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Archive for the 'Science' Category

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds — Donald Prothero on the Oldest Human Skeleton

“For only the past 30,000 years has there been a single species of homi­nin dominating the planet. Now Homo sapiens threatens to wipe out nearly every other species, as well as itself, making them just as extinct as the fossils described in this book.”—Donald R. Prothero

Donald R. Prothero concludes The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution by examining the discovery “Lucy,” the oldest human skeleton. In the following excerpt, Prothero examines Lucy’s legacy and the efforts of paleontologists and anthropolgists to discover more fossils of human ancestors:

Lucy’s Legacy

The rush to find hominins from the “Dark Continent” soon spread across East Africa, especially in regions with long sedimentary records in fault ba­sins along the Great Rift Valley. Louis Leakey’s son Richard, who was ini­tially uninterested in anthropology, eventually adopted his father’s mantle. Seeking to escape his father’s shadow, he began to excavate in Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana) in northern Kenya in the 1970s. There, many more skulls were found, including the best-preserved specimen of Homo habilis, the oldest species in our genus, Homo. Richard moved on to prominent po­sitions in the Kenyan government (especially fighting the poaching of rhi­nos and elephants). His wife, Meave, working with local people, carried on the Leakey legacy. His mother, Mary, continued to make significant finds, especially the spectacular trackway of hominins at Laetoli in Tanzania.

Kenya and Tanzania were in the news almost every year with the spec­tacular finds of the Leakeys. In the late 1960s, Louis Leakey had lunch with President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The emperor asked Leakey why there had been no discoveries in Ethio­pia. Louis quickly persuaded him that fossils would be found if he gave the order to let scientists explore for them. Soon anthropologist F. Clark How­ell of Berkeley was working on the northern shore of Lake Turkana, where the Omo River flows out of Ethiopia. Howell and his colleague Glynn Isaac spent many years collecting in the Omo beds, which have abundant volca­nic ash dates. Unfortunately, these deposits were formed in flash floods that produced gravelly and sandy streams, which tend to break up and abrade fossils, so no well-preserved hominin specimens were found.

Meanwhile, other rising young anthropologists were eager to make their own discoveries in a region that had been almost exclusively the territory of the Leakeys and their allies. Two of them were Donald Johanson and Tim White. Both were seeking to make their professional fortunes by explor­ing sites not under the control of the Leakeys. Through French geologists Maurice Taieb and Yves Coppens and anthropologist Jon Kalb, they learned about beds in the Afar Triangle, the rift valley that is opening between the tectonic plates where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea. These beds al­ready had yielded numerous fossils of mammals, suggesting that they were at least 3 million years old, which made them potentially older than any hominin fossil found so far in Kenya or Tanzania. Johanson, White, Taieb, and Coppens received permission to work in these beds and began to exca­vate at Hadar in 1973.

After months of exploring and prospecting for fossils, and finding a few hominin fragments, on November 24, 1974, Johanson took a break from writing field notes to help his student Tom Gray search an outcrop. He spotted the glint of bone out of the corner of his eye, dug out the fossil, and immediately recognized that it was a hominin bone. They continued to un­earth more and more bones, until they found almost 40 percent of a skele­ton of a hominin. It was the first skeleton, rather than isolated bones, found of any hominin older than the Neanderthals of the late Pleis­tocene. That night as they celebrated over the campfire, they were playing a tape of the Beatles when “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” came on. Sing­ing lustily along, a member of the crew named Pamela Alderman suggested that the fossil be nicknamed “Lucy.” Later, it was formally named Australo­pithecus afarensis, in reference to the Afar Triangle, where it was found.

A year after the discovery of “Lucy,” the crew returned to Hadar, where they found a large assemblage of A. afarensis bones. Nicknamed the “First Family,” it was the first large sample of fossils of both juvenile and adult hominins from beds dating to 3 million years ago, and it gave anthropolo­gists a look at how much variability was typical in a single population. This can be important when deciding whether a newly discovered fossil that is slightly different from specimens found earlier should be considered a new species or genus or just a member of a variable population.

When the analysis of “Lucy” was conducted, Johanson and White de­termined that the skeleton was that of an adult female that had stood about 1.1 meters (3.5 feet) tall. The most important evidence was the knee joint and the hip bones, which show the critical features that prove that A. afarensis walked upright with its legs completely beneath its body, as do modern humans. It had a relatively small brain (380 to 430 cc) and small canines, like those of advanced hominins, yet still had a pronounced snout, rather than a flat face. This was yet another blow to the “big brains first” theory of human evolution, which was still in vogue in the mid-1970s. Its shoulder blade, arms, and hands are quite ape-like, however, so A. afarensis still climbed trees, even if it was fully bipedal. Yet the foot shows no signs of a grasping big toe, so its legs and feet were adapted entirely for walking on the ground and its toes could not grasp branches.

(more…)

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Mega-Jaws — Donald Prothero on the Rise and Fall of the Giant Shark

Carcharocles megalodon

As the title The Story of Life in 25 Fossils suggests, each chapter of Donald R. Prothero’s book focuses on how fossils reveal something about the history of our planet. Surely, one of the most fascinating moments in this history is when Carcharocles megalodon or “Mega-Jaws” ruled the seas. In the following excerpt from the book, Prothero explains what the fossil record reveals about the fate of these giant sharks:

Monster of the Seas

The sheer size of Carcharocles megalodon raises a question: Why did it grow so big? The most common answer seems to be that sharks were respond­ing to the great abundance of large prey in the Miocene, especially the huge radiation of many types of whales and dolphins that developed in the early and middle Miocene. C. megalodon was bigger than all but the largest whales known from the same beds, so it was a true “super-predator,” capa­ble of killing and eating almost anything that swam in the Miocene oceans.

