Dear XXXX,

(XXXX is a devout Catholic Biochemist)

Your letter brings up a number of issues, so this reply may be a bit long.

General Scientific Knowledge:

I agree that it is a bit strange that most people living in the industrialized world take so little an interest in science. There are two sorts of issues here: unavoidable ignorance and willful ignorance. I've often remarked that the last person to know everything was probably Thomas Jefferson (and even his knowledge was confined to Western European knowledge). The simple fact is that it is impossible to have even a rudimentary understanding of all of the things that the combined knowledge base of the human species understands. I've got a fairly robust understanding of the history of science, and a pretty good understanding of modern evolutionary theory – but I am completely out of my element when discussing even the basics of modern physics, even though I've read Hawking's A Brief History of Time. It's just a subject that takes focused dedication to grasp, to the exclusion of all else.

But I suspect your remark is directed at other targets, not unavoidable ignorance, but willful ignorance, what some term “anti-scientism”. People who take advantage of scientific discoveries and yet choose not to educate themselves about the basic principles which enrich their lives maybe be seen as tragic cases – if only because the natural world is such a beautiful place, and its a shame to see our fellows limit themselves. But this view is understandable, and forgivable – analogous to bringing a cake to a party that your friends refuse to try, you feel sorry that they're missing out, but that's their choice, and ultimately doesn't really affect you. A bigger problem are those who openly oppose science, whether they're creationists at the pulpit, or post-modernists in the English department. These people represent a real danger to society – not because they have any chance of success or in rolling back the tide of enlightenment, but because of the mendacious effect they have on education. No creationist or ID “theorist” is going to change the way biologists do their work, but they may keep interested and intelligent people from pursuing a career in the field. Interestingly, the most vehement biologists usually have a fundamentalist Christian background, one seems to hear “don't lie to those kids like you lied to me” in the tone of their arguments.

Books:

The article I sent out discussing The Selfish Gene talks about the capacity for good science writing. There are a number of issues to explore here. The first is that it is really good science writing. Good in both the sense that it is well-written (and there are a number of authors that although I find their reasoning impeccable, they writing style is too atrocious to recommend to friends), and because it is such good science. The Selfish Gene's beauty may also lie in its fantastic unoriginallity. It represents not a new paradigm for biology, but the culmination of the Darwin/Mendel synthesis begun by R.A. Fisher in the 1930s – an exploration of the mechanics (Genetics) of the phenomenon observed by Darwin (Natural Selection).

You mentioned a book “Scientific Revolutions” in your letter – I think you meant Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It seems that many people in the scientific field are vaguely familiar with the book, but it is essential reading in the humanities. Kuhn was an undergraduate physicist who because a historian in graduate school, and then wrote a philosophy book about science. One of the primary functions of philosophy is to spawn new disciplines, and this book pretty much founded the sub discipline of “History of Science”. I've attached a paper I wrote on the subject last year.

I've been recommended Guns, Germs, and Steel before, and I'll probably get around to reading it eventually. I must admit I'm a little put off by the title of one of Diamond's other books – The Third Chimpanzee. While we are more closely related to Chimps than to any other species, our evolutionary trails split from theirs about 6 million years ago – and there are a lot of intermediary species on both sides of the fork. There are at least 14 identifiable species of Chimpanzee in the world today, and we are equally evolutionarily different from all of them. There would probably be even more on our side of the fork, if Homo Sapiens hadn't been so effective in killing of their cousins in pre-history. There's this myth of the “human chimpanzee” that seems to be so common in the scientific community, just like the literal interpretation of genesis pervades Christianity. It's perhaps an interesting rhetorical device to talk about our similarities with chimps, but we're almost as closely aligned with Gorillas (7 million year-ago split). Anyway, it's just a pet peeve of mine. Diamond's book Collapse also comes highly recommended, and apparently it has Vikings. I do love me some Vikings.

Steven Jay Gould? Ugh. Species selection. Double Ugh. Nobody gave more ammunition to the anti-science types than Steven Jay Gould. But one should not speak such ill of the dead.

