Is life ruled by cosmic design or cause and effect? Stephen Strauss suggests that some of the answers may be found in our DNA.
In December of last year, Nature magazine, depending on how you view it either the first or second most important science publication in the world, published an article headlined “Buddhism on the Brain.”
While most of the piece detailed a conference on the human mind held at the Dalai Lama’s headquarters in Dharamsala, buried within it was a paragraph which undoubtedly caused some of the relentlessly scientific readers of Nature to clean their glasses and begin reading the startling words out loud.
Fred Gage, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, who had presented his research showing that the mammalian brain can change and adapt during adulthood, reported a conversation with the Dalai Lama. “At one point I asked: ‘What if neuroscience comes up with information that directly contradicts Buddhist philosophy?’,” said Gage. “The answer was: ‘Then we would have to change the philosophy to match the science.’”
The shock value for scientists was not what this said about the plasticity of Buddhism, but rather hearing the words in the context of the near H-bomb-level conflict between science and religion playing out in the United States. I can give you some sense of the incendiary nature of this dispute from that classic literary measure of the public mind – newspaper headlines.
“Keep Your Church Away From My State,” reads one in Syracuse’s Post Standard/Herald Journal. “Darwin Faces God In Kansas Trial,” exclaims the Ottawa Citizen. “Evolutionary War,” announces the Boston Globe.
Another measure of the intensity of the dispute are the category-5-hurricane rhetorical winds – read all shrubs, trees, and signs blown down, complete destruction of mobile homes – generated by various individual disputants. When meeting a scientist who also believes in divinity, the defiantly atheist New York Times science writer Natalie Angier starts popping mental veins. “How can a bench-hazed Ph.D., who might of an afternoon deftly puree a colleague’s PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read a two-thousand-year-old chronicle riddled with internal contradictions of a meta-Nobel discovery like ‘Resurrection from the Dead,’ and say, gee, that sounds convincing?” she writes in an essay on her “god problem.”
To this David F. Coppedge, founder and “chief bwana” of a website devoted to both disproving evolution and promoting “creation safaris,” responds with equal vitriol: “The laziness of evolutionists is parasitic on society. Did this tall tale by Darwin Party mythmakers bless your heart? Did it do anybody any good? Did it advance civilization or help those in need? Challenge your professor when he wastes your time with improvable assertions and glittering generalities that assume evolution before the evidence even has had a chance to speak.”
The conflict between religion and science is hardly new – the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo and battles over Darwinism in the last century leap to mind – but what is startling is the vehemence of the conflict in what, if you judge from the numbers of recipients of Nobel Prizes and the nationality of authors of scientific papers, is the leading scientific country on earth. I will leave it to others to reflect on the Red State versus Blue State, Bushites versus Kerryites sociology aspect of the conflict, and discuss in this essay two things. First, what seems to me to be the essence of the disagreement, and second, some hope if not exactly for a resolution, then for a reconfiguration of complaint.
I wish to approach the first not from a he-said, she-said accounting of what the disputants say is the problem, but from the dim, dark cellar of my youth, where I once had a religion/science moment so profound that it deformed the rest of my life. I had obtained some LSD, and those being the days when the drug was supposed to open up Huxley’s euphonious Doors of Perception, I conceived taking it as a way to encounter God, who to that moment seemed to have gone out of his or her or its way to ignore me.
So I took my tab and laid down on a mattress in a dumpy apartment on the Lower East Side and awaited a divine incarnation. What transpired was instead exceedingly clinical: the splotched walls melted, my body seemed to disconnect from my brain, fantasy flowers bloomed in the melted paint – and then nothing. Reality had become an hallucination, but no god, no higher consciousness, no sense of the divine manifested itself.
So I got up and later that night started to tell my friends that I had conducted a scientific experiment and it proved there was no God.
It was, in retrospect, a gigantically arrogant interpretation of the even more fantastically constructed god-conceit of LSD’s promoters, but one that was deeply bolstered by my sense that I had been, as best I could be, scientific in my search. I had seized upon what philosopher Karl Popper argued was the essence of what science was. Mine was a testable thesis. If LSD opened up a pathway in which God suddenly became available, God should appear to me. If the technique worked for me, the experiment could supposedly be repeated with others. To avoid the possibility of other influences, I’d also made sure I had taken only LSD and nothing else. While there might be problems with the Stephen Strauss God experiment – a sample size of one, for example – I had made myself open to the possibility that a sense of the divine would appear by clearing my mind of doubt about the existence of a god.
I describe this experience because it seems to me that it captures, in its youthful arrogance, what is the most fundamental but oft unexpressed element in the present conflict between science and religion. The warring in some large way is between conflicting and conflicted methodologies.
Scientists believe in their results, but only because they believe in a deeper sense in science’s methodology, and that methodology is profoundly materialistic and non-transcendental. Anyone who has ever spent ten seconds in a scientific laboratory has to be struck by how much discovery has become a routine. You conduct an experiment, and then conduct it again, and then conduct it a third time, because you worry that your materials were contaminated, or that the graduate student from Japan who had worked a sixteen-hour shift had fallen asleep at a crucial moment, or that your result was an artifact of a machine’s hiccup.
