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Friday, February 29, 2008

Some "Bodies" Upset

Scientists, theologians, and ethicists met last night to discuss the controversy surrounding the use of human cadavers in "Bodies: The Exhibition," currently at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Science Center. The debate focused on whether the exhibit's use of unidentified bodies from China was a dishonor to the dead or a useful educational tool. The 90-minute discussion was aired live on Pittsburgh's WQED TV station and can now be viewed online. —Dan Messier

Alan Wolfe Writes

In today's Boston Globe, Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, interprets the findings of the survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life earlier this week. Wolfe helps us make sense of the data, identify the trends, and draw conclusions about the future of faith and tolerance in American culture. Wolfe also writes on the future of religion in America in the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Church Wood Gives Climate Clues

Old wood from historic churches has become a new resource for researchers hoping to reconstruct weather patterns and climate history. When the Salt Lake Tabernacle, a sacred Mormon building built from local trees beginning in 1863, was renovated in 2005 and the structural timbers were replaced with steel beams, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave Matthew Bekker, an assistant professor of geography at Brigham Young University, the opportunity to study the wood. By studying and dating the growth rings of these timbers, a science known as "dendrochronology," Bekker discovered that when Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, it was one of the driest periods in the region's recent history, meaning Utah's first Anglo settlers faced the hardships of a severe drought. —Kaitlin Shimer

Mark Your Calendar

The winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize will be announced in a news conference (and live Web cast) at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York on March 12 at 11 a.m. The prize, valued at more than 1.6 million dollars, the largest annual monetary award given to an individual, celebrates someone who has engaged life's big questions, whether it be the laws of nature and the universe, or the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, or creativity.

Meet the 2008 Templeton-Cambridge Fellows

The 10 winners of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion have been announced. For the fourth year, the journalists will gather at the University of Cambridge over the summer for independent research, seminars, and discussions led by some of the world's most prominent physicist, cosmologists, and theologians. "With the deeper understanding that they gain through the fellowship program, these journalists will be better able to promote a more informed public discussion of science and religion," the Rev. Dr. Fraser Watts, co-director of the fellowships, said in a statement. The program, which runs through June and July, will include journalists from The San Diego Union-Tribune, Discover, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Orlando Sentinel, The New Republic, and Slate.com. —Heather Wax

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Science of Shabbat

In the "Weekly Torah Portion" of the New Jersey Jewish News, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College in New York, examines how science can inform the Jewish commandment to do no work on Shabbat by helping Jews to make sense of what qualifies as "work" and why. Drawing on the work of structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and his idea of "cooked" nature—nature shaped for our own use—Hoffman offers Jews a way to interpret the commandment as an instruction to take a break from the obligation to create culture and society, and to, for one day of the week, enjoy "nature in the raw." —Heather Wax

Religious Snapshot

Earlier this week, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has released the details of its 2007 "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," and the findings have since been picked up and interpreted by nearly every major news source in the country. The survey sampled more than 35,000 American adults in an attempt to detail the nation's religious composition. The results show the fluid nature of religious affiliation in America—many Americans switch religious denominations over the course of their lives. One of the most surprising findings is that Protestant denominations, once a large majority, now claim only 51 of Americans as adherents, while the Catholic Church has lost more members than any other faith group. More than 16 percent of Americans claim to be unaffiliated with any religion, making it the group with the largest net gain. This group includes both those who are secular and those who are religious but practice their faith independently, as well as atheists (1.6 percent) and agnostics (2.4 percent).
It's possible these changing numbers could impact the public debate and perception surrounding a number of science and religion issues. For instance, another Pew survey, conducted in August of 2006, found that evangelical Protestants (a group now on the decline) were most staunchly opposed to evolution, whereas those claiming to be secular (a group on the rise) were evolution's strongest proponents.
This spring, Pew will release a second report that goes beyond the religious labels to get at Americans' beliefs and religious practices. —Stephen Mapes

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How to Talk About Religion

In his Kansas City Star religion column this week, the Rev. Vern Barnet, emeritus minister of Community Resources for Exploring Spirituality in Kansas City, Mo., offers tips for engaging in respectful and meaningful conversations about religion. Among them, begin with a question that gives the other person a chance to express deep feelings about what's sacred, spend some time just listening, and focus on personal stories rather than who's "right" and "wrong." —Heather Wax

