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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
First Web Paper
On Serendip

Making Sense of Science and Religion

Su-Lyn Poon

In "The Selfish Gene" (1), Dawkins introduced the concept of replicating units of information, called "memes". They compete for our minds and our hearts, replicating in society in the form of fairy tales, catchy tunes, moral codes and theories. One of the most prolific struggles today occurs between the titanic memes of Science and Religion. While their relationship is complex, its historical trajectory is one of co-evolution, mapping the gradual accumulation of adaptive responses to each other. As these stories change, so too do our networks of meaning.

Uneasy bedfellows
In considering the Christian faith (not more important than any other, but one that I am familiar with), the role of religion is typically perceived as one of moral guidance. Before science arrived on the scene in the West, however, religion also served an explanatory function, as through the Bible's story of creation. This role did not fade into the background when a fledgling science was first established. As a matter of fact, scientific endeavors were appropriated by natural theologians funded by the Church (for example, through the 19th century Bridgewater Treatises (2)) to prove the existence of God through the manifestations of intelligent design in nature.

Gradually, science began to develop its own philosophy and methodologies. It even began to provide new answers to the "how" questions that religion had previously addressed. Then came evolution. In 1859, the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species" (3) held a magnifying glass to the fissure that had been growing. The two giants found themselves playing with different sets of rules. Revelation and faith, fundamental 'methodologies' in religion, were simply unacceptable to science.

Lovers' spat
Although religion relegated control of explanation and began to focus on spirituality and values, the conflict is far from resolved. Dawkins (4), like many other proponents of science, simply believes that religion is obsolete. Learning and knowledge, he argues, will clear the cobwebs in our minds that gave rise to religion in the first place.

Others have proposed science as a new agnostic religion (5) and moral system (6), praising its commitment to evidence and philosophy of deduction. Those in agreement have raised their own Big Questions (7) from within the ranks of the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities. Discussions in the World Question Centre (8), for example, range from democracy and complexity to sustainability and fear. Refutations are in no short supply. One school of thought even turns science back into myth in pursuit of a "story of the universe" (9).

All the while, new interfaces between science and religion continue to emerge. Wilson extends evolutionary biology to religion, seeing the adaptive value of religion and, in similar vein, considering evolution as "the best myth we will ever have" (10). The Catholic Church (11), turning the tables, accepts evolutionary theory but only as it fits within the established framework of its divine teachings.

Taking a step back
Conceptions of what science and religion respectively are and what they respectively do are constantly changing. In some cases, the change involves an overhaul in how the meme defines its niche, thus rendering competition a moot point (as when religion turned its back on explanation) or maneuvering the confrontation to take place on its own terms (as in the fight for the moral credibility of science). In others, changes express limited acceptance of rival theories, which are subordinated to the 'original' story told by the meme.

Taking the memetic approach, it becomes apparent that these changes are adaptations to a fluctuating environment of stories. Every telling is an act of self-preservation; the point of the story is to make a story-teller. As variations arise, they affect the way in which stories connect in a network of meaning. Natural selection acts on these variations: which are more convincing? Evolution takes place. Our stores of stories change, our means of making sense change.

References / Sources cited

(1) Dawkins, Richard. (1989). "The Selfish Gene". Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Memes: the new replicators. The final chapter from "The Selfish Gene".

(2) Bridgewater Treatises (scroll down to [xxi])

(3) Darwin, C. (1859).
Website maintained by BBC.

When Religion Steps on Science's Turf
An article by Richard Dawkins.

(5) Huxley, J. (1994). "Religion Without Revelation" p. 232-5 in Barlow, C. (Ed.). Evolution extended: biological debates on the meaning of life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(6) Grobstein, P. (2003). A Vision of Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century: Everybody "Getting It Less Wrong" Together. Presented at the first Dialogue on The Changing Roles of Mathematics and Science in Society: "Science, Technology, and Society: Ethical Awareness for Tomorrow's Leaders", Chicago, IL.

(7) Big Questions: Conversations inside the Third Culture
Web paper written for Basic Concepts in Biology

(8) Edge: The World Question Center
An archive of questions and responses from scientists, thinkers, etc.

(9) Swimme, B. (1994). "The Universe Story" p. 293-6 in Barlow, C. (Ed.). Evolution extended: biological debates on the meaning of life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(10) Wilson, E. O. (1994). "Inadequacies of Humanism and Process Theology" p. 221-2 in Barlow, C. (Ed.). Evolution extended: biological debates on the meaning of life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(11) Pope John Paul II. Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1996)

Web Resources

PBS Roundtable on Science & Faith

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