There is abundant fossil evidence of this behavior. Deep gouges and scratches that could have been produced by only the huge teeth of C. meg­alodon have been found on many fossil whale bones, suggesting that the sharks scratched the bones as they tore flesh from the carcasses. The list of whales with traces of C. megalodon attacks is very long, including dol­phins and other small whales, cetotheres, squalodontids, sperm whales, bowhead whales, and rorquals like the fin whale and blue whale, plus seals, sea lions, manatees, and sea turtles (which were three times the size of the largest extant sea turtles). A C. megalodon tooth was found associated with the bitten ear bone of a sea lion. There were also several finds of C. mega­lodon teeth embedded in whale backbones, and numerous cases partially scavenged whale carcasses (especially at Sharktooth Hill) have been found surrounded by shed C. megalodon teeth.

Of course, this does not exhaust the list. Most sharks (especially great whites) are indiscriminate, opportunistic feeders and attack anything that moves that they can catch. This is why so many modern sharks have ocean trash (including road signs, boots, and anchors) in their stomachs when they are cut open. So C. megalodon certainly would have eaten smaller fish and most other sharks when it could catch them. But its large size is primar­ily an adaptation to attacking large prey like whales, which no other marine predator could threaten until C. megalodon came along.

The bite marks on one particular whale specimen about 9 meters (30 feet) long suggests how C. megalodon preferred to attack. The marks seem to focus on the tough bony areas (shoulders, flippers, rib cage, upper spine) rather than on the soft underbelly, which modern great whites target. This suggests that C. megalodon tried to crush or puncture the heart or lungs of the whale, which would have killed it quickly. This, in turn, explains why the teeth of C. megalodon are so thick and robust: they were adapted for bit­ing through bone. Another common strategy focused on the flippers, since fossils of the hand bones have the highest frequency of bite marks of all. A big bite to crush, cripple, or rip off one flipper would have been sufficient to disable the prey and allow the shark to finish it off with several more bites.

(more…)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Is “Brontosaurus” Back? Not So Fast! — Donald Prothero

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

“So before everyone begins the big party for ‘Brontosaurus’ and celebrates this huge diversity of sauropod names, let’s hold our horses.”—Donald R. Prothero

The following post is by Donald Prothero, author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution:

Earlier this year, there has been a big buzz with the media reaction to a study by Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus, and Roger B.J. Benson analyzing the diplodocine sauropod dinosaurs and figuring out their classification and relationships. As I discuss in The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, since 1903 most paleontologists have regarded “Brontosaurus” as just another junior name for the dinosaur properly known as Apatosaurus.

The Tschopp et al. study itself is a landmark in careful anatomical work, analyzing the problem specimen by specimen (a total of 81 specimens used) rather than generalizing based on previous clusterings of specimens, and looking at far more anatomical evidence than any previous study. Naturally, the press missed the significance of the study completely, and focused on just one minor point: the idea that “Brontosaurus” is again a valid name. ALL the publicity, and all the reactions of the non-paleontological reporters and readers was focused on this rather trivial issue, which is not important to real paleontologists in any way (except that we always get asked about it by the general public). Most of the reaction by sauropod paleontologists who were interviewed were generally favorable, but others were more cautious. Almost all agreed that is the most thorough work on the subject written to date, and it will be the foundation on which all future analyses will be built. Similar reactions could be found on the SVPOW (“Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week”) website, which is the main forum for discussion by specialists and amateurs about sauropods.

(more…)

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Interview with Donald R. Prothero, Author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, by Donald R. Prothero

The following interview is with Donald R. Prothero, author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution:

Question: How do you summarize the history of life in just 25 fossils?

Donald R. Prothero: That was an incredibly difficult decision, since there are millions of species and thousands of different known fossil species. I tried to focus on fossils that represented important landmarks in the history of life, important transitional fossils that demonstrated the macroevolution of one group from another, and some of the most extreme examples of life illustrated by the fossil record: the largest marine reptiles and dinosaurs, the largest sharks, the largest land mammals, and so on.

Q: What does the fossil record tell us about evolution?

DRP: In the book, I describe many examples of “transitional fossils” (incorrectly called “missing links”) that demonstrate the evolution of one major group from another. This is sometimes called macroevolution, and its existence is denied by 40% of Americans who don’t accept the reality of evolution. We now have snakes with legs (including a four-legged snake fossil that was just published last month, too late for our book), turtles with half a shell (including a new transitional reptile more primitive than the turtles in our book, also published too recently for our book), a creature that is the link between frogs and salamanders, many fossils that show how fish crawled out on land to become amphibians, and many feathered dinosaurs that showed how birds originated from creatures like Velociraptor. These examples could go on and on, so the new book just discusses a few of them. Many more examples are given in my book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press, 2007).

Q: What does the fossil record tell us about the origin of animals?

DRP: In Darwin’s time, there were no fossils that showed how the oldest known fossils, such as trilobites, evolved from more primitive creatures. But in several chapters of this book, I talk about the first known fossils (primitive bacteria forming mats and domes called stromatolites, over 3.5 billion years old), the first multicellular animals from 600 million years ago, the first tiny, shelled fossils from 550 million years ago, and the earliest trilobites from 525 million years ago. Contrary to people who argue that the “Cambrian explosion” was an instantaneous event that required divine intervention, we now know it was a “Cambrian long fuse,” with all the stages from single cells to soft-bodied multicellular life to tiny shells to the first large shelled animals, all stretched out over tens of millions of years.

