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Daily RC Article 104

Nature's Deity: The Complex Relationship Between Science and Society


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There are few things that have more changed our world than has science. Scientists and their discoveries have helped transform material conditions and opened up new social and moral vistas. Yet it is the very notion of human-directed change that many people today find so troubling. No period has been more penetrated by science, nor more dependent upon it, than the past half century. Yet no period has been more uneasy about it, nor felt more that the relationship with scientific knowledge is a Faustian pact.

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No science has seemed more to call all in doubt than the science of biology. From genetic engineering to cloning, from test tube babies to xenotransplantation, from the mapping of the human genome to the possibility of ending the menopause, biology has truly disturbed our universe. Opinion formers in society worry that man is now playing God, remaking nature in his own image. Bryan Appleyard is terrified by the way that science has invaded the human realm. “The new biology entails the thwarting of nature at a very fundamental level. Genetics must be contained, humbled.”

But while there is immense fear about the practical consequences of biological sciences, there is an equally immense support for biological theories of human nature. …

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This contrast between hostility to biological experimentation and embrace of evolutionary psychology should not surprise us. What many people fear is a science that disturbs their moral compass, upsetting traditional ideas of Man and nature, a science that promises new forms of control over nature, new types of mastery over human destiny. What many people are drawn to is a science that provides science and comfort, and turns an explanation about the human condition into a parable about fate.

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The common threads in hostility to biological science and a yearning for evolutionary stories are a debased view of what it means to be human and an exalted view of nature. ‘In a secular civilization’, Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky observe, ‘nature plays the role of general arbiter of human designs more plausibly than God’…Today, nature is rapidly turning into a new deity to whom we turn for moral answer and personal comfort… In an age in which humans and human activity are held in low esteem, there is a tendency to deify nature. In almost every aspect of life, the ‘natural’ is regarded as morally superior to the artificial or the human…As Norman Levitt put it ‘The “natural” is the virtuous opposite of the degraded manifestations of humanity’s fallen state.’

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The deification of nature has led many both to decry science that seems to defile the purity of nature and to laud science that seems to make us more natural. Biological technology that threatens to transform our relationship with nature is often seen as unnatural and blasphemous. ‘Have we the right’, the molecular biologist Ervin Chargaff asks, ‘to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years? Each generation must be allowed to struggle with human nature as it is given to them, and not with the irreversible biological results of their forbears’ actions.

The article delves into the complex relationship between society and science, particularly in the realm of biology. It highlights the simultaneous unease and dependency on scientific advancements, especially in biological sciences. The fear of meddling with nature and the reverence for evolutionary psychology coexist, revealing a conflict between discomfort with scientific interference and the allure of biological theories explaining human nature. It discusses how societal perspectives often lean toward idolizing nature while questioning science's impact on humanity's moral compass and the natural order. Ultimately, it examines the tension between scientific progress, moral values, and humanity's role in reshaping the natural world.
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