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Monday, March 31, 2008

Focus on This

Scientists continue to look into the health benefits of meditation, which studies show may not only help those who struggle with depression and substance abuse, but also improve immunity, increase fertility, and slow the effects of aging. Researchers like Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who for years has studied the brains of Buddhist monks in his neuroscience lab, have found good evidence that meditation can impact the brain in measurable ways, possibly even changing it physically in areas that have been linked to happiness and the processing of emotion. His latest study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, suggests we may even be able to train our brains to be more compassionate and empathetic. The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to discover that the brain circuits used to detect feelings were significantly different in Tibetan monks who practice what's called "compassionate meditation"—in essence, focused concentration on a feeling of loving kindness toward all human beings—than in those who were new to the practice of meditation. But it's possible we all can teach ourselves to be more compassionate through meditation, the researchers claim, in much the same way that we can, through dedicated concentration, learn to play an instrument or a sport. —Heather Wax

Friday, March 28, 2008

Evolution of Revenge & Forgiveness

You can now get a sneak peek at the first chapter of Mike McCullough's upcoming book, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, which will hit the bookshelves next month. In the new book, McCullough, a professor of psychology and religious studies at the University of Miami, argues that "humans' capacity to forgive is every bit as natural as our tendency to seek vengeance" and that "an evolutionary approach to understanding both of these basic human traits can reveal new ways we can go about trying to make the world a more forgiving, less vengeful place," he says.
"McCullough approaches stories of extraordinary forgiveness with clear-eyed inquiry rather than misty-eyed reverence," reads the positive review in Publishers Weekly. "What conditions, he asks, are most likely to lead to forgiveness instead of revenge? How can we create those conditions at a societal, even global level? ... Accessible but unsentimental, this book will appeal to all who wish to better understand forgiveness and how to engender it." —Heather Wax

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Florida Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

The Florida Senate's Committee on Education Pre-K–12 voted 4-1 in favor of a new bill, introduced by Republican Senator Ronda Storms, that would "protect" teachers and students who present and discuss "scientific information" that questions and criticizes evolution. To explain what is meant by the term "scientific information," the committee amended the bill to include a definition: "germane current facts, data, and peer-reviewed research specific to the topic of chemical and biological evolution as prescribed in Florida's Science Standards." This definition would seem to bar "intelligent design" from the classroom, and many teachers saw it is a positive change from the original version of the bill, whose goal was to let teachers offer the "full range of scientific views" about origins and evolution. Keep in mind, however, that there is a small number of peer-reviewed ID papers (about 10), as well as the recently launched Web-based Answers Research Journal, which describes itself as a "peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework."
And there are other reasons many still worry the bill is trying to sneak religion into science classes. For one thing, a bill that protects teachers and students from discrimination and punishment for challenging evolution seems unnecessary, given that the Board of Education, cited in a Senate staff analysis of the bill (section 5), says it has no record of any such complaints. (Storms counters by saying victims are too afraid to come forward). Secondly, the bill is backed by a number of conservative activists, including Florida Family Action—a spin-off of the Florida Family Policy Council, which endeavors to make "the case for biblical family values in the public square" and counts "intelligent design" among its core issues—and Ben Stein, who's been screening his pro-ID movie across the country. And then there's Senator Larcenia Bullard, who voted for the bill because she believes teaching young students about evolution "may be brainwashing."
Senator Ted Deutch cast the one dissenting vote—namely because there have been no reports of discrimination and, he said, philosophical debates don't belong in science class. The bill will now go to the Senate's judiciary committee. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


The National Center for Science Education has created a Web site to counter the message of Expelled, the "intelligent design" movie featuring Ben Stein. For now, the site, Expelled Exposed, is a collection of reviews and news stories about the movie (and last Thursday's incident, in which evolutionary biologist P.Z. Myers was barred from a screening of the film), but tells visitors, "Keep checking this space for the National Center for Science Education's official response." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Florida's "Academic Freedom Act"

