FaithWorld

As Darwin Year ends, some seek to go “beyond Darwin”

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Pigeon bones display at Darwin's former home, 12 Feb 2009/Tal Cohen

As this Darwin Year 2009 draws to a close, I have to say a lot of the public debate it prompted came down to the sterile old clash between evolution and creationism.  The issue of religion always hung in the air, with the loudest arguments coming from the creationist side defending it or the neo-atheists like the Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins denouncing it. In the end, the squabbling seemed to be more about ideology than science and told us little we didn’t already know. staune

Jean Staune, 25 Nov 2009/Tom Heneghan

So I was intrigued by a conference held at UNESCO here in Paris recently about scientists who believe in evolution but want to go “beyond Darwin.” Organised by French philosopher of science Jean Staune, its speakers argued that Darwin could not explain underlying order and patterns found in nature.  “We have to differentiate between evolution and Darwinism,” said Jean Staune, author of the new book “Au-dela de Darwin” (Beyond Darwin). “Of course there is adaptation. But like physics and chemistry, biology is also subject to its own laws.”

Michael Denton, a geneticist with New Zealand’s University of Otago, said Darwinian “functionalists” believed life forms simply adapted to the outside world while his “structuralist” view also saw an internal logic driving this evolution down certain paths.  His view, which he called “extraordinarily foreign to modern biology,” explained why many animals developed “camera eyes” like human ones and why proteins, one of the building blocks of life, fold into structures unchanged for three billion years.

The speakers here — all academics from fields such as genetics, neurobiology, psychology and paleontology — are of course neither the first nor the only scientists to argue that life must have evolved by more than just natural selection. Several mentioned the British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who argues that the evolutionary  convergence of life forms “throws severe doubt on a number of fashionable presuppositions in evolution.” But it was interesting to see how many different arguments the scientists brought to supplement the basic evolution thesis they supported. denton

Michael Denton, 25 Nov 2009/Tom Heneghan

Denton is an interesting case because he is a scientist with publications in peer-reviewed journals who was originally close to the intelligent design movement.  His 1985 book “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis” helped launch the “ID” movement and he was linked to the Discovery Institute, a leading advocate of the controversial idea. But he later changed his mind and argued in the 1998 book “Nature’s Destiny: How the Law of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe” argued that evolution occurred but was channeled down certain paths by inherent structures in nature.

U.S. approves first “ethical” embryonic stem cell lines

stem-cellsThe U.S. government has approved the first 13 batches of human embryonic stem cells, enabling researchers using them to get millions of dollars in federal funding as promised by President Barack Obama in March.

According to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the stem cell lines met strict ethical restrictions. The cells, for instance, have to have been made using an embryo donated from leftovers at fertility clinics and parents must have signed detailed consent forms. (Photo:Ampoules with stem cell storage medium/Peter Macdiarmid)

As our Health and Science Editor Maggie Fox reports, Collins described these criteria as an acceptable compromise between those who want this research to go ahead and critics who oppose it because human embryos are destroyed in the process of making these stem cells.

from UK News:

Testing the limits of animal lab experiments

CHINAA mouse that can speak? A monkey with Down's Syndrome? Dogs with human hands or feet? British scientists want to know if such experiments are acceptable, or if they go too far in the name of medical research.

The Academy of Medical Sciences has launched a study to look at the use of animals containing human material in scientific research.

Using human material in animals is not new. Scientists have already created rhesus macaque monkeys that have a human form of the Huntingdon's gene so they can investigate how the disease develops; and mice with livers made from human cells are being used to study the effects of new drugs.

Did God stop CERN from discovering the “God particle”?

collider-1The great quantum physicist Niels Bohr once said a colleague’s new theory was crazy, but perhaps not crazy enough to be correct. Two scientists seem to have taken that approach to heart when they speculated that God may have shut down the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to keep it from discovering the elusive “God particle.” (Photo: Part of the Large Hadron Collider, 22 March 2007/Denis Balibouse)

According to an essay in the New York Times, the scientists are trying to explain why the collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator turned on with great fanfare in September 2008 by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), was closed down for major repairs just over a week later. The 3 billion-euro collider was supposed to track down the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle believed to have given mass to the universe milliseconds after the Big Bang created it some 15 billion years ago.

Physicists think this minuscule speck of matter, if ever found, could explain the mysterious code at the origin of the physical world. To know this would be to “know the mind of God”, as Einstein put it. The Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman dubbed the Higgs boson the “God particle” in a book of the same name 15 years ago.

Saudi co-ed university highlights need for education reform

kaust (Photo:KAUST under construction near Jeddah, 19 Oct 2008/Asma Alsharif)

Saudi Arabia is launching its first co-educational high-tech university, but unless clerical influence is removed the state education system will not move into the modern age, analysts say.  King Abdullah has invited heads of state, business leaders and Nobel laureates next week to the opening of a technology university which has attracted top scientists and is meant to produce Saudi scientists and engineers.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is the first institute in one of the world’s biggest oil exporters that is outside the reach of the education ministry, where clerics opposing cutting religious content have a strong say. Men and women will be able to mingle, a stark contrast to otherwise strict gender segregation in the Islamic kingdom.

