Issue Date: July 6, 2009
Debating Science And Religion
I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see the article about ACS's supporting more vigorous teaching of evolution (C&EN, March 23, page 48).
Opposing intelligent design because it is not a testable hypothesis misses an important point: Science is an organized search for truth in the natural world. It is not an end in itself; truth is the legitimate end. If science shows us that truth in some area lies off the edge of science, we need to go there.
We should be familiar with a thumbnail sketch of the evidence for intelligent design; that is, you need exponents in your exponents to describe the improbabilities involved in assembling biomolecules, that they are broken down as fast as they are made in any natural environment outside a cell, that an agent outside the system is needed to bring our world to its current state of Gibbs free energy, that Nobel Prizes are awarded for elucidating tiny details while denying intelligence was required for the whole.
I once checked out Darwin's original "On the Origin of Species." In the first few pages, I learned that there is a greater genetic variation in domestic ducks than in wild ducks. Next, I learned that the genetic differences were possibly due to the difference in environment between English farmyards and German farmyards. Then, I learned that dogs instinctively mate only within their own breed. From this start, science has never looked back.
It is time we chemists stopped uncritically assuming evolution, and consider what we really know. From there, search for truth.
I'm an emeritus ACS member and received a B.S. degree in biochemistry a little more than a half century ago. I spent about two-thirds of my professional career in the laboratory, retiring as a senior scientist five years ago. I've always accepted that our world is billions of years old and have had a lifelong curiosity about prebiotic chemistry.
I've come to think that life will appear sooner or later wherever conditions are favorable for its development, even though it may require our huge universe with so many worlds to produce just a few places with those conditions. Thus, I think Darwin's work, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," is an excellent illustration of the scientific method; namely, it deals with what he observed, how he made sense of those observations, and how his hypothesis was tested, for example. More important are what questions he might have left unanswered.
After all, our present views on evolution are based on Darwin plus Mendel plus considerable knowledge of mutations. All Darwin seemed to recognize was a struggle for existence with survival of the fittest, while having little idea of how that "fitness" might be passed on or how it might have originated.
I opted for a master of divinity degree instead of graduate work in science. I realized, after spending one-third of my career in the pastorate, that fitting Darwin into one's philosophical framework wasn't nearly as important as making a socially useful application of scientific knowledge. The happy coincidence of a junior scientist's position opening up in Oklahoma's State Environmental Lab when I had burned out on the pastorate meant more than 20 happy and productive years. At least those years in the pastorate taught me to be happy with less!
John S. Redmond
Midwest City, Okla.
As a scientist, a member of ACS for more than 50 years, and a Christian, I believe I must respond to Rudy Baum's editorial (C&EN, April 6, page 3). To me as a Christian, God is the creator of the universe (as stated in the Apostles' Creed). To Baum, I guess that makes me a creationist but still no less a scientist. I firmly believe that science and Christian faith are compatible, and there is no need to separate individuals into creationist and scientist camps. On the issue of science and religion, I would like to make several points.
As a scientist, I was trained to examine hypotheses and theories to see if facts support them. If certain facts do not give support, then the hypothesis or theory will need to be revised or possibly rejected. In my career as a chemist, I worked on the origin of petroleum and the fate of petroleum released into the marine environment. I worked with an open mind and considered, revised, or rejected hypotheses and theories that explained these phenomena. I think an open mind needs to be applied to the question of evolution.
If there are flaws in any theory—whether it is gravity, relativity, or evolution—then these flaws should be investigated. Students should be permitted to critique these theories.
To me, there are certain flaws in Darwinian evolution that need to be examined in some detail. One of these is the origin of life itself. Evolution cannot explain it. Another is the extreme complexity of the individual cell. How did this complexity come about through any kind of evolution?
As a creationist (by Baum's definition), I believe evolution may have played a role in the creation of living organisms. Only God knows the full extent of this role. As scientists, we should continue to study evolution, but we should not accept the position that nothing further needs to be critiqued or studied. I am afraid many evolutionary biologists take the latter position.
Charles B. Koons
I am deeply disturbed that there is no discussion about an appropriate medium for any debate on the observations and theories of evolution. There should not be any theory too precious to science that open discussion of its observations and conclusions is suppressed. Science has no business preaching to anyone of any belief that their ideas and opinions do not count because they are not seen as facts.
Science is built upon data, which are explained through theories. For example, we have the theory of gravity and the theory of relativity. These are accepted to be accurate because we do not have data that would say otherwise. I remind the reader that, historically, scientists believed Earth was the center of the universe and even that Earth was flat. These theories were proved incomplete and corrected to a more accurate understanding.
Science itself evolves over time, improving as a powerful tool to grasp our universe. Science should not be legislated but continually presented, questioned, and refined. Are the observations or the conclusions really at the heart of the matter of either side? I believe that science needs to rethink whether there is any debate about evolution. If there is "no debate in science on evolution" as Baum states, why then am I writing this letter?
Baum has hit the nail on the head in his editorial, "Once More into the Breach," though perhaps not in the way he intended. The problem is indeed that there is no debate in science about evolution. The lack of debate in itself could mean anything from "the matter is settled" (which is, I think, what Baum meant) to "debate is not allowed."
My concern is that the current challenges to evolutionary theory are being dismissed on the grounds of the motivation of the challengers. This is not only unscientific, but it may impede the advance of science.
A scientist ought to be able to separate the scientific content of an argument from its framework and analyze that content—as has been done with tribal medicine, for example. Or, to take another example, people do not stop going to the chiropractor because of flaws in the underlying models: There is sufficient evidence of its usefulness even if the framework is faulty.
If there are flaws in a theory, they should be openly and honestly debated in a rational manner without all the politicking and posturing. If the theory is robust, it will withstand the challenges. If the theory is not robust, it will fall. To continue to assert that there are no scientific challenges to evolutionary theory is merely avoiding the issue.
To take one example from intelligent design, the assertion that the blood-clotting mechanism is irreducibly complex is a challenge to evolutionary theory. The minimum that is required to test this assertion is a detailed biochemical mechanism for the evolution of such a system that shows how such a system could have evolved step-by-step, supported by experimental evidence. A general notion of how this might have happened is insufficient, because it has no solid empirical or mechanistic basis.
A second example is the classic picture of the similarity of embryos in an early stage of development. The challenges to this picture are that the stage presented is a later stage and the embryos are much more different at the earliest stages, and that even the pictures are not accurate. If this is true, what is taught in schools ought to be corrected, and the textbooks should be changed. If this line of evidence for evolution is faulty, it should be discarded and perhaps taught only as a historical development rather than accurate science.
I do not see that protectionism will help the cause of science. The challenges will not go away until they are satisfactorily addressed with rigorous science to either confirm or deny them, and I don't see that the required rigorous proofs have yet been made.
I am a chemist by formal training with extensive experience in chemical engineering and consider myself part of the scientifically literate workforce. I also am a Christian who believes in creation, and I do not find these two positions incompatible.
Everything I see in my daily scientific observations points to what some call an intelligent designer, one whom I call God. Over my more than 40 years of trained observations, I am increasingly in wonder about how intricately and wonderfully we and the world around us have been made. The scientific training I received in grad school and in industry opened my eyes and mind to the incredible design all around us just waiting to be discovered by us!
To me, every new scientific discovery confirms and reaffirms the existence of the designer, not another development with an evolutionary trail. Our scientific discovery techniques are evolving. I have no problems with evolution theory being taught as a part of science curricula, but let's keep the door open to teaching the alternatives. There are still too many missing links in Darwin's theory, and I was taught that scientists had open minds.
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