(more…)

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, by Donald R. Prothero

This week our featured book is The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution by Donald R. Prothero.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, August 28th at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Niles Eldredge says about The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: “Prothero, an outstanding paleontologist and skilled communicator, has written the best up-to-date account of the history of life as revealed by the fossil record that I have ever had the pleasure to read. His lucid prose brings these long-dead organisms back to life, while painting a picture of how all life has been interconnected through evolution. ”

For more on the book you can read the chapter, “Planet of the Scum”:

Monday, August 24th, 2015

The Economic Risks of Climate Change

In the following segment from The Leonard Lopate Show, Michael Oppenheimer and Geoffrey Heal, two contributors to Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus, discuss their econometric research on human responses to climate, and explain private sector risk-assessment tools:

Economic Risks of Climate Change

Friday, August 21st, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: The Great Gift of “Laudato Si’”

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“Pope Francis offers a brilliant explication of the importance of a new form of research, one that I like to call the emergent field of sustainable development, to integrate the areas of specialized knowledge into a comprehensive and interconnected form of understanding.” — Jeffrey D. Sachs

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, the final of the week’s feature, we are happy to present an article on the encyclical by Jeffrey D. Sachs that originally appeared in America Magazine.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

The Great Gift of ‘Laudato Si’’
By Jeffrey D. Sachs

Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” is a great and timely gift to humanity. To avoid a catastrophic collision of the world economy and environment, humanity urgently needs to change the trajectory and functioning of the world economy. Yet the world economic system is a juggernaut nearly impervious to coordinated changes at the global scale. “Laudato Si’” opens the path to a veritable revolution of ideas to bring about the needed changes.

As Pope Francis eloquently and accurately describes, the economic juggernaut is destroying biodiversity, dangerously altering the climate and undermining the life-support systems of the planet for humanity and millions of other species. On all of this, Pope Francis offers a compelling summary of the scientific evidence, presented with clarity and precision. His concision and precision on these matters exemplifies the church’s profound commitment to the marriage of faith and reason, with its abiding commitment to science.

Yet, as Pope Francis describes, the economy keeps barreling along, seemingly oblivious to these hazards and to the deadly costs they are imposing on the world’s poor and vulnerable people. In the very powerful phrase of his earlier exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” the world suffers from a “globalization of indifference” that makes it nearly impossible for humanity to reorient toward sustainable development over the current destructive trajectory. (more…)

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.” — James Lawrence Powell

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, James Lawrence Powell takes a close look at the actual science cited by Pope Francis in the encyclical and asks, simply, did the Pope get it right?

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?
By James Lawrence Powell

When most people read “Catholic Church” and “Science” in the same sentence, they are apt to think of the inquisition of Galileo, who narrowly escaped burning at the stake for espousing the Copernican view of a Sun-centered solar system. But that is old news. In 1992, Pope John Paul II stated his regret for Galileo’s treatment and in 2008, the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescopic observations, Pope Benedict XVI praised his pioneering astronomy. The Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno won the 2014 American Astronomical Society’s Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science for his many books.

The Catholic Church has also been forthright in its defense of evolution, Pope John Paul II telling the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that “…new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Catholic schools in the U.S. and elsewhere teach evolution both as a fact and as the result of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the updated version of Darwin’s theory.

Though Young-Earth creationists maintain that our planet is only a few thousand years old, the Church has long accepted the antiquity of the Earth and the authenticity of the fossil record as validating the history of life. In 2004, before Cardinal Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI, he endorsed a statement by the International Theological Commission that,

The universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life.

Thus Pope Francis’s recent encyclical — Laudato Si, or “Praised Be”— is but the latest in a series of statements from the Catholic Church that offer increasingly strong support for science. Pope Francis’s eloquent encyclical not only does that, but it also casts the protection of the environment and the prevention of global warming as predominantly moral issues. He introduces the encyclical as an “Urgent appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” Francis asks for “a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

The question I am addressing is whether the Pope gets the science of global warming right. We should not be surprised if he does, for he was trained as a scientist: before becoming a priest, young Jorge Mario Bergoglio trained and worked as a chemical technician. Just as no one can discredit Francis’s moral standing, neither can anyone discredit his understanding of science.

As would any climate scientist today, Francis regards human responsibility for global warming as an indisputable fact. He does not present a list of arguments designed to persuade his readers that anthropogenic global warming is true, but simply says that it is true:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.

Exactly right. First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.

Further evincing his understanding, the Pope writes:

It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space.

Again, exactly right. Several factors affect global temperature but only one can explain the rise in temperature since the 1970s: the increase in greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion. A climate scientist might argue that the last sentence of the quotation is an oversimplification in that it does not explain the mechanism by which greenhouse gases increase temperature. But the sentence as it stands is correct and sufficient for a general audience.

The Pope also demonstrates his understanding of the consequences of unchecked global warming:

The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.

As result [of human activities] some species face extinction.

The effects of climate change will be felt for a long time to come, even if stringent measures are taken now.

As remarkable as Francis’s understanding of science is his powerful and eloquent language:

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.

The environment is… on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.

Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.

The Pope ends the encyclical with the moral argument in the form or a prayer, entreating God to,

Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.

