Can We Talk About Creationism?

Chemical Heritage recently received a letter criticizing our article on James Tour.

I recently received a letter criticizing Chemical Heritage for running an article on a creationist (“Bridging the Gaps,” Fall 2011/Winter 2012). A fair criticism, right? After all, we run a science and history magazine, not a religion magazine. Except that the creationist in question is a chemist. A very good chemist, in fact, who works in the nanotech field.

As the editor of the magazine I made the decision to cover the religious beliefs of James Tour, the chemist in that article. I had three reasons: first, it’s a profile piece and is as much about the person as the science; second, Tour himself connects his faith to his science; and third, Tour is far from being the only creationist in science (though Tour does not describe himself as a creationist—he prefers to avoid labels).

I find it hard to imagine biologists as creationists simply because evolution is so central to post-Darwin biology. Anecdotally, though, I’ve heard of creationists in medicine and chemical engineering fields. A friend who is a historian of medicine tells me that a not insignificant proportion of medical students at her university are creationists—medicine as taught to students need have no connection to evolution.

I also suspect, though I have no proof, that engineering fields provide a conceptually comfortable home for creationists. In the early 19th century William Paley used the analogy of a watchmaker to argue for a cosmic Creator; as the watch had a maker, so must the universe. Engineers aren’t watchmakers, but they do create complex systems in the lab—in Tour’s case, nanoscale cars made from a single molecule. Such people know they are creating, in human time, complex systems that do not exist in nature. Perhaps such an approach predisposes some to think in terms of creators.

Biologists, on the other hand, find evidence of evolution by natural selection everywhere in nature. Biotech, particularly genetic engineering, may be another matter. Biotech is a science of the lab rather than the field; there is no need to think in terms of unimaginably long periods of time and environmental selection pressures.

I think there are worthwhile questions to be asked and discussions to be had about the beliefs of modern scientists and how their choice of profession interacts with whatever beliefs they may have. As for the letter, you can read both it and my response when our next issue is published in March.

Michal Meyer is the editor in chief of Chemical Heritage.

Reconsidering Anti-Science [Periodic Tabloid]

Posted In: History | Policy

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