Religion and Science:

The relationship between religion and science sure is an interesting one, isn't it? What's perhaps most fascinating, accustomed as we are to living in a time when most scientists consider the idea of God to be “gauche” is that for several hundred years, God was used as a justification for empirical science. In Descartes famous Meditations on First Philosophy, he tries to prove the existence of God in order to “provide a firm foundation for the sciences”. The argument is that an all good God wouldn't want to deceive us, thus we can trust our empirical senses and what they tell us about the natural world. And Newton certainly would have shared your belief in exploring “His Work”.

This relates to Nietzsche's declaration “God is dead.” Few have actually read the madman's passage from The Gay Science. The madman says that “God is dead – and we have killed him”. I read it to mean that Christianity inspired a certain worldview where everyone and all of nature had to play by the same rules, which inspired modern science. Scientific thought continued this worldview, but explained the world so well that God was no longer necessary to explain the world (as you admit). Science and religion then begin to take the shape of the Ouroboros – the snake devouring its own tail.

I'm not exactly sure where I stand in this debate, other than that religion ought to be kept out of science classes. I'm an atheist, but for philosophical reasons. I'm not sure science can “prove” that there is no God, since any such arguments rest upon a materialist conception of reality that prohibits God – while this sort of an understanding is probably correct, it is also begging the question. I'm certain that your view is different – perhaps resting on a premise similar to Descartes and Newton, that understanding reality requires an all good God who is kind enough to reveal reality to us, since reality is so fantastic that it seems hard to believe apes like us could figure it out without divine assistance. Especially since my view is the minority view in the population, I'm more than happy to take a “live and let live” stance on the issue. I suspect you are as well – we seem to get along fine, after all. But in this we are perhaps also in the minority view amongst both scientists and the religious. I really cannot understand scientists who seem to want a confrontation between religion and science – in any sort of democratic decision between the two, the religious will win out of sheer numbers, and the world will be poorer for it.

Bioethics:

The above commentary about history and the nature of science is the kind of thinking I've been doing lately, but I do have a few thoughts on bioethics as well. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what exactly we're talking about when we consider these new technologies. Obviously you have a different perspective on these sorts of issues than most of us. While most people are concerned with what/how/why these technologies will be used, your experience is of the direct research itself. Who can forget Oppenheimer's lament? – “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” After the successful test of the atomic bomb, most of the Manhattan project team experienced a kind of collective shock – “Dear God, they're not actually going to use this thing, are they?”

What could Victor Frankenstein have wrought with Genetic Engineering? On the other hand, what if, thanks to the genome being sequenced, we're the last generation to worry about breast cancer? I think, ultimately, that research scientists really cannot be concerned with these questions; at least if you want to be a scientist and still sleep at night. The concerns you mentioned about insurance companies using genetic screening to weed out clients is probably well-founded. I'd go so far as to predict that it will be done, and then someone will leak something to the press, and the congress will be forced to pass a law to make sure it doesn't happen anymore. There will be some hiccups along the way, but these things tend to sort themselves out – as long as we retain a free press and a democratic process, almost any challenge can be borne.

I must say, my own concerns stem more out of a concern for inequality. What if we discover these wonderful new medical technologies, but only 10% of the population can afford them? What if the rich can have nearly perfect designer babies and create a two-tiered society, not only of wealth, but of actual ability? Incidentally, it was out of equality concerns like these, and a confrontation with “Social Darwinism” in the early 20th century that propelled the earliest Christian opposition to the theory of evolution. William Jennings Bryan took up the Scopes trial not out of indignation at the thought that he could be a monkey's nephew, but out of disgust at the idea that some people are inherently better and therefore more deserving than others. I worry about these equality concerns, but once again – with a free press, and a democratic process, the majority should have little problem curtailing widespread activity that violates our basic sense of fairness and decency.

Anyway, this letter ended up being quite a bit longer than I intended it, and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. Oh well, I'll see you next week and I'm sure we'll both have much more to say.

- SciPhi

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