Editor's note: This commentary by Daryl Austin is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
I’ve always thought of science and religion as generally opposed belief systems with one relying more on logic or reason and the other relying more on faith. Having recently discovered the newest edition of the celebrated scientific text "A Short History of Nearly Everything," however, I no longer think about either belief system in quite the same way.
I still recognize, of course, that many of my religious beliefs defy a ready explanation (see angels, gold plates and parted Red Seas), but I now also appreciate how scientists are similarly unable to explain many of their own findings.
This uncertainty, this mystery, doesn’t shake my faith in either. Rather, I admire both science and religion more for the shared yearnings to discover greater light and truth.
My purpose here is not to denigrate the noble endeavors of science or to critique modern research advances. Instead, I want to underscore the perhaps counterintuitive commonalities between the seemingly distinct domains of pews and petri dishes.
"A Short History of Nearly Everything" is an international bestseller and one of the most highly reviewed works of popular science literature. The New York Times lauds it as "A modern classic of science writing," and the Times Literary Supplement writes that "all schools would be better places if it were the core science reader on the curriculum."
The author, Bill Bryson, dedicated three years of his life to completing the work. He met with or studied the findings of more than a hundred scientists and experts. His purpose in writing the book was “to see if it isn’t possible to understand and appreciate … the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn’t too technical or demanding, but isn’t entirely superficial either.” To say he accomplished his goal is an understatement. In writing the book, however, he (perhaps inadvertently) also laid bare the many challenges and mysteries that confront the scientific enterprise.
Scientists and people of faith, it appears, both struggle to see through a glass, darkly. This may seem self-evident to many, but I was particularly struck by just how much scientists disagree — even among those who have similar educational backgrounds, in the same fields of study, who are observing the same data points.
I was particularly struck by just how much scientists disagree — even among those who have similar educational backgrounds, in the same fields of study, who are observing the same data points.
Bryson, for example, notes that geologists throughout time have often disagreed about the age of the earth. He writes: “By the close of the nineteenth century, depending on which text you consulted, you could learn that the number of years that stood between us and the dawn of complex life … was 3 million, 18 million, 600 million, 794 million, or 2.4 billion — or some other number within that range.”
It's worth noting that every scientist across that spectrum absolutely believed his position to be the most accurate at the time. Chemists have been similarly affected. When the two-time Nobel Prize winner, Madame Marie Curie, discovered radium at the close of 1898, her fellow scientists initially embraced the perceived benefits of radioactivity. Bryson writes: “For a long time it was assumed that anything so miraculously energetic as radioactivity must be beneficial. For years, manufacturers of toothpaste and laxatives put radioactive thorium in their products.” Incredibly, Bryson notes that radioactivity “wasn’t banned in consumer products until 1938.”
Geophysicists, meanwhile, aren’t exempt. “The distribution of continents in former times is much less neatly resolved than most people outside geophysics think,” Bryson writes.
“Species of plants and animals from the ancient world have a habit of appearing inconveniently where they shouldn’t and failing to be where they ought.” Bryson provides many specific examples of inexplicable discrepancies while noting that today they’re “mostly ignored.”
And then there’s the 1918 Great Swine Flu epidemic. To demonstrate the magnitude of its destruction, Bryson observes that “The First World War killed 21 million people in four years; swine flu did the same in its first four months.”
What’s amazing is that to this day, scientists still don’t know “how or where” that particular virus mutated into its lethal form, nor why it “was most devastating to people in the prime of life” when the flu “normally is hardest on infants and the elderly.” Nor do we know “how it erupted suddenly, all over, in places separated by oceans, mountain ranges and other earthly impediments.”
(Bryson says that’s odd because “a virus can survive for no more than a few hours outside a host body, so how could it appear in Madrid, Bombay and Philadelphia all in the same week?”)
And what about our inability to account for how a sailor died of AIDS back in 1959, “yet, for whatever reasons, the disease remained generally quiescent for another twenty years.”
Scientists still know little (or nothing at all) about almost all of the species that have come before us. “It has been estimated that less than one species in ten thousand has made it into the fossil record,” Bryson continues. “That in itself is a stunningly infinitesimal proportion. However, if you accept the common estimate that the Earth has produced thirty billion species of creature in its time … that reduces the proportion to just one in 120,000.”
Along those same lines, I’ve heard speculation that there's relatively little archeological or scientific evidence of the ancient peoples described in, say, The Bible or The Book of Mormon. Even assume that this premise is true (and there’s reason to suggest it’s not) it’s nonetheless worth noting how incredibly rare Bryson says it is for such evidence to ever be discovered at all.
"Only about one bone in a billion, it is thought, ever becomes fossilized." Bryson then makes this stunning observation: "If that is so, it means that the complete fossil legacy of all the Americans alive today — that’s 270 million people with 206 bones each — will only be about fifty bones, one-quarter of a complete skeleton. That’s not to say, of course, that any of these bones will ever actually be found … it would be something of a miracle if they were."
The one exception to this is when bones from the same skeleton are found together. The most noteworthy of such finds is the hominid remains of a 3.18-million-year-old skeleton known as Lucy.
She’s so vital to certain theories of evolution that one expert states proudly: “She is our earliest ancestor, the missing link between ape and human.” And yet, as important as this discovery clearly is for the advancement of knowledge, Bryson outlines the reality that we simply know much less about Lucy than is “generally supposed.”
For instance, the American Museum of Natural History describes her remains as “two-thirds complete” but a BBC television series tells viewers she is “a complete skeleton.” Bryson discovers that Lucy is actually “only 20% of a full (skeleton),” and that “it isn’t even actually known that she was a female. Her sex is merely presumed from her diminutive size." And, well, it’s only "very recently" that “many authorities” revealed that they simply “aren’t so sure” about whether modern humans actually descended from Lucy or her kind after all.
To deny the mysteries and the contested conversations in the scientific process is to overlook the beauty and utility of the enterprise.
All of this, of course, says nothing of the many scientific unknowns in outer space or related to the Big Bang. Still today cosmologists argue about whether creation took place 10 billion years ago “or twice that or something in between.”
Then there is the number of planets in the universe. Carl Sagan puts it at “ten billion trillion.”
Give or take a few, that is.
To be sure, skepticism or even acknowledging the messiness about science has too often been leveraged for ill-conceived ends.
So-called science deniers can sometimes champion anti-social causes. So, let me state another clear finding of Bryson’s work: Research works, and so does the scientific method. Scientific inquiry and literature do in fact build; discoveries and breakthroughs continue to improve our understanding and even save lives. However, to deny the mysteries and the contested conversations in the scientific process is to overlook the beauty and utility of the enterprise.
In this way, religion and science may not be quite so far apart as some contend. There is much still waiting to be discovered and revealed; there are so many unknowns in both science and religion alike.
Simply stated, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Bryson seems to have said as much himself in an interview with The Guardian: "The one thing I did appreciate when I was writing 'A Short History' was that conventional science and a belief in God are absolutely not incompatible."
Sure, science is often pitted against religion; but, I’ve come to learn that both require a bit of faith.