Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Enriched by Gould
distributed 5/24/02 - ©2002

Stephen Jay Gould was a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, a prolific writer, and a religious agnostic. When I heard of his death this week, I felt a sense of loss that revealed how much he has informed my thinking, not only about science, but about deep matters of faith and ethics.

I pulled four of his books off of my shelves, and paged through them once again.

Two of the books are collections of his short articles in natural history. Through those pages, Gould opened my mind and my spirit to the wonder of our inherently connected world. He lifted up obscure tidbits from biology, the history of science, and even baseball, and from those starting places illuminated important concepts in ecology, the scientific method, philosophy and history.

His essays are pleasant, informative and thought-provoking pieces. I highly recommend them to those who have not yet explored the delightful genre of "natural history writing." They are fine summer reading, and can be a pleasant option on the bed table.

The other two Gould books from my collection have a different character. These, too, are written in a popular style (which he described as "suitable for all and accessible alike to professionals and interested laypeople"). Unlike the essays, though, these books are sustained discussions on highly-developed themes. Both of them have had a lasting impact on my thinking and my faith.

In Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Gould tackled the distinctive roles of two forms of thought and knowledge. Rather than seeing a conflict between science and religion, he proposed that they be considered as two non-overlapping domains of equal worth. He wrote:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain those facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values -- subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.

The characterization of science and religion as distinctive realms has important implications for how people of faith deal with many public policy questions. Going far beyond whether or not evolution and/or creationism should be taught in public schools, the awareness of these different sorts of knowledge can provide clarity for any situation where factual study intersects with ethical concerns -- which includes almost every topic of importance.

It is the fourth book in the stack, though, that has influenced me the most. A decade ago, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History pushed me into an extended bout of intellectual wrestling and spiritual struggles that still challenges me.

The superficial subject of this book is a collection of Canadian fossils from the time of the "Cambrian Explosion," the geological period when multicellular life erupted in a riot of diversity. More deeply, the book is an intriguing detective story about the identification and classification of those fossils. But most importantly, Gould builds from the fascinating story of an academic dispute in the arcane world of paleontology to dig into profound philosophical questions about perception and knowledge, about the character and flow of evolution, and about the distinctiveness of humanity.

A few bizarre fossils open the door to a exploration about the nature of history and our conceptions of progress. His descriptions of the flow of evolution and the shape of the branching bush of life are a direct assault on ideas that flow through our religious heritage and our intellectual culture.

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Dr. Gould's clear, insightful and accessible writings have made me grapple with ideas that were never raised in my college biology classes or my seminary coursework. They are ideas that don't make it into the pages of most academic journals -- whether scientific, theological or historical.

Gould's inquiries generally begin in the realm of science, but span many disciplines. In their creative breadth, his writings call us to moves beyond the gathering of knowledge, and to enter into the sort of integrative thought that probes at the edges of wisdom.

The questions that he raised are central to the work of Eco-Justice Ministries. They are questions that must be addressed by any person of faith who hopes to be relevant in today's world. What is the relationship between science and religion, between fact and ethics? What is the place of humanity within the entire realm of life?

Gould's perspectives on those questions may frustrate or anger some Christians. The questions themselves are essential and inescapable.

I give thanks for the many ways that Stephen Jay Gould enriched my thinking. I pray that the sorts of questions he raised may illuminate and challenge people of faith, practitioners of science, shapers of policy, and individuals of conscience.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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