Global Warming, Evolution, and Presidential Politics: The Long Shadow of Galileo


Judging from the media’s response to Rick Perry’s Galileo reference in the Reagan debate, our discourse is still governed by the modern view that science and religion can only clash.

Questions posed to conservative candidates about their commitments to issues of modern science—or to what is perceived to be modern science (such as global warming and evolution)—are frequently asked and answered from the perspective that science and faith fundamentally oppose each other. For most contemporary reporters and political pundits, especially on the left, it seems clear that either one supports the cultural project of modernity (in particular modern science) or one represents a kind of throwback to the darkness of a pre-modern past. Indeed, when reporters ask interviewees whether they “believe” in global warming or evolution, their attitudes betray their incredulity that anyone might challenge what is so obviously true. I do not argue that we should reject claims for global warming or evolution, but rather that we should reject how often discussion of these claims, especially in political settings, is backed by unexamined historical, philosophical, and cultural assumptions.

At the Reagan Library debate for Republican presidential candidates this month, Texas Governor Rick Perry was asked whether he thinks that global warming, and man's responsibility for it, are myths. Perry opined that arguments for global warming are unsubstantiated theories, and that many scientists support them in hopes of securing more funding for their research.

Reporters relish asking Perry and other candidates (especially Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum) such questions, because they think that too many Republicans share a hostile attitude toward science. Denying evolution or human responsibility for global warming (not to mention denying global warming itself) are examples of this hostility. At work here is a powerful and unchallenged assumption: To deny evolution or global warming is to deny science and to deny science is to be anti-intellectual, and such irrationalism often comes from a commitment to a fundamentalist Christianity.

When Perry expressed his doubts about global warming, he suggested that just as Galileo “got outvoted for a spell,” current views about global warming might very well change in the future. Television commentators and news reporters reacted with surprise to Perry’s brief comment. Galileo, after all, is one of the heroes of modernity, and the story of his encounter with the Inquisition in the seventeenth century seems to support the general thesis that science and religion are at war. For Perry to invoke Galileo in support of his own position seemed passing strange.

Few images of the modern world are more powerful than that of a humbled Galileo, kneeling before the cardinals of the Inquisition, being forced to admit that the earth did not move. It is an image of blind faith, biblical literalism, superstition, and authoritarian arrogance, all acting to suppress science and the search for truth. This picture prevails as the modern world’s understanding of what the relationship between religion and science used to be (and still is amongst certain conservatives).

Yet the historical record of Galileo’s story shows us that Galileo did not think his discoveries proved the earth’s movement. He did think they invalidated certain features of the prevailing geocentric cosmology. He hoped eventually to demonstrate that the earth moves by arguing from the regular motion of the ocean tides, but in this he was unsuccessful. When the Inquisition disciplined him, it mistakenly held the earth’s lack of movement as an obvious scientific truth. On the basis of hasty scientific judgment, the Inquisition insisted that the Bible be interpreted in a way that confirmed this conclusion. The Inquisition did not subordinate science to the Bible; rather, it subordinated the interpretation of the Bible to a scientific view that eventually would be shown false.

The media’s fascination with Perry’s Galileo quip reveals the power of historical and cultural assumptions. By the standard, modern view, everyone assumes in black and white terms that Galileo (and science) was right and his opponents (and religion, though his opponents included both scientists and theologians) were wrong. The legend of Galileo as a crusading scientist, persecuted by the blind authoritarian forces of the Inquisition, serves as a useful ideological tool for bludgeoning opposition to modern, progressive projects. Such browbeating occurs in debates about embryo-destructive research and cloning, environmental politics, and wide-ranging moral judgments about appropriate human behavior. To identify oneself as being on the side of Galileo is to cast one’s opponents in terms of dark forces of ignorance. In July 2006, for example, Senator Orrin Hatch, commenting on President George Bush’s veto of a bill providing funds for embryonic stem-cell research, claimed that those who opposed this research were, like the inquisitors who opposed Galileo, on “the wrong side of history.”

Reporters also take some satisfaction in probing the candidates’ views on evolution and on the teaching of evolution in the public schools. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, in a post-debate interview, asked former senator Rick Santorum whether he “believed in evolution.” In his brief response—made even briefer by the time demands of commercial television—Santorum sought to distinguish between micro- and macro-evolution, the latter’s including the view that there has been a gradual emergence of human beings from other species. Santorum suggested that forms of macro-evolution had to be rejected in order to accept the view that man is created in the image and likeness of God.