A state Senate bill that looks an awful lot like the Discovery Institute's "Academic Freedom Act," and that was introduced by Republican Senator Ronda Storms at the end of February, will come before the Florida Senate's Committee on Education Pre-K–12 tomorrow. Senate staff who reviewed the bill for the meeting packet (section 5) see it as vague, but describe it as claiming to protect "public school teachers who objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution" as well as "students from being penalized if they ascribe to a particular view regarding the theory of evolution." (According to the Department of Education, cited in the packet, there has never been a reported case in which a Florida public school teacher or student was discriminated against based on their science teaching or course work.) The staff also describes the bill as arguing that in order for teachers to develop and encourage "critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, innovation, collaboration, and communication skills" in their students, these teachers have to "address controversial subject matter and alternative theories, albeit in a professional and object manner, that allow students to consider and debate a wide spectrum of ideologies and theories in all subject areas." ("Alternative theories," of course, is often code for "intelligent design" and creationism.) The bill, which claims it does not intend to promote any religious belief, was introduced just days after the Florida's Board of Education adopted revised science standards that use the word "evolution" for the first time. Stay tuned. —Heather Wax

Louisiana's "Academic Freedom Act"

Though the new session of the state's Senate doesn't start until Monday, a new bill was prefiled by Louisiana Democratic Senator and Education Committee Chair Ben Nevers last week. While in name the "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act" is very similar to bills recently filed in Florida (which are based on a sample bill found on a Discovery Institute Web site), Nevers' bill is actually based on a policy adopted by the local Ouachita Parish School Board and backed by the Louisiana Family Forum, which promotes creationism, according to the National Center for Science Education. Since November 2006, the board's policy allows teachers to helps students understand "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught"—naming, specifically, only "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." Similarly, according to the NCSE, the new bill states that "the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy" and that teachers should "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught." Administrators, for their part, are not to "censor or suppress in any way any writing, document, record, or other content of any material" that references those subjects. Still, the bill claims it is not trying to "promote any religious doctrine." —Heather Wax

Monday, March 24, 2008

Myers Follow-Up

Richard Dawkins has written a review of Thursday's incident—in which P.Z. Myers was barred from a screening of the "intelligent design" movie Expelled—as well as a review of the film itself. He's also posted a clip from a to-be-released 90-minute discussion between the two evolutionary biologists and atheists, in which they talk about what happened. "What astonishes me about this is—well, everyone's been pointing it out around the globe—is that it's an incredible piece of inept public relations to expel somebody not just from any film but from a film about expelling people for their, I don't know, opinions or what they say, or think what they think," Dawkins tells Myers. Dawkins also calls the movie "bad" and "boring," though Myers' appearance is said to be "genial." (On his own blog, Pharyngula, Myers corrects a point he makes in this clip about a cell video in the movie.)
Over on the Panda's Thumb site, Allen MacNeill, who teaches biology and evolution at Cornell University, left a comment saying that he and William Provine, a professor of the history of biology at Cornell, were also interviewed for the film under false pretenses (like Dawkins and Myers, they were told the movie was called Crossroads and would fairly examine the relationship between science and religion), but "unlike P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins, the interviews with Will and I were not included in the film. Why not? Because (as many posters at this site are well aware), we regularly invite ID proponents (such as Michael Behe, John Sanford, Hannah Maxson, and Phillip Johnson, among many others) to make presentations in our evolution courses at Cornell. But this fact would clash in an unfortunate way with the premise of the film, which is that “Darwinists” unfairly discriminate against ID supporters and creationists," he writes
"In other words, Expelled is a propaganda piece, pure and simple, as are virtually all of the public pronouncements of the Discovery Institute and their supporters. Scientists don’t make propaganda movies (although we are sometimes invited to participate in them under fraudulent pretenses). No, we go out into the field and the laboratory and investigate nature," he continues. "This fascination with the way the universe works is the heart and soul of science, not a desire to undermine religion. If that were the case, why were many of the founders of the science of evolutionary biology (including Ronald Aylmer Fisher, Sewall Wright, Theodosius Dobzhansky) and so many current evolutionary biologists (including Ken Miller and myself, among others) members of various religious traditions?"
On his blog, Framing Science, Matthew Nisbet, an American University communications professor who focuses on the intersections between science, media, and politics, says that if Myers and Dawkins really want to counter the message of the film, they should let others, like Miller and Francis Ayala, be the voice of the scientific community. "The simplistic and unscientific claim that more knowledge leads to less religion might be the particular delusion of Dawkins, Myers, and many others, but it is by no means the official position of science, though they often implicitly claim to speak for science. Nor does it stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions," Nisbet says. "As long as Dawkins and P.Z. continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education. Dawkins and P.Z. need to lay low as Expelled hits theaters. ... Lay low and let others do the talking.
"So Richard and P.Z., when it comes to Expelled, it's time to let other people be the messengers for science. This is not about censoring your ideas and positions, but rather being smart, strategic, tactical, and ultimately effective in promoting science rather than your own personal ideology, books, or blog." Nisbet promises to expand on this point on Thursday, when he talks about "Consensus and Conflict in Communicating About Science" at the University of Wisconson-Eau Claire. —Heather Wax