The sentence that I will remember most is this one: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Like climate scientists, the Pope regards global warming as threatening the future of humanity.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“[T]he Pope is arguing that in light of this context we all need to practice “failure”: or that which disrupts the “business as usual” notion of progress as solely economic and technological. I’m not suggesting this Pope is queer-friendly (or even feminist-friendly), but I am suggesting that the deeply Catholic understandings of the “common good” and “social teachings” are, in the face of the productionist paradigm, queer.” — Whitney Bauman

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, Whitney Bauman does a close reading of the Encyclical and comes to some surprising conclusions about the Pope’s message.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing
By Whitney A. Bauman

There is much to be commended in the Pope’s recent Encyclical on “the environment.” He clearly did his doctrinal, historical and philosophical homework on issues of human-earth relations. There is much one would expect to find in the document: such as the use of St. Francis in the title, couching of creation-care in terms of “the common good” and the prominence of catholic social teaching. There are also some surprises—such as his knowledge of the history of the environmental movement and his use of Integral Ecology which understands nature and culture as already and always together. At times it reads like a traditional Papal document while at others it reads more like something that Bruno Latour or leaders of the New Materialism might have written. In this brief piece, I want to focus on two points that I find most poignant in the Encyclical: the critique of modern technological society and the call for a more robust dialogue between religion and science. Both of these points participate in what Judith/Jack Halberstam calls “The Queer Art of Failure” or what Catherine Keller might call “the Art of Unknowing.”

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam writes: “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure). The creativity of abject identities, of those who have failed to live up to the norms of hetero-normative, anthropocentric capitalism, is indeed the source of creativity for seeking a different planetary future. In other words, failing is precisely what we need in this day and age if we are to find our way forward through the problems brought about by globalization and climate weirding. Pope Francis identifies this problem as well in his critique of modernity found in the Encyclical. He writes (and here I quote at length):

§107. It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.

(more…)

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: A Significant Invitation for Discussion

Reactions to Laudato Si'

Laudato si reaches out to scientists to participate in a shared global problem, the damage that humans have done to their planet and by doing so the harm they have wrought upon one another. Pope Francis directly invites for a new dialogue concerning how we are shaping the planet. Regardless of their religious persuasions, scientists should bring what they have learned from science to the discussion.” — H. H. Shugart

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, we are kicking things off with an essay by H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of Shugart’s book!

The Encyclical Laudato Si’: A Significant Invitation for Discussion
By H. H. Shugart

Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home was released to the public on the May 24th of this year. It is a clearly stated, easily accessed and well-reasoned treatise on the moral position of the Church on the consequences of changes in the global environment. When the pontiff of the one and one-quarter billion member Catholic Church makes any statement, it by definition becomes news. Nevertheless, this encyclical represents something much more than a hamper of news items whirling on the media spin-cycle. The pope structures his encyclical around what the collective “we” are doing to our common home, the planet and its inhabitants. Pollution, climate change, water scarcity, the loss of biodiversity, the decline in well-being of people and of their society ― all are problems needing religious and scientific thinkers to pull in single harness toward solutions. Pope Francis deconstructs the Judaeo-Christian concept of humans as the stewards of the Earth to find a moral obligation to maintain planetary sustainability embedded in biblical scripture as well as in the encyclicals of earlier popes. While he segues around the issue of human population growth, Pope Francis identifies conspicuous (over)consumption, the throw-away economy and human greed as immoral transgressions, often perpetuated by the rich and powerful and whose consequences fall upon the poor and defenseless.

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore (in the original Umbrian Italian “Altissimu, onnipotente bon Signore” and meaning “Praise to you, my Lord”) is the opening of the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon composed in late 1224 by St. Francis of Assisi. Tradition relates that the saint sang it from his death bed. It is a song praising creation, notably, “… our sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.” The pope took his papal name from this same St. Francis, and the Saint’s teachings are woven through the Laudato si narrative. The pope is writing on a topic of obvious personal importance framed in the regnal name that he chose at the beginning of his papacy.

Because it presents multiple facets for consideration, Laudato si’ has inspired many commentaries and it will undoubtedly inspire many more. He is the first Pope Francis, the first non-European pope since 741, the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first from the Western Hemisphere. Laudato si’ identifies greed, particularly when it is at the expense of others, as a sin; it references the ninth-century Sufi mystic, Ali al-Khawas, on the spiritual connection between humans and the natural world; it quotes Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, that “… to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”; it provokes with, “ The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (more…)

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Feature and Book Giveaway

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.” — Pope Francis, in his Encyclical Laudato Si’

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. Each day this week, we will post one essay from these scholars on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering FREE signed copies of H. H. Shugart’s Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, August 21st at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Sheldon Krimsky on What’s at Stake in Our Use of Stem Cells

Stem Cell Dialogues

“Regenerative medicine is … where science and technology can surpass the limits of natural human evolution … in the process, it is breaking new ground in dealing with the moral issues raised by medical science and technology.”—Sheldon Krimsky

We conclude our week-long feature on Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers, by Sheldon Krimsky, with an excerpt from the epilogue. In the epilogue Krimsky discusses what’s at stake in our future discussions about and application of stem cell research:

While I was researching the ethical and scientific debates on stem cells for Stem Cell Dialogues, I was acutely aware of the polarized positions. However, I became more interested in the middle ground of controversy, where honest, nuanced discussion and disagreement take place. The Dia­logues were created to illustrate how evolving science can reframe the debate and create a realignment of positions.

The stem cell controversies represented in this book exhibit some uniquely American ideas about the role of the state, the right to engage in research, and the cultural divide between science supported by public funds and science supported by private funds. It was certainly not the first time that the public and private sectors were allowed to resolve ethi­cal issues on their own terms. During the recombinant DNA controversy in 1975, the NIH established guidelines for transplanting genes from one organism to another that applied exclusively to federal grant recipients. Scientists in the private sector were ostensibly unregulated. The issues at stake were the potential risks of broadening the range of an infectious agent or introducing animal cancer genes into the human gut bacteria. Congress did not see fit to create a single system of regulation or oversight.

