Darwin’s Birthday, Cloning, and Unusual Beliefs
Rev. Paul Beckel
Today we mourn the loss of 7 bold scientific explorers. We also celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, who gave modern science not just a biological theory, but a whole new way of looking at our changing world.
This coming week also marks 199 years
since the death Joseph Priestly, Unitarian preacher and scientist who
discovered oxygen. Chased by an angry mob from his laboratory in
Yesterday was Zen Mindfulness day. If you weren’t too distracted by the news you might have had a chance to remember that you, and all that is, is in the process of transformation.
Today begins the
month of the Hajj – time for the pilgrimage to
And of course it is Groundhog day, a not particularly scientific ritual which helps us come to grips with the continuance of winter.
CHILDREN’S FOCUS “Maybe/Maybe Not” Traditional Taoist Tale
A farmer had worked her crops for many years. All she had to help her were one horse and one son; but she felt grateful for what she had. One day her horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, her neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe, maybe not," the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe, maybe not," replied the farmer. The following day, her son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe, maybe not," answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe," she said, “maybe not.”
READING from Tao Te Ching (chapter 5)
The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.
The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
The more you talk of it, the less you understand.
Hold on to the center.
The race to study and to dominate space was a race between nations at cold war. I mentioned a few weeks ago that the fear of godless communism in the 1950s and 60s led to the inclusion of the words, “under god,” in the pledge of allegiance.
Ironically, the launch of the first
soviet Sputnik satellite also prompted the Eisenhower administration to create
NASA, and brought on a new national urgency to teach science. Not too much
later (1968) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an
William McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Rick Husband, Ilan Ramon, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark.
An international team. All proud to have earned a spot on the voyage
of the space shuttle
“Ms. Frizzle” is a cartoon science teacher who takes her kids on wild adventures on “The Magic School Bus.” She reminds us about the essence of science education on every episode: “It’s time to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.” The astronauts who died yesterday were too old to have known Ms. Frizzle, except perhaps through their kids, and too young to have been influenced directly by Eisenhower. Their pursuit of the adventure of science was, like that of every generation, a desire which arose from within -- from the experience of awe at being alive... and being part of this magnificent earth and the unfathomable cosmos.
Charles Darwin was born in
1. Within any species, individuals have slight variations in their traits
2. Variations are inherited, and
3. Those variations which favor propagation accumulate over generations.
The controversy continues. Although Pope John Paul II accepts the theory
of evolution, many continue to perceive it as a threat to their view of
God. As of 2000, 12 states exclude the
word “evolution,” from their science education standards. Four other states avoid the topic altogether.
“Creationism” has been trounced by science and the courts, only to pop back up as “Creation Science.” This too has been laid to rest, but is recently resurrected as the theory of “Intelligent Design.” But each new species of creationism fails the basic test of viability – it is not science, because it cannot be disproved.
If ancient scripture can be scrutinized by scientific standards and risk disproof, then I would allow it in the classroom. But not if it is going to stand as unassailable truth.
A group of religious scholars known as the Jesus Seminar – many of them committed Christians – has analyzed the acts and sayings of Jesus. Using commonly agreed upon standards of literary and historical criticism, they have considered the likelihood of whether Jesus actually said and did various things attributed to him. One of their books is dedicated to Galileo, who was persecuted, of course, for his uncompromising pursuit of knowledge.
In the 17th century, Galileo was forced to recant his views about the earth rotating around the sun. But the Church wasn’t entirely responsible for his persecution. Philosophers in the University were also upset – because Galileo was contradicting Aristotle’s notions of pure logic by observing and measuring things.
In the same way,
Stephen Jay Gould writes, “a man does not attain the status of Galileo merely because he is persecuted; he must also be right.” We sing praises to the unorthodox hero, but “for each successful heretic, there are a hundred forgotten who challenged the prevailing notions and lost.”
The Raelians were until recently an obscure religious group. They now claim to have created the first human clone. They also claim to have special knowledge about life on earth (which originated from other planets). Since they have offered little evidence to support either claim, are they guilty of bad science or bad religion?
Science has some generally accepted procedures which enable people to communicate and cooperate even if they speak different languages, support different political systems, or live centuries apart. Those who don’t follow these procedures are doing bad science.