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dawkins In, Myers Out

That's what happened last night when evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers tried to see a private screening of the movie Expelled, which defends "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution, at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, where they're attending the American Atheists Conference. Myers, who blogged about the incident from the mall's Apple store only moments later, says he was pulled out of line by a security guard who said that film producer Mark Mathis had spotted Myers, barred him from the screening, and asked that he leave immediately (Myers had registered for the screening, as was required, using his real name). Myers' family was allowed in, as, surprisingly, was Dawkins—Myers claiming it's because Dawkins wasn't recognized. "He's in the theater right now, watching their movie," blogs Myers. "Tell me, are you laughing as hard as I am?" Mathis told The New York Times they allowed Dawkins in because he has "handled himself fairly honorably" and likely had come a long way to see the film.
Both Dawkins,
the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, and Myers, a professor at the University of Minnesota, appear in the film, which they say they agreed to under false pretenses; they were told the movie was called Crossroads and would be an examination of the relationship between science and religion. Greg Laden, an associate adviser with the Program for Individualized Learning at the the University of Minnesota, is compiling other accounts of last night's incident on his blog, and Myers' daughter has posted her review of the movie. —Heather Wax

Money Buys Happiness

But not in the way you might think. According to a new study out of the University of British Columbia in Canada and published in this week's Science, how you spend your money—and more specifically, who you spend it on—is more important than how much you have, and can go a long way in determining how satisfied you are. In a series of experiments, psychologist Elizabeth Dunn (who looks extremely happy on her homepage) and her colleagues found that higher levels of happiness were reported by people who spent more money on gifts and charitable donations—what Dunn calls "pro-social" spending—than they spent on themselves. Past research has shown that once people have enough money to cover their basic needs, like food and rent, increased income, such as a pay raise or winning the lottery, can boost their happiness level, but only slightly and for a short time. But a number of studies have shown that a sense of community and acts of kindness can have a lasting impact on our well-being. —Heather Wax

Wesleyans and Pentecostals Explore S&R

Tom Oord of the Wesleyan Theological Society (pictured left), who's also a professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University, wrote in to tell us about the society's meeting this past week, the largest in its history. Members joined with scholars from the Society for Pentecostal Studies at Duke University for "Sighs, Signs, and Significance: Wesleyan and Pentecostal Explorations of Science and Creation," a conference that Oord chaired. Here's what he wrote:

Guest theologian Jürgen Motlmann took the conference theme as the structure for his keynote address. Motmann said that interpreting creation involves understanding the natural world and the revealed Scripture as ultimately in harmony. This does not mean that various creation stories in the Bible should be regarded as good contemporary science. But Genesis does tell us the fundamental truth that God is the creator. ...
The meeting was groundbreaking. This was the first time so many theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers, and historians in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition have met together to think deeply on issues of science and theology.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

S&R Lite

In his Wired column this week, humorist Lore Sjöberg tackles what he calls the "ultimate smackdown" between science and religion with a practical checklist. The final score? Religion wins on the question of food, but science comes out ahead in the sex department. Music and "stuff" end in a tie. Still no ultimate winner, he concludes. And the debate continues. ... —Heather Wax

Science, Religion, & Arthur C. Clarke

Beloved science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died yesterday at the age of 90, and today, as he is being remembered by scientists, writers, and fans, comes news that he left explicit instructions for a completely secular funeral. Clarke, a dedicated humanist and visionary, with a background in physics and math, asked that "absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith" be associated with the ceremonies. He will be buried on Saturday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he's lived since 1956.
Though Clarke believed religion was dangerous and something humanity needed to outgrow, his books, more than 100 in total, often dealt with ultimate questions of faith as well as science. Most famous among these works, 2001: A Space Odyssey (both a novel and a screenplay he co-wrote with director Stanley Kubrick) explores the perils of artificial intelligence and the mystery of human origins. The Nine Billion Names of God closes with the end of the universe. His final novel, The Last Theorem, which Clarke co-wrote with author Frederik Pohl, centers around a young Sri Lankan who discovers a short proof to Fermat's Last Theorem. The book will be published later this year. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Winners Don't Punish

