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Darwin, Pauli & Stuff…

I have a strong interest in biology. I actually started a biology degree but switched to physics. I have some issues with Darwinism. No I am not a creationist but I tend to think the views of folk like Lynn Margulis got side-lined and I can’t stand Dickie Dawkins. OK Margulis was mad as a box of frogs on some stuff but whatever! She was almost certainly right with symbiotic development of eukaryotic cells. And then some weird stuff in evolution is down to maths more than just pushy little replicators slugging it out (that’s quite a good joke, actually – though not at a club at 2am which is packed with sluggy and pushy little wannabe replicators). Yes, slime molds are fascinating examples of self-organisation. They ain’t pretty but neither are engine rooms. I have a maths book somewhere which deals with the way they organise. Apparently it is dead easy to write a computer program to model them. Basically they operate more like a society than a single organism. Truly bizarre but then so is a jellyfish which you can stick in a blender and then can spontaneously reform.

Biology is very strange. And we are only now starting to be getting the full sp and it is hideously mathematical (and I like maths). A maths student I knew at university was doing a PhD on cancer angiogenesis – cancers developing their own blood supply! I saw his talk on it and left feeling not 100% – and I was not alone. Like I said down in the basement there are some very unpleasant things. To say nothing of the woodshed. I guess at some level I kinda thought if I stick with biology I might get a disease named for me (and probs a very unpleasant one) but physics! Ah, you can get a star named for you. I was a romantic youth. Still am.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dissing Darwin who had a truly profound insight into the Universe. But of course he didn’t get the full toffee apple – nobody ever does. Not even Newton and in many ways Darwin was biology’s Newton. Before him it was all myopic vicars hunting butterflies and pinning them up or some such. Chemistry is mainly buggering about and trying to make epic pongs – which is why we have mainly left it to the Germans. As a kid I did a chemistry masterclass thingie in the Easter hols at Newcastle University and some student at some point had scrawled in a way that suggested some form of abysmal moral torment the phrase, “Chem is wank” on my desk. Oh, it’s useful and I’m glad other people do it but A-level was my limit and I guess seeing my teacher blow the bejesus out of the fume cupboard doing the thermite reaction (now banned in schools) straightening his tie and saying in very calm tones, “Um, quite a vigorous reaction” was enough. But this is getting off topic. It was hilarious though. And he was a good teacher. 25 years later I recall that lesson. If only we’d had facebook then that moment would have been immortal.


This blog has collected a load of comments by creationists from tweets, blogs and whatever. The unmitigated pignorance of them astounds me. It isn’t so much they are wrong. They are in the words of Wolfgang Pauli, “nicht ganz falsch”. They are not even wrong. Hey ho! Let’s go!

@Yhwh_TheLord so then why do women have babies if we can just evolve fRom um whatever you think we evolved from?

You to old to believe in evolution. If we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys. are they the stupid that couldn’t evolve?

I’ve never seen an animal or a micro organism become a human. So that evolution shit is out the window for me.

Evolution is atheism. It’s not science, but an impossible, unrealistic, unbiological, invented process in order to remove God from equation.

And it goes on. And on.

So why am I blogging it? I have a long-term hatred of what can be called the science/religion debate. Putting the two in opposition has never made any sense to me. It doesn’t stop folk though. I’m sat having lunch at Lenton Hall University of Nottingham in 1993 and this git sidles, yes, sidles up to me and gets chatting. Well he’s a missionary and he rapidly turns around the meet and greet into, “Well if you come back to my room I have an excellent 20 minute defence of religion against science.” I politely but firmly declined. Should I have added that many people on my physics course were religious? Nah, that obvious fact never works with these folks. Then there was the head of the Christian Union who used to organise five-aside footy and at half-time once came out with, “You know in many ways God is like a football”. What fatuous guff! How precisely is God like a football? I mean some of the greatest minds of all time have wrestled with the question of the existence and nature of God and he comes out with that utterly meaningless toss! So fuck you Descartes! God is like a football because Robin said so (he was a twat BTW – an epic twat – a twat’s twatter of a twatting twat). There was a nervous silence and a lot of folk looking at their boots until someone suggested we just get on with the second half – thank God! Need I say quite a few of us were Christians. Not me but a few of the lads. They were even more deeply embarrassed. God is like a football – oh Pity Me! (a village in County Durham BTW).

