Thursday, February 12, 2009

Science activism: Darwin's other legacy

A post in honor of Darwin Day.

A new biography named Darwin's Sacred Cause suggests, rather audaciously, that the great naturalist's theory of evolution was motivated in part by his documented hatred of black slavery. I submit that there is a relationship between abolitionism and naturalism, but I'm not convinced it's a causal relationship. Instead, I see science and morality as chicken-and-egg, indistinguishable, with one nourishing the other and both springing from a common fountain.

I feel this thread in my own life. I am not only a naturalist, but also a deeply idealistic person. Both characteristics spring from something deep within me: a healthy respect for intelligence and reason, a strong sense of fairness and justice, and an irreverent refusal to take someone else's word on anything, no matter who they are. To me, Reason will always be King - and when Reason is disrespected, it needs to be corrected. This absolutism, this intellectual boldness, stands at the core of both my scientific and ethical principles.

Just as Darwin hated slavery, I hate prejudice with a passion. My own sense of justice has been informed by Jewish texts, just as Darwin's abolitionism was informed by love-thy-neighbor Christianity. Yet I have been bitterly disappointed by today's religious leaders, who - by actively and vocally opposing gay rights - have actually stood in the way of that simplest and most central of ethical principles, Do as to others as you would have done unto you. Organized religion has failed to see the ethical forest for the ritual trees, and has left a generation starving for moral clarity.

The old Jewish saying goes, Where there are no men, strive to be a man. As scientists, we have an opportunity today to continue Darwin's forgotten legacy - science activism. We cannot afford to let clergy, politicians, or even social scientists be the sole arbiters of ethical behavior. We must strive to apply our passion for truth beyond the sterile environment of the laboratory, into the broader sphere of political and social action. Nor is it enough to simply stand at a distance and take cheap shots at the failed philosophies of others. For who is free from sin? As Einstein and Darwin learned the hard way, science can bring harm as easily as health. We alone decide how this power is used. Let us plan wisely, for the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It doesn't matter what cause you decide to take up - whether it's the environment, endangered species, human origins, or the threat of biological weapons, you will find that science has something to say about it. It is something that society needs to hear. It is something that no one else can say but you.

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2 comments:

Dave L said...

“Instead, I see science and morality as chicken-and-egg, indistinguishable, with one nourishing the other and both springing from a common fountain.”

I’m not sure that the two are indistinguishable. There are plenty of people who base their “moral” theories on science whom I think (and I am pretty sure you think) are less than compassionate and moral. Think of the social Darwinists who are against (on principle) aiding those who cannot support themselves, the Eugenics movement of the Nineteenth Century, and the German scientists who euthanized the disabled. Interestingly, in Nazi Germany it was the (non-scientific) Catholic clergy who led the opposition against euthanasia of the disabled, not scientists (who were doing the euthanizing).

Samurai Scientist said...

There are plenty of people who base their “moral” theories on science whom I think (and I am pretty sure you think) are less than compassionate and moral.

I certainly agree that pseudoscience can be abused for immoral ends, as I pointed out at the end of the post.

However, science is the only tool we really have to evaluate anything objectively. My point was that this is an underused resource. Scientists tend to focus too much on what they can determine with certainty, but hesitate to weigh in on moral issues. The lack of scientific voice in social and ethical fields has created a vacuum of rational thought in those arenas.

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