But religion doesn’t have such standards. So we have a hard time saying what is “bad religion.” As Unitarian Universalists, claiming to honor diverse theological outlooks, do we need to welcome the Raelians? Do we need to welcome the superstitious, the goofy, the violent, the suicidal? How far do we go? The Raelians' hypothesis that life came from another planet is not inherently unscientific. But that’s beside the point. We honor many others – monotheists and polytheists and others whose views are unscientific.
Good grief, our first principle, “affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is unscientific ... as is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.”
(While it might be feasible to make scientific arguments for dignity and respect, it would be risky. For example, one could argue that sexual orientation is genetically based and therefore ought to be respected. If the science is eventually overturned, however, what happens to the respect?)
UUs often get lumped in with wacky
religious beliefs. Sometimes I’m proud
to be included with the other “cults” (Catholic, Bahai, Zen) other times I’m
So, what are our boundaries? Is there anyone we would count outside? No. We honor diversity, even when it extends to the fringes. We honor each persons’ effort to ascertain truth for themselves. Each person also has the right to express themselves here – to the extent that they are not shutting off anyone else. We learn through exposure to all ideas – good and bad and indeterminable.
However, though we don’t have boundaries around belief, we do have boundaries around behavior. Behaviors and expressions which threaten, harass, intimidate, or prevent others from participation in the life of the church or society at large are out of bounds.
A teacher arguing against the use of calculators in schools says: “Why do we teach math in the first place? It trains the mind. If we don’t require students to do the simple problems that calculators can do, how can we expect them to solve the more complex problems that calculators cannot do?”
Not many of us need to figure the circumference of a circle or factor a quadratic equation for any practical reason. But that’s not the sole purpose of teaching math. We teach it for thinking and discipline... to expand the mind and increase students’ ability to function in and contribute to society.
The same is true for religion – that’s why we teach Unitarian Universalism and why we teach about other religions. Not just to give the facts, but to teach children and adults to grapple with religious concepts. We don’t just say, “Aren’t there a lot of weird beliefs out there?” Instead, we try to understand “why” – by understanding and experiencing some basic aspects common to religions – the longing to know, the longing to be connected, the longing to respond to our personal experience with the sacred.
And we teach and learn science for the same reasons: not to promote a particular belief about the origins of life, but to promote the process of scientific discovery. Not to convince anyone that the universe was created with a big bang, but to understand that such hypotheses arrive out of reasoning from limited evidence, and that this learning process can give our lives meaning.
Cloning. There have been many “advances” in technology since Galileo gazed at heavenly bodies with his simple telescope. Are we lucky to have these advances? Maybe, maybe not. Atomic energy, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, television, antibiotics, reproductive technologies, air conditioning, automobiles.
Science and technology have helped us to extend our reach into habitats previously unassailable by humans. They have extended our lives.
Natural selection, it should be noted, is based upon what is most advantageous for individual organisms, not for the species as a whole. As an individual, I’m not ready to give up most of the technologies noted above.
I have serious doubts that we can afford as a society to advance medical technologies indefinitely. But I’m not prepared to refuse those technologies which, though once heroic or unpredictable, have become ordinary. Nor am I ready to deprive my kids of them.
President Bush this week promised $15
billion to fight AIDS around the world. It is a wonderful commitment. I think.
Over the past decade the life expectancy in
As in so many situations, here scientific
advances do not resolve, but only raise more ethical and political questions:
Should Africans with HIV get the same treatments that are available in the
West? In the face of this crisis, can
individual Africans be used for vaccination trials – without following western
ethical standards – for the benefit of
their nation and for the rest of the world? What have we learned from the
Billions of dollars in research have not cured cancer. But science does not move in a linear progression. What is learned in one area often helps us in other areas. The same is true of space exploration. But do all of these technological advances improve the quality of human life? Maybe.
Is cloning for the best? Is it necessary? Maybe not. But, “Is it a good idea?” is a different question from “Should it be legal?” and “What sorts of restrictions should be in place?” I believe that we have to face our potential. Someone somewhere is going to begin human cloning, both therapeutic and reproductive. I believe that we would be better off if we could come up with a flexible, adaptable legal response. Blanket condemnations won’t help.
We need an ongoing, intelligent global conversation about cloning. But first we need to learn about science and ethics. Just as in the cold war, today’s science education is insufficient to meet this challenge. Moreover, ethical education is insufficient to meet this challenge. And ethical education is not insufficient because preachers and presidents don’t talk about it enough, rather, ethical education is insufficient to meet the questions of tomorrow’s emerging technologies because the majority of ethical education is dogmatic and not adaptive.