There is no real clash between science and religion because fundamentally they are about different things. I can tell you (roughly) how a hydrogen bomb works but a priest can tell you whether it should be used. It’s very much like asking a plumber about the wiring. This is not to say I don’t have ethical viewpoints and it is not to say the priest might not have a strong interest in scientific matters (note vicars and flutterbies -as my Gran used to say) it is just that they aren’t the same thing and when people attempt to conflate religion (or especially quasi-religions such as National Socialism or Communism*) with (usually pseudo) science very bad things tend to happen.

Science says how things are and how to do ‘em. It should have next to no input in the moral dimension. It doesn’t say what ought to be done. That is for all of us as moral human beings to decide. By the same token religion (and moral stuff in general) ought to take note of science and not see it as a threat. Moreover the fusing of the two is a terrible idea and the instrument of totalitarians because it makes us objects to play with in the lab. And an invented (note I reffed Pseudo science earlier) lab at that. Science and religion fill two very different human needs and arguing the toss about which is better is like arguing whether pizza is better than Coca-Cola. You might ask a bishop in a moment of spiritual doubt but you’d ask an engineer or physicist if your PWR looked shonky. And vice versa. And the same applies to all religions (or moral codes) as it does to the sciences. You wouldn’t (even though she was a scientist) ask a botanist to look at your iffy PWR any more than you’d ask a nuclear scientist to tell you the best way to get rid of the crop-infection on your farm.

Science versus Religion is possibly the greatest nicht ganz falsch in the history of thinking. Yet it goes on.

H/T Infidel753

* The Sovs were not exactly into “racial realism” but did some bizarre stuff. They had women volunteer to be inseminated with gorilla semen because Stalin wanted to cross-breed a race of invincible Planet of the Apes style warriors and workers. And yes, I do mean they genuinely volunted for the socialist cause which is the really spooky bit. Utterly bent out of shape. Here’s your monkey baby says the midwife before taking it off to the research facility 214 for “studies”. Of course it didn’t work because “perverse science” is never “correct” in any sense of the word. The very idea that Darwinism leads to communism is twisted because communism lead to Lysenkoism and attempts at disgusting cross species mating (which can’t by definition work anyway – OK up to a point it can: mules, ligers etc but human/gorilla is really pushing the envelope). Anyhoo it doesn’t take away from my point that science is morally neutral. It is. It can be twisted though. Not to put too fine a point on it this is exactly why we need different modes of thought – not just science or pseudo-science. That is why religions and other moral concepts exist and need to. Because to put a very blunt point on it any quantity of knowledge on the structure of the atom or the structure of DNA says nothing about why you shouldn’t rape, murder or steal. That is a moral question and just as religion should keep out of science science has nothing to say about religion or morality and nor should it try to. And as to “science” impinging on politics – God help us!


  1. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    Truly bizarre but then so is a jellyfish which you can stick in a blender and then can spontaneously reform.

    Erm, are you thinking of sponges here?

  2. NickM says:

    You can do it with either. Not recommended for a smoothie mind.

  3. John Galt says:

    For someone who always came across (perhaps incorrectly) as disdaining all lower forms of science as ‘butterfly collecting’, that you started off studying biology I find amusing.

    I wonder what a jellyfish smoothie would taste like… :-)

  4. NickM says:

    You spent too long in the East. They eat strange stuff out there. My bro used to live in Japan. He is now at Sunderland Uni and they also eat fucking weird shit in Sunderland. Greggs is a rare delicacy. Bloody Mackems!

    As to “lower forms of sciences” – nah, not me! Having said that my interest in biology was at least spurred on by trying (and abysmally failing) to getting off with a couple of charming young ladies. No, I don’t see a hierarchy of sciences. I just loved that temptress physics more than that slut biology. Oddly enough if I had my time again I’d go for the Scarlett Johansson’s arse that is mathematics – the true Queen of All Knowledge. Maths is just so beautiful (like Ms J’s bottom). But this was a serious post, OK :-)

    And seriously all sciences (even chem) are hard in different ways which was kinda my point sort of.

  5. John Galt says:

    Speaking of Soviet science, did you ever see those experiments on transplanting dogs heads that Vladimir Demikhov did?

    It was certainly ground-breaking science and moved our understanding of transplant surgery forward, but there are just some things that for very good reasons of morality shouldn’t be done.

    That’s even if you can get past the animal cruelty which I find very hard.

  6. Julie near Chicago says:

    Nick, very interesting. One thought I had — wouldn’t you credit Mendel’s work as being at least as important as Darwin’s? It seems to me that if anything he’s more “Newtonian” than Darwin. Experiment as leading to theory and all that.

