|Debate between science,
religion lives Clash takes on civilized tone as both sides recognize other
MONTGOMERY National Correspondent
Copernicus and Charles Darwin would have loved
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.
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.
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
The researchers are appealing in court.
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
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
``Everyone should approach these discoveries quite
critically,'' he said in a recent telephone interview.
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.
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,
``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
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
``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.
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. ''
Consider the mystery of the
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
``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.
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. ''
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.
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.
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. ''