Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Preponderance of Evidence

Geology shows that fossils are of different ages. Paleontology shows a fossil sequence, the list of species represented changes through time. Taxonomy shows biological relationships among species. Evolution is the explanation that threads it all together. Creationism is the practice of squeezing one's eyes shut and wailing "Does not!" ~Dr.Pepper@f241.n103.z1.fidonet.org

Pope Benedict XVI appears to have found his way into the 19th century. His Holiness has provided a lot of fodder for this blog, beginning with the Galileo Caper last September. That piece was inspired by the announcement that a papal summit was being convened to "firm up" the Church's stance on that ol' debbil, Darwinian Evolution.

Evidently, they've made up their collective mind, for the moment at least. Quoth the Pope:
“This clash [between creationism and evolution] is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favour of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”
In other words, there might be something to this evolution business after all. Of course, he left a loophole for the cosmic watchmaker, at least according to the article, by saying that evolution didn't answer all questions, "[a]bove all ... 'where does everything come from?' " I don't know that the statement implies "intelligent design" as much as it simply doubts the Big Bang. The Pope's Creator could have set the wheels in motion and then sat back to watch the results without doing any design work.

Given the willingness of creationists to simply ignore scientific evidence or distort to meet scriptural requirements, I suppose any common sense should be appreciated.

What's a little more surprising are words that follow later in the Pope's statement:
“We must respect the interior laws of creation, of this Earth, to learn these laws and obey them if we want to survive. This obedience to the voice of the Earth is more important for our future happiness ... than the desires of the moment. Our Earth is talking to us and we must listen to it and decipher its message if we want to survive."
Contrast that to the attitude I chronicled here. The link in the piece doesn't work anymore, but I quoted from it, noting that the Pope had said,
“[B{y believing in 'artificial intelligence' and technology, they risked the fate of the mythical Icarus, whose home-made wings melted when he flew too close to the sun.”

Or, as they said to Dr. Frankenstein, there are some things man was not meant to know. Now Benedict is telling scientists to find out all they can, to listen to the voices of Nature, to listen to the Earth. He all but invokes Gaia.

This is quite a change in attitude, and one has to wonder what has prompted it. Most likely, it represents a policy shift within the Vatican, among the Pope's advisers, with the science-supporting faction starting to outpoint the conservative one. After all, the Vatican is a very political environment; if you doubt it, just study up on the papal election process.

Accepting the study of the Earth (and by extension the universe at large) does not exactly mean that the Pope is okay with technological progress, but that's understandable. There are days I'm not so crazy about it myself. But, to increase our knowledge of ourselves we have to keep moving forward into areas that haven't been explored. We also have to be willing to revisit theories of our past in light of new evidence. We have to be willing to take risks.

Astoundingly, it seems that the Pope has come to agree with this, at least in principle. I doubt most scientists were losing a lot of sleep over what the Vatican thought about research, but many of the politicians who control much of the research purse strings do. If the Pope's statements can get some of them to realize that it's time to take their heads out of the sand, then so much the better.

Any voice of reason, even if from an unlikely source, is welcome.

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