Had an interesting semi-discussion (it was over too quickly to be a full discussion) with someone last night. We were chatting about morals and religion and people’s interpretations of god. The person I was talking to said how much she likes the Jewish religion (apart from some of the Old Testament versions of a very tribal, vengeful god) in that on the whole a lot of the morals are around you have your life to live therefore make the most of it and do good because it’s good to do good. I’m not hugely versed in all this but my understanding is that there’s not the Christian concept of heaven, so you have to do what you can while you’re alive and then that’s it. That may freak some people out, but I’ve been thinking about a couple of ideas/quotes I read in the last year: firstly, just because something would be nice, like heaven, doesn’t actually make it real; secondly as Mark Twain said (approximately) “I was dead for billions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me in the least, so why should I be worried about being dead again?”

Anyway, someone else butted into the conversation and made the point that you can’t or shouldn’t trust reason if you’re a faithful person. She said (and this is a direct quote) “Reason always leads to error.” I mentioned how reason can often lead to the truth, like Galileo using observation and reason to note how the universe is not Earth-centric, and how this so freaked out the Church that they made him recant his ideas. This seems to be an example of non-reason leading to error.

I was thinking about the conversation this morning as I was reading an excellent article in the New Yorker about scientists looking at retroviruses which over time have actually become part of the animal genome (this is sometimes referred to as “junk DNA” because it doesn’t seem to do anything, but in the past may actually have helped the host organism, by doing things such as protecting against other viruses or helping the process of placental births to come about), and are yet another piece of evidence in support of evolution: when they examine the chimpanzee and human genome, this retroviral DNA between the two species matches so closely that it’s almost impossible that chance would have allowed this to happen.

8 Responses to “reason”

  1. Emma says:

    Are you suggesting that the anti-evolution crowd is touting chance as the alternative? I thought the whole point was that if it isn’t evolution it is because the Creator is being very deliberate.

    I think you know where I stand on the matter but surely given your reference to “chance” it could just as easily be evidence that God wants people and chimps to be more alike as it is for evolution???

  2. Andrew says:

    That’s a really good question, and I was thinking about using the “chance” wording while I wrote it.

    What I understand happened is (using the third page of the article as reference) these retroviruses actually infect reproductive cells, such as eggs or sperm, and thereby become part of the host’s DNA. Once they are in the DNA, they are basically in there forever for the infected animal’s offspring and all subsequent descendants, unless a genetic mutation causes them to be deleted or changed beyond recognition.Because of this, geneticists can trace these retroviral fragments in animals and look for their common ancestry (placement of the fragments on the genome of humans vs chimps for example).

    From the article: “Darwin’s theory [of common ancestry] makes sense, though, only if humans share most of those viral fragments with relatives like chimpanzees and monkeys. And we do, in thousands of places throughout our genome. If that were a coincidence, humans and chimpanzees would have had to endure an incalculable number of identical viral infections in the course of millions of years, and then, somehow, those infections would have had to end up in exactly the same place within each genome. The rungs of the ladder of human DNA consist of three billion pairs of nucleotides spread across forty-six chromosomes. The sequences of those nucleotides determine how each person differs from another, and from all other living things. The only way that humans, in thousands of seemingly random locations, could possess the exact retroviral DNA found in another species is by inheriting it from a common ancestor.”

    I guess that doesn’t directly answer your question because the only other way that this phenomenon could be seen is by an obsessive compulsive creator who is obsessed with covering up his own tracks as an “intelligent” designer/watchmaker by inserting vast amounts of unnecessary detail to the genetic record. But of course as we know – tough to prove, wouldn’t you say?

  3. Fiona Lihs says:

    Isn’t that the basis of the inherent problem with both science and faith, there is no absolute proof for either? Both sides of the argument can basically take any piece of information and use it as their proof. In the end, unless there is some literal divine intervention, we will never know! That is why being a scientist who has a religious belief is possible!Interesting article, I am passing it on to our Biologists.

  4. Well isn’t one of the primary differences that at least pieces of information used by science are, or should be, testable? And re-testable, and peer reviewed and criticized and then thrown out if they are not workable or valid? Also science allows you to use past experience to predict stuff, so for example you can use theories of gravity, relativity etc to predict how planets move so that you can aim rocket ships at them, or how transistors work so that you can build computer chips. As you do the science you can change your understandings of the world and how it works in order to do stuff. So even the law of gravity, which I believe is provable, was refined by the theory of relativity, which was proven by measuring the bending of light during a solar eclipse – the effect of gravity on light. I don’t really see that as being a problem; in fact I see it as being one of the main beauties of science, don’t you?

    The real problem, which you may be driving at, is when people try mixing the two. My pet peeve as I’ve documented in the past on this blog is when people start trying to come up with religious/supernatural explanations for things but presenting them as science, like with intelligent design – it’s impossible to describe it as science because it’s not provable or testable (and wouldn’t help you predict anything). Likewise science, like anthropology, could maybe be used to come up with theories as to why religion is important to people or how religious ideas spread, but it’s pretty unlikely that you could come up with a scientific method for proving or disproving the existence of god. That would be a job for philosophy.

  5. Fiona Lihs says:

    Science is indeed based on testing theories and then refining them to the point they can make predictions. That is the very definition of scientific theory, however it is never possible to 100% prove anything, even gravity, because there is always the chance that something will come along that will not fit, ie. the theory of relativity. That is not to say that there aren’t theories that are so well tested and have provided innumerable predictions that have held up that we can essentially call them fact. Interestingly evolution is one of those theories, my belief is, if not for the “missing link” it would be considered “fact” by scientists. (I love explaining this to my students the first week of class, and telling them that 90% of what I teach them will probably be disproved within 100 years)

    Faith is can not be tested in the same way as science though and that is what makes it such a slippery topic.

    All that said I completely agree with your take on using scientific style to explain religion, they don’t mix and don’t try to make them. It just confuses people and makes them not trust scientist even more than they do already!!!

  6. Fiona: thanks for the reply. I think one of the reasons I liked the New Yorker article was how the theories changed – yes they could “see” that Darwin’s theory of inheritance worked (because genetic material was passed through generations, with genetic mutations helping evolution), but in ways that Darwin had no idea of (retroviral genes are incorporated in animal genes, and may even have helped the evolution of new animal characteristics), therefore the theory gets refined.

    By the way, which “missing link” are you thinking of? The fossil record? There are a number of examples of missing links in the fossil record of numerous animals (here’s a great article about the fossil record of horses), not to mention vestigial limbs in snakes, hip bones in whales. And with the genetic record people have been able to trace species transitions without having to have actual fossils (because let’s face it most animal bones are not preserved) and as seen in the article which started this discussion provide as good evidence as anything.

  7. Emma says:


    I know you’re a scientist and all so this is second nature to you, but shouldn’t you have some serious “Mommy Brain” right now?

  8. Fiona Lihs says:

    :) hehehe, what is really sad is I can discuss this stuff still, but trying to remember what to buy at the grocery store is beyond me!

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