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Darwin and the Vertigo of Vision: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankFebruary 13, 2008 3:58 AM


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Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

“Today…new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory”. —Pope John Paul II I can’t write a series of posts on science and religion and ignore Darwin’s birthday. Not when the theoretical structure whose foundations he laid remains one of the principle fronts on the war between science and religion. I have written before about the sullen – the scriptural literalists and intelligent design advocates. They have been the principle provocateurs on the religious side of this unfortunate chasm between science and the domains of human spiritual longing. Today it’s worth noting what they miss in their demand that the process and methods of science cleave to their preconceived ideas about the world. The Pope really hit the nail on the head: “The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.” That’s it! That is the mojo that makes the theory of evolution, the idea of evolution, so extraordinary. Like Copernicus’s De Revolutionbus and Newton’s Principia, Darwin’s Origin of the Species stands as monument, a turning point, in human thinking. There is a difference between Theories and theories in science. The paper my group just had accepted about stars and winds and turbulence is a theory with a small “t.” It’s a “Colonel Mustard in the Kitchen with a Candlestick” kind of theory. But evolution and relativity and quantum physics, etc.—these are Theories that truly straddle worlds. They draw together lifetimes of experience, experiment, and investigation, and in doing so they allow us to see an infinite web of unseen order, pattern, and—taken in the broadest sense—purpose. It is the grand theories of science that connect it with our most ancient mythological longings to draw closer to and become woven within the palpable powers that animate the world—the longing to draw closer to our experience of the world as sacred. (Yikes, I just used that word again!) What an absolute bummer that fundamentalists miss this. By literally refusing to allow themselves the sweet vertigo that evolution’s vision of life, order, and change offers, they cut themselves off from the very old roots of their own religious feeling. It’s like sitting in a concert of celestial music with your fingers stuck in your ears because someone told you are only allowed to listen to Abba. As the Pope’s quote demonstrates, there are clearly Christians (big ones) who reconcile their religion with evolution. What is the stinking big deal! The vision that scientific investigation offers us is grand and sweeping and beautiful and terrifying. Evolutionary theory is vital part of that vision. There is nothing lost to those who respond to the world with spiritual longing to embrace that vision as one aspect of the full range of human experience.

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