Friday, June 25, 2010

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think

This is the title of a book just published (2010) by Oxford University Press USA, written by Elaine Howard Ecklund. The author had apparently received financial support to conduct an extensive survey of scientists (over 1600) at top American universities and to interview many of them (about 250) in order to find out how they viewed religion. The book based on the results is mostly the personal stories from the interviews. The book is therefore valuable for two main reasons. First, it demonstrates clearly something that many people, particularly in the conservative churches, do not seem to know: many scientists (roughly half) are spiritual or religious. Yet all of these scientists—even the most religious—agree that the major scientific theories (notably evolution) are completely confirmed by data from the natural world. The scientific community, therefore, does not reject creationism and ID as a result of a monolithic anti-spiritual bias. Second, this book lets us get to know these scientists (even though their identities are hidden unless they have published on the subject) as real people, many of whom think carefully about spirituality and religion. The readers will probably know these scientists better than do some of their own colleagues down the hall.

However, I found the title of the book misleading. It is not just about what scientists think. The author clearly has her own agenda—that scientists (apparently all of us) should actively involve ourselves in a creative interaction of religion and science. She presents the results of the interviews, honestly conveying what each scientist said; but the trajectory of the book clearly moves from anti-religious scientists whose view the author considers unhelpful, to the “boundary pioneers” who find a way to incorporate religion and spirituality into their work and whom the author considers to be the best scientists. She indicates that scientists who simply ignore religion, or who consider it to be a bad thing, are depriving science and science education of important elements. They follow what she calls the “suppression” model, a term that sounds negative even if it was intended to be neutral. For example, many students are religious, and we should not ignore this important part of their lives. She indicates that anti-religious scientists are depriving themselves of the benefits that spirituality and religion can provide to science itself, including an appreciation of the ethical dimensions of scientific research and even a source of hypotheses to investigate. For example, we should “foster [religious] dialogue on campus for the good of science.” I got the impression that the author wanted us to believe that scientists who ignore religion are just not as good at being scientists as those who embrace religion. There would be no problem with this, except that the title of the book should have been something like Why Scientists Should Embrace Spirituality and Religion. I say this even though it appears, from Ecklund’s definition, that I am one of those “boundary pioneers” who actively incorporate religious insights into my teaching and writing. In particular, I point out the Biblical prophetic tradition that defends the poor and the land that they live on against the oppression of the rich. I may personally share the author’s bias—but it is a bias.

Scientists who ignore religion in their research and teaching have good reasons for doing so, which Ecklund does not emphasize. It is just not our job. I do not teach Biblical doctrines in my classes, but I am pushing the limits of what I can do in the science classroom by quoting Bible passages that express the beauty of the natural world and the importance of protecting it. In some universities, many students would not want spiritual concepts mixed in with science. Where I teach, at a rural university in Oklahoma, many students do not want a science professor to mention spiritual concepts that fall short of a complete confirmation of fundamentalism. But my job, per contract, consists of teaching science, doing science-related scholarly activity, and service. My contract does not authorize (or forbid) me to do what Ecklund implies that all scientists should do. Scientists who are spiritual or religious, but who ignore religion in their work, are just doing the job that they are authorized to do.

Ecklund makes a useful distinction between religion and spirituality. Religion includes doctrine which is accepted by faith in the authority of religious traditions, documents, and leaders. Scientists, understandably, are uncomfortable with having dogma handed to them. Spirituality consists of an awareness of the connectedness of everything in the cosmos, and of its immensity, along with a firm belief in transcendental values. However, most or perhaps all of the scientists Ecklund interviewed believe in transcendental values. I doubt any of them would say that love and hatred are equally good, and our human preference for what we call good is merely an evolutionary accident. On what basis, then, does the author dismiss the spirituality of non-religious scientists as “thin” and the spirituality of religious scientists as substantial? She did have a point that some scientists, the ones with “thin” spirituality, have not given as much thought to spirituality as have others. The author suggested that spiritual scientists are more likely to look outside of themselves, to the larger society and universe, than scientists who are not spiritual. But I suspect she has switched cause and effect here: perhaps those scientists who have a psychological tendency to look outside of their own work are more likely to be spiritual.

At one point in the book, the author presented the same data set twice, making it look as though there were more data than there actually were. Figure 3.1 has the same numbers as Table 2.1. She also focuses preferentially on small bits of data. She admitted that fewer than eight percent of religiously-inclined scientists reported that they had experienced prejudice from their peers, but she then begins to discuss it as if it were a major problem to be solved.