Cloning raises for me worries about social Darwinism. Darwin’s theories were twisted into this arrogant idea that we could identify the best in humans and perfect the race by eliminating undesirable traits thru immigration control, ethnic cleansing, or selective sterilization of the “unfit.”
I believe that it would be short-sighted to clone for future fitness, because we cannot predict future fitness. Rather, we need to preserve genetic diversity. We need to preserve the vast “excess” of variability with which the human genome is currently blessed.
The living tradition of Unitarian Universalism draws from many sources, including “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
What are idolatries of the spirit? Believing that we have a handle on God. Believing that our understanding of God is sufficient. Believing that God can do it all.
What are idolatries of the mind? As we saw with Galileo, reason itself can become an idol. And likewise science, without ethics.
Science warns against idolatry by teaching us that our learning process has to be endlessly self-critical, there has to be a correspondence between evidence and theory, and we have to be willing to give up a prevailing theory when a better one comes along.
What makes humans unique? Compared to any other creature, a longer portion of our lives is devoted to learning and growth. Thus we have a tendency to spend more time with other human beings, beginning with our parents. We have a tendency to create society because we need stable relationships.
To preserve these relationships, we have to give something of ourselves. This raises an interesting comparison between self-interest and altruism. Altruistic behavior has been shown in many animals to have a genetic basis. In humans it’s hard to know if it is genetic or cultural.
So humans struggle between the two: taking care of ourselves and taking care of others. We are pulled in both directions. The shuttle astronauts spent countless hours studying and hoarding knowledge for themselves. Then later, they took an enormous risk in order to benefit science and other humans.
Every day, every moment we must choose between self-interest and altruism, based upon the circumstances. So we need to cultivate a wide range of social skills. Both skills to know HOW and also the discernment to know WHEN... under which circumstances it is best to be self-interested or altruistic.
We can cultivate the next flexible, adaptive generation through science education, cultural education, and ethical education. We can give our kids, and ourselves, time alone: to understand ourselves and our needs. We can make time to be with other people, to learn how to interact, and understand the needs of others.
We are limited by biology and circumstance, but we are not predetermined. Humans have evolved far more brain capacity than we need for the basic functions of bodily coordination. This makes it possible for us to learn. It also makes it possible for us to choose. We are not be rigidly programmed by our biology. Thus we can develop culture – the ability to adapt to a changing environment much faster than our genes ever could. This not only gives us more choices... it makes our choices matter.
Human evolution has been influenced by both chance and necessity. So today we find ourselves with choices. We have a broad range of possibilities within us: peacefulness and aggression... fear-of-strangers and tolerance... spitefulness and generosity... We need to train ourselves and future generations to figure out when different characteristics are most useful. We can do so by building culture and community ... not a perfect culture or community but one which is adaptive to whatever circumstances we may find ahead.
When technology is successful, is it akin to “playing God?” Why is it any more God-like to clone a person than to breed dogs, or to cause a human mother to give birth to 7 children? Why is it any more “playing God” to clone than to freeze your head for eternity? Why is it any more “playing God” to clone a child than to save one from malnutrition, or save a beached seabird soiled by an oil spill, or to pass laws which might prevent future oil spills?
Is it playing God to bring a child into your family through a laboratory or lovemaking or adoption? If so, then let’s play God. We have been doing so throughout history. We are among the many forces which create and uphold life. It’s time to admit this, acknowledged the risks, and take that awesome responsibility seriously.
Ms. Frizzle always tells her students, “It’s your job as scientists to look for connections.”
I would add that it’s your job as religious seekers to look for connections. Connections between religion and science, between ethics and technology, between people of every kind, regardless of how they came into being, between you and me and your neighbors and Galapagos tortoises and Chinese bamboo and stardust....
Look for connections: between our theories about life and the practice of living it.
Vaccine,” Michael Specter, in The New Yorker (
Ø “Characteristics of the Scientific Method,” Bertrand Russell (1931)
Ø The Marathon County Public Library has a companion volume to the website above, as well as a PBS video, “In the Beginning: The Creationist Controversy,” and dozens of books on evolution. I find those by Stephen Jay Gould both readable and insightful.