If things keep repeating themselves, then you write up your results in a scientific paper and distribute it to other scientists, who try as hard as they can to figure out how you have tricked yourself into believing that you understand nature. When you have convinced them that you haven’t made some fundamental methodological mistakes, then what you found can be published, and others can try to repeat your experiment. If they succeed, it is thought that what you have found is – more or less – true. If not, suddenly the evil wind of potential scientific fraud starts blowing through your life.
This faith in how you arrive at answers has an almost religious feel to it. It led that most scientific – and most theist – of American presidents, Thomas Jefferson, to opine that “the patient pursuit of facts, and cautious combination and comparison of them, is the drudgery which man is subjected to by his Maker, if he wishes to attain sure knowledge.”
Against this is placed organized religion’s entirely different set of methodological presuppositions. What holy seekers are looking for are transcendent truths, and their methodology is invariably one of individual search and discovery. There is routinization to be sure – meditation, prayer, ritual behavior – but nobody is going to confuse the compulsive calculations in a laboratory with the drama of worship or self-knowledge advancement in a temple, church, synagogue, or mosque. Believers aren’t conducting an experiment to see if their beliefs make sense. They don’t send particular moments of enlightenment out to peers to see if colleagues in spirituality can figure out a hundred ways in which they were kidding themselves. They don’t risk being rebuked if others don’t achieve the same sense of the sacred as they on any given day. If there is contradiction between their religion’s truths and others, it is not a question of fraud. Rather it is that, as the New Testament has it, “in my father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
Essentially, the quality of transcendent belief in a god or godhead defies experimentation. Looking at the methodological chasm between the two different ways of discerning the truth, the greatest surprise would be if religion and science did not war, and war fanatically. Even if you looked at exactly the same topic, you would be hard put to believe that with such profoundly dissimilar methodologies – the Dalai Lama’s science/religion ecumenicism aside – you would arrive at the same answers. This difference in approach has inspired efforts on the part of some to describe a universe in which both approaches worked, but in different domains.
The most notable of these in recent times has been the attempt by Harvard paleontologist and literary science writer extraordinaire Stephen Jay Gould to formulate the notion of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Essentially, Gould argues that science and religion have their own fields of authority. Science covers the material realm. Religion is the arena of ultimate meaning and moral value. A truce, if maybe not true peace, can be reached on the science/religion war front if you just let the two domains operate in their own areas of expertise.
“To cite the old clichés, science gets the ages of rocks and religion gets the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven,” wrote Gould in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages.
It is an interesting idea, but one that doesn’t seem to have quelled the science/religion culture wars one bit. Au contraire, it seems in some instances to have inflamed it. Richard Dawkins, the British zoologist, has been particularly vehement in promoting an atheistic science, describing NOMA as a classic example of “a cowardly flabbiness of the intellect [that] afflicts otherwise rational people confronted with long-established religions.”
Believers are equally harsh. “Consider what we must accept with Gould’s NOMA. Since religion is not conditioned by reality, anything – ultimately – goes. The absence of testing and self-correcting means that nothing prevents religious sects or ideas from proliferating like rats in a brewery,” writes creationist author Michael Magee on that most secular and divine of modern places, the Internet.
I am not going to go into this dispute, because with methodologies so fundamentally opposed I am not sure I see where anything leads except to more disagreement. But, as promised, I am going to point out what seems to me to be a way into a very different thicket.
Every time I look at the science/religion battles I am struck by how extremely limited the area of contention is. There are no movements I am aware of that seek to place doubt on Newton’s laws of gravity and movement. No religious group endorses science textbooks that want to replace E=MC2 with a more divinely suited equation. Nobody is demanding an alternative explanation of how electricity works, or why planes fly, or what causes hurricanes. Believers and nonbelievers both think the heart is a blood pump, the lungs an oxygen storage depot, and stars glow because they are burning gas. While there are certain disputes in cosmology and geology, where the conflict burns the brightest is in biology, and in particular in that area of biology where change and movement, what is commonly known as speciation, plays itself out.
While clearly what motivates much of this contention is a belief on the part of Christians in a biblical creation story, nobody can deny that biology remains, as opposed to physics and chemistry, a discipline nourished with thin theoretical gruel. Most people have a sense that, as much as we understand it, all physics works the same everywhere in the universe. If it is not too cold, water could have flow on Mars; gravity will attract you when you get near Betelgeuse; and the stars blithely shine everywhere. As far as we can tell the elements that built the earth also built every other thing in the universe. Hot air rises, waves lap, and cell phones will take digital images of you looking stupid as long as your batteries last.
But scientists don’t know big things about biology. They don’t have a clear sense of why life started, whether it always has to be carbon and water based, or what might come next. While scientists can look out into the universe and see physics and chemistry at work, biologists can’t determine the way biology operates, because they don’t have another biology, or five, to compare life on Earth to. It is not impossible there are larger patterns we can only know by means of comparison. It is possible that all conscious beings, in one way or another, link up that consciousness with a belief in a god or spirituality. It is possible that when we look at life on other planets, they have their equivalents of lions and rhubarb because there is some physical directionality to the process of evolution. It is possible that there is an intelligent schema for change where Charles Darwin and his principle of natural selection is not completely wrong, but merely incomplete.
