Brendan PURCELL, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution. New Hyde Park, York: New City Press, 2012. pp. 330. $34.95 pb. ISBN 978-1-56548-433-7. Reviewed by Alice L. LAFFEY, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA 01610
The social location of the author of this volume is as insightful as the volume itself. Doctor/Professor/Father Purcell, although now an adjunct professor in philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney, Australia, spent most of his academic career lecturing in logic, psychology and philosophical anthropology at University College Dublin (UCD) where he received an undergraduate education in philosophy, and later his PhD. Besides his education in philosophy, he studied theology in Rome at the Lateran University and psychology in Louvain.
The book is composed of an introduction and five parts. The reader is introduced to the quest, the exploration of human origins from the perspective of philosophical anthropology, and to the person who is questing. The biographical data cited above is augmented by important insights from P.’s intellectual journey; while doing psychology at Louvain, he became engrossed in Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, which led him back to philosophy. This helps to explain the eleven-years between beginning in Louvain and completing his doctorate. Part I presents “a conversation between myth, philosophy and revelation on the human and on nature;” Part II identifies the partners in the conversation, defines science and explains how it can complement rather than replace or invalidate philosophy and revelation; Part III is entitled: “How we belong and yet – because of the ‘human revolution’ – don’t fully belong to the hominid sequence;” Taking its title from a piano piece in the film, The Live of Others;” Part IV identifies the seven grace notes in the sonata;” finally, Part V presents the “human person as communion.” Within each of these parts are chapters and within the chapters are sections. Parts I-III each contains two chapters; part IV contains four chapters; Part V contains one chapter. Such is the volume’s organization.
When I review books, I tend to read the first chapter which often sets out a volume’s purpose, and the final chapter in which an author re-asserts the purpose with, hopefully, some indication of how he has achieved it in the intervening chapters. That is how I proceeded with this monograph. The Introduction was straight-forward; however, the final part/chapter, presents the climax of the book. Reading it quickly, I concluded that the book was written in defense of a pro-life (as opposed to pro-choice) position on abortion. Since I had recently participated in a fishbowl discussion on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing abortion, in which I admitted to being “both pro-life and pro-choice” I was at first dismayed. But then I did what I usually do and proceeded to read the intervening chapters. P.’s argumentation is persuasive if not totally convincing.
Purcell is now 70, and brings to the book a lifetime of scholarship and deep intellectual engagement. He condenses the Greek view of human nature (e.g., Xenophanes, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato and Aristotle), and then moves to the book of Job and the Gospel of John. He sets forth the epistemological, ontological and historical presuppositions of natural science, and provides an exposition of Darwin and how Darwinism has evolved. P. then tackles humanity’s close connection to the “hominid sequence” and yet our difference. P. comments on seven “grace notes” which include 1) the genetic ‘African Eve and Adam’; 2) our culture-oriented body plan; 3) our meaning-oriented brain and vocal tract; 4) symbolization; 5) language; 6) understanding and 7) freedom; from which he moves to “the human person’s limitless orientation to horizons of beauty, meaning, truth and goodness.” The final chapter develops the big mystery that is the human person and humanity’s union with God.
I enjoyed the book and recommend it. I gained a deeper appreciation of philosophical and theological anthropology. I am still stuck, though, on two points. For too long we have emphasized the human person’s essential difference from all other living things and that perspective has provided humankind with the license to use and abuse. Contemporary ecological awareness has been trying to help us understand ourselves (humankind) as part of nature rather than separate from it, interdependent with the rest of nature, and responsible for helping to sustain it (which is essential if we wish ourselves to be sustained). Therefore, though I am persuaded by the awesome nature of human beings, I hesitate to embrace an understanding of humanity as separate from and in essence more evolved than other living beings. The second point is P.’s conclusion that the zygote is human, that Creation (God) and pro-creation (human parents), the intersection of the timeless with time, takes place at conception. While P.’s erudition leads logically to this conclusion, it nevertheless does not make it so. But I am challenged!