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04/08/07

By JOHN ROWEN, Staff Writer

Pair of visiting authors will discuss ‘God vs. Science’
Moderator: Expect lively conversation, not heated debate

This Thursday, two authors will bring modern insight and wit to the timeless dispute of “God vs. Science.”

Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prizewinning science reporter for The New York Times, and David Sloan Wilson, an eloquent, award-winning evolutionary biologist from State University of New York, Binghamton, will discuss God and science. Thomas Bass, professor of English and journalism at the University at Albany, will moderate the discussion.

In a recent interview, Bass said, “This program was billed initially as a ‘debate’ but that word is a shorthand way of referring to a dialogue or extended conversation.” He envisions each author making opening remarks and then “a conversation will flow from their opening remarks.”

The religious may be puzzled by the speakers considering God. Angier has been called “an outspoken atheist.” While Wilson is also an atheist, he has argued that religion is a successful adaptation that confers major advantages on societies that espouse it.

MUTUAL RESPECT

In the conversations leading up this event, Angier and Wilson said they mutually respect each other and have level dispositions. So it is not likely that they will attain the high-decibel drama of “Inherit the Wind,” where Spencer Tracy and Frederick March crossed swords over evolution in a Tennessee courtroom.

What the event may lack in drama or histrionics it will more than repay with insightful gems. Angier has just written a book called “The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science” (Houghton-Miffl in Company, 304 pages, $27). “The Canon” describes the major concepts of physics, chemistry, biology, particularly evolution, geology and astronomy.

On almost every page, Angier describes an amazing scientific fact or discovery. For example, certain microwaves reaching Earth from space are “partly the result of the cosmic microwave background, the cold, crackling leftover life from the universe in circa 300,000 A.B.B. (after Big Bang).”

In the book, she seems to be saying that the world is miraculous enough on its own terms. Religious miracles happened in the past but nothing limits the curious from finding something equally amazing or thought-provoking today.

BOOK ON EVOLUTION

Wilson’s new book, “Evolution for Everybody” (Delacorte Press, 304 pages, $24), includes many clear examples of how evolution is manifest in physical and behavioral traits. It is also noteworthy because Wilson’s autobiographical sketches offer an informative view of a life in science.

One of the more interesting parts of Wilson’s research is that he and his colleagues find that difficult or unpleasant physical traits actually have sound evolutionary reasons. Morning sickness, for example, makes life difficult for pregnant women. However, evolutionary biologists have discovered it plays an indispensable role in protecting a growing fetus from food toxins.

Wilson started studying evolution from a traditional biological perspective, but then moved to subjects usually not associated with evolution, such as human laughter, beauty, art, dance and religion.

His study of religion is noteworthy for its systematic approach. In a recent conversation, he said he is coming to the realization that “religion is the glue that holds many societies together — and that’s a good thing.”

Further, while it can be difficult for a believer to contemplate religion explainable by natural laws, as a purely natural phenomenon, the difficulty cuts both ways. “I am not sure,” he comments “if there can be a strong communitarian system that is not based on religion; that would be a bit of a scary conclusion for me.”

RANGE OF EXPECTATIONS

Bass, Angier and Wilson have a range of expectations for how the conversation will turn out. Bass, the program organizer, said the audience is likely to “know what Angier’s and Wilson’s positions are going into the event. We do not know,” he continued, “if the conversation will cause either to change their positions. . . . We are setting up a framework for discussion and discovery, that’s what is important for universities to do.”

Wilson comes to this forum perturbed by the stance of some scientific writers, particularly Richard Dawkins. “Some scientific books arguing against religion use the same rhetoric and types of arguments that religious zealots used to demonize non-believers. . . . Scientists,” he concludes, “cannot demonize religion. They have to study it systematically.”

In a recent e-mail conversation, Angier suggested reading some of her writings on God and science for a sense of her expectations. In “My God Problem,” she writes, “science does not have all the answers and doesn’t pretend to and that’s one of the things I love about it. But it has a pretty good notion of what’s probable or possible, and virgin births and carpenter rebirths just aren’t on the list.

“Is there a divine intelligence, somehow in charge of the universe, either in its inception or twiddling its parameters? No evidence.”

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