Naming of Parts

Surely, Mr. Darwin’s theory is none the worse, morally, for having some foundation in fact.

Asa Gray (1810-1888)

Earlier, I considered the development of new professional terminology (like the word “scientist”) during the Victorian era. To-day, we have naming of parts once again. We’ve already heard about natural philosophers (who were later known as physicists or astronomers) and natural historians (who, roughly, turned into biologists, geologists, and ecologists). But what’s the modern-day homologue of a natural theologian? Natural theology was a common context for Victorian discourse in science and its sociopolitical implications. But what was it all about?

Coming into the discussion, I thought I pretty much knew. “This must be another branch of the natural sciences,” I thought, “just like natural history and natural philosophy, except from a religious perspective.” I figured a natural theologian would, say, study the geological remnants of the Flood, or analyze the biological implications of the Bible. I was on the right track as far as subject matter, but I had made a fundamental error. I was approaching the question as a 21st-century student of human evolutionary biology, so my focus was off-center. Natural theology is not a branch of science, but a branch of religion. The hot topic of the moment wasn’t natural theology; it was natural theology.

This realization felt like suddenly putting on prismatic goggles. I like to think of myself as a scientist, but I also like to think that, as far as scientists go, I’m pretty in touch with the social side of science. I spend significant time considering the implications of science for religion, for example. I understand that people come to the lab bench with a variety of agendas and baggage, and I’m familiar with the preference of many to examine nature through the lens of religion. Where I see a flood, for example, they might see The Flood. Where I see accident, they see providence. Where I see chance, they see design. I’m comfortable (if not thrilled) with this phenomenon. What didn’t occur to me, though, was the possibility of looking through the lens the other way. The point of natural theology wasn’t to study nature through the lens of religion; the point was to use nature as a lens through which to see God.

This probably shouldn’t have seemed as drastic to me as it did in the moment – especially since scientists today still use the language of religion to describe the profundity of nature. Cosmologist George Smoot, for example, described the feeling of mapping the cosmic microwave background leftover from the Big Bang as “like looking at God.” Physicists often talk about the God particle*, while Stephen Hawking has gone so far as to say that to develop a so-called theory of everything will be to “know the mind of God.” This sort of rhetoric, though, is a far cry from the sincerely religious drive behind much of nineteenth-century science. But if we’ve moved into a more secular phase of scientific history, then why do we still use the language of the church to describe the matter of matter? My best guess is that the feeling that draws many scientists to their studies actually borders on a religious experience. The religious and the non-religious alike are sensible of the same feelings we tend to associate with experiences of divinity – awe, inspiration, humility, exhilaration, comfort, wonder, love – but in response to different stimuli. Since religion is still the most widely accepted context for such experiences, religion provides the vocabulary for describing them. In fact, I’m not sure if science, art, or any other source of secular inspiration will ever replace religion as the linguistic paradigm for the feelings I’m referring to.

Image by Marit Medefind.

Speaking of “religious” experiences with secular triggers, the picture above shows me literally in tears of joy and awe in the archives of the Natural History Museum in London. What was it that had so affected me?

Image by Marit Medefind.

Sometimes, we do have to cry because we love Charles Darwin.

This is the kind of thing that tempts me into academic adultery. For the moment, biology is my lawful wife and history of science is my mistress…but I’m almost ready to ask for a divorce.

*For those of you who haven’t forgotten the God particle: The Higgs boson walks into a church. A priest sees it and says, “You’re not welcome here.” The Higgs boson replies, “But without me, how can you have mass?”

[Originally posted 7/29/10]
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s