Texas Follow-Up

The Fort Worth-area seat on the Texas State Board of Education will be contested in the March 4 primary, and the outcome could upset the balance of a board that's now said to be split 8-7 on almost every issue, including the teaching of evolution. The race for the swing vote will be between Dr. Barney Maddox, a urologist from Cleburne, and incumbent and former teacher Pat Hardy, both Republicans (there is no Democratic opponent in the general election). Hardy, who's in her sixth year on the board, is known as a strong supporter of sound science. (Even though she believes God is behind creation, she feels religion, including creationism, should be kept out of the science classroom.) According to reports, Maddox, on the other hand, is an outspoken critic of evolution, in the past calling it both a "myth" and something students are "brainwashed" into believing. According to the Institute for Creation Research's Web site, Maddox authored the biological sciences course material for the Creationist Worldview distance education program offered by ICR. (The ICR, which recently moved to Texas from California, is currently seeking state accreditation to offer an online master's degree program for science education.) The outcome of the primary, it's believed, could also determine the future of the state's curriculum and textbook choice, both of which are decided by the board. —Heather Wax

Altantic Current

The Atlantic Monthly is flashing back over the past century to recognize its long history of exploring the relationship between religion and science. The magazine highlights the moments, beginning back in 1912, when its contributors have explored the role of religion in our lives and questioned its value and relevance in a secular, scientific age. In the March issue, Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, continues the tradition, writing on the possibility of a future with religious peace. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Francis Collins Speaks

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, will speak about the relationship between science and faith on Thursday in a lecture sponsored by The Center for the Study of Science and Religion, part of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. In "The Language of God: A Believer Looks at the Human Genome," Collins will share his view that science and religion are complementary ways of knowing and understanding the world; science tells us "how," he says, while religion answers "why."

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Next Battleground?

Less than a week after Florida's Board of Education voted to mandate the teaching of "evolution" in the state's science classrooms, there's concern that Texas could be the site of a new "intelligent design" flareup. Pro-ID candidates will be running against two pro-evolution incumbents in the Texas State Board of Education primary on March 4 (these are the only two seats on the board being contested) and the outcomes of these races could have a huge effect later this year, when the state's science standards are scheduled to be reviewed. —Heather Wax

Neil Shubin Writes

In an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times, Neil Shubin, author of the recently released book Your Inner Fish, asks us to rethink what is "natural" when it comes to reproduction. Shubin argues there is a biological basis for cloning (using the example of parthenogenesis, the biological term for virgin birth, which has occurred in some dragons, lizards, and fish) and reminds us that a number of creatures can change sexes during their lifetimes. Judging just what is "natural" is a tricky endeavor, he shows—something he says we should keep in mind when we invoke nature to help us make moral arguments or ethical choices. —Heather Wax

Friday, February 22, 2008

On the Shelf

The shape of our hands, the way our heads are organized, the reason we hiccup—all and more can be traced back to prehistoric fish, says Neil Shubin, associate dean for organismal and evolutionary biology at The University of Chicago, in his new book, Your Inner Fish. Shubin traces the evolutionary history of our bodies (genes and bones) and our social behaviors back hundreds of millions of years to our ancestors of the sea, including Tiktaalik, the half-fish, half-amphibian creature—a "missing link" between fish and land animals—that he helped discover in the Canadian Arctic in 2004. "We humans are first and foremost primates," concludes Barbara King, a professor of biological anthropology at the College of William and Mary, in her review of the book. "Nevertheless, Shubin is dead right: The elegance and full emotional power of our connection with the natural world compel us to reach further back in time and deeper into the Earth's fossil layers." —Heather Wax

Religious Attitudes Toward Nanotech

A significant majority of Americans find the use of nanotechnology to be immoral, according to a survey conducted by Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleague Elizabeth Corley of Arizona State University. Only 29.5 percent of the 1,015 American adults sampled for the survey said they think the applications of nanotechnology are morally acceptable. Yet, when the same survey was conducted in Europe, researchers found the majority of people are in favor of the technology. The rejection of nanotechnology in America seems to come from the country's strong religious history and not from a lack of knowledge regarding the technology. Scheufele found that many with strong religious convictions were well-informed on the subject, but still considered nanotechnology, along with biotechnology and stem cell research, as a way for researchers to "play God." Attitudes are different and distinct from understanding, and researchers should keep these results in mind when thinking about how to frame a new technology and its applications to the American public. —Stephen Mapes

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Holmes Rolston Speaks

Holmes Rolston III, a professor in the department of philosophy at Colorado State University and the 2003 winner of the Templeton Prize, will be the keynote speaker at the annual Religion and Science Conference at Goshen College in Indiana, March 28 through 30. Rolston, a leader in environmental ethics, will talk about “Generating Life on Earth: Five Looming Questions” and our “Human Uniqueness: Spirited Mind" in two separate lectures.

