Tracking the Course of Evolution


by Bruce H. Tiffney

At the March 1 short course, I made several comments on the debt science in general and evolutionary biology in particular owed western Christianity. That elicited several post-workshop emails to Judy Scotchmoor and myself, expressing both puzzlement and disbelief — after all, aren't science and Christian theology antithetical?
I responded in a short note and appended several references, but in it I stated that there was no primary reference for these statements, but rather they were generally "implicit" in the literature. I now wish to beg your pardon as there are direct primary references. I offer as my excuse older age and the fact history of science is not my profession, only a hobby. Two citations will serve as guides — indeed, I have read both but managed to simultaneously forget about them until now, while having remembered their inherent points.
An invaluable, if rather weighty, reference is H. Floris Cohen's The Scientific Revolution; A Historiographical Inquiry (U Chicago Press, 1994). As the title suggests, this is not about the "Scientific Revolution" itself, but rather is a summation of various scholarly works on the subject. Chapter five is particularly pertinent, and describes the ideas of R. Hooykaas (Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, 1972, Scottish Univ. Press) and T.H. Merton (Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England, 1938), both of whom focused upon the importance of the Biblical world view in establishing "the right and duty to study the other book written by God, the book of nature" (Hooykaas, p. 109). Both also focused upon what they perceived to be the centrality of the Protestant church in establishing this viewpoint, and Merton specifically upon English Puritanism. But "science" was also succeeding in Catholic precincts, so Protestantism cannot be the sole key. Cohen also has lovely discussions/summaries of why the Greeks are generally considered to have been rational but not scientific (an easy confusion), and extensive discussions of thoughts on why science per se did not arise outside of western Europe.
The second is perhaps the best resource of all: Steven Shapin's The Scientific Revolution (U. Chicago Press, 1996). This is a spectacular little book of 200 or so pages that should be read by all interested in the idea of the origins of science — it is out in paperback, and it is well-written and even engaging. To address the specific question of the relationships of science and Christianity, I particularly refer the reader to the afterward — a bibliographic essay that compresses Cohen's scholarship into a few pages. Specifically, consult "Science, Religion, Magic & the Occult" (pp. 195-198), which both thumbnails historical thinking and provides masses of citations. The rest of the "Bibliographic essay" is an equally valuable reference for access to the literature on other aspects of the early history of science in western culture.
No, indeed, science and Christian religion were not sworn enemies from the outset, and are such only in certain fundamentalist Protestant sects, largely limited to the United States, today. The origins of modern science are deeply influenced by the unique Christian perception of an all-powerful and RATIONAL God. A God that gave them reason to study the natural world, and assurances that they would profit by these studies. This enticed human intellect over the psychological brink from assuming the world as too complex to even warrant study, to the point where we have become so enmeshed in the process that — even though it is so complex — we still study it, and at an ever expanding rate!
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