A group of researchers led by Martin Nowak, a professor of biology and mathematics and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University, wrote in to tell us about their new paper, in this week's edition of Nature:

We show that individuals who engage in costly punishment in a cooperation game do not benefit from their behavior. The study found that the use of punitive behavior correlates strongly with reduced individual payoff, and bestows no benefit on the group as a whole.
These results demonstrate that costly punishment is not an effective force for promoting cooperation. The unfortunate tendency of humans to engage in acts of spiteful punishment must have evolved for other reasons such as establishing dominance hierarchy and defending ownership, but not to promote cooperation. In cooperation games, costly punishment is a detrimental and self-destructive behavior.
Our finding has a very positive message: In an extremely competitive setting, the winners are those who resist the temptation to escalate conflicts, while the losers punish and perish.
Anna Dreber, department of economics, Stockholm School of Economics, Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics
David Rand, Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and department of systems biology
Drew Fudenberg, Harvard's department of economics

Martin Nowak, Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, department of mathematics, and department of organismic and evolutionary biology

José González, S&R's Songwriter

Singer-songwriter José González, who's first album Veneer sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide, has taken his most recent album, In Our Nature, on tour, playing a number of U.S. dates this month. Turns out González, who was born in Sweden to Argentine parents, is a former doctoral candidate in biochemistry at the University of Gothenburg, and it shows; there aren't many indie folk singers who point their fans to essays on morality by Steven Pinker. So inspired was González by Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion that the book influences a number of his newest songs. “Abram,” for example, refers to the biblical story of Abraham, who nearly sacrificed his own son to God. It "questions the blind faith to these Scriptures and trying to say that in a joking way—not to be too harsh," González told San Diego CityBeat. A self-described atheist, González says that as a scientist he was trained "to see the difference between an explanation that’s sufficient and one that really isn’t sufficient. Rationality is the way I think.” Yet, he adds, “I really enjoy the big questions, the ones that have to do with ethics or free will that are more difficult to address with scientific methods and are mostly discussed within philosophy or religion." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Archaeologists Unearth Jewish Prayer

An amulet with a Jewish prayer has been found in a third-century child's grave in Austria, meaning Jews have been living in that area since the Roman Empire—much earlier than previously known. Before the discovery, letters dating back to the ninth century were the oldest evidence of Austrian Jewry. Archaeologists have been examining the amulet since 2006, but only announced the find last week because the inscription proved so difficult to decipher. The prayer, found on a tiny gold scroll inside a silver ornament, was written in Greek letters and taken from the Old Testament's book of Deuteronomy, say archaeologists from the University of Vienna, who made the find. The translation: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one." —Heather Wax

Monday, March 17, 2008

Faith-Based Group Saves Darwin Exhibit

"Darwin: The Evolution Revolution," an exhibit that originated at the American Museum of Natural History, found itself in some trouble when it arrived at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where it opened last week. Turns out the museum's regular sponsors, which include both companies and private patrons, were worried about attaching their names to what they saw as a controversial show, reports the Toronto Star. That's when The United Church Observer magazine (which operates independently from the church) decided to offer up a donation of 40,000 dollars, its largest donation ever. The magazine will co-sponsor the exhibit with the Humanist Association of Canada, which donated 50,000 dollars. "We were dismayed to learn that the exhibit had been unable to secure corporate sponsorship in Toronto or in any of the other North American cities where it has been mounted. Our support is modest but symbolic. If a small church-based operation such as The Observer doesn't fear a backlash from those who oppose Darwin's theory of evolution, then secular corporate entities with much greater resources shouldn't fear it either," David Wilson, the magazine's editor and publisher, said in a press release.
"There is nothing in the exhibit that threatens or diminishes religion or people of faith in any way. If anything, it shines light on the inherent beauty and wonder of a creation that is constantly and eternally evolving," he added. "The Darwin exhibit deserves support, and we're not afraid to say so." —Heather Wax

Friday, March 14, 2008

Archbishop Lists Science Among Modern Sins

Genetic experimentation has been named one of the "new forms of social sin" by Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, a high-ranking Vatican official. Girotto, who also included environmental pollution on his list, didn't just focus on science; he also included drug abuse and the hoarding of wealth as "new sins" in his interview with the Vatican City newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. The interview has been widely reported as establishing a list of seven modern deadly sins, but members of the Catholic Church have called this media sensationalism, saying instead that the list outlines a series of new responsibilities. —Dan Messier

