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God, Professors, and Evolutionary Biology Classes

October 10, AD 2014 93 Comments

Professor David P. Barash recently wrote an opinion column in the New York Times titled “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class.” Professor Barash is in the psychology department at the University of Washington. He teaches courses on sociobiology. He explained in his essay why he gives undergraduate students “The Talk.” No, it’s not about sex. The talk is about faith and science. He says:

And that’s where The Talk comes in. It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.

Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students’ growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk.

While professor Barash’s essay may upset some people, it does not ruffle me much. I have no problem with the above statement. To the extent that the “tension between evolution and religion” is interfering with his biology classes, yes, the teacher needs to address that tension and avoid distractions. Long tangents about religion can distract from teaching the science. Besides, there is a vast array of opinions about how to interpret the two in light of each other.

Barash noted with chagrin that Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) is the “received wisdom in the scientific establishment.” (For those who don’t know, NOMA basically holds that science and religion can coexist in their own separate spheres and minimally inform each other in the search for truth.) Barash believes that the two cannot stay separate, and he feels that “accommodating” religion imposes some “challenging mental gymnastic routines.”

I agree that the two cannot stay separate, but I take exception to his solution. In “The Talk” he tells students that as evolutionary science has progressed, the “space” for faith has narrowed. He tells them that “no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens,” and that we are all just animals. He tells them that “living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” He concludes by telling them that it is not the duty of science (or science professors) to do the mental gymnastics to reconcile faith and science. Okay, an atheist professor thinks science doesn’t provide evidence of God. And dogs bark.

But here’s the thing. Rather than bringing clarity to the classroom, he brings more confusion by imposing his own beliefs about religion. It is enough to say, “This is a science class, please do not distract the class with questions about religion.” But what does he do? He imposes his beliefs on the students by making the very statements about faith that he asks the students to avoid. He is the one bringing religion into his science class.

But what about those tensions? Where should they be discussed? They need to be discussed outside of science class and with the guidance of someone competent to instruct in the faith. A lot of believers add to the confusion too, particularly those who think everyone must agree with their scientific interpretations to have real faith. In my opinion, people on all sides of the evolution and religion debate get too worked up and too impatient trying to claim all the answers. By our very human nature, we do not know everything and never will. We advance in knowledge. We are discursive creatures. It’s perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to say, “I don’t know.” By defining what you do not know, you more effectively guide your discovery. The apparent conflicts or tensions between science and faith are not the result of God’s incomplete knowledge or poor planning; they are the result of our partial understanding. We explore into the mysteries to seek more understanding. Scientists know this intimately, though some of them will not admit it.

We don’t know exactly how humans or anything else evolved, just that it all did. We don’t know exactly how God created the first man and woman, just that He did. We don’t know exactly how God might have guided the evolutionary process, instituted physical laws, or granted free will and intellect to the human being. We just know that He did, He does, and He will. Our theories are explanatory; we try to find explanations by forming hypotheses and testing them. The work of science is to discover how the material world works. Regarding faith, we have the divinely revealed deposit of truth, i.e. Scripture and Tradition upon which dogma is founded. The work of theology is to understand those truths and to interpret and communicate them. Science can indeed be guided by faith, and faith can indeed be enriched by science—but only if you have faith. Does it require challenging intellectual effort? Yes. So?

A believer needs only to state that he or she sees science as the study of the Handiwork of God. Note, that is not an argument but a statement. Nothing about evolutionary theory can ever be a threat to faith because believers interpret scientific discovery in a fuller scope of reality. Where faith is certain, science—never forget this—is provisional. If you are so inclined, study evolutionary theory in confidence. It is fascinating and underpins biological sciences just as Barash says it does. And if your science teacher is not religious? You probably shouldn’t consider him an authority on faith.

Never forget this either. The non-religious worldview is ultimately incoherent because science only gets you so far. Science points to greater realities beyond it. Even the scientific method demands a Christian worldview. To do science, we all have to view the world as ordered, symmetrical, intelligible, and predictable, and we have to fundamentally believe that we are rational beings who can gain knowledge about our world.

