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Naturevolume 444pages271272 (2006) | Download Citation

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A molecular biologist explores the gulf between spirituality and his own rationalist viewpoint.

Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life

HarperCollins: 2006. 464 pp. $26.95 0060582677 | ISBN: 0-060-58267-7
Playing God or defiling nature? Biotechnology is opposed by both ends of the US political spectrum. Credit: ZUMA PRESS/NEWSCOM

In his essay The Two Cultures (Cambridge University Press, 1959), C. P. Snow detailed the gulf of incomprehension separating 'literary intellectuals' from scientists. Lee Silver's new book, Challenging Nature, although not mentioning Snow's work, focuses on a similar disconnect: between rationalist/physicalist and spiritual world views. The book's engaging prose informs and, above all, provokes.

Silver is an internationally renowned molecular biologist and self-styled rationalist, and acknowledges his membership of a scientific community “in which life is assumed to be combinations of complex molecules and information flow between them”. His exploration of spirituality took him across five continents, where he learnt, through conversation and first-hand observation, about common people's “beliefs about life and spirits, and their place in the universe”. His descriptions of these beliefs are fascinating, and range from cremation and skull-breaking ceremonies for releasing the deceased's spirit, to disparate beliefs about when developing humans acquire souls or special moral status.

His interest in spirituality springs from his attempt to understand the basis for the anxiety, anger and fear provoked by modern biotechnologies. This resistance comes from opposite poles of the political spectrum — the religious right, especially in the United States, which believes we should not 'play God' by manipulating genomes and embryos, and the environmentalist left, which sanctifies nature. But before analysing this opposition, he discusses the meaning of science, faith, religion and spirituality.

Modern science is based on a cyclic interplay between empirical and theoretical research. Scientific theories require falsifiability, and empirical findings are often probabilistic, never absolute. By contrast, faith is “a belief held about an aspect of oneself or the larger world in the absence of factual evidence to support it... usually absolute rather than probabilistic, and often not falsifiable.”

Religion resists concise definition. Silver discusses a spectrum of faith-based beliefs in a transcendent god, from deism to fundamentalism. He points out that some fundamentalists claim revelation rather than faith as the basis for absolute truth, and cites a 2003 Harris poll showing that 90% of Americans believe in God and 84% in an afterlife. The truth, according to Silver, is that “modern science — as a body of knowledge, as a profession, and as a means for achieving intellectual stature — shows a striking correlation with skepticism or outright rejection of the religious and spiritual beliefs held by the vast majority of nonscientists.” His critique of spirituality suggests that the nearly universal, cross-cultural belief in a transcendent reality is a form of emotionalism, a product of natural selection with an underlying biology that, in overdose, can tip one towards psychosis, schizophrenia or other delusional experiences.

Silver is relentless as he seeks to expose the spiritual (non-rational) bases for both anti-biotechnology and pro-Mother Earth positions. His critique spares no views against the use of embryonic stem cells, cloning, genetic engineering and other biotechnologies, or for ecosystem preservation and homeopathic medicine, unless they are underpinned by science-based arguments. He does not claim that spirituality is all bad, or that all biotechnological applications are good and risk-free, but some well-developed examples would have been welcome to back up this claimed openness. The crucial question is how, or whether, spirituality should contribute to decision-making about our biotechnological future.

Inevitably, writes Silver, “human nature will remake all of Mother Nature in the image of the idealized world that exists within our own minds.” He suggests that human-directed evolutionary processes and designer ecosystems cannot be any worse than “the vagaries of Mother Nature who cares not at all for aesthetics, humankind, or the survival of anything in particular”. In my opinion, this view underestimates the 'wisdom' of natural selection in structuring stable, integrated ecosystems, and manifests the creative loss that Snow laments when two cultures fail to communicate: “The clashing point” of two cultures “ought to produce creative chances... But they are... in a vacuum because those in the two cultures can't talk to each other.”

Challenging Nature lays out the incredible richness in two ways of knowing, but I sense no lament over the ocean of incomprehension separating them. Can the gulf be bridged? One example of creativity at the interface of rationalism and spirituality in the biological realm is conservation biologist Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949). Leopold gives three reasons for preserving native wilderness areas: science, wildlife and recreation. On the value of preserving wilderness for the few who practise the primitive arts of canoeing and packing, Leopold wrote: “Either you know it in your bones, or you are very, very old.” And on recognizing the cultural value of wilderness, he wrote that it is “a question of intellectual humility”. I believe Silver would view these as spirituality-based statements, yet we could do worse than accept Leopold's wisdom and the creatively combined rationalism and spiritualism informing it.

Most left-brained people will love this book. It may annoy right-brained people, but their response to it will enhance the creative, democratic dialogue so badly needed on the issues addressed.

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  1. James T. BradleyHe: currently writing a book for non-scientists called Twenty-First Century Biotechnologies and Human Values

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  1. Department of Biological Sciences, Auburn University, Auburn, 36849, Alabama, USA

    • James T. Bradley

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https://doi.org/10.1038/444271a

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