June 7, 2006: Features

Where science meets religion

Illustration by Phil Foster

For the last seven years, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Dan Rubenstein has opened “Evolutionary Ecology,” a course for non-majors that he teaches with professor Stephen Pacala, with a lecture about why evolution by natural selection is hard for people to appreciate, understand, and accept. He introduces the fundamental concepts of evolution on the semester’s syllabus and answers some of the challenges to evolution that critics have made during the last century and a half. Then, on the final slide of his presentation, Rubenstein takes on the issue of belief — particularly the belief that there is something special about being human, and how that can conflict with evolution. “If you have a strong belief,” he tells his students, “there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing any scientist can do.”

Rubenstein’s students have different responses to the lecture, responses shaped by both background and faith. Rachel Rothschild, a sophomore from Sherborn, Mass., who grew up in a conservative Jewish family, says that she was excited to begin learning more about evolution so she could share that knowledge with her father, who had expressed doubts about how much biological diversity could be explained by natural selection. Mark Smith, a freshman from Pittsburgh, Pa., who was raised Catholic, says he always thought religion and science could coexist, and that idea did not change. But for Aba DeGraft-Hanson, a sophomore from Buford, Ga., parts of Rubenstein’s opening lecture were hard to reconcile. In her fundamentalist Christian Sunday school, Genesis was read as literal truth — a belief she had questioned — and evolutionary ecology represented a very different way of viewing the world. “It’s part of the process of growing up,” DeGraft-Hanson says of her decision to take Rubenstein’s course. “You take everything you’ve ever heard, and you reevaluate it and make your own decisions. At least that’s what you’re supposed to do.” DeGraft-Hanson admits that she still does not have answers to all of her questions, but adds that the class was one of her favorites.

A few years ago, before evolution found its way into the headlines about teaching intelligent design in public schools, Rubenstein says that some students wondered why he included his final slide about beliefs in a science course. Now, he says, they seem to understand it as part of the “social context in which they study science.” Rubenstein added a new twist in the course’s midterm exam in March. As an essay question, he asked students to write op-ed pieces for their hometown newspapers explaining evolution and its scientific merits and addressing why it should be taught in science classes — and why intelligent design should not be.

The students made convincing arguments in favor of evolution, Rubenstein says. But were they writing their honest opinions or just angling for a good grade? Even he cannot be entirely sure — not after seeing the note that one student wrote at the top of an exam a few years ago. The student told Rubenstein that he did not believe in the answers he was writing, but he needed to do well in the course to get into medical school. Professor James Gould, who teaches a 200-level ecology and evolutionary biology course for majors that also fulfills the pre-med requirement, suspects that there are other students who make the same decision but “aren’t as honest and straightforward about it.”

At Princeton, there are pockets of support for intelligent design, despite its universal rejection among biology faculty, students and professors say. But students are looking beyond polarizing ideology, according to Weston Powell ’06, a pre-med student and the former president of the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, and trying to find a middle ground to balance religion and science. “Even within the Christian fellowship,” Powell says, “there’s wide debate.”

Powell agrees with Rubenstein that intelligent design does not offer hypotheses that can be scientifically tested and thus does not belong in the biology curriculum, either at the University or in high schools. Evolution is biology’s focus, or, as the National Academy of Sciences has said, its “central unifying concept.” But beyond the science classroom, some students want to take a closer look at the public debates in which science and religion are at odds, and a few Princeton courses offer opportunities to explore these topics.

In the spring semester, religion professor Leora Batnitzky taught a freshman seminar titled “Religion and Science: The Human Being’s Place in Nature,” which included a discussion of possible conflicts between evolution and the doctrines of Christianity and Judaism. Both religions see humans as unique beings that stand apart from nature, Batnitzky says. But, she explains, if evolution offers reasons to think that is not true — that humans are not so different from animals — it can affect the way one views moral issues such as animal rights and abortion. The seminar drew several aspiring scientists and several students with strong religious beliefs, Batnitzky says. A few, such as J.D. Walters ’09, fit both categories.

For Walters, religion and popular science are two indispensable categories on his reading list. He can cite Brian Greene (on string theory), Richard Dawkins (on evolution), and C.S. Lewis (on Christianity) in the same conversation. But there was a time when he tried to ignore large areas of the natural sciences in order to preserve the beliefs that he learned growing up in what he terms a “six-day creationist” family. During high school, he gradually changed his mind. “I realized that all scientific knowledge is of a piece,” Walters says, “and that I couldn’t be arbitrarily discarding certain portions of science just because I thought they didn’t combine with my fundamentalist beliefs.” Finding a religious perspective that was compatible with modern science was difficult, Walters says, but he does not struggle with it anymore. Instead, he is working to create his own major that combines religion and science and examines the intersection of the two. Batnitzky’s seminar, he says, provided a valuable historical foundation, showing that religion and science have not always been at odds. In medieval times, for instance, the Christian belief in an intelligible world that could be understood by humans helped science and the scholastic method to grow.

