Science is just one gene away from defeating religion

          o Colin Blakemore
          o The Observer, Sunday 22 February 2009
When I was a medical student at Cambridge in the Sixties, I walked to lectures 
past the forbidding exterior of the Cavendish Laboratory, as famous for Crick 
and Watson's unravelling of DNA as for Rutherford's splitting of the atom. One 
day, scrawled on the wall, was a supreme example of Cambridge graffiti: "CRICK 

No surprise that pivotal advances in science provoke religious metaphors. Crick 
and Watson's discovery transformed our view of life itself - from a 
manifestation of spiritual magic to a chemical process. One more territorial 
gain in the metaphysical chess match between science and religion.

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was certainly a vital move in that chess 
game - if not checkmate. In an interview for God and the Scientists, to be 
broadcast tonight in Channel 4's series on Christianity, Richard Dawkins 
declares: "Darwin removed the main argument for God's existence."

That wasn't, of course, Darwin's intention. In 1827, he scraped into Cambridge 
to study for the church. But by 1838, with the wealth of experience from the 
Beagle's voyage inside his head, Darwin had conceived the idea that natural 
selection - survival of the fittest - had created new species. Even after she 
accepted his marriage proposal, Darwin's cousin Emma, a strict Unitarian, 
fretted that his heretical theories would lead to their separation in the 

Darwin agonised for more than 20 years before publishing On the Origin of 
Species, and another two before he could say, in The Descent of Man, that "Man 
must be included with other organic beings in any general conclusion respecting 
his manner of appearance on Earth". In the final words of that transcendent 
book, Darwin couldn't avoid the religious metaphor: "Man with all his noble 
qualities... with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the 
movements and constitution of the solar system - with all these exalted powers 
- Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origins."

Throughout the love-hate relationship between science and Christianity, the 
idea that human rationality is a gift from God has frequently been used as a 
justification, or an excuse, for scientific inquiry. Pope Benedict XVI has gone 
further. In a speech read at La Sapienza University in Rome last year (in the 
face of opposition from the academic staff) he argued: "If, however, reason ... 
becomes deaf to the great message that comes from the Christian faith and its 
wisdom, it will wither like a tree whose roots no longer reach the waters that 
give it life." What on earth was the Pope saying? That only Christians can be 
good scientists? Sorry, Pythagoras; sorry, Galen; sorry, Einstein; sorry, Crick.

Science has rampaged over the landscape of divine explanation, provoking denial 
or surrender from the church. Christian leaders, even the Catholic church, have 
reluctantly accommodated the discoveries of scientists, with the odd burning at 
the stake and excommunication along the way.

But I was astounded to discover how topical the issue of Galileo's trial still 
is in the Vatican and how resistant many Christians are to scientific ideas 
that challenge scriptural accounts. More than half of Americans, even a third 
of Brits, still believe that God created humans in their present form.

The process of Christian accommodation is a bit like the fate of fieldmice 
confronted by a combine harvester, continuously retreating into the shrinking 
patch of uncut wheat.

Ten days ago, on Darwin's birthday, Richard Dawkins, Archbishop of Atheism, and 
Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, conducted a public conversation in 
the Oxford University Museum, where Bishop Sam Wilberforce and Darwin's 
champion, Thomas Henry Huxley, had debated Darwin's ideas in 1860. The two 
Richards were more civilised. But inevitably, Richard H claimed for religion a 
territory that science can never invade, a totally safe sanctuary for Christian 
fieldmice. Science is brilliant at questions that start "how", but religion is 
the only approach to questions that start "why". Throughout history, human 
beings have asked those difficult "why" questions.

It's true that spiritual beliefs of one form or another are universal, almost 
as defining of humanity as language is. But the universality of language and 
the fact that bits of the human brain are clearly specialised to do language 
suggest that our genes give us language-learning brains. Is the same true of 

Brain scanning has indeed shown particular bits of the brain lighting up with 
activity when people pray, look at pictures of the Virgin Mary or recollect 
intense religious experiences. Richard Harries said: "It would not be 
surprising if God had created us with a physical facility for belief."

But there is another interpretation, which might eventually lead to the 
completion of the scientific harvest.

Human beings are supremely social animals. We recognise people and judge their 
feelings and intentions from their expressions and actions. Our thoughts about 
ourselves, and the words we use to describe those thoughts, are infused with 
wishes and wants. We feel that we are the helmsmen of our actions, free to 
choose, even to sin.

But increasingly, those who study the human brain see our experiences, even of 
our own intentions, as being an illusory commentary on what our brains have 
already decided to do.

Perhaps we humans come with a false model of ourselves, which works well as a 
means of predicting the behaviour of other people - a belief that actions are 
the result of conscious intentions. Then could the pervasive human belief in 
supernatural forces and spiritual agents, controlling the physical world, and 
influencing our moral judgments, be an extension of that false logic, a 
misconception no more significant than a visual illusion?

I'm dubious about those "why" questions: why are we here? Why do we have a 
sense of right and wrong? Either they make no sense or they can be recast as 
the kind of "how" questions that science answers so well.

When we understand how our brains generate religious ideas, and what the 
Darwinian adaptive value of such brain processes is, what will be left for 

• Colin Blakemore's God and the Scientists is on Channel 4 at 7pm tonight

    * © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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