John Polkinghorne Speaks

The Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, a physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest, will explore the question "Has science made religion redundant?" in the next James Gregory lecture a week from today at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nature of Belief

Researchers at the University of Oxford will spend close to 4 million dollars and three years trying to discover why people believe in God and whether this kind of faith is "natural." Using an approach based on cognitive science, the interdisciplinary science of the mind and intelligence, researchers from the Ian Ramsey Centre and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind hope to find out whether or not believing in God gave humans an evolutionary advantage. —Kaitlin Shimer

More Florida Follow-Up

Reactions to yesterday's Florida State Board of Education 4-3 vote to approve a revised version of the proposed new science standards (inserting the phrase "scientific theory of" before the word "evolution") are starting to come in. Teachers in Bradenton and Hillsborough County school officials, who are familiar with the debate, say the addition won't change much of what goes on in the classroom when it comes to teaching evolution. But Jane Pfeilsticker, a Manatee County school board member who was on the panel that worded the original version, is upset the panel didn't have a chance to review the new language and worries about the way Florida will be viewed by the scientific community. And other critics of the change, but for very different reasons (they believe the standards still don't go far enough in providing what they call "academic freedom"), say they plan to take their case to the Florida Legislature.
Some say the change actually bolsters the case for sound science. The board inserted "scientific theory of” before other widely accepted scientific ideas included in the standards—the standards now refer to the “scientific theory of atoms,” for example—making evolution appear no different than many other ideas on which there is scientific consensus. Students will also learn the scientific definition of a "theory" and how it differs from the everyday usage of the term. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Florida Follow-Up (The Vote Is In)

The Florida State Board of Education has voted 4-3 to approve new science standards for the state's public schools, but with revised wording. In what one board member called a "compromise" (using the term pejoratively), the board adopted standards that were modified before the vote to include the phrase "scientific theory of" before the word "evolution."
For close to a year, a panel of more than 60 experts, many of them science teachers and scientists, worked to revise the old standards. Their final draft included the term "evolution" (a first for Florida's science standards), calling it the "concept underlying all of biology," a concept that is supported by "multiple forms of scientific evidence." Many of them were upset by the last-minute insertion of "theory," worrying that it will deepen the public's misunderstanding of the way the word is used in science. (There's a chance the opposite will be true, however, and that students in Florida's classrooms will learn, thanks to the insertion, that in science a theory is not based on guesswork or speculation, but is a well-tested explanation that is widely accepted as true.) A couple of legislators and a Presbyterian pastor, who spoke out about the relationship between science and faith specifically, also stressed the importance of the panel's original language.
Two of the three board members who voted against the changed standards wanted the panel's version to be adopted. The third believed the standards didn't go far enough in teaching students the "controversy." The scientific community, in which evolution is not a point of controversy or debate, didn't get a chance to review the standard's new language before the vote. —Heather Wax

Monday, February 18, 2008

John Relethford's Top 10 (Update from AAAS)

The AAAS meeting came to a close today. At one of the last sessions, a panel discussion on "Major Transformations in Evolution: The State of the Art and Public Understanding," John Relethford, a biological anthropologist at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, listed the top 10 things every person should know—and remember—about the origin of humans:
1. Humans evolved.
Human evolution is a fact—and the fact that we are just another species does not detract from our "specialness defined on a spiritual level."
2. Humans did not evolve from modern apes.
Species evolve over time, sometimes without the disappearance of the parental species. We have to be careful not to confuse "apes" with "modern apes."
3. We study human origins (plural) and not a single human origin.
4. Human evolution was "feet first."
In a sense, our ancestors were bipedal apes. When they began walking upright, they still had an ape-size brain, apelike teeth, and no tool technology.
5. Brain size did not increase all at once or at the same rate.
6. "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."
In other words, nothing in evolution is free. Any adaptation, whether it be the ability to walk upright, our larger brains, or our vocal anatomy, must be considered in terms of the balance of benefits and costs.
7. Our ancestors were not always alone.
Evolution is more like a bush than a tree. It appears that humanlike species lived at the same time and place as other bipedal cousins.
8. Expect the unexpected
New discoveries, like the "Hobbit" skull found in Flores in 2003, will lead to new interpretations and surprises. Some of our hypothesis will be confirmed, while others are rejected—that's part and parcel of the scientific process.
9. Our ancestors were not dummies.
The archaeological record shows that change is slow but steadily increasing, and the pace of cultural change has accelerated. We're not smarter than our ancestors; we've just accumulated more knowledge.
10. Humans of the near future—of 2525, say—will look pretty much the same.
But there's no telling what humans will be like behaviorally or culturally, or whether humans will be extinct.
Heather Wax

Science in a Religious America (Update from AAAS)

