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January 25, 2006: President's Page

Strange Bedfellows: Science, Politics, and Religion

Shirley Tilghman and John Hood

Shirley Tilghman with host John Hood, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford (Photo by BARBARA HOTT)

On December 1, at the invitation of the University of Oxford, I delivered the 2005 Romanes Lecture. Established by fellow biologist George Romanes in 1892, the lecture has featured a wide array of speakers, from Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to Saul Bellow. Here are some excerpts from my address.

I wish to explore with you the dangers that arise when science, politics, and religion find themselves at cross-purposes on issues of importance to the future. I speak as a scientist, a teacher, and a university administrator who believes that for the most part, the contributions that science has made in expanding our understanding of the natural world over the past century have contributed to dramatic improvements in the wellbeing and the quality of life of most individuals living today. All of this progress, and the economic prosperity it has created, arose from public and private investments in science and technology in many countries. The confidence that society placed in scientific progress as the path to prosperity was reflected for decades in everything from surveys that identified science as among the most respected professions to the yearly generous allocation of tax dollars to basic and applied research. In return for this broad support, society rightfully expected the discovery of new knowledge that would lead to better lives for everyone.

Yet from the very beginning, science and politics, especially religiously inspired politics, had the potential to become “strange bedfellows,” by which I mean working at cross-purposes with one another, rather than in harmony. That potential for conflict seems greater now than at any time in my career, and I would like to explore with you today some underlying causes by focusing on two distinctively American debates that have received considerable attention in the press over the last several years: priority-setting in the national space program and a resurgence in opposition to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced major new goals for the publicly funded exploration of space, most prominently, the goals of sending humans back to the moon by 2015 and eventually to Mars. This announcement came at a difficult time in the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The two programs in human-based space exploration, the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle Program, are both in trouble. The Space Station, originally announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 for completion in 10 years, is dramatically behind schedule and over budget, and the Space Shuttle Program, just beginning to recover from the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, is slated for mothballing in 2010. The announcement also came at one of the most extraordinarily productive times in the history of astronomy and cosmology, when explorations with satellite space telescopes such as the Hubble Telescope, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotrophy Probe, and the ground-based Sloan Digital Sky Survey, as well as unmanned space missions like Voyager, are providing us with breathtaking insight into the structure of the universe and our solar system. These discoveries comprise a golden age of space exploration—but of a very different kind than President Bush is proposing.

This highlights a tension that has always existed between the scientific community and the political process whereby priorities are set. Ideally, priorities should reflect the relative importance and potential impact of competing questions, coupled with a dispassionate assessment of the likelihood that they can be answered by the proposed experimental or theoretical approach. The astrophysics community has evolved a unique procedure in which the leaders come together once every 10 years, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, and, through an inclusive and collegial process, establish priorities for the next decade. The small size and relative cohesiveness of the field, together with the large price tags attached to individual experiments, drove the evolution of the decadal process. The resulting recommendations are conveyed to NASA for consideration, but they have no binding authority. In 2002, less than two years before President Bush’s announcement, the National Academy of Sciences produced one of these decadal reports entitled “New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy.” In it, the academy proposed priorities and recommended substantial investments in space flights like the Voyager missions to the outer planets, as well as Earth-based experiments. It was a comprehensive list of projects and missions that included everything but human exploration.

There are a number of plausible reasons why the President and NASA chose to ignore the advice of the country’s most distinguished scientists. They may have made a practical judgment that the American public will not continue to support large outlays of dollars for “pure science” in which new knowledge is an end in itself, but instead will require the tangible—even romantic—symbols of space science that the Apollo missions have provided. They may have made a military decision that establishing American dominance in space is strategically important, or an economic decision that mining the natural resources in space will be essential to the future prosperity of the United States. Without judging the persuasiveness of these possible rationales, it is worth noting that if President Bush’s proposal to launch manned flights to the moon and, ultimately, Mars goes forward, the United States will repeat the decision-making process that led it to establish the Space Station. Then, as now, the scientific community was highly skeptical of the utility of the Space Station, most especially its scientific value, and was concerned that support for the station would preclude support for what in their view were significantly higher scientific priorities. The Space Station has foundered for many reasons, including the failure of all four administrations who oversaw it to support it fully. But a lesson I would draw from this case study is that top-down, politically driven science projects, especially those that will be enormously expensive, need to be clear about their goals at the outset and are unlikely to be successful in scientific terms unless they have the support of scientists who understand the challenges and likely benefits of the undertaking.

If cosmologists are deciphering the origins of the universe and our solar system in unprecedented ways, biologists are making enormous strides, thanks to the technology that was developed during the Human Genome Project, toward unlocking the origins of life on Earth. Yet here, too, science and politics have found themselves at loggerheads. It is impossible to ignore the increasing assertiveness of elements within American society who have challenged the validity of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and have lobbied for an alternative explanation, which they term “intelligent design,” to be taught in public schools alongside the principles of evolution. This is deeply disturbing, for the theory of natural selection is one of the two pillars, along with Mendel’s laws of inheritance, on which all of modern biology is built. The power of the theory of natural selection to illuminate natural phenomena, as well as its remarkable resilience to experimental challenge over almost 150 years, has led to its overwhelming acceptance by the scientific community.

Today, however, under the banner of “intelligent design,” Christian fundamentalists in the United States have launched a well-publicized assault on the theory of evolution, suggesting that the complexity and diversity of nature is not the product of random mutation and natural selection but rather of supernatural intent. For those of you who are not conversant with the literature of intelligent design, the argument usually begins with Darwin himself, who said “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” From there, advocates such as Michael Behe, a professor of physical chemistry at Lehigh University, declare that “natural selection can only choose among systems that are already working, so the existence in nature of irreducibly complex biological systems poses a powerful challenge to Darwinian theory. We frequently observe such systems in cell organelles, in which the removal of one element would cause the whole system to cease functioning.”

