Thursday, March 19, 2009

Science & religion - Botswana Guardian

My recent letter celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and 150th anniversary the publication of his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection seems to have stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest.

A couple of people have written in subsequently attempting, rather feebly, to argue against the wealth of evidence that supports Darwin’s breakthrough in our understanding of our origins. They have come up with the usual rubbish that Darwin was a racist and that his theory has turned out not to be 100% correct.

On the charge of racism I must point out that Darwin was passionately opposed to slavery and committed to, what was in those times, a radical philosophy based on the essential equality of all people, regardless of “race”. One key implication of his theory that we are all descended from a common ancestry is that regardless of our superficial differences we are all fundamentally the same, beneath the skin. His language may have been “of his time” but his sentiments were definitely not.

Of course his theories weren't perfectly correct. He wasn’t 100% correct but neither were Newton, Einstein or indeed any other scientist. Darwin existed long before we really began to understand genetics so he can't really be blamed for not grasping what we now know. Neither can Newton be blamed for not foreseeing Einstein's discoveries centuries before they emerged.

All a scientist can hope to do is to take us one step further towards understanding the universe a little better. Darwin was visionary enough to do this.

I think it's a bit hypocritical for religious zealots to criticise science and progress using nothing more than ancient scriptures and legends. I don’t think Darwin should be criticised by people who can only find answers in ancient superstitious texts that, amongst other things, support slavery, sacrificing children and smiting infidels and heretics.

Stephen Jay Gould, the paleontologist and biologist, stated that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria”. He means that the two are so separate that they can’t really be argued together. One is based on logic, reason and evidence, the other is based on legend, superstition and assumption. They are like oil and water and can’t be mixed. I actually disagree, I think that many of the claims of religion CAN be tested. We can test, for instance, the effect of prayer to see if people who are prayed for get better more quickly than those who aren’t (they don’t by the way).

However I do sometimes think that certain arguments between science and religion are a waste of time. Logic conflicts with illogic. Reason fundamentally conflicts with superstition. One actively seeks facts, the other seems often to be devoted to fiction.