    Also, pizza is better than Coke. Definitely. Especially Garbage Pizza–sausage, mushrooms, onions, green pepper, shrimp, olives, anchovies. Now the issue as between pizza and Pepsi is far less clear….

    And of COURSE Math is the Queen of all sciences (if you think math IS a science, of course). MATH RULES !!!

    Kidding aside, very good. Especially your main point, which is that religion and science attempt to address different aspects of the reality in which we find ourselves.

    Of course, as a non-Believer, I don’t think that religion, in the conventional sense that is, is necessary for one to develop a moral code. On the other hand, I’m the product of a culture that has taken certain moral precepts to its bosom, so to speak, and I’m steeped in those: they’re a part of what has “shaped” me. And they come, of course, from the Christian religion (among other kinds of understanding) as its theory and practice have developed across 2000 years. So my moral code does indeed depend at least partly on religion.

    Anyway, Science is the investigation of God’s Plan of the Universe, if there is a God. And if so, He definitely wanted us to do science — real science, good science, as part of how we come to know Him. He certainly didn’t give us a brain and then intend us to put it away in storage permanently.

    –But you need Organic to do molecular biology and also neuroscience, and of course P-Chem really IS physics (as well as being how come there IS chemistry in the first place), so…. Besides, I liked P-Chem, what little I had of it. And in another life I’d investigate Organic carefully. ;>)

    Excellent piece.

  7. NickM says:

    Thanks Julie!

    Physical chemistry is obviously something that can be derived from physics. This is proven. Having said that the actual doing of it is a nightmare. Having said that I once at uni played with a nanotesla range magnetometer of my old build (a bloody nightmare – it would go mental when a car entered or left the car park – having said that I knew when my lecturers were turning-up late or nicking-off early!). It involved. Played merry hell with my attempts to map auroras. Anyway, I asked about the effects the MRI magnets in the physics department would have on my kit (which cost next to nothing). I also asked if the MRI magnets in the neighbouring chemistry department would be an issue. I was told they were not a patch on the physics ones. Woo hoo!

    I also was on a committee with Professor Sir Peter Mansfield FRS, Nobel Prize. He invented MRI.

    There is much more to say but I shall leave it for later.

  8. Roue le Jour says:

    It was hydra that are supposed to be able to reform after being forced through a sieve. I have read that it was disproved a few years after the claim was made, a century ago now. It’s in one of the Science of Discworld books I think.

  9. Simon Cooke says:

    Chemistry is fab. Like molecular cookery.

  10. Flaxen Saxon says:

    You have some interesting insights here, NickM. A few comments with regard to evolution before I move on to religion. I’m a biologist (geneticist) by profession and have taken graduate courses in evolutionary theory. I agree that Darwin didn’t get it all right, but a bloody great first attempt. Interestingly, his concept of genetics was one of ‘blending’ and counter to his theory. The genetic components from both parents became homogeneously mixed, like blending coloured water; this would lead to genetic homogeneity and not variation. Therefore, the ‘raw stuff’ for natural selection to work could not exist. Darwin was aware of this and it bothered him. Of course it would have to wait for Mendel and his peas to show the ‘particulate’ nature of genetics. Biologists argue about evolution today; punctuated equilibrium Vs gradualism. This is how good science works. To my mind these theories are not mutually exclusive and both may operate given chance and circumstance. Theories should be continually tested as ultimately they are falsifiable (well at least according to Karl Popper- whether this is a valid proposition is debatable and would entail a whole separate discussion).

    You mention that there should be no conflict between science and religion as they inhabit two separate, non-overlapping spheres of existence. This is what Stephen Jay Gould termed: ‘Non overlapping magisterial.’ Please note I deliberately omitted the phrase: ‘non-overlapping spheres of knowledge’. Science, does science and religion does religousy things. While science makes the everlasting light bulb religion makes our moral and ethical codes. The problem I have with this view is this: Is there any aspect of our moral or ethical foundation that couldn’t have been formulated by an unbeliever? You don’t have to believe in a deity, who will dispense divine justice and offer rewards, to do right. You don’t have to be religious to know that killing and stealing and coveting is not the right thing to do. I could argue that a secular morality is superior as it is concerned for our, and societies’ wellbeing, rather than conforming to a deities’ sense of gericht; a justice which is often arbitrary and grossly unfair (go tell it to Job).

