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stephen jay gould rocks of ages

new statesman, 19 february 2001

By the time you read this, children in the American state of Kansas will, with any luck, be reading The Origin of Species in their classrooms. In August 1999, under pressure from Creationists, the Kansas Board of Education decided to remove evolution (as well as the Big Bang theory) from the school science curriculum. It took a vocal campaign by scientists and others - and the unseating of two anti-evolution members of the board in local elections - to help nudge the board back into the modern world. This week the new board meets hopefully to restore evolution to the classroom.

The Kansas affair is the latest in a long line of attempts by religious fundamentalists in America to proscribe the teachings of modern science. For many people it is also the latest example of why science and religion cannot coexist. For more than three decades the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould has been a trenchant critic of Creationism and a widely-admired populariser of evolutionary science. But, perhaps surprisingly, he rejects the idea that science and religion are mortal enemies. 'These two great tools of human understanding', he argues, operate in 'complementary not contrary fashion in their totally separate realms'. Science involves 'inquiry about the factual state of the natural world' while religion is a 'search for spiritual meaning and ethical values'. Science and religion belong to distinct 'magisteria', or domains of knowledge. Gould portentously dubs this thesis of peaceful coexistence the Principle of NOMA - 'Non-Overlapping Magisteria'. For Gould, Creationism reveals not the hostility of religion to science but simply the failure of some fundamentalists to respect edicts of NOMA.

For Gould's enemies, many of whom have long accused him of giving succour to Creationists, Rocks of Ages will no doubt confirm their worst fears. Even Gould's admirers, however, (and I count myself as one of them) will find it hard to swallow his arguments here. There is, Gould acknowledges, nothing 'original' about NOMA. There is also, unfortunately, little right about it.

The NOMA thesis conflates two distinct debates - one about the relationship between facts and values, the other about the relationship between science and religion - and treats neither with any sense of rigour. According to Gould facts and values belong to distinct, incommensurate realms of knowledge. The two are entirely unrelated, but each is an indispensable part of human life. Science deals with facts, religion with values. Hence religion can not only coexist with science, but it is necessary for it to coexist with science. Every step in this argument is flawed.

The shadow of social Darwinism looms large over any debate about facts and values. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social Darwinists argued that human history, like nature, embodied a struggle for existence. The moral good, they argued, was defined by success in this struggle. Might was right, in other words, and ought derived from is. Morality - how we ought to behave - derived from the facts of nature - how humans are. This became an argument to justify capitalist exploitation, colonial oppression, racial savagery and even genocide.

As a consequence, it has become an article of faith in the post-Holocaust world that facts and values must be kept distinct. But if our values do not emerge from the facts of our existence, whence do they derive? Unless we wish to believe that values are simply plucked out of the sky, then we must accept that there must be some relationship between the kind of values that we hold, the kind of beings that we are, and the kind of world in which we live. For instance, the very fact that humans, and only humans, are moral creatures, derives from the specific character of human beings. In medieval Europe pigs and cats were put on trial for murder. Today we recognise this as absurd and cruel because non-human animals are not the kinds of creatures to which such moral values could inhere. Humans, on the other hand, are not simply natural but also social and historical beings, in consequence of which they possess both free will and a moral sense and hence are accountable for their actions. It was precisely the failure to understand these facts of human existence that led social Darwinists down such a disastrous path.

Or take the question of equality. Modern Western societies, unlike those of a few centuries ago, believe in equality and democracy, in principle if not in practice. This is not because we are inherently more noble than our forebears. Rather, values have changed partly because social and economic circumstances allow for new freedoms that were unthinkable in the past, and partly because we have new conceptions of human nature, conceptions that make beliefs such as the divine right of kings untenable.

Ought does not equate with is, in the way many social Darwinists argued. But neither is ought entirely separate from is. Ethical norms have to take into account our conceptions both of human nature and the nature of society. And here we come across the second major problem with Gould's argument: his peculiar conception of religion as simply a moral code. According to Gould religions do not embody - or should not embody - a vision of reality. It is a concept of religion stripped of virtually all the things we normally associate with it - belief in the supernatural, worship of a God or gods, an origin myth, the acceptance of an afterlife. But how is it possible to understand Christianity, for instance, without taking into account the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God, that he died for our sins, that he was resurrected after death and ascended to heaven, and that both his death and his resurrection were the consequence of humans being fallen creatures - and without recognising that the prescriptions of Christian morality derives from this description of 'reality'?

It is true, as Gould points out, that science can never disprove the existence of God as such. Science and religion conflict only when such a God manifests Himself physically in the universe. But in virtually no religion is God so bashful as to absent Himself from our physical world. All religions embody certain descriptive 'truths' about the world, truths based not on any empirical reality but on mysticism, superstition and revelation. And precisely because such truths run counter to what we know about empirical reality, they conflict with a scientific view of the world.

Gould is right that for much of the last millennium there was a fruitful relationship between science and religion, particularly Christianity. But religion in the premodern world meant something very different to what it does now. Prior to the scientific revolution, religion was the only way of making sense of reality. People did not think of themselves as 'having' a religion, just as nobody today thinks of themselves as 'having' a physics. In those days, God and all that pertained to Him was simply what is. As science developed, therefore, it had to make use of the tools and methods of religion, even as it struggled to create a new cosmology, whose precepts were contrary to those of revealed truth. The idea of God as a lawmaker, and the universe as the rational product of his designs, played an important part in the development of the idea of a mechanistic universe, whose behaviour could be understood through the laws of nature. The success of science in creating such a vision of the universe, however, transformed the meaning of religion. No longer was there any need to look to religion to understand the cosmos or our place in it. Religion, therefore, transformed from being the only means to understand reality to being an anachronistic dogma, whose descriptions of reality inevitably conflicted with those of science.

The descriptive truths of a religion are not peripheral to it, but the central core that justifies its moral prescriptions. And because these prescriptions derive from an irrational, superstitious, dogmatic description of our existence, so those prescriptions themselves tend to be irrational, superstitious and dogmatic. Hence the deeply reactionary religious strictures on social issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and on scientific concerns such as cloning and embryological research. Such issues reveal the distinction between religious and human-centred ethics. Religious ethics derive from a set of a priori dogmas; humanist ethics from a rational view of reality and from the needs and requirements of human beings. Of course many non-religious moralities are deeply flawed and anti-human. Only by taking religion out of the picture, however, can we even begin to construct a human-based morality.

The conflict, therefore, is not just between science and religion, but also between religious and humanist ethics. Gould himself is not a believer (he calls himself an 'agnostic') and he has long advocated a humanist view of ethics. So why does he equate religion and morality? Partly, I think, through a desire to restrict the claims of science. Gould has always argued, and rightly so, against the idea that all truths are ultimately scientific. History, philosophy, even poetry, can teach us important things about ourselves and our world. The existence of non-scientific truths does not, however, mean that such truths have to be religious.

Gould accepts that 'ethical people [need not] validate their moral standards by overt appeals to religion'. But, he counsels, 'let us not quibble over labels'. This is to miss the essence of the distinction between religious and non-religious ethics. They embody profoundly different attitudes towards what it is to be human, and about how we construct our moral world. By equating religion and morality, Gould undermines the possibility of humanist ethics, of prescriptions based on a rational view of the world. As Bertrand Russell put it in Why I Am Not a Christian, 'It is we who create value... It is for us to determine the good life.' And we can only do so, Russell observed, by adopting a scientific, not a religious, viewpoint: 'Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in.'