Religion & Environmentalism

Earlier this week, 25-year-old seminary student Jonathan Merritt, with the support of many influential leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, released a proposal of action and conservation in response to the challenge of climate change. The "Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative" makes four points on the issue: Humans have a responsibility to care for the environment, addressing the problem is prudent, environmental stewardship is required of all Christians, and individuals and organizations should act now. The proposal conflicts with a resolution on global warming passed last June at the South Baptist Convention's official annual meeting, which urged caution on the issue in light of what it saw as conflicting evidence. (The scientific consensus is that climate change is real and occurring; the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found, with more than 90 percent certainty, that global warming has begun and is a result of human activities.) Ultimately, no one group speaks for all of the 16.3 million members of the Southern Baptist denomination, who leave final decisions to the local churches, but Merritt's declaration will likely have a strong influence as congregations begin to address the issue for themselves. —Stephen Mapes

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Texas Follow-Up

Former teacher Pat Hardy has kept her seat on the Texas State Board of Education. Hardy, known as a strong supporter of sound science during her six years on the board, was challenged by Dr. Barney Maddox, an advocate of creationism, in the Republican primary earlier this month. There is no Democratic opponent for the general election. —Heather Wax

Dispatch from Dawkins' Tour

For the second time in the last few days, it's been reported that Richard Dawkins, on a university tour this month, has described making children participate in religious activities like Sunday school as "child abuse." The Badger Herald reports that at the University of Wisconsin on Tuesday night, Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and well-known atheist, said the problem is that young children are not yet equipped to critically examine religion or their own beliefs. Once they reach university, however, it's the perfect time and place to engage in discussions about science and religion, he said, urging students to use logic in seeking the truth. “Think critically for yourself,” he told them. “Don’t believe what people tell you unless they give you the evidence. What is the evidence? How do you know what you’re being told is true? Is it from faith, revelation, or Scripture? If it’s any of those things, forget it. Always go for evidence.”
At Stanford University on Sunday, where he spoke along with Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University, The Stanford Daily reports that Dawkins focused on bolstering a science curriculum free of religion in the country's public schools. While Krauss appeared to agree with many of Dawkins' views, he parts ways with Dawkins when it comes to wanting to eliminate religion all together; Krauss said he believes it's possible for religion and science, specifically evolution, to co-exist. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How to Spend 1.6 Million Dollars

During the Q&A following his acceptance of the Templeton Prize, valued at more than 1.6 million dollars, Michael Heller said he would give all the money to endow the Copernicus Center in Krakow, Poland, to be established by the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. The CIS is an informal group of scientists, philosophers, and theologians, including Heller, who gather to discuss the intersection of science and culture. The new, formal institution, which will involve the collaboration of Jagiellonian University and the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow, will continue the discussion, he said, studying the relationship between science and religion as "an academic discipline." —Heather Wax

Michael Heller Wins Templeton Prize

Michael Heller, a Catholic priest, theologian, mathematical physicist, cosmologist, and philosophy professor at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow, Poland, is the 2008 Templeton Prize winner. He is accepting the award this morning at a press conference (and live Web cast) at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York.
For more than 40 years, and often under communist repression, Heller has explored life's ultimate questions by studying the origin and cause of the universe, focusing on the beauty and comprehensibility of its mathematical structure. "Mathematical structures that are parts of the composition determining the functioning of the universe are called laws of physics," he said in prepared remarks. "It is a very subtle composition indeed. Like in any masterly symphony, elements of chance and necessity are interwoven with each other and together span the structure of the whole. Elements of necessity determine the pattern of possibilities and dynamical paths of becoming, but they leave enough room for chancy events to make this becoming rich and individual."
Heller's insights into math, physics, and religion began to develop at early age—family friends would gather in the Heller home to discuss these topics—and his father would often talk about the great need to combine science and religion. From the time he was 10, Heller had decided both were important and would be a part of his life, setting his path to the priesthood and academia. "Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning," he said. "Both are prerequisites of the decent existence. The paradox is that these two great values seem often to be in conflict. I am frequently asked how I could reconcile them with each other. When such a question is posed by a scientist or a philosopher, I invariably wonder how educated people could be so blind not to see that science does nothing else but exploits God’s creation."
The Templeton Prize, valued at more than 1.5 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. It will be officially awarded to Heller by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, at a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London on May 7. —Heather Wax

Templeton Prize Announcement Hours Away

The winner of this year's Templeton Prize, awarded "for progress toward research and discoveries about spiritual realities" and worth more than 1.6 million dollars, will be announced this morning at 11 . Register online for the live Web cast and stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Does Darwin Exhibit Disappoint?