    In times past religion explained everything (not really), but before rational speculative thought you could argue that this is all we had. The ancient Greek philosophers made a good start, but with a few exceptions, did not practise science in the true meaning of the word. The advent of the ‘Dark Ages’ and the rise of Catholic philosophy/theology and dogma did little to improve matters. Since then science has started to explain our world and phenomena continually pushing back religious explanations of our natural world. The God of the gaps has become the God of the cracks. The point being that saying God explains anything is tantamount to no explanation at all. Magic and causality are incompatible.

    NickM I know I’m coming across as a crusty old empiricist (rightly condemned sir!) but true knowledge can only really be obtained through induction and deduction. These are the only tools we have in our epistemological toolbox. If that ultimately limits what can be known, so be it. On the basis of faith you can believe in anything. This doesn’t mean I can’t shed tears over a Shakespeare sonnet or appreciate the beauty of a sunset, or enjoy getting pissed, or revel in the love of a good woman, or a couple of bad ones. I’m not totally lost to humanity, not yet. And some folk say I have no soul- which of course, I don’t. When my 3 year old granddaughter asks profound questions I tend to give her a big hug. Plenty of time for her cranky, weird, old gramps to fill her head full of my own peculiar brand of nonsense; may God help her.

    Two other points before I bugger off to the pub: I totally agree that science should have no input into ethics or morality. However, scientists as human beings should have opinions on these areas of human thought; just keep it out of science journals. As for religions not being afraid of science: I think religions are rightly afraid of science and it has always been this way. There has always been a strong strand of ‘anti-reason’ in religious thought and doctrine. Religions have always peddled inferior intellectual wares. Theologians know this and are scared. In times when the religious hierarchy exercised power this fear was expressed in suppression. Theologians are not stupid, even modern theologians. They can see that with a God squeezed out of the natural order of things he is starting to look rather lost. As I said, I don’t see why God(s) and religion should have a superior place in framing our ethical standards. So what is left? Religion becomes, even more marginalised, at least in civilised societies. You can argue that religion offers some form of solace and social comfort. Look to the emptying pews to see, that increasingly, even this last refuge is rapidly becoming redundant. Enough said, my Guinness awaits.

  11. CountingCats says:

    Is there any aspect of our moral or ethical foundation that couldn’t have been formulated by an unbeliever?

    Not in my experience, but, regardless, I don’t see that this is an issue for science. One may look to science for an approach to maximise a particular outcome, but I am not convinced that it can specify whether either the approach or the outcome are ‘moral’ or not.

    I am able to formulate an acceptable moral foundation, comparable with a religion based one, on the basis of self interest. Whether that is scientific I doubt very much.

  12. John Galt says:

    Slightly off-topic, but an interesting question is whether hygiene through food related measures such as the banning of pork, shellfish, etc. by the Jewish religion improve the overall survival rate for the group or whether it’s result was negligible.

    The rationale here being that since there was a greater chance of getting food poisoning or internal parasites from eating uncooked pork or shellfish that was off, by banning them through the religion, it increased the groups survival rate.

    Not saying I buy this, but it’s an interesting theory.

  13. Flaxen Saxon says:

    On this Mr cats we are in accord. Science is not about morals, politics or theology for that matter; it is about matter. But of course, me and thee, have to live in the real world. So what I just said doesn’t apply.

  14. Flaxen Saxon says:

    What a fascinating hypothesis you have there Mr Galt. Totally untestable of course. Your notion would only be effective if the eating of ‘non unclean’ foods was less hazardous than the eating of pork or shell fish. There are parasites in lamb and chicken. The knack of course is to cook your food thoroughly; the ancients weren’t daft. It would be interesting to do a comparative study on the ancient Israelites and the surrounding Caananite population (or Philistines). The neighbours of the Jews certainly ate pork as attested by excavations in old midden pits. This would involve a bit of grave robbing. I know that parasites have been isolated from Egyptian mummies. Would it be possible to identify and characterise parasite infestation from old bones? Now there is a question for science to answer. As for digging up them bones in the first place, now that is an ethical question. Or perhaps a political question? Oh to be an archaeologist in the 19th century.
    The fact that the Jewish people survived (?thrived) after suffering millennia of extreme hardship is probably due, in part, to their exclusive dietary laws. These rules made them ‘different’ from surrounding populations, and together with their total immersion in their monotheistic religion, made it difficult for them to intermarry with non-Jews. Hence their survival as a distinct race in spite of their enforced or voluntary diaspora.

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