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Twin Passions

Two scientists explore science and religion.

May-June 2007

Both these elegant little books on science and religion are by eminent Harvard professors emeriti—much-revered researchers, writers, and educators. Both authors hope their monographs may stimulate some less tired thinking about the disputed relationship between science and religion than has recently been the case in the United States. More heat than light has indeed been produced in the political debates about the teaching of secular evolutionary theory or “Intelligent Design” in schools; or in the sensationalist press discussions of the assaults of Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett on religious belief; or, even closer to home, in the seemingly ill-fated attempt to insert a requirement on “reason and faith” into the successor to the Harvard College “Core” curriculum. But both Owen Gingerich and E.O. Wilson believe, in their different ways, that religion and science need not be at such logger-heads—indeed, that they can, and should, harmoniously cooperate.

E. O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor emeritus, The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion (W. W. Norton, $21.95); and Owen Gingerich, professor of astronomy and of the history of science emeritus, God’s Universe (Belknap/Harvard, $16.95).

Wilson, the sociobiologist, a Baptist in his youth but long a religious agnostic, fashions his book on creation and the ecological crisis into an imaginary dialogue with a fundamentalist pastor. His stated hope is to harness conservative Christianity into a shared passion with science to save the earth from impending ecological disaster. Gingerich, the astronomer and historian of science, who is also a firm Mennonite believer, has stronger intellectual ambitions, ostensibly: not merely to declare a truce between science and religion for the sake of an urgent practical end, but to demonstrate the intrinsic compatibility of the two realms. God, for Gingerich, is alive and well and sustaining the cosmos purposively from Big Bang to contemporary moments of personalized salvation.

Both books have the great merit of being attractively and accessibly written: no obfuscating jargon or confusing theoretical complexities will distress the scientific novice. Indeed Wilson devotes an entire excursus to the damage he sees done to budding potential scientists by what he calls “math phobia”: he insists that “Mathematics is just a language,” and that any motivated person can learn it by practice. But readers who may easily be lulled by the clarity and wit of each man’s prose should be on their guard for some interesting rhetorical elisions and lacunae in the arguments. Let me treat each book briefly in turn.

 

The subtitle of Wilson’s book is “a meeting of science and religion,” but this may be a slight misnomer. The conversation he imagines with a fundamentalist pastor is not one in which he seeks to bring the realm of secular science and fundamentalism into any sort of metaphysical convergence, let alone agreement (“I may be wrong, you may be wrong. We both may be partly right”). Rather, he presumes that some form of fundamental “ethics” must become an urgent point of meeting, because “half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century” unless immediate preventive action is taken by concerted human will. Much of the rest of the book is devoted to a vivid and frightening account of how and why this threat now looms; and any reader—Christian or otherwise—who is left unmoved must be ostrich-like indeed. Wilson weaves into his deft analysis of the now-critical state of the “most critical biodiversity hotspots” on earth many delightful asides about particular species, whether dominant, defunct, or threatened; and we are not surprised to find the master of the ant-world lingering, autobiographically, for a whole chapter on the modern odysseys of the fire ant.

Wilson tells us that his cautionary tale is straightforwardly the story from “science,” and it does indeed reflect the latest predictions that biologists and ecologists can offer us, albeit with much room for remaining uncertainty. However, it is fascinating how religious Wilson’s rhetoric is throughout. Humans strayed from “Eden,” he says, when “Nature” (at one point actually identified with “God”) was originally threatened by “civilization”; the primal capacity for “wonder” has been eroded by human selfishness and blindness; and our “souls” and “spirits” need to rediscover “Nature’s” wisdom and so seek “redemption.” If this is not actually the altar-call of Wilson’s youth, it at least has the overtones of a latter-day Rousseau: without the return to “Nature,” it insists, we are morally and spiritually adrift. In some sense we have to recover a more ancient purity in order to go forward.

Yet this is where two sorts of reader—the Christian theologian and the secular scientist—may alike be left somewhat puzzled. Is Wilson actually espousing a new religion of “Nature,” in which, contrary to the past lessons of Darwinian selection, we must now aim to preserve every existing species? Or is he urging on us a new and unprecedented kind of morality, a manifestation of universal “cooperation”—well beyond “kin” and even “group” dynamics—that must now be achieved to save the earth? Either way, he seems to acknowledge, albeit between the lines, that only religious wonder, only “spiritual” rhetoric, could effectively mobilize such a novel human goal.

 

Owen Gingerich’s William Belden Noble Lectures, originally delivered in November 2005 at the Memorial Church, aim much more explicitly than Wilson to demonstrate the compatibility of science and Christian faith. Three basic arguments are wielded in support of his claim, stirred into an alluring potpourri of autobiographical digressions and tales from the history of early modern science. First, there is the Aristotelian distinction between “efficient” and “final” causes: we can allocate noncombative roles for science and religion if we see the former as dealing with efficient causes (ordinary scientific explanations of finite natural phenomena, such as how steam is produced when water is boiled in a kettle) and the latter as dealing with final ones (involving teleology and purpose, such as my intention to make tea, or, more cosmically, God’s providential intentions for the universe). Second, however, Gingerich wields the argument from “fine tuning”: the world as we know it has displayed extraordinarily intricate adjustments to enable life, which seem almost incomprehensible without a purposive teleology. This suggests a divine designer, but not “Intelligent Design” as set up to rival or displace the explanations of Darwinian evolution. Whereas the highly politicized Intelligent Design movement seeks to debunk Darwin by finding particular moments in the evolutionary tale that it claims could have been effected only by a miraculous divine intervention, Gingerich insists that Darwin’s basic hypotheses stand, yet are fully compatible with a generic divine purpose. Third, to argue that the universe is “pointless,” Gingerich says, is no more rational than to believe in a purposive creator; metaphysical atheism is no less dogmatic, in fact arguably more so, than Christian theism.

By the end of his book, Gingerich is declaring that this is a “dappled world, where chance and randomness join with choice and inexorable law.” The trouble is that he goes only so far as to show the possibility of such “joining”: “[W]e cannot conclude,” he avers finally, “either that God is absent or that God does not act in the universe.” In other words, the metaphysical wings of the atheists may have been trimmed a little, and Christians have been shown to be flouting no actual epistemic duties in holding scientific and theological beliefs alongside one another. But the all-important issue of whether the latter are justified in their theological beliefs, and whether the deliverances of science might in any regard provide convincing evidential support for those beliefs, is left curiously dangling. For the most part, Gingerich suggests that it would be wiser to keep the two realms in a strictly “no-contest” relationship; at other times, he can insist, “We can hope that our increased scientific understanding will eventually reveal more to us about God the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos.”

For further such scientific evidences from Gingerich we must presumably now wait; but in response to Wilson’s call for ecological salvation we clearly cannot afford to wait. In this sense, even Gingerich’s sophisticated “no-contest” position between theology and science might dangerously collude in distracting us from the current ecological challenge. Yet ironically, if Wilson is right, only a profoundly “spiritual” affectivity of the sort that Gingerich offers can motivate us to respond.

 

Sarah Coakley is Mallinckrodt professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School and co-principal investigator (with Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and of biology and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics) of a three-year interdisciplinary research program, “Evolution and the Theology of Cooperation,” funded by the Templeton Foundation.