The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Science Reaffirmed

This was, from the public perspective, a difficult year for evolution. I am not saying this because it was challenged by a potentially new theory of biological diversity, nor because it made predictions that were contradicted in the lab or in nature. “In fact, scientifically this has been hailed as a remarkable year for this long-lived, time-tested theory of biological diversity”: Rather, this was a difficult social year for evolution. Evolution’s life is rather like that of a scientist: unmatched in prowess in the wide-world and the lab, but awkward and shunned at parties.

This year saw the first serious legal challenges mounted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think-tank populated by lawyers and philosophers (and an occasional Ph.D. in a basic science, like biology). This year also saw the recurrance of legal victory in our democracy for science, as the federal judge in Pennsylvania found that “intelligent design” was just creationism in a cheap tuxedo. This year saw our own President saying that it was onlyfair to give equal time to thse ideas in the public school (note, he never said in the *science class*). This year saw Marburger, Bush’s science advisor, then forced to come out and remind us all that intelligent design is not science. This year saw the Catholic church get a little schitzophrenic over science, the Pope and his closest personal allies proclaiming the universe must be guided while the Church’s own astronomer proclaimed intelligent design a non-science, warning of the dangers of fundamentalism.

Scientists, doing good science, are shocked to see all this happen. The theory of evolution is the basis of all modern medicine. This theory helps us to understand the consequences of our industry and activity and appetite on the natural ecosystem. It teaches us about our humble role in the long chain of biodiversity, and gives us respect for our place in the universe. In a way, evolution gives us access to a deeper ethics of the natural world, allowing us to see the effects of all our causes, to make informed decisions about policy and industry, and teaches us to respect both our own diversity, while realizing our essential oneness.

Going into Christmas, a season when we are to reflect on the origins of Christianity, these are important realizations. Many in American society, including leading politicians such as Rick Santorum, fear scince because they think it somehow replaces God with something else. They fear this because they think that a nation without a God is a nation without ethics. I have always scoffed at this myopic view of humanity, and see in the lessons of biology, geology, physics, and chemistry a profound ethical tool, a means by which we can predict the risks of our decisions. If a religious ethical code is a tool by which we are supposed to make good decisions in our lives (be kind to others, give generously to those less fortunate, avoid murder and theft, etc.), then a scientific ethical code is really no different. The problem of cheating in biological systems teaches us about the role of the “cheater”, the person who benefits from the societal response but never contributes to it. An understanding of the food chain lets us make wise decisions about how we eat, as well as what we eat and whre it comes from. I find a great concordance between the messages in this season, and the messages we can take from a greater understanding of Nature.