According to Batnitzky, few courses in the religion department explore the relationship between religion and science, but that is more likely the product of a small department than the result of a lack of interest. Batnitzky hopes to continue teaching her seminar. “These are obviously extremely complicated issues, and the more time you have to actually talk about them, the more you realize that they’re complicated,” she says. “People here, at a university, have a lot in common with one another, and it’s not polarized. ... Most people’s opinions are much more nuanced the more you push them.”

Adam Elga ’96, an assistant professor of philosophy, has noticed the same nuance and constructive debate in his “Philosophy of Religion” course, which touches tangentially on religion and science in discussions of bioethics. His students have spanned a wide continuum, from strongly religious to firmly atheist, but they remained respectful and open in class discussions. “Actually, it turned out that people were tiptoeing much more carefully than I expected,” Elga says. “If anything, I have to rile them up a little bit to make sure [they know] it’s OK to argue.”

Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public affairs, engages debates of religion and science in his courses, but science and public policy drive the discussion. In particular, he examines biotechnology in his graduate-level course and in his recent book, Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life. Fundamentalist Christianity, Silver is quick to say, is not universally at odds with science. For instance, Christian doctrine has no objection to genetically modified crops. But biotechnology, a popular topic internationally, often takes a back seat to the evolution and intelligent design debate in the United States, and Princeton is no exception.

Outside the classroom, the social and philosophical elements of evolution and intelligent design remain a big draw for sponsored lectures. Speakers on campus in recent years have included Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller, who testified on the side of science in the 2005 court case to decide whether intelligent design could be taught in the Dover, Pa., public schools, and Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael Behe, a proponent of intelligent design who also testified in the Dover case.

In April 2005, Silver accepted an invitation to debate William Dembski, then an associate professor at Baylor University and a fellow of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that supports intelligent design. The topic was whether or not intelligent design qualified as science, and about 200 people gathered at the Woodrow Wilson School to hear the debate. Silver, not surprisingly, argued that intelligent design does not qualify as science, and he made his argument by contrasting natural selection and intelligent design. After providing examples to show that natural selection is a scientific hypothesis with evidence that shows it works, he tried to ascertain intelligent design’s credentials. “I haven’t heard an alternative hypothesis,” he said, “other than ‘that’s not how it occurred.’”

Dembski walked to the podium and acknowledged that natural selection does work, on a “limited scope,” in the same way that trial and error works for discovering new inventions. But, making an analogy to a study of patent filings in the former Soviet Union, he said intelligent design is “a theory of creative innovation,” not “a theory of process.” Dembski then read a long passage from a book written by a Nobel laureate in physics that called biology “ideological” before he returned to critiquing evolution. Silver was unimpressed. “There’s no theory, there’s no hypothesis, there’s no process,” he says, recalling the debate. While Silver admits that he did not expect to change the opinions of people in the audience, he had hoped for a more thoughtful discussion. “One of the questions I got from the audience was, why do I hate God?” he says. “So it is a religious debate.”

Gould, like Silver, has deconstructed some of the popular challenges to evolution in public forums, including lectures at Princeton’s residential colleges. And though he has never fielded a question about intelligent design in his ecology and evolutionary biology courses, when he talks about it on campus, “the room is always filled, and [included] are some of the students from my course.” Some may simply be curious; others may be intelligent design supporters. But either way, Gould says, it should not be an issue. “If you think about it, does it really matter whether you think intelligent design or evolution is what accounts for the diversity of life on earth if you’re going to be a banker, or a lawyer, or a doctor?” Gould says. “Where would it matter if you’re not going to be a biologist?”

But does the same idea — that one’s thoughts on the origins of life are immaterial in most jobs — apply to professors in other branches of the sciences? Some of Gould’s faculty colleagues say yes. Robert Prud’homme, a professor of chemical engineering, says that while being a Christian may affect his priorities in life, it does not influence the material he presents in the classroom or the way in which he presents it. Chemistry professor Andrew Bocarsly echoes Prud’homme’s sentiment. He adds that when universities encourage debate, religion should be part of the conversation. “In this issue of ‘intelligent design,’ it’s ambiguous as to what that means,” Bocarsly says. “But the issue we’re all, I think, arguing about is the existence of God. No one wants to have that discussion, so we have secondary discussions. That is a topic — and this is not specific to Princeton — that sort of is off the table for discussion, although any other controversial issue is allowed.”

Powell, the former Princeton Evangelical Fellowship president, concedes that the existence of God is part of the issue, whether it is explicitly mentioned or not. For him, that debate is personal and constantly recurring. As he prepares for medical school, Powell says that he expects his classes, his peers, and his experiences to challenge his faith. But there will always be some questions that cannot be settled in a laboratory. Says Powell, “There isn’t a God experiment.” end of article

Brett Tomlinson is an associate editor at PAW.



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