Canadian journalist and art critic Robert Fulford has reviewed "Darwin: The Evolution Revolution," an exhibit that originated at the American Museum of Natural History and opened over the weekend at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Primarily, Fulford takes issue with the overly long wall text, specifically a sentence that calls Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection a "single, simple scientific explanation for the diversity of life on earth."
"Simple? Did they say simple?" he writes in the National Post. "It's possible that you can make it sound simple by glib summary. But its implications are the reverse of simple. They demand a leap of the imagination most of the world has always found extremely difficult. ... In the 1860s, when the world was first compelled to deal with him, his theory was terrifying, world-shaking, religion-threatening. It still raises furious controversy."
While he's somewhat taken with the life-size reproduction of the deck of Darwin's boat, the HMS Beagle, he's dismayed by an exhibit he feels "limps through its subject, barely hinting at the great audacity of Darwin's thinking. The exhibition provides great piles of data about Darwin and Darwinism but at no point demands thought or response from those who view it." Overall, he concludes, "the curators appear to believe that in 2008 evolution and everything connected with it have congealed into received wisdom, needing only to be articulated once more, in the style that museums have been using for at least half a century. Perhaps out of a belief that we couldn't deal with anything stronger, the exhibition gives us a cozy and harmless version of a painful, challenging idea that transformed science and the world." —Heather Wax

Pop Goes Religion

Mark Pinsky, religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel and a 2008 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship winner, will speak about “Religion and Popular Culture: Shotgun Wedding, Marriage of Convenience or Match Made in Heaven?” at Wake Forest University on March 25. Pinsky, who often writes about the intersection of faith, media, and popular culture, is the author of The Gospel According to the Simpsons, The Gospel According to Disney, and A Jew Among the Evangelicals. On March 28, he'll sit on a panel, "Evangelicals After Billy Graham," at Duke Divinity School.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Science, Religion, & Ian McEwan

In Australia for the Adelaide Festival of Art's Writers' Week, British novelist Ian McEwan spoke with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about his book Atonement and his views on human nature. If he wasn't a writer, said McEwan, whose next novel will center around how humans can tackle the challenge of climate change, he'd like to be a scientist. "Science is a wonderful invention. I mean, it's an amazing thought system unlike any other in that it can correct itself. Skepticism is in-built. It's like a ship on a course. It can be constantly corrected and refined," he said. "Religion can't do that. Religion has its sacred text. They're fixed in time and people worship them. What's great about science I think is its flexibility. It will adjust with more information coming in."
McEwan also shared his views on religion earlier this year in an interview with The New Republic, saying that "it is crucial that people who do not have a sky god and don't have a set of supernatural beliefs assert their belief in moral values and in love and in the transcendence that they might experience in landscape or art or music or sculpture or whatever. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, it makes them give more valence to life itself. The little spark that we do have becomes all the more valuable when you can't be trading off any moments for eternity." —Heather Wax

Ray Kurzweil's Movie Set for Late 2008

The movie version of futurist Ray Kurzweil's best-selling book The Singularity is Near (the film's name is the same) will hit the theaters later this year. Billed as "a true story about the future," the full-length motion picture, written by Kurzweil, is part documentary—Kurzweil talks with a number of big thinkers on how technology will affect our future lives—and part the narrative story of Ramona, Kurzweil's female alter ego. According to the plot details that have been released, Ramona "goes into the future, where she becomes more and more humanlike and independent. ... She combats an attack of self-replicating nanobots (gray goo) and hires noted attorney Alan Dershowitz (who plays himself) to press for her legal rights as a 'person.' The judge rules that he will grant her full legal personhood if she passes a 'Turing test,' in which she must appear indistinguishable from an actual human in a text conversation. She gets coaching from Tony Robbins (who plays himself) to become 'more human.' The story continues from here." Preview clips are said to be coming soon. Stay tuned. —Heather Wax

