Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

An Unnecessary War

In the culture wars that have arisen in the United States, Bibleman appears to have picked up threats among the scientific community, the Kansas school board has been conflicted about teaching evolution to students, and Bob Jones University has introduced a series of textbooks incorporating religious ideas in subjects including precalculus, geography, and, of course, biology. Some might think that these actions, in part, have been provoked by the possibility of human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. However, the war has a rich history. Over a century ago, A.D. White wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, which chronicled fights waged on the battlefieds of geography, cosmology, and evolution.

Is there need for such a war? Some take the harsh viewpoint that science will somehow render religion obsolete. This claim seems dubious when we consider the development of religions throughout the world.

It is difficult to find any religious system that is practiced homogeneously by all its adherents and whose practices agree exactly with those of early followers. In Christianity, one can find Catholic, Orthodox, and multiple Protestant churches among others. Furthermore, priests in the Catholic church today practice celibacy in constrast to those of the early church, who had families. Judaism includes Hasidic, Conservative, and Reform sects, all of which arose during the last millenium. Islam has Shias and Sunnis, among others, and while Muslims once had a caliphate, there is essentially none in existence today. Hinduism has several different traditions that vary based upon on geographic region as well as religious sect, and vegetarianism was absent among the early followers of the Vedas. Thus, the practices of religions vary among current followers as well as over time.

How have these religions undergone change in time? The Catholic church enacted celibacy among the clergy in response to losing church land to offspring during the feudal era. The practice continues today for different reasons. The caliphate ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Given the current political setup of the Middle East, it appears unlikely to return in the near future. While the origins of vegetarianism in Hinduism can be debated, they may be tied to the rise of Jainism, a South Asian religious system that holds vegetarianism as one of its principle tenets. Thus, we find that events in human history have indeed influenced change in the practice and interpretation of religious systems. In this context, scientific developments have and will likely continue to render changes to the way religious systems choose to practice but not result in the destruction of these systems as a whole.

From the side of science, religious fundamentalism is viewed as a threat. These fears aren’t completely unfounded given what happened to Galileo, but history has favored his interpretation. This fear should not force someone to place the emphasis on defending underlying scientific results rather than explaining the methodology.

In his speech on cargo cult science, Feynman stated:

What’s the right way … to report results? Disinterestedly, so that the other man is free to understand precisely what you are saying, and as nearly as possible not covering it with your desires. That this is a useful thing, that this is a thing which helps each of us to understand each other, in fact to develop in a way that isn’t personally in our own interest, but for the general development of ideas, is a very valuable thing. And so there is, if you will a kind of scientific morality. I believe, hopelessly, that this morality should be extended much more widely; this idea, this kind of scientific morality, that such things as propaganda should be a dirty word.

A common mistake made by some arguing on behalf of evolution is to treat natural selection as the obvious answer and any challenges to it with condescension. I have no doubt that people could find problems with the most up-to-date model of evolution and genetics, just as they could with models in physics, chemistry, etc. Godel’s incompleteness theorem indicates even mathematics cannot lay to rest all mysteries.

Does this mean that we should abandon modelling efforts? What if these models allow us to make predictions about the universe in which we live? Darwin’s genius was not that his explanation of the phenomena he observed in the Galapagos was a complete solution, but that the points he raised form the backbone of our current understanding of biology. These principles have enabled the development of models in areas as diverse as antiobiotic resistance in medicine and predator-prey cycles in ecology. Should criticisms rendered against an established theory then be dismissed out of hand? The challenges to Newton’s model led to the development of quantum mechanics. Thus, the right criticism can lead to the birth of new ideas and models.

With no obvious threat and no clear victory in sight, it would appear that some are fighting a needless war.

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