A similar situation occurred with human gene therapy, for which a federal oversight committee reviewed research protocols funded by the NIH. The private sector was under no legal obligation to follow the same procedures. This bifurcated model was repeated with respect to stem cells. George Bush’s stem cell policy applied exclusively to federal grant­ees. Others funded by states or the private sector could use any available embryonic stem cell lines.

I have tried to capture in the Dialogues the excitement and optimism within the scientific community about the role stem cells would someday play in treating human disease. Whether it was through embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, or nuclear transfer, the enthusiasm among cell biologists was palpable. For example, in 2009 Amabile and Meissner wrote, “Recent developments provide optimism that safe, viral free human iPS cells could be derived routinely in the near future. . . . The approach of generating patient-specific pluripotent cells will undoubtedly transform regenerative medicine in many ways.” Their only caveat is that it may take years before all the obstacles to applying stem cells safely and effectively for therapeutic uses are addressed. One of the leading stem cell scientists, Shinya Yamanaka, wrote in 2012, “I believe that iPSC technol­ogy is now ready for many applications including stem cell therapies.”

Scientists know the stakes are high. Consider just one area—end-stage liver disease, which can be caused by cancer (heptacellular carcinoma) or cirrhosis (most commonly caused by alcoholism, hepatitis B, and hepati­tis C). Other than liver transplants, most treatments are not very effective. There are about 18,000 patients in the United States on the waiting list for a liver transplant and only about 4,000 donated cadaver livers avail­able for transplant per year. If part of the damaged liver is removed and replaced by stem cell-derived liver cells (hepatocytes), the liver can be regenerated and victims of end-stage liver disease will have a chance to survive without transplants.

(more…)

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

The President’s Stem Cells — A Dialogue from the “Stem Cell Dialogues”

Stem Cell Dialogues

“You put your finger on one of the peculiarities of the bifurcated sys­tem of ethics in our country—one set of principles for public funding and another for private funding. Embryo ethics straddles two moral universes, and scientists have had to navigate through that thorny divide. They must establish a firewall between publicly funded and privately funded laboratories.”

In the following dialogue from Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers, the book’s central character Dr. Franklin talks with Bernard Stein about different president’s policies regarding stem cells:

Scene: The White House. Bernard Stein, M.D., is an ethics advisor to Presi­dent George W. Bush, head of a national bioethics think tank, and a lead­ing scholar on reproductive ethics. Dr. Franklin obtained an appointment with Dr. Stein to discuss President Bush’s policies on human embryonic stem cells.

FRANKLIN: [To Dr. Stein] Thank you for inviting me to your office. As you know from our correspondence, I am an editor of the Journal of Bioethics and Medicine, and we are preparing a special issue on stem cells. Dr. Stein, can we begin by you helping me understand how U.S. policy on stem cells evolved? Did it arise in the Bush administration?

STEIN: The federal policy on human embryos was catalyzed largely after two events: first, the Supreme Court decision on abortion in 1973 and the first baby (Louise Brown in England) born after in vitro fertiliza­tion in 1978. After the Roe v. Wade decision, which made early stage abortions legal, a moratorium was placed on government funding for embryo research. Then in 1979 an Ethics Advisory Board to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued a report on the ethics of research involving human embryos. This advisory board said it was ethically acceptable to do research on embryos used for IVF pur­poses but postponed any recommendations on research involving the collection and culture of early human embryos fertilized naturally— not used for IVF. But they had one major caveat: the embryos could not be sustained in vitro beyond fourteen days after fertilization.2

FRANKLIN: Why did they set the boundary at fourteen days? That sounds quite arbitrary. stein: At the fourteenth day of its development, an embryo exhibits a “primitive streak”—a faint white trace that is the first evidence of the embryonic axis. It is a precursor of the neural tube and the nervous system. Without a neural tube, there is no spinal cord, and the embryo cannot have feelings or exhibit any level of consciousness.

FRANKLIN: So the primitive streak is some kind of Maginot Line for bio­ethicists and shouldn’t be crossed.

STEIN: In 1979 the hope was that establishing a moral boundary would allow scientists to continue with their embryo research, as long as they stayed within that limit.

FRANKLIN: Between 1979 and 1980 there was a change in administration. Jimmy Carter had lost the election to Ronald Reagan. Were the advi­sory board’s recommendations adopted?

STEIN: Hardly. By 1980, the charter of the advisory board ran out and was not renewed. As you point out, Ronald Reagan was elected president. He and his administration opposed any research on embryos of any age. Republicans were, on the whole, more critical of research involv­ing embryos than Democrats. But there were many Democrats who supported the moratorium.

FRANKLIN: Dr. Stein, let me see if I get this. The Supreme Court ruled that embryos are not persons, and therefore abortion was not murder, and established a fundamental right of women over their bodies, at least for the first trimester of pregnancy. And then a president opposed any federal funding for embryo research on the grounds that embryos could not be harmed. Why didn’t Congress get into the act?

STEIN: Well, Congress did act, but not until another advisory committee was convened. In 1994, during the administration of President Bill Clinton, a federally appointed nineteen-member Human Embryo Research Panel issued its report. The panel concluded that embryos do deserve some moral consideration, but do not have the same moral status as persons because they lack specific capacities such as con­sciousness, reasoning, and sentience—at least, early embryos. The panel approved the use of federal funds for research on early embryos under specific guidelines.

FRANKLIN: Did that clinch it for President Clinton? After all, he is a Demo­crat and not doctrinaire on the issue. So he must have been receptive.