Saving Baby Jacob

In yesterday's Boston Globe Magazine, Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, a pediatric cardiologist at UMass Medical School, tells the story of Maria and Jose Azevedo, Jehovah's Witnesses whose son was born with a heart problem called "transposition of the great arteries." More broadly, Sanghavi explores what happens when parents and doctors disagree on the course of treatment for a child, not because of a disagreement on quality of life issues but because of their different cultural, religious, or moral convictions. The Azevedos had "priorities that were rooted in their faith," he writes, and what Sanghavi saw as a no-brainer—put the baby on a heart-lung bypass machine soon after birth and then perform corrective surgery—was for them the choice of whether to "allow their baby to die a preventable death, or save their baby and forfeit a chance at eternal life in paradise." (According to Sanghavi, the bypass machine uses donated blood, and Jehovah's Witnesses refuse red-blood transfusions based on a literal reading of the New Testament's book of Acts, which calls on them to "abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood.") In the end, a judge authorized the treatment herself so that the Azevedos could honor their church's teaching yet still save their son, and "neither the Azevedos nor I shifted our beliefs much," writes Sanghavi. "We just agreed on a ritual that allowed us all to move on." —Heather Wax

On the Shelf

Chris Hedges, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School's seminary and author of American Fascists about the religious fundamentalists of the Christian right, has a written a new book in which he takes on the "new atheists" and their attack on religion—led by the core four of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. In I Don't Believe in Atheists, Hedges argues that these atheists are secular fundamentalists, which he views to be just as radical, extreme, and strident as the religious kind.
"This book raises some interesting points, but rests on shaky foundations," Lorenzo DiTommaso, an assistant professor of theology at Concordia University in Montreal, writes in a review of the book. "His book promises a reply to Hitchens and the others, but instead responds to a straw man of his own design. Of course, this is not to say that there is no reply to Hitchens, et al., as the many (and often convincing) responses in literary circles attest," adds DiTommaso. "Hedges asserts, with some justification, that atheists don't understand religion. The problem with this book is that Hedges doesn't understand atheism." —Heather Wax

Friday, March 7, 2008

Throwing the Book at Them

Last May, Hachette Book Group's imprint Twelve published Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, and now this June, a different Hachette imprint, FaithWords, will release what looks to be a response: Greater Than You Think: A Theologian Answers the Atheists About God by Catholic priest Thomas Williams. The point-counterpoint is indicative of a larger trend, claims the current issue of Publisher's Weekly. In an extensive book roundup, the trade magazine highlights the writers from different faith backgrounds who are lining up to take aim at the "new atheists," a movement led by authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, who assert not only that God does not exist, but also that belief in God is outdated, foolish, and even dangerous.
Books by Christian apologists like Chuck Colson and Harold Fickett's The Faith and Ravi Zacharias's The End of Reason seek to respond to the new atheists by proving the intellectual soundness of the Christian faith. Rabbi David Wolpe's Why Faith Matters provides a Jewish response. There's even an atheist response to the new atheists, with some nonbelievers arguing that you can be spiritual without being religious, as André Comte-Sponville does in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. —Dan Messier

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Galileo Gets Statue in the Vatican

Seeking to fully redeem the legacy and image of Galileo, the Vatican will erect a statue in the astronomer's honor within the Vatican gardens. The statue will stand near the apartment where Galileo lived while awaiting trial on the charge of heresy, brought against him by the Catholic Church. During the 1633 trial, Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant his scientific view of heliocentrism, the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun. Now, in the lead-up to the 400th anniversary of Galileo's telescope next year, the Vatican is seeking to make amends, not only with the statue, but also with a conference on the scientist and a review of his case at an institute in Florence. —Stephen Mapes

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Florida Follow-Up

Just weeks after Florida’s Board of Education voted to add the word "evolution" to the state's science curriculum, which calls evolution a fundamental concept underlying all biology, comes news that anti-evolution bills have been introduced in the Florida State Senate and in the House of Representatives by activists who want to see alternatives to evolution taught in the science classroom. The identical bills claim to protect the right of teachers to "objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution in connection with teaching any prescribed curriculum regarding chemical or biological origins" and the right of students not to be "penalized in any way because he or she subscribes to a particular position or view regarding biological or chemical evolution." (The bills are very similar to a sample bill on a Web site of the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes "intelligent design.") Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller voiced his disapproval, saying he "never thought I'd be in the Florida Senate in the 21st century, still having the same debate about evolution."Heather Wax

