Non-overlapping magisterial bullshit

By May 1, 2017Food for thought

Steven Gould (1941-2002), the late American palaeontologist, stated in one of his many essays that religion and science occupied “non-overlapping magisteria”. This means that religion and science occupy separate domains. This was apparently Gould’s attempt to provide an end to the conflict between science and religion, by trying to establish a demarcation between the two ‘domains of enquiry’. This would be very nice and would presumably placate most moderate christians; it’s just that there are annoying people from the rabidly religious who do not realise that their religious magisterium is shrinking as that of science increases.

These poor, sad, deluded fools think one or more of the following: that the earth is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, evolution doesn’t happen, the earth is only 6,000 years old, dinosaurs and man coexisted (they still do, but that is a different story), evil spirits can take control of people’s bodies, bread turns into human flesh when swallowed, man is unrelated to primates.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the American cosmologist, responded to the view held by some people that inexplicable events are caused by a god ‘who works in mysterious ways’. He stated that, if this were the case, “then god is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on”. People who believe that ‘if I don’t understand it, then god did it’ are using the god of the gaps argument. With the rapid advance in science over the last few hundred years, these gaps have been rapidly getting smaller. There are a couple of obvious examples.

Many people used to believe that the sun revolved around the earth, but a heliocentric model was developed by Nicolaus Copernicus (in 1543) and confirmed by observations made by Galileo Galilei. It was the Dominicans (a catholic order) who, in 1615 brought Galileo’s writings on heliocentrism to the attention of the Inquisition, and he was banned from holding, teaching or defending this ‘doctrine’ in any way, since it was heretical and “contradicts … holy scripture” Copernicus’ book, in modified form, was allowed to be used in calculating calendars, but the original was banned until 1758. It makes one wonder what assorted intelligent churchmen (if this is not an oxymoron) must have thought when Copernicus’ calculations were used, because they worked, but yet his conclusions, which stemmed directly from his calculations, were banned. Fortunately, the world had begun to not take the Catholic Church too seriously and by late in the 1600s, Newton with his theory of gravitation, had shown that the heliocentric theory was essentially correct. The Catholic Church was wrong.

Back in the middle of the millennium, very few people would have suspected that humans were related to the great apes, despite there having been assorted, if peculiar, theories of evolution around for many hundreds of years. It was only really at about the same time as Copernicus’ work, that a young Flemish anatomist, Andreas Vesalius realised that humans were a species like any other and their skeletons had many similarities to those of other animals. In the 1750s, Carl Linneaus, in attempting to develop a classification system for all of life, founded the binomial system of classification. He called humans Homo sapiens (genus Homo; species sapiens) and, at the same time, he also placed orangutans and chimpanzees in the genus Homo (Gorillas were unknown to Europeans at this time). It was Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) development of the theory of natural selection, which formed a framework to explain this relationship suggested by Linneaus, and it was only the discovery of the part played by DNA a century later that provided the mechanism for natural selection. Now we have the ability to sequence genomes in the relative blink of an eye and can now ‘measure’ the relationships between species. When Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ was published in 1859, liberal Anglicans supported the concept, while conservatives were not so happy. Again, the religious who railed against Darwin were wrong.

As a member of Homo sapiens, it is dispiriting having to continually explain reality to the religious, thereby dragging them into the 20th century, in preparation, some time in the future, for dragging them into the 21st. The struggle continues.

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