Many of the non-spiritual scientists in Ecklund’s survey did not appear to have a problem with spirituality or even some forms of religion, but were reacting strongly against the attacks on science by creationists. This is what bothered many of them. This is not the scientists’ fault, however.

Ecklund’s data confronts us with an uncomfortable truth, the implications might have been beyond the scope of this book. According to Table 2.2, 34 percent of the scientists surveyed indicated that they did not believe in God—in contrast to just two percent of the general American population. Can this entire difference be attributed simply to scientific prejudice? Or could it be that scientists know that science can fully explain the universe, and most people do not know this? I refer not only to the cosmological and evolutionary history of the universe but to the way the brain works, and that the soul, if there is one, appears to just be a duplicate—a probably unnecessary one—of the brain. Scientists study things more closely than does the general population. The fact that so many scientists are atheists makes me think that they may be on to something, despite my own persistent spirituality.

There is clearly a problem here to be solved: fundamentalist attacks on science not only damage science but also damage religious credibility. But it is not scientific prejudice that keeps the problem from being solved. Most scientists are not hostile toward religion, according to Ecklund’s data. The AAAS has a DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion) program. Scientists can help solve the problem, but we did not cause it. The chapter titled “What scientists are doing wrong that they could be doing right” therefore misattributes the blame.

I appreciate Ecklund’s work and, for what it is worth, I agree with it. But it is not the objective overview of “what scientists really think” that the title implies.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


In 1978, James Lovelock, an independent British inventor of scientific equipment, proposed that the Earth was a unified living system, which he called Gaia. The Earth did not just have organisms living upon it, but could be thought of as an organism in its own right. It had physiological processes that regulated its internal conditions, just as an organism does. One of the first biologists to join him in this viewpoint was Lynn Margulis, who was famous for having figured out that complex cells evolved from the merger of simpler cells. Simple cells merged together to form complex cells, and complex organisms form complex ecosystems, which form the entire Earth. It is not just cells that are alive, but life exists on all these different levels.

Some animals (the homeotherms, such as humans) can regulate body temperature. Some scientists, following the lead of Lovelock and Margulis, claim that the Earth can do this also. Five billion years ago, the Sun produced less light, but the Earth was even warmer than it is today because there was a lot of carbon dioxide in the air, causing a greenhouse effect. As the Sun grew brighter, green cells in the oceans of the Earth removed carbon dioxide from the air (through photosynthesis), reducing the greenhouse effect, and keeping Earth’s temperature about the same as (even a little bit cooler than) it was before. This is one example of Earth having a type of homeostasis, or physiological regulation. Some scientists even use the term geophysiology for such processes. (Photosynthesis cannot rescue us from the greenhouse effect now occurring, simply because it is occurring too fast.)

This does not mean that the Earth has intelligence. All it needs is negative feedback processes. If the atmosphere has too much carbon dioxide, plant cells will remove it, and if it does not have enough carbon dioxide, decomposition will produce it. No intelligence required. Of course, intelligence is not needed for most processes within animal or plant physiology. Trees losing their leaves in autumn is a physiological process involving the length of the night and a pigment called phytochrome and a shift in hormone production, all of it accomplished without brains.

The Gaia viewpoint continues to reside on the fringes of scientific thought, often because scientists take it too literally. Some dismiss it because they think Lovelock and Margulis literally believe the Earth to be a goddess, when in reality they use Gaia as a metaphor. But every year more scientists accept some version of the Gaia concept, once they realize that it is a system of negative feedback processes rather than a goddess. It may have been unfortunate for Lovelock to have chosen the name Gaia; then again, who would have noticed the concept if he had written about the Earth as an integrated set of negative feedback processes?

So, if I were a scientist with a reputation for big-time highly-funded research, I might hesitate to use the word Gaia in public. But since I am a science educator and writer (and I do research also, on the cheap) who wants to get people to grasp the major concepts of the way the world works, I decided to go ahead and throw my hat in the ring with the Gaia theorists. Once my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World comes out later in 2010, there will be no turning back. I had to write the book in a hurry, without sitting around and wondering about my reputation. Too late now; the book is in production. But I don’t think I am going to regret my decision.

A version of this essay has also appeared on my website.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Social Darwinist Preachers

Nearly all of the most conservative preachers today are staunch and vocal supporters of free enterprise, by which they mean that big corporations have a right to crush ordinary people. In doing so, they are directly contradicting Jesus and the prophets. What, for example, would the prophet Amos have said about this? You can read it for yourself.

Evolutionary scientists, however, are not supporters of this doctrine, which is called Social Darwinism. It is the application of an incorrect and disproven version of evolution to the social and political world. It is Herbert Spencer’s, not Charles Darwin’s, version of evolution. Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary writings are, according to Ernst Mayr, of no consequence to modern evolutionary science.