If people do not understand what I have just said, then yes, evolutionary theory may seem to threaten the “space” for faith. I really don’t know how to address this problem except to say that it demonstrates precisely why religious education needs to precede science education in priority, consistent with the words of Christ, “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?” The student who is confident in his or her faith should be free to study science and the professor free to teach it without invoking his own mental gymnastics routines to try to avoid mental gymnastics routines. This human endeavor we call science ought to unite us, plain and simple.


Many thanks to my friend and mentor, Joel Whitaker, for sending me this piece and requesting my commentary. Mr. Whitaker is the Editor and Publisher of Kane’s Beverage News Daily and is an experienced prize-winning newsman. You can read his very interesting bio here. Such friendships are indeed among the perks of blogging.

Begin Education With the Highest Science

October 2, AD 2014 2 Comments

Beth's Boys

St. Thomas Aquinas began his Summa Theologiæ with a question so intrinsic to the purpose and meaning of education I think it should be taught to every child at a young age.

The question: St. Thomas asks whether we need any more knowledge than we can reason ourselves, whether we need theology, the study of the truths divinely revealed from God. To the modern mind that might sound like asking whether scientific knowledge is all we need, but the classical definition of science was much broader than the quantities-based definition we use today. Science included practical sciences and speculative sciences, any systematic body of knowledge.

The objections: And the objections were just as they are today—that we can know everything we need to know through reason. No God needed in education.

The response: St. Thomas, of course, replied to the contrary. We need to study the truths of faith so we can articulate them and live by them. Why? For our salvation. Certain truths had to be revealed because the human mind cannot discover those truths on its own. “Man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth,” a “sacred science learned through revelation.”

The explanation: Astronomy may prove the earth is round. Physics may discover subatomic particles unimaginable to the human mind. But all of these things are of the universe, and they end there. Philosophy may have logical proofs of God, but philosophy never would have discovered the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. Those mysteries are beyond reason and had to be revealed.

What does this have to do with educating children? Am I saying that we need to teach children theology? Well, yes kids need catechism class as many parents already do, but not just that. We need, I think, to teach them why they need to learn about their faith so as to instill in them the correct view about learning in general. If children are told from the very beginning that they do math, science, grammar, and reading because they are made to search for truth and that all of our pursuits are really a search for God and salvation, then education has purpose and meaning beyond them, to guide them.

Without this view, sure a kid could still love learning and still seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but without God, ultimately learning is reduced to a mere journey to the end of life. Even kids who are raised in faith are at risk of falling into a flattened view of learning if they are not told from the beginning that their education is a devotion to God. They may merely view religion as a side thought, a lesser subject than the others.

What I’m saying is, if we are truly going to prepare our kids to be leaders and innovators of the future, then their education needs to start with the highest science, sacred science, whose object is God. Just like St. Thomas began his teaching.

All Scripture, inspired of God is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice.” (2 Timothy 3:16)

Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.

The Elephant in the Laboratory

September 22, AD 2014 3 Comments

Elephant in the Chem Lab

Some say they were pursued by the Hound of Heaven, a Grace that would not take leave, not in the “nights”or “down the days,” the “arches of the years” or the “labyrinthine ways.” That poetry never much resonated with me. The first time I heard it I wondered, “At what rate did he travel, this hound?” Poetry is hard for literalists to appreciate. But if I had to pick a metaphor, being a scientist and a non-believer was more like working in the presence of a something large and obvious that no one talked about . . .

. . . the Elephant in the Laboratory.

Anyone who has ever done a lab experiment knows all too well that experimentation requires great persistence to get the equipment to work as planned. Even then, you have no guarantee your samples will produce useful data. I worked, in part, on artificial photosynthesis. That work would go fruitless for long stretches of time. Weeks and weeks of preparation, day after day in the basement LASER room only to learn over and over again that the next idea had not worked either. I often took comfort and found inspiration in a high school biology textbook, the chapter about real photosynthesis. It fascinated me that scientists figured out the complex mechanism in such precise detail. Leaves are living nano-machines.