In the face of real ignorance, evolutionary biologists are largely left with what wry DNA codiscoverer Francis Crick said was Orgel’s Second Rule (Orgel being a chemist friend of his). The rule announces: “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” In essence, Darwin’s natural selection works even if on an individual level it seems farfetched. (By the way, there apparently isn’t an Orgel’s First Rule.)
To this confused state believers in religion often respond with some version of the Intelligent Design argument that is being played out in the U.S. today. Intelligent Design broadly argues that biology is too complicated to have evolved without some kind of master plan, or as Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, puts it, “Many scientists frankly admit their bewilderment about how they may have originated, but refuse to entertain the obvious hypothesis: that perhaps molecular machines appear to look designed because they really are designed.”
But there is no comparative data by which to judge the Intelligent Design theory, no experiment you can conduct which says biology isn’t a kind of divine clockwork, no way of falsifying the claim. It is possible, as the ever clever Stephen Jay Gould once suggested, that natural selection is uncertain enough that if biology on earth were rerun everything would be different. No lions, no rhubarb, no humans. It is possible that comparing five biologies would show nothing but apparent randomness, and thus it is not impossible that evolution is indeed smarter than we are.
Given all this uncertainty you would think that if they were truly concerned about resolving the debate in biology both scientists and religious believers would slaver for other biologies, would demand that humans need to travel out into the ether to find other biologies to learn how they and we work.
Sigh. Exploring the universe to find other biology to understand how biology on earth works is a way-out-there idea that nothing will likely come of in the near future. But something else more concrete and literally way-in makes me hopeful of a change in the nature of the debate. Biology is becoming in large measure molecular biology, and in so doing, changing the landscape of dispute. For the first time biologists have a common language, the sequences of DNA, for everything living.
The expression of this to date has been those collective gene maps – the species’ genomes – which are announced with great excitement every other week. So far their biggest accomplishment has been to be completed, but what is starting to be done is comparison. If we can’t compare our biology with another elsewhere, we can compare, DNA sequence by DNA sequence, the biology of individual creatures on earth.
Through this single biological language that connects black fly, lion, rhubarb, and Paris Hilton, and in so doing overrides all the visual and behavioral disconnects that have made it so hard to see biology as a whole, we may be able to answer many of the unanswered questions which today make much of biology theoretical mush.
Not just any answers, but answers that can then be tested in a way that both scientists and religious people who dispute with them will find convincing.
My guess is that ultimately we will need biology’s versions of both a Newton and an Einstein to unravel the mystery of DNA, but when we do, big, big things may happen.
The first change that should arise is a clear explication of what Darwin said he would explain, but didn’t: the origin of species. In essence, how does DNA become stuck in being something like a lion, and then become unstuck? Why is it so hard, relatively speaking, to turn lions – and all other living things – into something else? And why a lion and not another creature? Are there rules in the DNA that make lions more likely, and not three-headed dragons and pigs that fly?
What the DNA language should also give us are not just theories but Popperian ways of testing our theories. If you make this, and this, and this change in the DNA, do you always get a new species? If you alter this and this and this in the DNA, do you create a cascade that creates a new organ? If you reverse some changes, can you always create some Ur-creature that predated a lion or a black fly or rhubarb, and does that Ur-creature look like anything in the fossil record?
Further along the way are literally cosmic questions. Lying in the tangled mass of DNA is the chemical roadmap by which the biological past made it to the present. If we can unravel its progression – the principles that governed it, the paths that couldn’t be taken, the paths that had to be taken – scientists may be able to enunciate principles of how you get from a single-celled organism to something like a lion. Probably not with the same certainty that physics can now describe how the early universe ends up generating stars and planets, but with orders of magnitude more precision than we can say today. And again, not just announce the patterns but show how to test for it in nature.
And, if this new biology works even half as predictably as physics, then who knows, maybe we will be able to predict in a rude way what the future of life on earth will look like. Not exactly or precisely, but accurately enough to finally integrate biology’s past, present, and future.
All of which would redefine the arenas where science and religion now contend in the United States. Showing quite definitely how and why evolution evolves may not make all those with a creationist worldview change their mind, but it is going to be very, very, very much harder for them to ignore the lead of the Dalai Lama and not bend belief to fit science. Conversely, if there is any evidence of inevitability in the movement of evolution – if DNA says a lioness was always there waiting to be expressed, if human consciousness was a natural consequence of the appearance of the first cell – it will be very much harder for atheistic scientists to argue against design and a designer.
Thus, when we actually know the true principles by which DNA operates, it may well be that both Buddhist philosophy, and non-Buddhist philosophy, and science philosophy too, will have to change. And it may well be that Stephen Strauss will have to arrive at another conclusion about his missed appointment with God while on LSD so many years ago.
If there is an instinct to meet a god of one sort or another curled up in our biology, maybe the meaning of my failed trip is that I just didn’t take enough acid.