by Heather Ayala and Katie Rogstad

Book reviewed by Dan Bakken, George Haraksin, and Krista Bontrager

General Biology by Heather Ayala and Katie Rogstad is a high school level volume targeted at Christian schools and homeschoolers. The content is accommodating for students with little previous science education, although it is not just for entry-level students. Even students in advanced science will find this material informative.

This handsome work offers a great mix of traditional textbook-style presentation and modern visual appeal, with color diagrams and photos throughout. Within the chapters are breakout boxes covering current topics of interest that should draw in even the most uninterested students. The problem exercises at the end of each chapter are well thought out and complement the material.

The text’s strongest contribution is the guiding philosophy behind it. The authors list four goals in the introduction: wonder, integration, mastery, and kingdom. Two of these goals had us cheering: wonder and kingdom. Wonder is what drives most people to study creation in the first place. The beauty and incredible designs in the natural world should draw students into the material. Dry, monotonous science teaching frequently displaces wonder in schools, so this emphasis on wonder is an important tool to keep students interested. We also valued the Kingdom aspect of the text—showing how creation all works together in God’s plans. This valuable component is, of course, missing in secular treatments. We applaud science teaching that incorporates these undergirding themes.

That being said, is this the biology textbook that RTB followers are looking for, one that supports our view of concordance between Scripture and science from an old-earth creation perspective? Probably not. The authors do state that (naturalistic) evolution is only a theory and that they aren’t forcing their readers toward a particular conclusion on that theory. And they do seem open to allowing room for testability and the adjustment of the framework over time as new data is discovered.

But, to be clear, the authors present all the data through the lens of theistic evolution (aka evolutionary creationism), or what they refer to as the “consensus of science.” They see the evolutionary framework as the current, best explanation for the data. The preface explicitly directs students to BioLogos, a science-faith ministry that advocates for theistic evolution (evolutionary creationism).

The authors do cite a couple of examples of evidence that question evolution. On pages 405–408, the authors address the concern that minor changes (point mutations) in the genetic code over time are simply not enough to cause major morphologic changes. Also, the “Hmmmm….Interesting” section on pages 412–413 highlights secular scientist Lynn Margulis, who has gone against the grain in questioning some of the major tenets of evolutionary theory. But these types of examples are limited. Instructors who are of an old-earth creationist persuasion are likely to find this lack of data countering the naturalistic evolutionary framework disappointing.

The text’s integration with the Christian worldview is fairly general. The authors do occasionally draw students’ attention to the wonder of God’s creation. For example, the opening image description for chapter 2 says, “We can use the physical and chemical properties of biologically important molecules to explain the related properties at higher levels of organization, giving us amazing insight into how all things work together according to the laws of nature designed by the Creator” (p. 32). Chapter 3 describes how emergent properties of higher levels of biological organization point to an intelligent purpose behind life: “Mixing some DNA, proteins, and lipids together cannot account for the marvelous complexity of a cell—a cell that is precisely arranged to conduct thousands of metabolic reactions to carry out each and every function of life. The highly complex, elegantly designed nature of the cell points to a higher intelligence—the Author of Life” (p. 72). 

These mentions of design are rare and fairly general, and we were left hoping for a more detailed look at design. This lack is likely due to the authors’ support for the evolutionary framework and what they see as the fairly limited role of general revelation: inspiring awe and wonder. Because they see the Creator’s role as a providential unfolding and holding together of the physical world, the authors present the history of life as being the result of natural processes. They do not discuss direct, miraculous interventions at key moments in creation’s history, such as the origin of life, the origin of new animal species, or the origin of humanity. And integration with the Bible (e.g. the creation descriptions in Genesis) is limited and fairly broad in scope.

Does that mean we don’t recommend this textbook? It depends. We highly recommend the philosophy behind the book. We affirm the closing words in the text,

There can be no conflict between studying the world God made and belief in the One who made it . . . When we finally are able to read both [the book of nature and the book of Scripture] correctly, they will be seen to be in harmony, not in conflict . . . Soli Deo Gloria!

Unfortunately, the application of that philosophy is not implemented as extensively as we had hoped. For that reason, we would recommend this text only for those who can supplement it with additional material that provides a more specific integration framework for God’s supernatural interventions.