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Debate between science, religion lives Clash takes on civilized tone as both sides recognize other values

By: RICK MONTGOMERY National Correspondent
Date: 01/05/97

Copernicus and Charles Darwin would have loved 1996.
It was a year when the big bang became the sound of science clashing with an increasingly spiritual society. A year of ``evolution wars'' in schools and state capitals. A year when amazing discoveries challenged not only religious doctrine but basic textbooks, too.
NASA stunned the world by saying bacteria on a rock found in Antarctica hinted at life on Mars billions of years ago. And just when the Book of Genesis was enjoying a revival in literature and on TV, Pope John Paul II asserted that evolution indeed may have been part of God's creation.
The riddle of the ages - How did we get here, and when? - kept popping up, vexing and dividing us, often in the weirdest ways.
In July, a barefoot man watching a boat race in Kennewick, Wash., poked his toe into the muddy riverbank and right through the eye socket of a human skull. The discovery led to scientists unearthing what they deduced was the 9,300-year-old skeleton - of a white man!
Anthropologists salivated. Never before had they found such telling evidence that Europeans or other Caucasians may have mingled with Indian tribes thousands of years before Vikings bobbed over the horizon.
But Native Americans seethed. The Umatilla tribe used a 1990 federal law to stop research on the bones. Citing their own religious teachings, tribal leaders argued the skeleton must be an ancestor - no matter what science said - and that DNA testing would be sacrilegious.
The researchers are appealing in court.
It's science vs. spiritualism all over again.
The debate intensified last year, a century and a half after Darwin's On the Origin of Species spelled out the theory of evolution by natural selection. (Darwin, incidentally, continued to attend church, married a devout Christian and was so revered in British society he was buried at Westminster Abbey.)
And this spring will mark the 500th anniversary of Copernicus' first recorded study of the galaxy. As a result, humans began to quit thinking everything revolved around them. (Copernicus' work was supported by Pope Clement VII, although later churchmen persecuted Galileo, who built on Copernicus' theories using a telescope.)
Still, ``the people who hated those scientists centuries ago are alive and well today,'' said Dick Wilson, a Rockhurst College biology professor and churchgoer.
Among those leading the backlash is Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research outside San Diego.
``Everyone should approach these discoveries quite critically,'' he said in a recent telephone interview.
Morris wholly rejects much of what modern science trumpets as revolutionary - the ``carbon dating'' of fossils, for example. As for life on Mars, Morris suggests the revelation was a publicity stunt to boost NASA's funding as it prepared for several space missions.
``I don't see how you can be one of these scientists Monday through Friday and a Christian on Sunday,'' he said. ``The Bible doesn't teach about life on other planets. That's the source of Christian religion. ''
But a conciliatory view is emerging. Scientists are speaking more about a need to respect religion. Many are stepping forward to espouse their own spiritual beliefs.
When Time magazine in August questioned a Jesuit astronomer about the news of ancient Martian life, he heralded it as ``a vindication that God is not limited by our imagination. '' When Newsweek later asked, ``Can a creationist be a good scientist? And vice versa? '' the chic reply was, Why not?
``What's been reported these last several months is a lot to chew,'' said David Slavsky, a Loyola University dean of science and mathematics, and a religious Jew. ``But for me there's nothing to reconcile between science and religion.
``They're both overwhelming. Science is one very powerful way of looking at the world and asking questions. Religion is another way. Scientists must understand they are limited in what they can explain. ''
No easy answers
Scientists are not surprised that recent discoveries have shared the spotlight with revived attacks on science education.
Every new theory about life's origins ``implies mankind and creation aren't as special as they'd like to be,'' said Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, Calif.
``It's never easy,'' she said, ``to have your belief system shaken. ''
Biologists know the feeling, too. Research published last spring defied long-held beliefs about the first appearance of living cells on Earth. By stretching the age of life to more than 4 billion years, scientists suddenly were faced with a half-billion years they couldn't explain.