My point here is not to enter into complex issues about various evolutionary theories and the scientific support for them, but rather to note the fascination that reporters like Matthews have with raising simplistic questions such as: “Do you believe in evolution?” It continues to be easy to conclude that there is some fundamental conflict between “belief in evolution” and traditional religious faith: This conclusion is often shared by all sides in the controversy. But once one recognizes that evolutionary biology has as its subject the world of changing things, and offers explanations for change among living things on a grand scale, and that God’s creative act is the source of the existence of things, not of changes in and among things, then much of the controversy fades away. God, as transcendent cause of being, is the cause of all causes in nature, including those causes at work in evolutionary history. This analysis, however, involves important distinctions in science, philosophy, and theology; it does not fare well in political debates or popular journalism.

From even before the time of the famous Scopes Trial (1925), public discussion of scientific theories of evolution and of how these theories ought to be presented in the schools has been part of a broad cultural conflict. Michael Ruse, distinguished philosopher of biology at Florida State University, puts it this way: “creationism” and what he calls “evolutionism” represent rival religious views of the world, “rival stories of origins, rival judgments about the meaning of human life, rival sets of moral dictates.” What Ruse calls “evolutionism” is a set of extended cultural and philosophical claims that have their roots in, but ought to be distinguished from, the scientific discipline of evolutionary biology. What he terms “creationism” really involves a commitment to a particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis and ought to be distinguished from creation understood as the complete dependence of all things on God as cause.

Already in the nineteenthcentury, when the debate about evolution began, popular proponents such as John Draper and Andrew Dickson White saw this debate as part of a long history of conflict between reason and faith, truth and superstition. White, the founding president of Cornell University, saw human history in terms of the eventual emancipation of reason and science from religious dogmatism. According to White, there has been a “sacred struggle for the liberty of science—a struggle which has lasted for so many centuries, and which yet continues. A hard contest it has been; a war waged longer, with battles fiercer, with sieges more persistent, with strategy more shrewd than in any of the comparatively transient warfare of Caesar or Napoleon or Moltke.” The title of White’s major work says it all: History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). His book, still in print, has been translated into a dozen languages.

Historians have long since discredited White’s thesis of an over-arching conflict between science and religion. Scientific enquiry has often been supported by religious faith. Scientists in the Middle Ages and in the early modern era, for example, were motivated by their faith in a creator to examine the handiwork of His action. The very intelligibility of nature, essential for any scientific enterprise, owes its origin to the creative word of God. Nevertheless, the conflict thesis, nurtured in the midst of a positivist rejection of religion, remains a powerful cultural phenomenon. The special interest in Governor Perry’s brief comment about Galileo in the governor’s discussion of global warming begins to make sense once we recognize the critical role of the legend of Galileo in the story that modernity tells itself. If there really is a longstanding warfare between science and religion, it is important to be on the right side—and to be on the right side is to stand with Galileo, at least with the Galileo of the popular legend.

It may be that some express doubts about contemporary scientific claims because they too view them through the prism of a conflict thesis—that science is a threat to religion and that to protect religion one must be at least skeptical of claims made in the name of science. Believers, however, ought not to fear what science discloses about nature, although they ought to be alert to political and ideological uses of science which involve a rejection of religion or call for actions which are immoral. Science, which discovers truths about nature (including human nature), is not the same as ethics (judgments about how we ought to act in the world).

For many commentators, “to believe” in global warming, evolution, and the ethical prescriptions which they are thought to entail, serves as a kind of litmus test for cultural and political legitimacy. The fascination with Perry’s remark about Galileo and with his and other Republican candidates’ positions on these issues reveals a profound commitment to a way of looking at the world, and, in particular, of the relationship among reason, faith, and public policy, which is uncritically accepted. The candidates are asked such questions because there is the lingering suspicion that they inhabit a world long since left behind. Views about science and religion, for example, which see them as fundamentally incompatible, appear to be almost self-evidently true so that anyone who challenges this truth is summarily dismissed. Such smug dismissal of what is seen as obviously false is reminiscent of the Inquisition’s insistence that Galileo affirm that the earth does not move.

William E. Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science at Blackfriars College, University of Oxford.


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