There was a lot of talk about labeling, otherwise known as "framing," at the "Communicating Science in a Religious America" session yesterday. Matthew Nisbet, a professor in the school of communication at American University, spoke about the value of connecting evolution to social progress, while Steven Case, assistant director of The University of Kansas Center for Science Education, argued that scientists need to connect evolution to a "bigger picture of application and relevancy that leads to hope." When it comes to emerging technologies like nanotechnology and embryonic stem cell research, people will form attitudes even in the absence of scientific information, said Dietram Scheufele, a professor of life sciences communication and journalism & mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Scientists need to understand that, for some, religiosity serves as an "interpretive tool" when it comes to new technologies, he said, and public outreach needs to address issues outside the realm of the science. "Many religious audiences are informed," Scheufele said, but scientists need to "provide information that will address the gaps and religious concerns they may have." In other words, there's a difference between understanding the science and believing in it.
Overall, said David Goldston, former chief of staff of the House Committee on Science and Technology and a visiting lecturer at the Center for the Environment at Harvard University, communicating science in a religious America is both harder and easier than many scientists imagine. "Science, in many ways, undermines a simple religious view of the world, and it always has," he said, which leads to issues that are bigger than communication problems. But scientists rank high when it comes to credibility, he said, and people will live with contradictory thoughts and ideas, he's found, "rather than having to come up with a cosmology that will make all these things fit." —Heather Wax

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ken Miller Reclaims "Design" (Update from AAAS)

At a session called "Communicating Science in a Religious America," Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller is arguing that science, including evolutionary biology, is based on the idea of "design." The human body has a fishlike design, the genome's design tells the story of our common ancestry, and life has a design produced by the laws of chemistry and physics; the evolutionary "design" of life is part of the inherent fabric of the natural world, he said. "Recoiling from the theological implications of design, scientists are forced to argue that there is no design in nature," said Miller. But "a language of scientific advocacy that challenges the existence of 'design' is at odds with the realities of nature."
The "intelligent design" movement has won people over, despite the fact that it has no scientific support, because humans don't want to believe that we are accidents of nature. "ID is a PR success story," said Miller . To fight back, he said, scientists need to reclaim the concept and language of "design"—"take it away from the ID movement and make it our own." —Heather Wax

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Owen Gingerich's New Project (Update from AAAS)

I ran into Owen Gingerich, emeritus professor of astronomy and history of science at Harvard University, on the way to the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion reception yesterday afternoon, and he was talking excitedly about his new book project. Gingerich said the book will be about evolution from a Christian perspective, avoiding some of the hot-button issues ("I'm not going to try to convert young-earth creationists," he said) and focusing more on deeper issues and questions, like what it means to be human. —Heather Wax

Religion & Science Friday (Update from AAAS)

During the first hour of yesterday's "Science Friday" program, broadcasting live from the AAAS annual meeting, a caller asked host Ira Flatow's guests, convened to talk about science in the federal government, to speak about the relationship between science and religion with regard to certain policy issues. James McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography and AAAS president elect, and Rosina Bierbaum, a professor and dean of the school of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan, voiced the view that there is no conflict between science and religion when it comes to concerns over climate change; religious groups see climate change as a moral challenge and responsibility, said Bierbaum. David Goldston, former chief of staff of the House Committee on Science and Technology and a visiting lecturer at the Center for the Environment at Harvard University, also pointed out that taking issue with policies surrounding science—when it comes to whether federal funds should be devoted to embryonic stem cell research, for example—is different than taking issue with science itself, "which is what makes the evolution debate so difficult," he said. —Heather Wax

Moral Judgments (Update from AAAS)

Marc Hauser of Harvard University and David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University, along with Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute and Judith Smetana of the University of Rochester, presented on "Moral Judgment: Evolutionary and Psychological Perspectives" yesterday morning. Hauser used it as another opportunity to promote his idea of a "universal moral grammar," which is hard-wired and leads to what he calls "spontaneous, fast, robust moral judgments." There's a difference between "judgment" and "justification," says Hauser, and in the same way that we can't explain why the underlying grammatical structure of language is the way it is, we can't access explanations for why something is right or wrong. According to Hauser, his research shows that there's a set of core moral principles we all share, and it's immune to cultural influences (including religious background). Wilson, on the other hand, said we have to "go beyond moral universals to explain cultural and moral diversity from an evolutionary perspective." Though, biologically speaking, humans are a single species, culturally we are more like a multispecies ecosystem, a point he supports using a study that compared liberal and conservative Protestant denominations. —Heather Wax

Friday, February 15, 2008

AAAS Meeting Is Under Way

Science & Religion Today is at the 2008 AAAS annual meeting, which opened yesterday in Boston. One of the sessions scheduled for this morning is a panel discussion about the evolutionary and psychological perspectives on moral judgment. Marc Hauser, an evolutionary psychologist and biologist at Harvard University, and David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology of anthropology at Binghamton University, among others, will share their views. Details to come.

