Is it kiss and make up for science and religion?

In recent years the words evolution and religion in a single sentence have been like firesticks which almost burst into flame on the page. It is rare to find a calm, detached discussion of the major issues. That’s why I was fascinated to read this landmark publication from America’s leading scientific organisations.

Science, Evolution, and Creationism was written by a committee on science and creationism the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. This is a fascinating book. Its fascination lies not so much in its description of the evolution of picture-winged Drosophilids but rather in what it says overall and in who is saying it. Essentially, this is the first explicit statement by a significant scientific body asserting that that acceptance of evolution and belief in God are compatible.

Science Evolution and Creationism emphasizes the importance of evolution in modern science and technology, and provides a concise summary of the evidence supporting evolution by natural section and the arguments against various creationist positions.

It was written in the context of recent debates regarding the teaching of evolution in US public schools. Indeed, the book gives some very useful excerpts from historical court cases touching on this precise theme. The authors are adamant that there is no room for creationism in science classroom.

But the school-room scuffles ought not overshadow what is really significant about this book. Not only do the authors attempt to pull apart scrimmaging scientists and creationists, they also chalk in boundaries between the two by offering and applying a definition of science: "The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process."

Really this entire debate is about boundaries and definitions. Religion has historically stepped into the domain of science, often disastrously. Science has also stepped outside of its own definition to offer explanations of aspects of reality beyond its scope.

The failure of many to accept the basic tenets of evolution is a source of continual angst for science educators, especially in the United States. Clear and concise explanations of evolution may help. But what is probably more important is that science knows its own boundaries. Disaffection with evolution in the past 150 years has probably come as much from scientific philosophizing as from creationist fundamentalism. This book acknowledges that: "regrettably, those who occupy the extremes of this range often have set the tone of public discussions."

Science studies the testable aspects of natural phenomena. This means that outside of science lie not only "supernatural phenomena" (theology) but also phenomena that are partly natural and partly supernatural (anthropology) AND those aspects of natural phenomena that are non-testable (philosophy of nature). Science can never really answer the question: Why is it so? It cannot fully answer questions about the human person. It cannot even say why it cannot answer these questions. And importantly, science cannot answer the question: how ought we to live (ethics)?

All this could be very frustrating for a scientist. Doing science properly means that, at least during working hours, one cannot seek answers to the really important questions in life. With the theory of evolution it is tempting to drift into the realm of philosophy and theology, something many people, at least unconsciously, consider more exciting.

Real scientists however can go all day on picture-winged Drosophilids. Chesterton once suggested that "a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading", but science ultimately depends on its dryness for its success. Boredom is its particular strength.

This publication issued by the National Academy of Sciences is a careful, sober account of what science is, what it has achieved, and what its boundaries are. For New Scientist magazine, the attempted reconciliation of science and religion is "pure pragmatism". This may be, or it may be just jittery self-reassurance on the part of the editor. I believe that this booklet is an important step on the part of the scientific community towards a deeper, more general acknowledgement of the compatibility between evolution and religion.

Phil Elias studies Medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.


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