STEIN: No, it didn’t work out that way. In 1994 NIH convened a Human Embryo Research Panel to draft guidelines on the use of federal funding for research on human embryos. The panel recommended that funding for creating embryos for research be permitted.3 Clinton disagreed, but he was personally in favor of funding for scientific studies of embryos left over from IVF procedures. Nevertheless, responding to the political climate, Clinton wanted more deliberation and chose not to allocate federal funds to support research on leftover embryos until he could get a recommendation from a presidential ethics advisory committee. Perhaps he was anticipating congressional action.

FRANKLIN: Well, did Congress act then?

STEIN: Soon after the president made his preliminary decision to withhold funds, Congress closed the door on any research involving the destruc­tion of a human embryo. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment (sponsored by Representative Jay Dickey, House Republican from Arkansas, and Roger Wicker, Senate Republican from Mississippi), which Clinton signed into law, has been attached to appropriations bills every year, starting in 1996. It essentially prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from using appropriated funds for the creation of human embryos for research purposes or for research in which human embryos are destroyed.

FRANKLIN: It seems to me there could be ways around the amendment. Suppose private money is used to create and destroy embryos and public funds are used to experiment on the cells removed from them. In many countries, like Germany, when a moral decision on embryo research is reached, it applies to everyone, not only those receiving funds from the government.

STEIN: You put your finger on one of the peculiarities of the bifurcated sys­tem of ethics in our country—one set of principles for public funding and another for private funding. Embryo ethics straddles two moral universes, and scientists have had to navigate through that thorny divide. They must establish a firewall between publicly funded and privately funded laboratories.

(more…)

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Sheldon Krimsky on the Use of Dialogue in “Stem Cell Dialogues”

Stem Cell Dialogues, Sheldon Krimsky

The following post is by Sheldon Krimsky, author of Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers

In 1998 cell biology and medical research had entered a new stage of development. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin isolated and cultured the first human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from donated early stage human embryos. These cells have the potentiality of becoming differentiated into any other cells in the human body. The implications of this discovery are profound. ESCs could be harvested to regenerate damaged tissue, which cannot repair itself. Strokes, heart attacks, spinal cord damage, brain injury, and Alzheimer’s are but a few medical conditions that could potentially be treated with ESCs.

I first became aware of the promise of stem cell research in a class I co-taught with a colleague from the Tufts medical school who had been using stem cells to produce healthy skin. The class focused on the possibilities of human enhancement—covering the science as well as the social and ethical implications. The more I read about the science, the more I realized that medical research and therapy had embarked on a new voyage with new signposts of moral cautions. I did not have to wait very long before stem cells became an issue for presidential politics, feminist politics, right to life politics and even gender politics.

By the first decade of the millennium there were already dozens of books on the market. I could of course have taken a standard approach to combining a scientific narrative with ethical questions and bringing the issues up to date, that is, to 2015. By that point my wife had been immersed in playwriting. I also had been attending some of the plays performed in Cambridge at the Central Square Theater—a collaboration between MIT and two theater companies—that addressed scientific themes. I began thinking of an alternative way to investigate ideas in science and ethics for general readers. The works of Plato and Galileo, which I had read as a student of philosophy of science, came to mind. Could I present the complex issues of stem cell research and therapeutic applications as a set of dialogues?

(more…)

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Stem Cell Dialogues, by Sheldon Krimsky

This week our featured book is Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers by Sheldon Krimsky.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Stem Cell Dialogues to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, July 3 at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Jonathan Garlick at Tufts University says about Stem Cell Dialogues: “This book presents a wonderful new approach to learning about stem cells and thinking about their broader impact at the interface of society, policy, religion, and ethics. Stem Cell Dialogues is highly novel, very engaging, and will open readers to new ways of thinking about the public stem cell debate.”

For more on the book you can read the chapter “Why Is This Cell Different From All Other Cells”:

Friday, June 12th, 2015

The Personal Mystery and the Impersonal God

Excellent Beauty

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In the final post of the week’s feature, we have excerpted the twelfth chapter of Excellent Beauty: “The Personal Mystery and the Impersonal God.”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The Beauty of Seeing More Than We Can Understand

Excellent Beauty

“Religions are completely natural illusions. All their alleged depth and mystery are chimerical. We can finally set them aside as sources of mysteries not worth taking seriously. We are now free to embrace the real mysteries, the ones worth taking seriously, the ones science reveals, the ones that have excellent beauty.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the eleventh chapter of Excellent Beauty, in which Dietrich explains why “[t]he most exciting phrase to hear in science … is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny….”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

On the Mystery of Consciousness

Excellent Beauty

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s excerpt, Dietrich introduces and discusses the hard problem of consciousness.

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2

Excellent Beauty

“Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich discusses the continuing existence of “excellent beauties” (currently unsolved and possibly unsolvable mysteries).

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2
By Eric Dietrich

In yesterday’s post, we saw what happens when science confronts religion, now we will what happens when science confronts the cosmos.

The grandest example of an excellent beauty is consciousness. I don’t mean anything unusual or strange by the word “consciousness”. Consciousness—or being conscious—is the most ordinary thing in your life . . . so ordinary, you rarely note it or think of it. Consciousness is the way the world seems to you, the way you experience it, feel it. Taste an apple, see a sunset, smell a rose or an angry skunk, stub your toe on the foot of the bed frame at 4:00 am, hear your dog breathe or a baby gurgle and coo. Introspect and consider your belief that there are an infinite number of numbers. These are all conscious experiences. We have experiences because we are conscious. Or, rather, our having them constitutes our being conscious. Being conscious is what makes it fun or horrible or merely boring to be a human (or anything else that is conscious). Using a phrase that the philosopher Thomas Nagel made famous (apparently only among philosophers), we can say that a being is conscious when there is something it is like to be that being. (See Nagel’s oft-cited paper, “What is it like to be a bat?”).