Modern “free enterprise” preachers are not the first to have espoused this oppressive doctrine. In 1877, Henry Ward Beecher, fresh out of a scandal about the open secret of his extramarital affair, gave sermons that said essentially the same thing as modern conservative preachers. Workers’ riots were erupting all over the eastern United States, with deadly conflicts between workers and the National Guard in several cities. Workers earned only enough money (a dollar a day), it was said, for bread and water. Beecher, while overseeing the construction of his Hudson River waterfront mansion in Peekskill, New York, announced that workers should be satisfied with this. “The man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live.” The poor, said Beecher, will “reap the misfortunes of inferiority.” He added, melding God and evolution together, “God had intended the great to be great and the little to be little.” He ignored Amos, who said that God had not intended the great to crush the little.

In so claiming, Beecher apparently did not notice his inconsistency. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin which has been considered the most famous denunciation of American slavery. He did not recognize that big corporations can economically enslave the working poor. This was particularly true in 1877, and still almost as true today.

The difference is that Beecher openly admitted his doctrine was a spiritual adaptation of Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary ideas. Modern preachers, in contrast, denounce evolution and claim to get their ideas straight from Jesus. In so doing, these preachers are not only just as wrong as Beecher was, but are insulting Jesus on top of it. Beecher at least claimed to take a figurative interpretation of scripture.

I obtain my historical information from Berry Werth’s excellent book, Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America (Random House, 2009). This essay will also appear on my author website.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Evolutionary Diversity

My recently-released Green Planet: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive describes many of the things that plants do that make all of life possible. It is obvious, then, that we need to save them. But many plants do not need any help from us. They are already abundant and will keep growing even after the human economy and human population collapse. Trees will someday grow over all of our decomposing human structures. Why, then, do we need to save plants, which seem capable of taking care of themselves?

That is, evolution has produced a tremendous diversity of organisms, most of which seem useless to us. Usefulness to us is no adequate basis for measuring a species’ value. But as it turns out, many of the products of evolution are useful to humans in surprising ways.

It is not just plants that the world needs, but a diversity of plants. We need not just the abundant species, but the rare ones also. And it is the rare ones that are vanishing due to human activity. Many rainforest plant species are becoming extinct because of the destruction of the habitats in which they live. And if we do succeed in saving the habitats, we might only discover that global warming will cause these habitats to be unsuitable for the very species for which we have saved them. We also need to save genetic diversity that is within the populations of each plant species.

What do we need the rare species of plants for? Many wild plants have already proven to be the source of pharmaceutical compounds, and of genes that have been used to protect our agricultural crops from diseases. And here is the point. We cannot know in advance which plant species may prove important to us, and which may not. Who could ever have guessed that chemicals from a little species of pink-flowered plant from Madagascar would contain a drug that saves children from leukemia? or that the Pacific yew would contain a chemical that helps to cure ovarian cancer? We cannot save only the important species; we have to save all of them, since we cannot know which ones of them are important to the human economy.

When a rare species of plant becomes extinct, the world loses only a tiny bit of its capacity to produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, hold down the soil, and contribute to the food chain. A tiny loss? But with this species is lost a treasure of genes, some of which just might be of immense importance to the human species.

A different version of this essay will appear on my website.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Dark Side of Altruism

I have written extensively about altruism, in my Encyclopedia of Evolution, as well as in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released this fall by Prometheus books (for more information, see my website). When animals are nice to other members of their species, they enjoy lots of benefits; nature is not simply “red in tooth and claw,” to use Tennyson’s oft-quoted phrase. Humans are, it appears, the animal species with the most complicated forms of altruism.

But clearly the positive benefits of altruism are not, by themselves, enough to have influenced the evolution of altruism. There is also a dark side to altruism. Animals also exercise violent actions against those who are cheaters in the altruism game. This confers a penalty upon those individuals who do not practice altruism. “Sweet revenge” appears to be as hard-wired in our brains as is friendship and love. And it is not just an instinct; it is a pleasure. It is a pleasure that can more suddenly and completely take over our brains than almost any other passion.

One example of this sudden, mindless zeal against cheaters took place in the aftermath of the European theater of World War II. In an earlier entry, I told about meeting with my cousins in a rural cemetery on Memorial Day weekend, and exchanging some of our uncle’s war stories. Here is one of them.