Sometimes I let myself wonder Who designed it all in the first place. That question is kind of hard to ignore.

But avoiding the bigger question is easy enough since scientific work is so specialized. Without any knowledge of the facts of faith, you’re not really sure what to do with those thoughts anyway. But here’s the thing, the truth of God’s presence is always there. Everything any scientist does in a lab, from the substances measured into test tubes, to the structures scanned under electron microscopes, to the telescopes pointed to space, all of it is a study of something we expect to be ordered, intelligible, predictable, and magnificent. That truth pervades the entire scientific method, and we all know it.

This is why I think science is ripe grounds for evangelization. People often think scientists see science as a god and themselves as god-makers, and that may be true for certain popularizers. However, in my experience the science we pursued imposed on us exceeding humility and docility. A professor once warned me that I should only become a scientist if I liked failure because 99.99% of experiment is failure. What kept me going was the fact that I knew I was pushing into the unknown and but glimpsing it—and it was thrilling. Why do you think scientists get so worked up over the smallest discoveries?

When I finally acknowledged the Elephant in the Lab, I began to understand that science is a privilege that unites humanity. With faith, science made sense, and a fuller reality I’d been avoiding finally came into view.

I’m telling you this because if you are ever hesitant to talk to science-minded people about God and the facts of faith, don’t be. Scientists interact directly with His Handiwork every day, even before they are ready to see it.

Clear sight be mine, to contemplate the wonders of thy law.” Psalm 119:18

Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.

SPEAKING to Carnegie Mellon Students – Faith, Science, and Motherhood

September 20, AD 2014

Faith, Science, Motherhood

The Carnegie Mellon Catholic Newman Club has invited me to speak to university students.

7:00PM, Sunday, October 5, 2014

St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh, PA

The talk is part of a Sunday series of campus ministry talks, called Catholic Action.

The topic is about my personal witness as a Catholic mother and scientist, titled “Faith, Science, and Motherhood.”

Yes, yes, and yes!!!

Rumor has it, I’m even taking a few daughters!

Autism, Vaccines, and Deisher’s Paper: How Scientific Discourse Should Be

September 19, AD 2014 141 Comments

Last Monday, in the beginning of the sensationalim surrounding Dr. Theresa Deisher’s paper, “Impact of environmental factors on the prevalence of autistic disorder after 1979″ in the Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology, I asked Dr. William M. Briggs to review the paper. Dr. Briggs is a statistician, and he posted his assessment yesterday on his site, Statistician to the Stars.

Autism And Stem-Cell Derived Vaccines: Deisher’s New Paper

What Deisher’s harsher critics are doing when calling her a fraud or liar is changing the subject (just as do those critics who call global warming a lie or a scam) away from the claim of true interest—do certain vaccines cause autism?—to those of personalities and politics. The claim is forgotten or dismissed with a wave (“only a fool would believe…”) and people are encouraged to take sides without having to do the hard work of thinking.

[...]

I have seen no evidence that Deisher is a quack or fraud or that she is lying or that she is ignorant. Instead, there is overwhelming evidence that she is highly intelligent and believes what she is saying.

He was also underwhelmed by the statistical case. He found the “paper poor in conception, argument, and quality, and regard her main contention as unproved.” I have responses to answer the criticisms, background information to understand the context of this paper, but I will post those later. I am thankful for his honesty and that he trusted me to not be offended by disagreement.