Consciousness has so thoroughly eluded scientific explanation that we have no idea what an explanatory theory of consciousness would even look like. This runs deep. Given an explanatory theory of conscious by, say, friendly, advanced, visiting space aliens, we couldn’t even begin to tell if it was correct or not. Consciousness somehow exists only inside our minds (not, note, inside our brains), while science can only tackle what is on the outside, what is public and measurable. But why should this be the case? Why should there be anything it is like to be a dog or an octopus or a lobster? Why should there be “insides” to our minds, beyond the reach of public, measuring science? A famous quote (apparently only among consciousness researchers) by Stuart Sutherland is apropos here: “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it,” (from the International Dictionary of Psychology).

The denialism here is thick. Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.

Here, briefly, and minus explanations, is a short list of other excellent beauties. We begin with the most well-known: Basically all of quantum mechanics. Next, the infinity of numbers comes in sizes—that’s right: some infinities are bigger than others, by rather a lot, it turns out. No one knows why, yet the proof for this fact is relatively easy to follow. Logic contains some of the strangest mysteries. First, classical logic is completely unable to represent its fundamental notion, the inference from one sentence to another, say from “X is a prime number bigger than 2”, to “X is an odd number.” Second, there exist logics that allow some statements to be both true and false at the same time. More shockingly, some philosophers argue that such “true contradictions” are required to correctly describe completely ordinary things like walking into a room or blinking your eyes. Thirdly, any logical system that contains numbers and operations like addition produces truths that are obviously true, but which cannot be proven; here truth extends beyond proof. There are more logic mysteries, but let’s move on.

Here is a mystery involving something more ordinary: Did you know that there is a very old, currently undecipherable text complete with detailed colored drawings sitting in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library? The author, purpose, and meaning of the text are unknown. Attempts to decode it or translate it defy all modern techniques used by linguists and cryptologists (going clear back to World War I). It’s called the Voynich Manuscript. Most scholars believe it was written sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, but no one is sure (recent carbon-14 dating does put the date of the vellum in the fifteenth century). The language the manuscript is written in, if indeed it is a language, is completely baffling. Detailed statistical analysis of the symbols making up the manuscript, however, leads most scholars to believe that it is in fact written in some language, just not one used by any known culture or people. Here’s a final example. Recently it has been discovered that science itself, in its quest to find and explain all that can be found and explained, produces paradoxes that completely undo all the assumptions science has to make to be science. Science, it turns out, must assume what it wants to prove. (All the references to the above mysteries can be found in Excellent Beauty, except the last one; that one can be found in the paper “Science generates limit paradoxes.”)

What does the existence of enduring mysteries, of excellent beauties, mean? We have seen that in a sense, religion and science are co-conspirators—they conspire to create a world that is flatly natural. The supernatural bits of religions are not real, being only the products of our over-active imaginations fixed by group membership. But the excellent beauties are real, they are waiting there for any one to find and marvel at, and they are not the products of over-active imaginations. What are they the products of? That is itself the final excellent beauty: how is it that we inhabit a world that contains so many foundational paradoxes, so many enduring mysteries? How is it that some of our science and knowledge-seeking provides us with fulfilling and affirming explanations, while other parts of it shock us with strange enigmas that cause us to question the very core of what we think we know? It appears that what our science is telling us, with increasing urgency, is that the universe is not fully open to our comprehension. But it is fully open to our sense of beauty. And in the end, that’s better.

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1

Excellent Beauty

“Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich delves into our innate attraction to mystery, our nature as metaphysical realists, and the war between science and religion.

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1
By Eric Dietrich

Everybody loves a good mystery . . . as long as it gets solved. But if a mystery persists in spite of our best efforts to solve it, our love wanes. In fact, very few among us can tolerate an enduring mystery. Why is that? Why are enduring mysteries so upsetting? The answer cuts to the heart of what it means to be a human being and explains the enormous impact dodging enduring mysteries has played in human history. Science and religion owe their existence to such dodging. Excellent Beauty is the story of these three, science, religion, and enduring mysteries. The title of the book comes from a quote by Francis Bacon, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” The book also closely examines several such mysteries, revealing their excellent beauty, why they are enduring, and what this upsetting fact means.

Of course, most of the mysteries we encounter in our daily lives are upsetting not because they are mysteries, but rather because of what they are about. If someone you love has fainting spells, but six months of medical tests have revealed nothing, then you are confronted with an upsetting mystery. It is upsetting because someone you love is suffering, and experts cannot tell you why and so cannot fix the problem.

The mysteries we love are not like this. They occur at some remove from us. Murder mystery novels are a billion dollar a year industry for precisely this reason. Sir Charles Baskerville has died, apparently of natural causes, yet the footprints of an unknown and enormous hound were found near where he perished. This fact has a pressing and dark relevance because the Baskerville family has been living under an old curse, apparently involving a hound from Hell. . . . All good fun. And in the end, Sherlock Holmes solves this mystery nicely. Of course, mysteries such as these are at such a remove from us that they aren’t real. Consider a real mystery that is nevertheless something we can love: Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? We now know the answer to this mystery, or at least there is wide agreement on what the answer is: Earth was hit by a massive asteroid or comet, the smoking gun of which is the Chicxulub crater off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. (For a recent definitive treatment, see “The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary” in Science, 5 March 2010: 1214-1218.) Before this explanation was discovered, the mystery of the missing dinosaurs was compelling and intensely investigated. (It is still being investigated since there is only “wide agreement” among scientists on the asteroid theory.)