Ben Stein Makes ID Movie

Ben Stein has come out as the public face of "intelligent design," and in the spring, he'll hit movie theaters with a $3.5 million-dollar ID film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The movie, which is being promoted by Motive Entertainment, the marketing firm behind The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia, is based on the premise that "educators and scientists are being ridiculed, denied tenure, and even fired—for the 'crime' of merely believing that there might be evidence of 'design' in nature." (The Discovery Institute, an ID think tank, is excited by the message, of course). Stein speaks with ID advocates, such as Guillermo Gonzalez, and opponents, such as Richard Dawkins and Eugenie Scott, who say that the film was presented differently when they agreed to be a part of it. —Dan Messier

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Genesis TV

Answers in Genesis, the creationist ministry founded by Ken Ham, will soon be hitting the television airwaves with the help of DirecTV and the National Religious Broadcasters Network. A new hour-long show called "Answers Creation Hour" premieres February 19 as part of the NRB Network's Tuesday Nature/Science Night programming block. According to the network, the show's main goal is to show that evolution and creation are interpretations of the same observed evidence (keep in mind, however, that Answers in Genesis seeks to "expose the bankruptcy of evolutionary ideas, and its bedfellow, a 'millions of years old' earth"). Since the network is part of DirecTV's standard base package, the religious program masquerading as a science show has the potential to reach more than 16 million American households. —Stephen Mapes

Dawkins v. Holloway

Richard Dawkins, famous atheist and author of The God Delusion, and Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh and a former professor of theology, will square off on religion, science, and the human condition at the Edinburgh International Science Festival on April 1.

Movie Takes Scientific Leaps

Jumper, the new movie starring Hayden Christensen, in which his character is able to teleport himself anywhere, opens today. Last month, Christensen, along with the movie's director, Doug Liman, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professors Edward Farhi, an expert in quantum computers, and Max Tegmark, a cosmologist and scientific director of the Foundational Questions Institute, joined up for a panel discussion about the science behind the film—and real physics. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Photographic Evidence

Researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have released the first ever photos of wild gorillas mating face to face, looking into each other's eyes. “Understanding the behavior of our cousins the great apes sheds light on the evolution of behavioral traits in our own species and our ancestors,” Thomas Breuer, the German conservation biologist who took the pictures in the Republic of Congo, said in a press release. —Heather Wax

S&R on Stage

Two British plays that came out this past week in New York address the question of whether—and if so, how—faith and reason can be blended. “Grace”, which opened Monday and stars actress Lynn Redgrave, is about the struggle between a mother and son—embodying science and religion respectively (though in the debates between Grace, an atheist and professor of natural science, and Tom, a lawyer who wants to become an Episcopal priest, it is Tom who is, ironically, the voice of reason). "Two Thousand Years," which opened last Thursday and features Natasha Lyonne, covers similar ground within a secular Jewish family, whose eldest son decides to abandon the liberal worldview of his parents and to embrace Orthodox Judaism, becoming devoutly religious. —Kaitlin Shimer

Templeton Prize Laureate Dies

Baba Amte, a social activist in India known as the "messiah of lepers" for the way he and his wife took care of the medical and social needs of leper patients, has died. Amte, the 1990 Templeton Prize winner, was 94.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Creationism.org Editor Enters Congress Race

Paul Abramson, the editor and administrator of www.creationism.org, a Web Site that promotes "creation science," has announced that he will seek the Republican nomination in the race for southwestern Indiana's 8th Congressional District. Abramson, a resident of Evansville, Indiana, who describes himself as both fiscally and socially conservative, said he is campaigning "on the culture war of values."Heather Wax

Happy Birthday, Darwin

Our wish for you this year: an increase in the public's scientific knowledge and better science education—so that next year, on your 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origins of Species, more than half of Americans will recognize your theory of evolution by natural selection as scientifically valid and the foundation of modern biology. —Heather Wax

Florida Follow-Up (Orlando Public Hearing Update)

More than 70 people—including professors, elected officials, parents, and students–spoke at the last public hearing on Florida's proposed new science standards, a meeting that went on for five hours. While the speakers were split between those for and against the revised standards, more than half, about 45, were opposed, wanting to see evolution taught as a "theory"—and, in some cases, "balanced" with alternative explanations of life's origins that are religious (creationism and "intelligent design"). School boards in 11 of Florida's 64 counties (Polk County not among them) have passed formal, though nonbinding, resolutions against the standards, which use the term "evolution" and explicitly require that it be taught. The resolutions call for evolution to be taught as a "theory," with strengths and weaknesses, rather than as fact. In the scientific community, there is no controversy, however—the consensus is that evolution only should be taught in the science classroom—and the committee that drafted the standards released its own statement yesterday, stating that there is "no longer any valid criticism of the theory of evolution" and worrying that Florida will portray an "image of a backward state." Florida's Department of Education will vote on the new standards a week from today, and the outcome could affect other states like Texas, which will update its own science standards this year. —Heather Wax