What is wrong with this view? To begin with, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how evolution works. Nature is the ultimate tinkerer, constantly co-opting one molecule or process for another purpose. This is spurred on by frequent duplications in the genome, which occur at random. Mutations can accumulate in the extra copy without disrupting the pre-existing function, and those that are beneficial have the potential to become fixed in the population. In other instances, entirely new functions evolve for existing proteins. Another common misconception that is used to advance the “theory” of intelligent design is to posit that evolutionary biology cannot explain everything—that there remains uncertainty in the fossil record and that there is as yet no consensus on the origin or nature of the first self-replicating organisms. This, too, reflects a basic misunderstanding about how science works, for, in fact, all scientific theories, even those that are approaching 150 years of age, are works in progress. Scientists live with uncertainty all the time and are not just reconciled to it but understand that it is an integral part of scientific progress. Indeed, the very word, “theory,” is misunderstood by many who take it to mean an “idea” that has no greater or lesser merit than any other idea. The fact that Darwin’s “ideas” on natural selection have stood the test of time through keen experimental challenge does not give his theory special status in their eyes. There are also those who exploit the fact that scientists often disagree over the interpretation of specific findings or the design of experiments to argue that nothing is settled and thus anything is possible. The fact of the matter is that fierce disagreement is the stuff of scientific inquiry, and the constant give-and-take is needed to test the mettle of our ideas and sharpen our thinking. It is not, as many would claim, prima facie evidence for deep fissures in the central tenets of natural selection.

Of course, the real test of whether intelligent design is a scientific theory, comparable to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and worthy of equal consideration in the biology classroom, is whether it poses testable hypotheses. Here the answer is self-evident—it does not—and therefore it has no place in the science curriculum of America’s public schools, which rest on the premise that the state has no constitutional authority to impart supernatural truths. Rather than searching for explanations for the complexity that is surely present in each living organism, intelligent design accepts that this complexity is beyond human understanding because it is the work of a higher intelligence, leading logically to the conclusion that experimentation—the tried and true basis for scientific progress—is pointless. The result is an intellectual dead end.

Today the scientific merits of intelligent design are being heatedly debated in school districts, courts, legislatures, and churches across America. Eighty years after John T. Scopes was convicted of teaching the theory of evolution in a Tennessee high school, the majority of Americans are still unsure of the validity of Darwin’s theory. Not quite two-thirds of respondents in a recent national CBS poll favored the teaching of both evolution and creationism, while more than a third expressed the view that only creationism should be taught. There is considerable disagreement within the scientific community regarding the best way to respond to this assault on evolution. One view is to dismiss or trivialize it by pointing out, for example, that everything we know about the human knee would suggest that no intelligent being could possibly have designed it. Another faction argues that the scientific community should ignore the opponents of evolution, for by engaging in the public debate over creationism, one inevitably lends credence to its premises. The third strategy is to enter the public debate on the side of science and evolution, and to do so firmly but respectfully.

My own inclination is to engage, to explicate, and to strive to understand why so many people find Darwin’s ideas so difficult to embrace. Of course, scientists have found themselves at odds with the guardians of religious orthodoxy for centuries. But I would argue that evolutionary biology and its sister science cosmology, which seeks natural explanations for cosmic phenomena, may be special cases. This is because they can appear to conflict with humankind’s universal need for a narrative to explain our origin and place in the universe. To the degree that evolutionary biology and cosmology appear to undermine the truth of such old and revered narratives, their findings will be deeply troubling and threatening to some. The great evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, who rejected dualism of any kind, captured what creationists find most objectionable when he famously if somewhat irreverently opined that “evolution is what you get when you give an idiot all the time in the world.” A more measured perspective on this theme has been offered by Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, who wrote that if an exponent of intelligent design “wishes to suggest that the intricacies of nature, life, and the universe reveal a world of meaning and purpose consistent with a divine intelligence, his point is philosophical, not scientific. It is a philosophical point of view, incidentally, that I share . . . [but] in the final analysis, the biochemical hypothesis of intelligent design fails not because the scientific community is closed to it but rather for the most basic of reasons—because it is overwhelmingly contradicted by the scientific evidence.”

This brings me to the joint lesson to be derived from the two case studies I have discussed today. Arguments over the relative value of manned and unmanned space flight or over the content of the biology curriculum in America’s public schools may seem remote from one another, but at the center of both tales are dangers that arise when science and politics fall out of alignment and become “strange bedfellows.” As Thomas Huxley rightfully said, it is naïve to think that science can be completely divorced from other aspects of human activity, but the credibility of science can be compromised—sometimes fatally—when it is allowed to be inappropriately co-opted for political and religious purposes. Sending Americans to Mars may be politically astute, and promoting intelligent design in American classrooms may be a source of comfort to those who are threatened by the implications of natural selection, but neither, in my judgment, represents sound science, and to suggest that they do threatens the integrity of the entire scientific enterprise. The ultimate risk is that we lose the trust and respect of the public, on whom we depend for the support of science. It is not that scientists have a monopoly on truth or wisdom—after all, we are human beings, which means we are fallible—but in the scientific method we have a tried and true process to explore natural phenomena based on proposing and testing hypotheses through observation and experimentation. This method has served us well in advancing human knowledge and, ultimately, in helping to improve the lot of our fellow men and women. end of article



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