There is a great affirmation for humankind in solving any deep, real mystery. This affirmation extends beyond the utility of any solution. The discovery of the virus responsible for AIDS was a tremendous advance in human health care and in the treatment of the disease itself. But the discovery of HIV goes deeper than human health. Two human properties explain this going-beyond aspect of the affirmation. Humans are, quite naturally, realists, in the metaphysical sense: we all think that there is a mind-independent world out there. We don’t know, except roughly, how many dogs there are in the world now, but we all think there is some definite number of them. And we think this number is what it is independently of our minds, independently of what we want it to be or what we wish it was. We are also all children of the Enlightenment at least in the sense that we carry around with us an Enlightenment ideal: we think we live in a rational universe, and we think that problems can be solved, at least in principle, by rational discourse or by some application of rationality. Putting these two together, we all think that there are answers out there and rationality can in principle reveal them. Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.

Religion is a great participator in this affirmation. And in this important sense, religion and science are compatible. Religious mysteries run deep. How can Jesus’s death redeem sinners today? How can their faith in him activate that redemption? Why is there evil if God is all-good and all-powerful? Why are there so many religions? (This bears a short digression. Conservative estimates put the number of religions today well into the tens of thousands. This estimate includes sects or denominations of the twenty or so major religions, which can be defined as religions with at least half a million adherents. Often, these sects or sub-religions differ almost as much from each other as the major religions differ from each other. So, for example, some experts estimate that there are over 30,000 versions of Christianity (see, for example the World Christian Encyclopedia or this list). Arguably all these versions worship some version of Jesus Christ, but beyond that, they differ significantly. For example, some see Jesus Christ as a sort of warrior against sin; some see the Christ as a god of love, unconcerned about sin; still others regard Jesus as a male human being who managed to live the perfect life and should therefore be emulated.)

The answers to all religious mysteries are commonly believed to be out there and fixed (realism), the understanding of which awaits our final fate. If our fate is good enough, the answers will be revealed to us, and such revelation will, at that time, finally make perfect sense (the Enlightenment ideal).
From this perspective, there is no war between science and religion, not really, and the world we live in, while troubled and dangerous, is, at least in principle, law-like and understandable.

Excellent Beauty argues that the above view of us and the universe we inhabit is Panglossian. There is a fierce war between science and religion. Science is winning—by a lot (this war is examined in detail in Excellent Beauty). Realism is at best an ineluctable metaphysical position. And most importantly, holding the Enlightenment ideal depends crucially on self-deception. Soberly considered, our universe contains only islands of understandability, islands where rationality is the dominant force, islands where our explanations work. Beyond these islands there is a vast, bizarre world consisting almost exclusively of enduring mysteries at which we can marvel, but can never explain or explain away.

Let’s take these points in turn.

Stephen Jay Gould is the avatar of the view that science and religion are not at war. He proposed what he called nonoverlapping magisteria for the proper relationship between science and religion (see his Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life). Gould said that science and religion are in fact so different that they can easily coexist, respecting each other’s dominion (i.e., magisterium; a magisterium is “a domain of authority in teaching” (p. 5)). Gould says:

I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. (p. 4)

If anyone other than Gould had written that, I would have thought that person irremediably naïve. But Gould is not naïve. So, I can only assume this suggestion of his results from some level of desperation. He so wanted to halt the war between science and religion that he fabricated this idea of separate but equal domains. A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that religion and science are not separate magisteria at all—they are profoundly overlapping magisteria. All religions make factual claims about the world: Jehovah created it in six days, Changing Woman created it and the Navajo who live on it, ghosts roam the world, magic can heal the sick, prayer is talking to Yahweh (or Jesus or Allah or Zeus, etc.), living beings reincarnate, and on and on. In fact, it is because all religions make factual claims that they are able to supply purpose, meaning, and values. Going the other direction, religion is not the sole provider of purposes, meanings, and values. There are plenty of atheists and agnostics whose lives hum with meaning. They get meaning from the traditional places: their families, their jobs, their hobbies—from doing science, making art and music, climbing mountains, learning to juggle, raising children, working on their marriage, and so forth. Oddly, and disturbingly, in flatly denying the obvious truth that religions make factual claims, and in denying that religion and science are at war, Gould is behaving exquisitely religiously: he is changing the “evidence” to fit his beliefs, rather than letting the evidence change his beliefs. The nonoverlapping magisteria idea is simply false. Science and religion are at war.

Science has arguably already won this war, and in the best way possible: by explaining why we are religious. Evolutionary theory explains both why we humans are religious and why there are tens of thousands of religions. Being religious, or having the propensity to be religious is an evolutionary adaptation. What advantage do religions bestow? They help knit groups together, among other things. The details of such an evolutionary explanation are complex and still being worked out by anthropologists, biologists, philosophers, and psychologists. In broad outline, most of these nascent theories are similar, and contribute to a large emerging explanation. In Excellent Beauty, I combine two of the most well-known and well-received theories, David Wilson’s group selection theory and Daniel Dennett’s hyperactive agent detection device (see, respectively, Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell). In brief, I argue that religions help bind groups together via shared magical thinking. We like being in a group that shares our beliefs about the weird, disturbing stuff we’ve experienced. And we like belonging to a group that offers and promotes compelling explanations of the stuff we experience. Both Wilson and Dennett’s theories are needed: Only Dennett’s theory can explain the universal existence of belief in the supernatural in the world’s religions, and only Wilson’s theory can explain why there are thousands of religions instead of billions of them.

Tomorrow we turn to the excellent beauties themselves.