Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life

Genre: Science
Author:Stephen Jay Gould
Professor Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) , a prolific author, Harvard Professor, leading proponent of evolution and the importance of natural selection and fossil records and the like, wrote a compelling book in 1999 that tried to help toward a truce in the rather (for me) tiresome debate between science and religion, one that has plagued many parts of the world since the dawn of the modern scientific age.

Here is an introduction I found to how he dealt with the arguments back and forth and how they led to his conclusion: (As you can tell, Gould is both a lively and engaging prose stylist.)


"In early 1984, I spent several nights at the Vatican housed in a hotel built for itinerant priests. While pondering over such puzzling issues as the intended function of the bidets in each bathroom, and hungering for something other than plum jam on my breakfast rolls (why did the basket only contain hundreds of identical plum packets and not a one of, say, strawberry?), I encountered yet another among the innumerable issues of contrasting cultures that can make life so interesting. Our crowd (present in Rome for a meeting on nuclear winter sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) shared the hotel with a group of French and Italian Jesuit priests who were also professional scientists.

"At lunch, the priests called me over to their table to pose a problem that had been troubling them. What, they wanted to know, was going on in America with all this talk about "scientific creationism"? One asked me: "Is evolution really in some kind of trouble. and if so, what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and Catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both entirely satisfactory and utterly overwhelming. Have I missed something?"

"A lively pastiche of French, Italian, and English conversation then ensued for half an hour or so, but the priests all seemed reassured by my general answer: Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history—a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean. We all left satisfied, but I certainly felt bemused by the anomaly of my role as a Jewish agnostic, trying to reassure a group of Catholic priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief."


Starting mainly with the controversy following the publication of Charles Darwin's "Origin of the Species in 1859, and the acceptance and heated debate that ensued, Gould in this book reviews the old arguments and points out that there is in fact a third way to look at the controversy of God and faith versus scientific inquiry. It begins with the concept of separating these two important aspects of human thought into two distinct spheres. The non-interfering spheres are part of the Non-Overlapping Magisterium Arena, or NOMA. He also reminds us that many of Darwin's early followers were men and women of faith, the most prominent being Asa Grey, the leading American botanist of his day, friend of Darwin, and a Christian

Gould states to paraphrase that science is powerless to furnish ethical rules or proofs of God, but it's not capable of ruling out the possibility of a deity or the existence of moral imperatives based on a common human nature.

This is all the more important because, Gould states, Darwin's theories were based on the unethical "free market" doctrines of his time and also gave rise later to a "social Darwinist" movement that effectively reduces people to economic wigits for the use of the "better advanced" plutocrats at the top of the industrial food chain.

Hence the need for either a strong but un-dogmatic religious community in a nation, or at least ethical philosophers to keep the economics of greed and the feral "state of nature" advocates from taking over and disrupting a moral-based society.

Darwin did not use evolution to promote atheism--although he had severe doubts in God caused by the death of a young daughter. He famously discouraged hope in a God from seeing the struggle for existence in nature in all of its dire effects. But he remained an agnostic, as did his leading champion Thomas H. Huxley.

He also points out that Pope Pius in the 1950s and John Paul II in the 1990's declared themselves unopposed to evolution or scientific research. Indeed, the whole notion of "creation science" seems a peculiar fundementalist Protestant American affliction.

Gould maintained that no concept of God could ever be squared with the structure of nature. But he also counters that the magisterium of science cannot resolve nor even specify the existence or a God. The ultimate meanings of life--such as why we exist in the first place and what we are to do with said existence---are the proper foundations of morality, and that falls into the different magisterium of religion.

I found this book very engaging. I also realize that many on both sides of the question will not be satisfied by the late professor's conclusions. Gould in subsequent lectures certainly was suspect of anyone trying to find faith in scientific theory, but he also avoids the frankly dogma-style cant of a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins. I had the opportunity the other day to ask Professor Dawkins about Gould's book and his theory of NOMA. (Via a Southern Oregon Public Radio call-in program.) Dr. Dawkins dismissed it flat-out as "rank propaganda" and implied that Gould was making some sort of craven political accommodation with the faith community.

I would have loved to hear the late professor's response to Doc Dawkins in 2011. He might have said somethibng like this, as he already did in his NOMA writings from 1999.

"NOMA permits—indeed enjoins—the prospect of respectful discourse, of constant input from both magisteria toward the common goal of wisdom. If human beings are anything special, we are the creatures that must ponder and talk. Pope John Paul II would surely point out to me that his magisterium has always recognized this distinction, for "in principio, erat verbum"—"In the beginning was the Word." '


  1. Interesting stuff here Doug, I am glad you have had an opportunity to challenge Richard Dawkins on the radio recently, I have been having a one sided debate with Professor Dawkins since 1980 when I first took issue with the concept of the 'Selfish Gene' which I consistently critiqued throughout my academic career as both student and tutor.

    Without going into that too much here I have to say that I have difficulties with the concept of 'Magisterium' whether that be religious or scientific. As a matter of fact one of my criticisms of Dawkins is that his radical scientism is actually a religion in itself, but I have difficulties with the notion of the authoritative 'master' as the font of wisdom as conceived by the Catholic notion of magisterium per se.

