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Science, Religion, and a Language for Public Policy

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Charles Darwin, and the legacy of his work describing evolution and natural selection, is often distorted for political ends. But as Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Susan Thistlethwaite explained yesterday, the spheres of science and religion are not in conflict, and a look at Darwin’s own life can help untangle the thorny cultural history of evolution. “Few people seem to remember that Darwin graduated from seminary,” she said. Thistlethwaite spoke as a panelist at the Center yesterday, “Evolution, Transcendence, and the Nature of Faith,” which considered Darwin’s legacy for both science and religion, and the impact of evolution on public policy.

She and was joined by Arthur Caplan, the Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, David Sloan Wilson, the co-founder of the Evolution Institute and a professor of evolutionary biology at Binghamton University, with CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss moderating the discussion. Sally Steenland, a senior policy adviser to CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, noted in her opening remarks that over half of the U.S. and British populations reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, which has serious consequences for education global competitiveness.

Addressing the place of evolution in education, Caplan explained that religion and “Intelligent Design” do not belong in science classes. But he also said that progressives often carry the prohibition too far, implying that discussions of religion belong nowhere at all in public schools, a proposition he disagreed with.

Building on the fact that Darwin was a religious man early in life, Thistlethwaite explained that the naturalist arrived at agnosticism after watching one of his young children suffer and die. She stressed that it was this personal experience and not merely his scientific discoveries that changed his beliefs.

To this, Caplan noted that the field of bioethics, which is closely allied with science, actually has its roots in religious thought. When the discipline took shape in the 1960s and 70s, “the overwhelming majority of the people who got interested in bioethical questions were from religious traditions,” he said.

He went on to say that theologians identified two problems with science. First, it does not generate values. “Science,” he said, “does not speak a language that can tell us where to go.” Second, it can be misused for horrific purposes—he noted the influence of Nazi experiments on early bioethical thinkers: “science might be perverted into social goals they would have to oppose.”

“It’s hard to speak religion in public,” Caplan said, noting the challenges of addressing issues of public policy. Bioethics, now thought of as a secular discipline, handles these challenges to science by injecting values into the discussion, but is useful for thinking about public policy because it is able to speak in public without setting off fights.

But one of the most challenging issues raised by evolutionary science is the question of what it means to be human. Several panelists noted research on the capacity of apes and other animals to show sympathy and emotional characteristics associated with humans. “Are human beings special?” asked Caplan.

In response, Thistlethwaite explained that Darwin’s experience with slavery and the bestiality of slaveholders, as well as his scientific research, led him to discount the unique distinctiveness of human beings.

Wilson noted that, “There is more to evolution to than genetic evolution.” For him, questions about the evolution of humans are not purely biological. “When we think of managing our genes and altering our genetic destiny, we also need to think about altering our cultural evolutionary destiny.” He went on to add that evolutionary theory can inform public policy by offering insight into how to manage large-scale social interactions.

“The common conception of evolution is that it explains selfishness well and altruism poorly,” he said. But he argued that it is possible to take lessons from evolution and tilt the playing field towards altruism.

Yet scientific knowledge also allows for humans to tilt biology in their favor in radical new ways, Weiss said. “We are starting to take a greater hand in our own evolution. We are gaining the capability of changing ourselves, improving ourselves.”

Caplan took up the issue, noting that parents who might choose to tweak the genomes of their children are merely trying to give them an advantage in a competitive world. Their intentions, he said, are no different from parents who send their kids to expensive private schools in an attempt to give them an educational leg up in the world.

Weiss opened the discussion by reading from a satirical Onion article about “evolutionists” who flock to a Darwin-shaped wall stain in Dayton, Tennessee. The joke was readily apparent to the audience, as some anti-religious Darwin advocates plead their case with religious fervor. Thistlethwaite pointed out that despite questions that frame the issue as “Do you believe in evolution,” evolution is not, in fact, a belief system. “It’s happening to you whether you like it or not,” she said.

Weiss closed he event by quoting Darwin’s own writing on evolution, which can take on a transcendent tone: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Cross-posted from Science Progress.

More info on this event: Evolution, Transcendence, and the Nature of Faith

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