Monday, February 11, 2008

Biology Journal Under Fire

The peer-review process at Proteomics is being blasted after the biology journal published a paper online (in advance of print) that not only contains some plagiarized parts, but also appears to support creationism. In the paper, "Mitochondria, the missing link between body and soul,” scientists Mohamad Warda and Jin Han of Inje University in South Korea write that similarities in the mitochondria of different life forms "are more likely to be interpreted as a reflection of a single common fingerprint initiated by a mighty creator than relying on a single cell that is, in a doubtful way, surprisingly originating all other kinds of life." One of the authors, it seems, is now seeking a retraction. —Heather Wax

Love & Science

The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, led by bioethicist Stephen Post of Case Western Reserve University, was featured in the National Post's weekend Love & Sex Issue. The scientific study of love, including compassion and altruism, is a hot topic right now, as psychology moves away from strictly studying mental illness toward also addressing wellness, the strengths and virtues of human nature. On Friday, Post spoke about these scientific studies, and how they support the health benefits of altruism, during his keynote address at the annual meeting of the Florida Center for Science and Religion. —Heather Wax

Evolution Weekend Ends, Darwin Day Begins

Evolution Weekend has come and gone, but Darwin Day (the anniversary of his birthday) is tomorrow, and we should take it as an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on Darwin's legacy and the ways his ideas changed Western thinking, says University of California, Berkeley paleontologist Kevin Padian. —Heather Wax

Florida Follow-Up

Florida state education officials are holding the last public hearing on the proposed new science standards in Orlando today from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Details to come.

Friday, February 8, 2008

ISSR Slams "Intelligent Design"

The International Society for Science and Religion has issued a statement that strongly criticizes "intelligent design" for being "neither sound science nor good theology." The ISSR is composed of more than 140 members, including a number of past Templeton Prize winners, such as the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, John Barrow, Charles Townes, and George Ellis. —Heather Wax

Barbara King Speaks

Barbara King, a professor of anthropology at The College of William and Mary in Virginia, and author of Evolving God, will speak at the AAAS annual meeting next week. As part of a group of panelists that will talk about "Communicating Science in a Religious America," King will tackle an idea she calls the "confessional" or "testimonial," in which scientists declare and share their personal religious (or nonreligious) beliefs. For King, these declarations—whether Christian, atheist, or agnostic—are harmful to the goal of presenting a rational and evidence-based approach to science. —Kaitlin Shimer

ISU Follow-Up

The decision to deny tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez, an Iowa State University assistant professor of physics and astronomy—and a supporter of "intelligent design"—has been upheld by the Iowa Board of Regents, which rejected his appeal. The university's president, Gregory Geoffroy, had also upheld the tenure decision, made by faculty members in the physics and astronomy department in November 2006. (Emails traded among faculty members before they voted on the decision were released last December). This very well may be the end of the tenure fight; Gonzalez hasn't said what he'll do next, other than looking for tenure-track positions at other schools. —Heather Wax

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Florida Follow-Up

Representative Marti Coley of Marianna, who says she's been overwhelmed by the response from her constituents over Florida's proposed new science standards, has reportedly said that if the State Board of Education doesn't revise the standards to include the word "theory" alongside "evolution," she'll consider bringing the issue to the Florida Legislature. Future House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park (who believes, ideally, "intelligent design" should be taught in public schools) and state Senator Stephen Wise of Jacksonville (who believes creationism as well as evolution should be taught) say they would support this decision. Gov. Charlie Crist, on the other hand, said he believes the way the current draft of the new standards handles evolution is "just fine." —Heather Wax

As Evolution Weekend Approaches

The Congregational Church of Belmont in California and a few other area congregations will spend Evolution Weekend looking at how science and religion can be complementary. On Sunday, the Rev. Kristi Denham will talk to members of the church about the book Thank God for Evolution! by the Rev. Michael Dowd. Across the country in New Jersey, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair will spend time furthering the weekend's goal: "to demonstrate that those outspoken fundamentalists who assert that people have to choose between religion and science are not speaking for the majority of religious leaders and religious persons," the Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman said in a statement to his congregation last Sunday. —Heather Wax

Denis Lamoureux Speaks

Denis Lamoureux, an assistant professor of science and religion at St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta, will speak about "Evolutionary Creation" at the next Suter Science Seminar on February 15 at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. Peter Dula, an assistant professor of religion and culture at EMU, and Nancy Heisey, chair of EMU's Bible and religion department will respond.

