Society fights battle royal over creationism, global warming
Society fights battle royal over creationism, global warmingLETTER FROM LONDON, Nov 10, 2006LONDON -- When Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and other deep thinkers of the day founded the Royal Society in 1660, "science" as a field of knowledge did not yet exist. So they called their new organization the Royal Society of London for Improving of Natural Knowledge.
Legacy of Newton and Darwin fuels defense of modern science.
By Tom Hundley, the Chicago Tribune's chief European correspondent, London
The idea, according to Stephen Cox, the society's current executive secretary, was "to replace unsound thinking about the world with knowledge based on observation and experimentation."
The Royal Society quickly became the embodiment of the Enlightenment, and over the centuries its greatest minds--from Newton and Darwin in the 18th and 19th Centuries to Crick and Watson in the 20th--have profoundly changed the way we look at the world.
These days, the society occupies a row of stately mansions overlooking London's St. James' Park. The buildings once housed the Prussian Legation and later became the Third Reich's Embassy.
The society's library is open to the public, but the best stuff is stashed away in the basement archives: Newton's telescope, his death mask, a lock of his hair and some wooden rulers supposedly made from the apple tree that provided Newton with his eureka moment.
The Royal Society can still boast of being on science's cutting edge, but in recent months it has found itself fighting an unexpected rear-guard battle against what is considers "unsound thinking" and bad science--most notably on the part of big oil companies that dispute climate change, and proponents of creationism and intelligent design who question Darwin's theory of evolution.
Given Darwin's close historical ties with the Royal Society, it is easy to understand why the organization feels compelled to come to his defense.
"Darwin's contribution to the way we see the world is one of history's great steps forward," said Cox, a former diplomat who described intelligent design, which holds that living creatures must be the work of an intelligent designer (i.e., a Creator), as a "movement," not a science.
"It has to be contested because it just cannot be sustained by the evidence we have about the world," said Cox.
Earlier this year, at a lecture sponsored by the Royal Society, Steve Jones, the British geneticist, noted that more than half of all Americans, including President Bush, believe in some form of creationism, and that creationism was "beginning to find a significant toehold in the U.K."
Evolution under fire
Jones called this a "step back from rationality." As in the U.S., main proponents of creationism are religious fundamentalists. In Britain's case, however, the fundamentalists tend to be Muslims rather than Christians.
Earlier this year, Muslim medical students at one London university distributed leaflets challenging Darwin's theory and citing a verse from the Koran that says God created every animal from water.
Last November, Robert May, a zoologist, physicist and mathematician, used his valedictory address as the Royal Society's departing president to warn that the core values of science were "under serious threat from resurgent fundamentalism, West and East."
"The really sad thing," May said, "is that none of these fundamentalist beliefs are grounded on, or representative of, the mainstream religions they profess to serve. Fundamentalist Christianity is widely considered as irrelevant to modern theology as it is to modern science. The extremist views and acts of fundamentalist Islam find little sanction in the Koran."
Global warming debate
The Royal Society has lately become embroiled in a dispute with Exxon Mobil over the oil giant's funding of organizations that attempt to cast doubt on the science of climate change.
Environmental groups have long complained that Exxon Mobil lags its competitors in investing in alternative energy development while channeling millions into "think tanks" and "experts" who claim global warming is a myth.
At a meeting with the Royal Society in July, Exxon Mobil officials said it would stop funding these activities.
But in a letter to Exxon Mobil a few weeks ago, the society asked when the corporation planned to carry out its pledge. The society also asked for a list of the organizations that have been receiving funding so that it could "work out which of these have been similarly providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public."
"To which they have never replied," said Cox.