The Germans had been defeated, and Allied troops, including my uncle Bill when he was a very young adult, fresh off an Oklahoma farm, were escorting German prisoners of war to prisons. All of them were on foot—the Allied guards, and the prisoners. This was, from the viewpoint of the Allied soldiers as well as most of the defeated Germans, a fair thing: once the war ended, there was no more need for killing, and now it was time for justice, which meant the execution, after judgment, of only the men who were most responsible for causing the war. But Bill recognized that one of the prisoners was an SS soldier. The SS soldiers had been trained as Nazi killing machines. For them, the war would not be over until death. They had all just finished eating lunch, and Bill wanted to light up a cigarette as he was, by himself, guarding the prisoners. It was windy. For just a moment—and he knew as soon as he did this that it was unwise—he leaned his rifle against the wall of a building to shelter the match from the wind. That was all of the time it took for the SS soldier to jump up and grab the rifle, with the intention of killing Bill. He grabbed the rifle also. The SS soldier, who was quite large, pushed against Bill, who was quite small, and Bill pushed back; they pushed each other a second time. Bill knew that he could not withstand the strong enemy. So when the SS soldier pushed a third time, Bill moved aside and tripped him. As the SS soldier fell, Bill took another gun out of its holster and shot the SS soldier in the back. He went into a trance, and just kept shooting. It took him awhile to notice that he had used all eight of his bullets, and the gun was going click-click-click. His comrades were now at his side.

Uncle Bill had slipped into a state that the Vikings called “berserk,” which is a term that specifically describes an alternate state of mind, almost dreamlike in quality, which encompasses a warrior in the midst of battle. We use the term loosely today to describe people who are out of control due to anger, but it is a mental state that anyone can slip into, and it clearly provided evolutionary benefits to our ancestors. It is an extreme form of the dark side of altruism. While I do not believe that it is good for us to go berserk, except in extreme situations such as Bill’s, it is clearly beneficial for us to not just promote good and altruistic policies and actions, but also to connect evil and selfish policies and actions with swift and sure punishment, of the appropriate variety. For example, Wall Street executives should not simply be scolded for causing the financial meltdown of 2008; they need the appropriate form of punishment, which is financial.

In extreme situations, such as Bill’s in 1945, there is no time for a trial. But those who execute sweet revenge need to explain their actions. Bill had to explain himself before a military panel. It was clear that he was defending himself and his comrades against an obviously evil enemy. But Bill also had a sense of humor. When a commanding officer asked him why he had used eight bullets, he said, “I didn’t have nine, and seven wasn’t quite enough.”

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Evolution of Religion

The evolution of religion is too big of a topic to cover in one blog entry or, as I am discovering, in a single encyclopedia entry (as I begin to work on the revised edition of Encyclopedia of Evolution). Religion, as Richard Dawkins points out, is a set of memes that propagate themselves through genetically- and socially-based instincts. Nevertheless, we can speculate about the evolutionary functions of some components of religion. I will speculate on one of them here.

On Memorial Day weekend, I met with some of my family at a cemetery to place plastic flowers on graves. This is nothing if not a religious ceremony. Winganon Cemetery is out in the country, several miles into the hills from Chelsea, a very small town in Oklahoma, which is over twenty miles from Claremore, which is a small city, which is over twenty miles from Tulsa. This is where my parents are buried, as well as the parents of my two cousins, whom we joined there. Also buried there are the grandparents and the great-grandparents that we all shared. Had my daughter not been kept away by a medical emergency, there would have been five generations, living and dead, represented at that place.

Religion is all about connectedness—in fact, that is what the word means, from the Latin ligere, from which the word ligament comes. We were there because our identities are not just who we are at this moment, but as descendants. The human mind operates in four dimensions—we are always thinking about the past and the future. Most humans, except for atheists, include an unseen spiritual world as part of this connectedness; even agnostics leave open this possibility.

We did not look very religious. We were trampling all over our parents’ and ancestors’ graves as we forced plastic flowers into adobe-hard ground. Then we stood in the sun or sat in meager shade to talk about current situations or about the experiences of our predecessors. One cousin and I shared war stories told by our deceased uncle. We did not have sanctimonious ceremonies. But we were doing exactly what our ancestors would have wanted us to do, had they been able to see us: we remembered them, and then built more connections. Neither my cousin or I had heard the stories told by the other.

The human mind works in four dimensions all the time. I realized this later as I reclined on the bed, beside a fan, with one of our cats. I just let my mind wander, and I suppose the cat was doing the same. But the cat was presumably thinking only about its comfort at the present moment, which vague memories of territoriality and food, and vague anticipation of hunger. My mind, however, wandered exclusively in the fourth dimension, remembering past events (most of them trivial) and wondering about the almost infinite possibilities for the future (many of them disturbing). The human mind, even at rest, lives in a cosmos of connectedness, which is to say, religion, broadly defined.