And astrophysicists are still struggling with their own math problem: Why do the oldest stars seem to date back 14 billion years while the universe itself is considered to be only 9 billion years old?
``Part of this whole anti-science movement arises from society asking itself, 'What can we trust anymore? ' '' Wilson said. ``Sometimes it seems the scientists are changing their minds every week. ''
Creationists, meanwhile, have picked up steam.
In Alabama, science textbooks last fall carried new labels warning students that evolution is a ``controversial ... unproven belief. '' In Tennessee and Ohio, lawmakers narrowly rejected bills that would have punished teachers who advanced evolution as fact.
``They're trying to make evolution too hot to handle,'' charges Scott, whose organization battles the creationists. ``What makes well-meaning people fight so hard to keep children from learning a basic scientific principle? ''
But Scott also seeks common ground. She urges schools to engage pupils in theology as well as science. Instead, she laments, many educators have done the opposite - keeping both evolution and creationism out of their classrooms.
``It needn't be all or nothing,'' says Scott, pointing to surveys that suggest Americans today are more religious than ever before. ``We in the natural sciences have been theologically illiterate for too long.
``Obviously, religion is a field of study that provides lots of reinforcement for emotional needs, or else it wouldn't have existed all these years. ''
Grave debate
Consider the mystery of the 9,300-year-old skeleton.
A college student found it almost intact along the Columbia River. Despite a spearhead in the skeleton's hip - a wound that healed over - the man is thought to have lived well into his 40s.
``Here we had an extremely unique individual: tall, about 5 feet 10, very slender, with European characteristics at a time when there weren't supposed to be Europeans over here,'' said Floyd Johnson, the local coroner. ``I was in favor of letting the scientists try to decide where he belongs in our history. ''
Federal bureaucrats balked.
After some initial testing of the bones, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controlled the excavation site, turned them over to the Umatilla. Tribal leaders had invoked the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, allowing them to claim ancestors' remains.
Native American scholars such as Vine Deloria Jr. reject attempts by anthropologists to explain the origins of America's earliest inhabitants. Deloria's reflections on ``the myth of scientific fact'' won over a wide audience last year, not to mention a Colorado Book Award.
Indian creation accounts upheld by Deloria dismiss the theory that the Americas were founded by nomads from other regions of the world. Instead, many tribes believe natives emerged no more than 10,000 years ago from the subterranean world of spirits.
Some scientists are fighting back in what The New York Times recently called ``a battle over who controls America's past. '' Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History secured a court injunction to keep the Umatillas from reburying the mystery skeleton.
``He needs to be studied,'' Owsley said. ``You can count on your fingers the number of skeletons found in the Americas from that era. He could be a teacher for the ages. ''
For now, the bones are stored at a federal warehouse. The research is on hold.
Others in the sciences aren't bothered by the religious argument.

``Maybe we could avoid these conflicts if more scientists gave in,'' said anthropologist Larry Zimmerman of the University of Iowa. ``We've been guilty in years past of promoting a kind of absolutism. We've probably done great harm to ourselves by implying there is an ultimate, knowable truth, and that science is the only way to learn it.
``Science shouldn't be some privileged field. If we try to force Native Americans to accept our theories and reject their own, they move that much closer to cultural extinction. ''
Whether such views are gaining acceptance in the laboratory is hard to gauge.
Biologist Wilson, for one, fully intends to teach another semester on evolution at Rockhurst with his spiritual beliefs intact. ``Call me intellectually dishonest,'' he says, ``but for me, Christian faith is comforting. ''
Wilson acknowledges science is merely a process for testing ideas - rarely absolute, never easily explained, sometimes just wrong. OK, he says, so the overwhelming weight of research supports Darwin.
But today's cover stories on ``Life on Mars'' could well be tomorrow's belly laughs. Some scientists already are raising doubts about the rock.
``We have some new, wonderful questions before us, and we'll play around with them, because that's what scientists do,'' Wilson said. ``But I don't see any reason to prove the whole story. ''



All content 1996 The Kansas City Star