Guy Consolmagno Speaks

Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and a Jesuit brother, will deliver a public lecture, "How Scientists Think About Religion," at the University of Dallas on March 6.

Play Brings Darwin's Letters to Life

Re: Design, a play that dramatizes the relationship between Charles Darwin and Harvard University botanist Asa Gray—and how they championed the revolutionary theory of natural selection—is coming to the stage in Boston and Gray's hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, beginning Wednesday. The script of the play, commissioned by the Darwin Correspondence Project, is based in large part on letters exchanged between the two scientists (many of which have not been previously published). With candor and emotion, the men debate the relationship between science and religion as Gray tries to reconcile his Christian beliefs with Darwin's emerging theory of evolution. —Heather Wax

Find "Jesus 2.0"

GodTube, a religious spin on the popular video sharing Web site YouTube, has gained massive popularity since its launch back in August. Founded by Christian entrepreneur Chris Wyatt, the site aims to provide its millions of viewers with carefully screened spiritual content rather than the humorous (and at times offensive) Internet memes often hosted by other video-centric sites. Visitors can find sermons, theological discussions, and performances by musicians and comedians among GodTube's thousands of video clips. The site (which Wyatt calls "Jesus 2.0") claims its ultimate goal is to provide users with a dynamic social network where they "can explore their faith and the tenets of Christianity." —Stephen Mapes

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Forum on Religion & Medicine

Tufts University kicks off its Chapel Forum on Religion and Medicine series tonight with a lecture on "Science and Nature" by Gary Goldstein, a Tufts physics professor. The series continues on March 5, when Gordon Kaufman, an emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School, speaks about "A Religious Interpretation of the Emergence of New Realities: Creativity as God" and on April 2, when the Rev. James Skehan, a geologist and emeritus director of the Weston Observatory at Boston College, speaks about "Spiritual Foundations for Ethics in the Sciences."

More Florida Follow-Up

Two of the seven members of Florida's State Board of Education, Roberto Martinez of Miami and Dr. Akshay Desai of St. Petersburg, have come out in favor of the proposed new science standards, two weeks before the board plans to vote. Desai predicts the board will approve the new standards on February 19, but right now it looks like two members are leaning against them while the positions of the other three remain unknown or undecided. The proposed standards, which would use the term "evolution" for the first time, became the topic of conversation Monday when the board met to discuss and vote on class sizes. Northwest Florida Representative Marti Coley said her conservative constituents want to see evolution referred to as a "theory" in the revised standards. About half of those who commented on the standards on the Florida's Department of Education Web site "strongly disagreed" that evolution should be taught as a scientific fact (saying the "theory" should be taught alongside "intelligent design"), but scientists and Darwin experts, like Michael Ruse of Florida State University, say evolution, like gravity, is both a theory and a fact (and, in the case of Ruse, completely compatible with religious belief). —Heather Wax

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Florida Follow-Up

The School Board of Highlands County will use its regularly scheduled board meeting tonight to consider a resolution that opposes how the state's proposed new science standards handle evolution. The resolution calls for science education to "include the multiple theories regarding the origins of the universe and life on earth" and to teach big-bang theory and evolution as "two of several theories in the study of science." (Back in December, the Polk County School Board in Florida faced much media attention and mockery after it was reported that some members of that board wanted to see "intelligent design" taught along evolution). Education Commissioner Eric Smith has announced there will be one more public hearing on the standards on Monday in Orlando before the State Board of Education votes on them February 19. The current standards mandate teaching "biological changes over time" (evolution, essentially), but don't use the term "evolution" specifically—and neither do teachers, according to what's believed to be the first survey of what happens in Florida classrooms when it comes to the topic of evolution. —Heather Wax

As Evolution Weekend Approaches

The First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton in Tennessee has planned to celebrate Evolution Weekend (for the third year in a row) on Sunday, when the Rev. John Shuck, the church's progressive pastor, will speak about "Evolutionary Christianity" and how the universe is an ongoing process of creation. The congregation will then tour the Gray Fossil Site in the southern Appalachian Mountains of east Tennessee. —Heather Wax

New Mormon Leader

Thomas Spencer Monson, whose father, a chemist, taught him there was no conflict between science and religion, is the 16th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which counts Mitt Romney among its adherents).

Monday, February 4, 2008

Howard Van Till Speaks

Howard Van Till, a retired Calvin College astronomy and physics professor and author of The Fourth Day (which argues that evolution is compatible with a nonliteral reading of Genesis), will speak about the quest to answer the big cosmological questions at A Grand Dialogue in Science and Religion at Grand Valley State University on February 9.

