Friday, 02 September 2011
I was so giddy when I got my first lab job. Up until then I'd earned money by washing floors, baking bread, chopping carrots, Tilexing a handicapped woman's windowless bathroom week after week while she told me about her divorce and played Patsy Cline records really loud. I'd folded towels, shined bidets, swept up crack pipes and deveined shrimp. The first day at the lab, as an intern, I got shown my desk and given a stack of scientific articles to read. I was going to get paid to think.
I loved that lab, irrationally loved the people in it, peppered them all with questions about well, life, the universe, and everything. I was given the task of isolating a certain form of human cell, and feeding them and caring for them until they divided into the millions. On the side, I synthesized little dishes of homebrew extracellular matrices, to see if there were any that the cells could move across, towards or away from stimuli. People came to the clinical part of the lab for help with wounds that wouldn't heal. Back in R&D, we wanted to know how in healthy people wounds heal themselves; cells, like the ones I grew, would fill in the damage. This happens, it is incredible and it is true. And for some people it fails. We wanted to know why.
The room I worked in most was so full of equipment it had no windows, no free wall space, everything hummed. My coworkers liked to listen to the radio but with all that buzz back there we got about one station and it was pretty bad. And one day their news segment reported that a plane went down of the coast, not too far away. I was dating a guy who loved to fly small planes, so I perked up, in case by some weird chance, he'd been the one crashing his plane in the ocean. It seemed like something he might do.
The radio voice said, "Scientists still don't understand why the plane lost altitude," and I remember sitting there blinking. "Scientists?" I think I asked it aloud. "What does 'science' have to do with this?" and "Aren't we scientists?"
Well, that wasn't my boyfriend's plane and to this day, this scientist anyway is still in the dark as to why that plane went down. But I still remember that moment when the word "scientist" or "Science" gets tossed around as if it means something. On Xanga, it appears to mean something to a lot of people - maybe those are the kinds of people who know why planes crash - anyway, it gets used a lot. Especially juxtaposed with "God" or "faith" or "religion." Not long ago someone linked to a list of Scientists who Doubt Darwinism or some such thing. Fair enough. I know that Scientists bring this upon themselves too with blanket statements like "Few reputable scientists doubt Darwinian Evolution," too. The whole thing sort of makes me giggle - like if someone told you the rumor that your family was the most together bunch of people in town, that your kitchen was always spotless, and no one ever argued, and you all played cards every night and sang happy songs. Sure, we can pretend that Science is some big happy family full of respect and harmony and that everybody trusts everybody and everybody agrees.
Or we could be a little bit more honest and say that "Science" is a blanket term without a whole lot of meaning - much in the way that "Humanities" is. It's an academic slot - not some global assent to basic principles. It confers zero authority. A PhD in a scientific subject hardly makes you an expert on the research the person in the neighboring lab does, let alone in a whole other field. I could care less whether a physicist believes in evolution any more than I would listen to a geneticist's opinion on a plane crash. Scientific disciplines are incredibly narrow - as are all academic disciplines.
So what does it mean when we set up Science and Darwinism (etc) as opposites? It seems to be a backlash against a norm, an attempt to inject doubt into the status quo, the "conventional wisdom" that trickles out from smart people who think about this stuff. Why a backlash? When we think about HIV, for example, do we consider it anything but a virus? Would we like better a world in which it is witchcraft and can be cured by raping virgins? Where the conventional wisdom is useful, it's pretty much accepted. Sure there are vaccine detractors and probably a fair amount of people who don't understand bacteria very well and lots of conventional wisdom that is constantly being tested out in labs and found to be more complicated than previously assumed - it's a all a work in progress. But most of us in developed countries feel reasonably comfortable with imagining a world populated with unseen microbes, weather driven by unseen warm and cold fronts and inversions and other such things we don't really understand - and are fairly ok with the concept that though "scientists" are studying these things, they don't have it all locked up and solved.
So why this backlash against the concepts of Darwinian Evolution? Does anybody have any ideas? What about it bothers you so much? Does it just not seem useful or interesting? Does it feel sacrilegious? I get that to a lot of folks it just feels flat out wrong. But why is that news? "Scientists" are forever telling us that broccoli cures cancer, no, wait, it causes it, but only if you eat too much, raw is best - but only if boiled an hour to kill e.coli first. Are we still so bedazzled that we imagine there's some absolute that Science has uncovered? Or do we understand that all of the various sciences are merely ways of noticing the world around us and trying to be smarter about living in it. We helped a lot of people with a lot of really horrific wounds their bodies couldn't heal. Not because we knew magic, but because we understood where their bodies had broken down and how to make things happen in test tubes that their bodies could not do. In other times, in other places, this would look like witchcraft - or our meddling like the inability to trust or pray well.
But for me, science has always been one of the best prayers I know. The continual awakening to what is, the awe of the unknown, the unfolding questions, wonder in the complexity of life. Those are things which the sciences hold in common: careful, painstaking noticing of the world as it is. We get our hands dirty, because to learn we immerse ourselves, we reach in, we do things to test our imaginings and we fail, spectacularly, over and over again. We guess and guess wrongly, we think and think again, we attend, we focus, we concentrate, and because it's fun, we speculate wildly about it all. And most of us are driven, not merely to know more, but to serve people better. To find tools for health, for wellbeing, for kind and just treatment of one another, for more food for hungry kids, for more wounds healed, for less virgins raped, always.
There is nothing here that demands we unlove God.
Does liking science mean you have to unlove God? Can science and faith coexist?