Two Nobel prize winners - Sir Harry Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts - have demanded that the Royal Society sack its education director, Professor Michael Reiss. The call, backed by other senior Royal Society fellows, follows Reiss's controversial claim last week that creationism be taught in schools' science classes.
Reiss, an ordained Church of England minister, has since alleged he was misquoted. Nevertheless, several Royal Society fellows say his religious views make him an inappropriate choice for the post.
'I warned the president of the Royal Society that his [Reiss] was a dangerous appointment a year ago. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be,' said Kroto, a Royal Society fellow, and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Roberts, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on gene-splicing, was equally angry. 'I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates - which would be sent to the Royal Society - to ask that Reiss be made to stand down.'
Zoologist Richard Dawkins, a Royal Society fellow, said: 'A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch.'
A spokesman for the Royal Society rejected the principle that it was inappropriate for a clergyman to hold a senior post at the organisation. 'Michael Reiss's views are completely in keeping with those of the Royal Society,' he said.
The row over Reiss's remarks is the second recent controversy over the society's stance on religion. Fellows, including cancer expert and Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, complained about the financial links that had been established between the society and the Templeton Foundation, a conservative US organisation that seeks to establish links between science and religion. The latter funded a lecture course at the society.
Many fellows fear the society, the world's oldest scientific organisation, is failing to take a sufficiently robust stance against the spread of fundamental religions which oppose scientific teachings about the origins of the Earth and humanity. 'The thing the Royal Society does not appreciate is the true nature of the forces arrayed against it and the Enlightenment for which the Royal Society should be the last champion,' Kroto said.
Creationism visits the Royal Society
From The Times September 19, 2008
Shining a light where science and theology meet
Why literal creationists are abusing and misinterpreting scriptureJohn Polkinghorne
An irritating feature of modern life is the way in which useful words get hijacked and used for different, and often unacceptable, purposes. An example is “creationist”. As a Christian believer I am, of course, a creationist in the proper sense of the term, for I believe that the mind and the purpose of a divine Creator lie behind the fruitful history and remarkable order of the universe which science explores. But I am certainly not a creationist in that curious North American sense, which implies interpreting Genesis 1 in a flat-footed literal way and supposing that evolution is wrong.
The irony of this notion of creationism is that it not only involves many scientific errors, but is also the result of a bad theological mistake. When we read any kind of deep literature, if we are to give it the respect that it deserves we must make sure we understand the genre of what is written. Mistaking poetry for prose can lead to false conclusions. When Robert Burns tell us his love “is like a red, red rose”, we know that we are not meant to think that his girlfriend has green leaves and prickles. Reading Genesis 1 as if it were a divinely dictated scientific text, intended to save us the trouble of actually doing science, is to make a similar kind of error. We miss the point of the chapter if we do not see that it is actually a piece of deep theological writing whose purpose, through the eight-times reiterated phrase “And God said, ‘Let there be . . .”, is to assert that everything that exists does so because of the will of the Creator. Thus literal creationists actually abuse scripture by the mistaken interpretation that they impose upon it.
Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s great work, The Origin of Species. An ignorant view of history claims that in 1859 all the scientific people accepted Darwin right away and all the religious people rejected him. Neither statement is true. Many scientists had difficulties, mainly because their ignorance of genetics (soon to be discovered — for many years unnoticed — by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel) meant that the origin and nature of the small differences between succeeding generations, to which Darwin had to appeal, seemed to be obscure and doubtful. On the other hand, some religious people welcomed Darwin’s insights from the start. Notable among these was the novelist and clergyman Charles Kingsley. He coined a phrase which continues to epitomise the theological way in which to understand the fact of an evolutionary world. Kingsley said that no doubt God could have created a ready-made world, but it had turned out the Creator had done something cleverer and more valuable than that, in creating a world so endowed with potentiality that creatures “could make themselves” through the shuffling explorations of natural selection. The God who is the Creator of nature can as properly be seen to be at work through natural processes as in any other way.
Creationism and evolution have been in the news recently because of the furore that has led to the resignation of Professor Michael Reiss from his part-time post as an educational adviser at the Royal Society. I believe that he has been the victim of our sound-bite culture, in which a phrase is plucked from a considered speech and, out of context, is made to seem as if something quite contrary to the speaker’s actual intention was being said. In a letter to The Times a week ago, Reiss sought to put the record straight. His first sentence unequivocally stated that “creationism has no scientific validity” and a little later he said that “evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth, and for the diversity of species”. He also made the reasonable remark that “If a young person raises the issue of creationism in a science class, a teacher should be in a position to examine why it does not stand up to scientific investigation”. I know Michael Reiss to have a sensible and sensitive concern for educational matters relating to science and religion, and I very much regret that misrepresentation of his views has led to his resignation.
The Rev Canon John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS, is a particle physicist and a theologian. He was President of Queens’ College, Cambridge, 1989-96
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