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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Drawing the Line Between Science and Religion

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2012

This is an interesting criticism of The Species Seekers, on the grounds that I fail to draw a sufficiently sharp line between evolutionary knowledge and religious belief.  It’s from a curiously named blog–the new ussr illustrated: assorted reflections from the urbane society for sceptical romantics.  I’ll let the writer have his say, and respond afterward:

I’m very much enjoying Richard Conniff’s book The Species Seekers: Heroes, fools and the mad pursuit of life on Earth, not only for its well-told anecdotes of an intrepid era but also for its genuine insights into the competitive, gentlemanly and class-riven pursuit of specimens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in Britain. It includes the hate-hate relationship between the two giants of eighteenth century biology, the great taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus and the more sceptical and polymathic Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; the snobbish anti-continental attitude to the ideas of Lamarck; the too-good-to-be-true modesty of the Reverend Thomas S Savage, the ‘first identifier’ of the gorilla, and the delicate issue of priority in the matter of Darwin and Wallace’s ideas, obviously the most important ideas, in respect of species, in the history of biology. I’ve already read quite a few versions of this famous matter, having read Peter Raby’s biography of Wallace, and biographical works on Darwin by Rebecca Stott, David Quammen and others. Conniff’s brief treatment does well to capture the intricate play of class, hierarchy and deference involved. After discussing the occasionally offhand treatment of Wallace, and his sometime partner in specimen-collecting, Henry Walter Bates, by the aristocratic geologist Charles Lyell, he goes on to make this nice point:

From a modern perspective, though, Wallace had class issues of his own, like almost all field naturalists. In their book The Bird Collectors, Barbara and Richard Mearns celebrate the unsung contributions to science by native collectors, and they single out the ornithologist Frederick Jackson for the appropriateness of his response when a species was named Jackson’s Weaver [Ploceus jacksoni] in his honour: ‘Little credit is due to me for having brought this new species to light, as the specimen was brought to me by a little Taveita boy, tied by the legs along with several other of the common yellow species’.

Wallace, despite being far more egalitarian than most intellectuals of his time, didn’t always make such acknowledgements.

But I want here to focus on a little quibble I have with Conniff on the not-so-little matter of the science-religion relationship. That’s to say, compatibilism. It’s long-standing issue and I’ve written on it many times before, but it keeps on bobbing up as an eyesore. Here’s Conniff’s take on it, which is essentially the same as that of the USA’s NCSE [National Centre for Science Education] and AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science]. That’s to say, religion is compatible with science, because, hey, some people are comfortable with and attached to both enterprises. Here’s how Conniff treats the matter:

Even before publication, the clergyman, naturalist Charles Kingsley saw that evolutionary thinking and religious faith were separate and capable of coexisting: ‘If you be right, I must give up much that I have believed and written,’ Kingsley wrote, in a letter thanking Darwin for an advance copy of the book. ‘In that I care little… Let us know what is… I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self-development into all forms needful… as to believe that he required a fresh act of intervention’ to fill every gap caused by the natural processes ‘he himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.’ It might be better, that is, to believe in a God who promulgated laws and let them take their natural course, than to believe in a God obliged, as Buffon had put it, to busy himself about ‘the way a beetle’s wing should fold.’

But evolutionary thinking inevitably struck those of weaker faith as an assault on religion, much as it does today. They read into it the loss of the special relationship with God.

Kingsley’s obviously genuine interest in what is, is admirable, but I hardly think it is a sign of the strength of his religion. Rather, I would consider this interest to be the first, essential step in divesting oneself of religion, which is certainly not about this world. The idea of the ‘separateness’ of science and faith smacks of Gould’s NOMA, a thoroughly debunked notion, but politically convenient. The fact is, as Kingsley himself notes, accepting evolutionary thinking necessitates a thorough rethinking of the creator-god. Kingsley reflects that a non-interventionist god might be a ‘loftier’ conception, but surely a non-interventionist god by definition will not answer prayer, will not heal the sick or go out of his way to protect us from harm. Further, evolutionary thinking really does cause damage to humanity’s ‘special relationship with God’. To become aware of this isn’t a matter of weak faith, it’s more a matter of profound understanding of the real implications of evolution, that we are one of an enormous multiplicity of evolved beings.

Conniff says no more about the issue than this. He doesn’t enter into the compatibility debate. Yet he shows his hand. It’s disappointing. Basically he should’ve put up – presented an argument for how a Christianity so essentially based on human specialness and closeness-to-god, can co-exist, not only with evolution, but with science more generally, when science keeps on eroding human specialness with every passing day of new research – or he should’ve shut up.

Maybe I’m being a bit tough, but I couldn’t let it pass. Otherwise, it’s a great read.

So my response is pretty simple, but I hope not simple-minded.  First, I’m grateful for the kind words.  But I see no benefit in forcing people to choose between evolution and religion.  One is about science, the other about faith, two separate spheres.  It’s a bit like forcing people to choose between physics and music, or between detective novels and romance fiction. Insisting that the one makes the other impossible just antagonizes people who might otherwise be open to new ideas.

I also take a pragmatic approach.  As I have written here and here, religions are the world’s largest NGOs.  Though they are sometimes adversaries–as when the Catholic Church resists contraception, or certain fundamentalist Christians deny climate change (or welcome it as the first step on route to the rapture),  it is far better to have them on our side as allies in the fight for the survival of Planet Earth.

Oh, and one other pragmatic point:  In the context of a book about species discovery, the kind of larger digression about religion the writer proposes would have been out of place.


One Response to “Drawing the Line Between Science and Religion”

  1. luigifun said

    Thanks for giving so much space to my curious blog. As it happens, I’m currently employed by a Catholic NGO as a community educator, and I’ve worked for the Anglicans in a similar role – just a strange twist of fate. I certainly appreciate the work they do in the community, and I studiously avoid picking religious fights with them. However, I don’t think religion and science operate in separate spheres. They offer competing interpretations of how the world works, as Galileo discovered to his great cost. If the major Churches had the same political power today that they had a few centuries ago, science would be in very serious trouble, and it’s unlikely that a theory like natural selection would ever have been developed.
    Of course I didn’t expect your book to take on the issue of compatibilism, so I was surprised that you mentioned it at all. But you did, and you stated your position, that religion and science are quite separate. That position actually requires quite a bit of arguing, and has been quite a hot topic in recent years as I’m sure you know. That’s the point I was making – if you weren’t going to engage in that particular debate it might have been better to have avoided such pronouncements, ex cathedra, so to speak.
    Another point – Charles Darwin clearly didn’t share your view about the separateness of science and religion, or he wouldn’t have felt like he was committing a murder in presenting his theory. He knew exactly what the stakes were.

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