    I have always been sceptical of the 'Magi' in both religious and secular spheres, although I can see why Professor Gould would be invited to the Vatican and I also see his reported discourse with Jesuit scientists as a meeting of peas in a pod (Gregor Mendel's peas perhaps, but peas all the same).

    Actually, as synchronicity would have it, exactly 3 years ago to this very day I posted a blog on a subject quite closely related to this discussion which I entitled 'Cosmic God a Virus?' where I attempted to raise some questions about the validity of Darwinian theories of evolution that would I think have the distinction of being equally controversial to Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and the un-named Jesuit scholars.

    You were also kind enough to make a comment on that post at the time Doug. I have linked to it here

    However, as the never ending miracle of synchronicity has demonstrated once more that my references to CERN in that earlier post have cropped up again in recent days in such a way as to cast doubt upon the magisterium of Einstein's theoretical physics.

    As you will no doubt know, CERN claims to have clocked sub-atomic particles or neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light. If this is proved to be true then Einstein's theory will indeed be disproved.

    Obviously this is all very much early days, it was only reported for the first time last week so we can't go rushing off claiming Einstein to be in trouble, but it does raise interesting questions to me about he concept you have dealt with here namely Non-Overlapping Magisterium Arena.

    I have postulated that there is a curse on both the houses of science (or more correctly 'scientism') and religion which I attempted to further explore through the Cosmic Ancestry hypothesis, which of course gives no succour whatsoever to the 'creationists' who are not even 'warm' so far as the meaning of existence is concerned in my opinion.

    But I do think it is interesting that we should be having this discussion on the third anniversary of that post that played with the notion that Darwin and Einstein could have failed the magisterium test and that CERN may give us evidence that this is in fact the case.

    This would suggest I believe that my own atheism is rather more rigorous than that of Professor Dawkins, who has in my view, smuggled religious concepts back into the discussion by the back door.

    Interesting times we are living through, thanks for posting this thought provoking review of Gould's position and particularly a very big thank you for challenging Dawkins live on air, I take my hat off to you Doug.

  2. Fascinating review, Doug. Thanks!!

  3. Stephen Jay Gould is missed - he thought, and that's thin on the ground.

  4. I imagine you and a couple others (like Will) have a done a great deal more academic and plain old shovel and pick-ax work on these issues than I have, AA.

    Yes, the American journalist Chris Hedges and others have pointed out in interviews and papers that Dawkins and some--certainly not all--prominent atheists in the media have made their personal "lack of faith" into a mirror image belief- systemm an irony indeed! They attempts to mow down the fundementalists in faith and all other believers by association. Even those who seek intelligent answers without abandoning their places of worship. (And verbally attack those like Dr. Gould who did not believe as others did yet respected them for having sound minds.)

    I believe Our Creator (or Nature, if you prefer) did not give us the power of thought to ever be quite so smug as these pontificate come off on radio and television programs.

    But, to that other point, "magisterium" I agree can become too hide-bound, rigid and authoritarian. The goals could become protection of cherished institutions. As you point out in the media with the recent clamour over the possible super-speed of sub-atomic neutrinos, even Albert Einstein's great leaps over the old and majestic Newtonian universe are not beyond challenge with our newest technologies. We shall see where that goes.

    I forgot to neglected to mention Gregor Mendel's experiments with plants, another case of a cross-pollination with a fellow with a foot in both religion and science worlds. Well put.

    The idea of "religious concepts coming through the back door" does irk me, AA. I really don't care, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, if my neighbor believes in twenty gods, one God, or no God at all, so long as he doesn't attack my dog or pick my wallet.

    On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if these bozos who promote a six-day earth or that dinosaurs are actually recent creatures who played tag with homo sapiens and other claptrap are actually agents of Dawkins and Company, Ltd. I'd like to think that such scientific illiteracy was a cover job, some sort of black ops academic "False Flag" operation. Alas, I have no such proof and have to fall back on it being personal wishful thinking.

    I believe "creation museums" and the like (which actually exist in places like Kentucky) do more to destroy the prospects of faith in a young and bright human mind than all the books and lectures that dominant handful of militant athiests could ever present.

    A wise friend of mine reminded me a couple days back that many 21st century humans can be as gullible as those characters that Huck and the escaped slave Jim encountered on that Mississippi River raft in Mark Twain's classic book, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". American Presidential politics is enough to turn one into a curmudgeon for life, not to change the subject.

    What fun the old master of American literature would have had today seeing folks celebrating mechanical dinosaurs hopping about with "cave people" at an American theme park!
    Personally I'd likely find it dispiriting.

    Thanks for resending those links,AA. I will certainly revisit your research and efforts there. I bow to your rigor on these subjects I tried to raise and thanks as always for adding so much to my cursory reviews.

  5. I remember the part he played in the development of Punctuated Evolutionary Theory, explaining why major evolutionary advances were made following extinction events and not slowly as Darwin envisioned.Great review Doug.

  6. Yes, Gould certainy was a worthy to figure to stand on the shoulders of giants and increase scientific understanding to his peers and to a broader audiance through books, open lectures and television documentaries . I especially appreciate his engaging style of writing, one that made these theories clear to a layman like myself.

    Thanks Stephen.

  7. Cancer took out a mind I wish were still around.