Angels & Devils at Florida Southern

The Florida Center for Science and Religion at Florida Southern College will hold its annual meeting this Friday. This year's theme is "Angels and Devils: The Theory and Praxis of Good and Evil in Science and Religion," and Stephen Post, a professor of bioethics, philosophy, and religion at Case Western Reserve University and president of The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, will deliver the keynote address, "Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Science and Spirituality of Altruism." Dan Silber, a philosophy professor at Florida Southern, Laurence Campbell, a biology professor at Florida Southern, and Mary Kathleen Cunningham, an associate professor of religion at North Carolina State University, will also present.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Closer to Custom-Built Body Parts?

According to researchers in Finland, scientists are a step closer to being able to make custom spare parts for humans using stem cells. Riitta Suuronen of the Regea Institute of Regenerative Medicine, part of the University of Tampere, said at a press conference today that the researchers used a 65-year-old patient's own stem cells, which they nurtured and cultivated into bone tissue in the lab, to rebuild his upper jaw. —Heather Wax

The Altruism Reader

FROM THOMAS JAY OORD, A PROFESSOR OF THEOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY AT NORTHWEST NAZARENE UNIVERSITY: This has got to be one of the most nonaltruistic things I've done lately. I'm recommending that you check out my new book, The Altruism Reader: Selections from Writings on Love, Religion, and Science.
Yeah, I know. Shameless self-promotion and altruism aren't two things you normally put together. That's why I'm feeling nonaltruistic.
But maybe there's some altruism in this after all.
My hope in putting together this collection of writings was to provide people with easy access to some of the best writing on love and altruism currently available. To do that, I drew from both religious and scientific sources. I chose ancient writings and contemporary essays. I thought that putting all of this material together in one book would help people.
I also want readers to know that research on love and altruism has become more common in recent decades. This is due in part to developments in the sciences. Altruism is a HUGE issue today. But the increase in interest also has to do with the quest to discover possible commonalities among the world's major religions. This quest seems pretty important in our religiously pluralistic age, an age noted for interreligious flareups and conflict.
The first half of my book provides material from religious traditions, important theologians, and moral philosophers. You'll find short selections from the Quran, Bhagavadgita, the Bible, Augustine, Anders Nygren, the Dalai Lama, Stephen Post, John Polkinghorne, and others. Of course, I could only offer a small portion of the really great stuff available on this subject. There are about 20 selections, mind you. But in comparison to what I originally wanted to include, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The second half of the book contains scientific research on love. Research summaries, theories, and analysis in scientific disciplines such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, neurology, sociobiology, and nonhuman primate studies are included. In these contexts, "altruism" is often the favored word. Here, too, these essays represent a small portion of the large body of scientific research related to love and altruism. But I think readers will find the science especially stimulating.
The primary purpose of this anthology is that it be a text for college, university, and seminary courses. The idea for the project emerged from a discussion involving professors who won awards for their courses on altruism and love. Stephen Post, director of The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, and I brought together these professors at the Claremont School of Theology in the spring of 2004. But I think nonstudents will think this reader is great, too. Of course, I'm biased. But I'm finding many people outside the classroom want to read this book.
My hope is that this material will help us all better understand love and altruism. I also hope it will help us express love and altruism more consistently. I believe that we all ought to go after a life of love as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.
So maybe this recommendation IS altruistic!

"Bodies" Raise Ethical Concerns

Schools affiliated with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati have canceled their plans to offer field trips to "Bodies . . . The Exhibition" after the archbishop raised concerns about the exhibit in a memo to school administrators. In the memo, Archbishop of Cincinnati Daniel Pilarczyk wrote, "It seems to me that the use of human bodies in this way fails to respect the persons involved. Therefore, I do not believe that this exhibit is an appropriate destination for field trips by our Catholic schools." The exhibition uses the preserved remains of once-living people to offer visitors a realistic view of how the human body works. Protesters, however, continue to express concern over the manner in which the bodies were obtained. —Dan Messier

More Vatican Follow-Up

Pope Benedict XVI again waded into the science-and-religion debate yesterday when he said that embryonic stem cell research, artificial insemination, and attempts at human cloning had broken "the barrier protecting human dignity." Speaking before a meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office, the pope dismissed the idea that the Church is an obstacle to scientific progress, but said that it wants the future of science to be based on "ethical-moral principles." —Heather Wax

Roy Baumeister Speaks

Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, will deliver the annual Michael Dinoff Memorial Lecture today at the University of Alabama. Baumeister, whose research interests include identity, self-regulation, self-esteem, and the need to belong, will speak about "Free Will as the Expensive Control of Action."