Rajkumar Ambrose Writes

Rajkumar Ambrose, a physics professor at Monmouth College in Illinois, where he teaches a course called "Cosmology and Creation," shares his opinion on science and religion's common ground in USA Today. To show how modern science might help us to better understand theological concepts, Ambrose draws on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, a tenet of quantum mechanics that says we can't know with precision both the position and velocity of a particle (if we determine exactly where a particle is, we can't discover how fast it's going or what direction it's traveling; if we determine its velocity, we can't know its exact position). According to Ambrose, who references Syracuse University philosopher William Alston, "God's acts can be explained through quantum indeterminism. The mighty acts of God may begin at the subatomic level but make a big difference at the macroscopic state." —Heather Wax

Guy Consolmagno Speaks

Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit brother and a scholar at the Vatican Observatory in Arizona, will speak about "How Scientists Think About Religion" and the Catholic view of the compatibility of science and religion at the University of Dallas tomorrow. Consolmagno personally believes that science and religion, which he sees as answering separate questions and address different aspects of human nature, are not mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Giving Up Carbon for Lent

Eco-theologians and religious environmentalists got together this past weekend at the "Renewing Hope" conference at Yale University, sponsored by The Forum on Religion and Ecology, to discuss new and creative ways religions can help encourage environmental activism and awareness. Religious environmentalism is on the rise, and now The Boston Globe is reporting that a number of Christians across New England have pledged to "go green" and give up carbon for Lent, using clotheslines rather than dryers and candles in place of lights, eating only locally grown food, and carpooling more. These "Lenten environmentalists," as they have come to be known, recognize that their small, individual actions will do little to slow global warming, but say the 40 days of penance and sacrifice leading up to Easter is the perfect time to re-examine consumption and to take greater responsibility in caring for creation. —Kaitlin Shimer

Religion, Robots, & Japan

Japan is on the leading edge of a robotic revolution, according to The Associated Press, and the country's native religion, Shinto, could be a key factor in helping to move the nation toward a greater acceptance of robots—not only in the workforce and health-care field (where there are already robotic receptionists and hospital guides), but also in citizens' homes, living side by side with humans and forming deeper, more meaningful relationships. While living with robots paints an uncomfortable picture for many Americans, who tend to conjure up an image of the invasive Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Terminator, the Japanese are more likely to think of robots as helpful companions than creepy counterparts. And while there are still scientific and cultural barriers to overcome before robots will be moving into residents' homes, the Shinto religion, which doesn't make hard distinctions between the animate and inanimate, allows for an easier integration of robots into everyday life. —Evan Peck

Monday, March 3, 2008

TED Grants Three Wishes

Saturday was the closing day of TED—the annual conference celebrating technology, entertainment, and design—which meant it was time for the TED Prize winners to reveal their personal wishes to change the world. (Each year, TED picks three people to make a wish and gives them 100,000 dollars and the support of TED's community of influential scientists, artists, and politicians, to help fulfill it.) This year, University of Cambridge mathematical physicist Neil Turok wished for help in unlocking scientific talent across Africa; novelist and San Francisco community activist Dave Eggers wished for every conference attendee to become directly involved with a public school; and religious scholar Karen Armstrong wished for the creation of a Charter for Compassion, written by Christian, Jewish, and Islamic leaders and thinkers, and built upon the universal ideals of justice and respect.
Last year, E.O. Wilson wished for an Encyclopedia of Life, an online catalogue of the world's 1.8 million known species, and the first pages went live last week. The site currently contains pages for roughly 1 million species, though only about 25 are considered exemplary of what the creators hope to achieve. —Stephen Mapes

S&R Weekend

This weekend is the Silverdale Lutheran Church's Annual Lay School of Theology, and this year the program will focus on evolution and stem cell research, featuring three lectures by Ted Peters, a professor of systematic theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. The theme, "Science and Faith: Friends or Foe," was chosen by Bill Crabtree, pastor of the Washington church, who feels the topic is especially important in an election year.

Do You Want to Live Forever?

This Thursday, S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Aubrey de Grey, a biogerontologist with The Methuselah Foundation—the two "Titans of Immortality Research," according to the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity—will square off over radical life extension and whether they, and we, should want to live forever. The public debate will be held at the Arizona Science Center and in conjunction with the "Extending Life: Setting the Agenda for the Ethics of Aging, Death and Immortality" conference.