First, I want to highlight the most important point. This is how scientific discourse is supposed to be. You discuss the science without making it personal. When I saw people, particularly fellow Catholics, accusing Dr. Deisher of fraud, blindness, bias, and deception, it was painful. I wasn’t going to say anything, but then I felt like someone should defend her, especially when I found out that the people who started the brouhaha against her knew she would be unable to respond because she was in the hospital with her son. That isn’t to say that just because we’re Catholics or we are facing personal difficulty, we cannot criticize each other on that basis alone, but when criticism becomes libel, it becomes personal, possibly sinful. I still do not understand why people had to go there. It’s not how scientists behave either; regardless of faith, there is a code of conduct among scientists, a gentility, to discuss the issues without making it personal (in my experience anyway). Last, when the accusation is based on an admitted partial understanding of the science, the accuser is in no position to call anyone else blinded or biased. Catholics (like everyone) can do better.

Then those flinging the accusations wanted to know why we weren’t engaging their scientific criticisms. Here’s why, it’s a life lesson: If you start out by calling someone a fraud, a liar, and incompetent, and then you comb through that person’s work (in this case a single paper) trying to prove your point, and then you demand someone prove to you the person is not a fraud, a liar, or incompetent—do not be surprised if people don’t want to try to engage you on the facts. Such behavior shows no attempt at good faith.

I understand the fear of disease from both sides, I do, I’m a mother too, but that doesn’t make libel right. The side of the “vaxx debaters” who are “pro-vaxx” have a starting assumption that no vaccine can ever be shown to be related to autism, no researcher can ever talk about it, because to even say the words in the same sentence might cause someone not to vaccinate. They cannot tolerate the possibility, hence when a paper appears that suggests there may be a link, nothing less than annihilation will do because they do not trust you and me to be reasonable. Or so it seems for the most extreme of them. Of course, the other side of the “vaxx debate” is the same way. Use fear and intimidation to manipulate public dialogue so that you convince people not to vaccinate. This kind of dialogue is not helpful. It is insulting.

I suspect the majority of parents are in between, as am I. I am not certain either way. I’m just not.

I was unaware of this debate with my first six babies. I became aware of it with our youngest who was born in 2011 right after the Andrew Wakefield incident. It was then that I discovered Dr. Theresa Deisher’s new company Sound Choice Pharmaceuticals. I was so confused about the Wakefield, Thimerosal, and autism issue. Although I knew Wakefield was discredited, I still also knew parents whose children’s behavior change after vaccination and were later diagnosed with autism. How can we ignore them? Or that autism is on the rise? I found Dr. Deisher’s website and read through her work. Two things stuck with me from the beginning:

  1. She’s pro-child safety, pro-ethical vaccines. She works to get us better choices. She’s going against the mainstream.
  2. Her work, like much of science, is beginning and is provisional. She’s legitimately working the scientific method.

So, my husband and I made the decision to vaccinate and held our breath. I also understood that anyone—and I mean anyone—who agonizes over the decision should be respected. I really, really wanted more guidance from the Church or the medical community, but the fact is, there is still so much unknown. It could be immoral not to vaccinate. It could be dangerous to vaccinate. And the opposite is also true as far as I can tell. So we did it, we vaccinated because that’s what we’ve always done and I couldn’t not do it. But, yes, I still wonder about the decision. This is prudence in real life, folks. You make the best decision you can with the information you have, knowing you do not know everything and knowing you cannot absolutely predict or control the future.

The one thing I knew for certain is that what Dr. Deisher is doing is good. She left her lucrative six-figure career in the biotechnology industry to spend her own money to start a company for better choices—not for herself, but for us. At least I knew that by supporting her work, I was supporting the search and demand for ethical and safer vaccines for the future. At least I could be certain of that. I think we have a moral imperative to support her search.

I’ve followed her work for three years now. I can tell you, it goes slowly and this is one paper, not an absolute declaration of an absolute cause and effect. You need to read everything on her site, and you need to spend time digesting it. And if you are confused and unsure what to think after all the confusion over this one paper, I suggest this:

Seek to know what’s known now, and stay informed. Do your best with your children, and be ready, in your faith, for whatever life brings. (That is parenting in a nutshell.) But also realize that science advances in steps and our knowledge is never complete. Watch the science play out; know both sides and know that it is okay not to pick a side. Own your own choices for your own children. Be kind to each other; we’re people not punching bags. Disagree in charity.