Despite its immense financial resources, the parameters of Saudi school and university education are governed by religious strictures and many subjects are off-limits for women to study.

from AxisMundi Jerusalem:

Sorting through a digital history

With more and more libraries digitising their archives, academics have a growing number of texts they can access without having to get on a plane and journey to distant continents. Perhaps in the near future, researchers will be able to simply log on from their office to view a database of a nearly infinite number of ancient texts, prayers or whatever writings have been handed down by our ancestors. Dead Sea scrolls

Of course, problems arise with digitising thousands of years of handwritten documents. Making a digital copy is the easy part. Helping the computer understand what is written, well, that is a tough one.

Gideon Ben-Zvi, who has founded a couple companies in the field of Optical Character Recognition (OCR), told me that: "The eyes outperform even the best OCR software by magnitude, although the speed achieved by OCR is far faster than humans."

Is a moral instinct the source of our noble thoughts?

judgmentUntil not too long ago, most people believed human morality was based on scripture, culture or reason. Some stressed only one of those sources, others mixed all three. None would have thought to include biology. With the progress of neuroscientific research in recent years, though, a growing number of psychologists, biologists and philosophers have begun to see the brain as the base of our moral views. Noble ideas such as compassion, altruism, empathy and trust, they say, are really evolutionary adaptations that are now fixed in our brains. Our moral rules are actually instinctive responses that we express in rational terms when we have to justify them. (Photo: Religious activist at a California protest, 10 June 2005/Gene Blevins)

Thanks to a flurry of popular articles, scientists have joined the ranks of those seen to be qualified to speak about morality, according to anthropologist Mark Robinson, a Princeton Ph.D student who discussed this trend at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroscience Boot Camp. “In our current scientific society, where do people go to for the truth about human reality?” he asked. “It used to be you might read a philosophy paper or consult a theologian. But now there seems to be a common public sense that the authority over what morality is can be found by neuroscientists or scientists.”

This change has come over the past decade as brain scan images began to reveal which areas of the brain react when a person grapples with a moral problem. They showed activity not only in the prefrontal cortex, where much of our rational thought is processed, but also in areas known to handle emotion and conflicts between brain areas. Such insights cast doubt on long-standing assumptions about reason or religion driving our moral views. “A few theorists have even begun to claim that that the emotions are in fact in charge of the temple of morality and that moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as the high priest,” University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, one of the leading theorists in this field, has written.

Beware brain scientists bearing gifts (gee-whiz journalists too…)

boot-camp-shirt1Knowing what not to report is just as important for journalists as knowing what to write. We’re inundated with handouts about some pioneering new scientific research or insightful new book. Should we write about it? It’s refreshing to hear experts who can dazzle you with their work but warn against falling for any hype about it. This “let’s not overdo it” approach has been a recurrent theme in the Neuroscience Boot Camp I’m attending at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Photo: The “official” boot camp T-shirt, 8 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Andrew Newberg‘s “no God spot” message to boot campers has already been noted here on FaithWorld. Other lecturers added similar reality checks to their presentations. Cognitive science has already begun to influence religion studies (as John Teehan explained here) and we’re bound to hear more in the future about what neuroscientific research has to say about faith, morals, altruism and other issues of interest to readers of this blog. Much of this will be fascinating. But before the next “gee-whiz” report comes out, here’s the advice the neuroscientists are giving us about speculative claims based on brain research.

aguirre-11 (Photo: Geoff Aguirre, 5 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

After two days of explaining fMRI brain scanning, the sexiest procedure in current neurological research, Geoff Aguirre poured cold water on some of the exaggerated conclusions that researchers or journalists draw from it. When shown brain scan images, he said, “people immediately start thinking about trying to catch terrorists and being able to screen people as they pass through metal detectors.” This is “science fiction, science fantasy,” he said, but it comes up regularly. Why? Aguirre, who is an M.D and assistant professor of neurology at Penn, listed several reasons:

Cognitive science gaining ground in U.S. academic religion studies

teehanThe academic study of religion has come a long way from the days when knowledge of scripture, history and a few ancient languages were the main qualifications a scholar needed. Psychology, sociology and other social sciences have been applied to the field for over a century. Over the past 20 years, cognitive science has been edging into the field, especially with the explosion of neuroscience research. Some of the hottest research into religion is now being done with brain scanners searching for data on what happens inside believers’ heads when they pray or feel a special connection to God. (Photo: John Teehan at the Neuroscience Boot Camp, 6 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Among the participants at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroscience Boot Camp I’m attending this week and next is John Teehan, an associate professor in the religion department at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. He’s seen how cognitive science has brought new tools and insights to the study of religion and may eventually challenge the ways religions justify their beliefs. He is writing a book about how many moral teachings in the Bible fit with the moral psychology that cognitive science says evolved naturally. I asked Teehan for an overview of what’s happening in the religion studies field in the United States.

“At the end of the 19th century, there was a real interest in looking at religion from a psychological perspective,” he said. “Sigmund Freud and William James were the major figures. The Freudian paradigm was not a scientific one, even though Freud thought it was, and our understanding of the mind and the brain was primitive then compared to what we have now. What’s happening now is that the science of the mind has advanced to the point that we’re actually developing a scientific understanding of the mind. With the cognitive revolution involving cognitive science, neurological science and evolution studies, a more empirical approach to understanding the mind and morality is developing. Over the last 20 years, some of these scholars have started to look more particularly at religion. This field of the cognitive science of religion started in the early ’90s looking at religious behavior and rituals and how emotions mediate or reinforce religious experience.”

God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp

bootcampheaderNeurotheology – the study of the link between belief and the brain – is a topic I’ve hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.

If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don’t have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I’m attending a “Neuroscience Boot Camp” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah (photo below), aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.

martha-head-shot1After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.