New Website on Human Evolution

Friday, March 12, 2010 at 10:36 PM Bookmark and Share
On March 17th, the National Museum of Natural History will open the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. Leading up to that opening, the Smithsonian Institute has launched a new website on human origins that's well worth checking out.

Figure 1: "Staring contest... ready, go!"

The website includes a look into the evidence of our ancestry, research news, information for teachers and students, upcoming events and exhibit information (if you're ever in the neighborhood, ), and a section on "Religious Perspectives":
The Hall of Human Origins offers a welcoming place to explore one of the most exciting areas of science, the study of human evolution. Despite strong public interest in the science, however, many people find this topic troubling when viewed from a religious perspective. Representatives of diverse religious communities encourage a larger, more respectful understanding of both the scientific evidence and religious belief.
No doubt some will find this sort of language a bit too friendly to any religious claims regarding human origins, but given the Smithsonian's role as an educational institution I can appreciate their pragmatism. Reading a bit further (emphasis added)...
There are a number of different approaches to the science-religion relationship. One approach is to see science and religion as separate domains that ask different questions focusing on separate interests in human life – for example, about the natural world in science and about God in religion. This approach depends on respecting and maintaining the distinctions but can sometimes overlook the ways in which scientific interpretations may have an effect on religious beliefs. Conflict is seen to arise when efforts are made to eliminate the separation that the first approach assumes. The strongest conflicts develop when either science or religion asserts a standard of truth to which the other must adhere or otherwise be dismissed.
This I like. I'm quite fond of using science and rational thought to understand the world, while keeping that knowledge distinct from any contrary claims based on religious beliefs.  The website continues ...
An alternative approach sees interaction or engagement as positive. Engagement takes many forms, including personal efforts by individuals to integrate scientific and religious understandings, statements by religious organizations that affirm and even celebrate the scientific findings, and constructive interactions between theologians and scientists seeking common ground, respect, and shared insight into how the science of human evolution contributes to an awareness of what it means to be human
So what do you think - too accommodating of religion, or did they do a good job of addressing religiously motivated objections to the claims of science? 

[Hat tip to Panda's Thumb]


Posted by: helen | 3/13/2010 7:40 PM

I think they did alright. Personally, I think that there's no good way to divide human inquiry up into the scientific domain and the religious domain. For starters, what about the philosophical domain? The poetic domain? Once we get started with this kind of compartmentalism, how do we stop? But more serious is the problem that scientists endorse fundamentally different ways of evaluating information than many religious people.

But the Smithsonian was probably right to mention this "non-overlapping magisteria" kind of picture of science and religion, and also to mention the idea that interaction perhaps could be fruitful. I wish they could just not mention religion at all, since it's kind of irrelevant to the exhibit. But it's probably better to meet this kind of issue head on.

Posted by: Paul | 3/15/2010 10:38 PM

I agree, though I do like that they addressed the topic. It's a good way to preempt potential religious objections before they happen. While irrelevant to the exhibit, religion is relevant to teaching it's contents to the public.

You're right that one could also look more broadly than the scientific domain to include all inquiry that is based on empirical observation and rational thought. While pragmatic, too many religious claims are clearly open to this type of inquiry.

Anyway, perhaps a nice way to focus the "science vs. religion" debate is to make an apples-to-apples comparison between the two, but not by comparing their claims of truth.

Should one instead maybe focus on the process by which individuals come to believe those claims?

So we know scientific claims are in part based on the scientific method. But how do people obtain their religious beliefs, and how do the two approaches compare? If we compare how reliably those means work to obtain accurate beliefs about the observable world, I think the religious approach fails.

How effective are those means in forming accurate beliefs about anything supernatural? Looking across religions throughout history, I think it's reasonable to say they don't work for understanding the supernatural world either.

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