IN JUNE, 2007, PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH vetoed a bill that would have funded research on stem cells harvested from human embryos. Bush said he was not against science; he encouraged research on stem cells drawn from amniotic fluid or created by genetic reprogramming.

But he insisted that “our. conscience calls us to pursue the possibilities of science in a manner that respects human dignity and upholds our moral values.”

Bush’s vision of a moral dilemma caused by scientists and resolved by politicians seems like a characteristic scenario of the religious right. But these triple knots of science, morality and politics go back a long way.

One of the Founding Fathers was almost killed in a riot over research. Medical students learn anatomy from cadavers, and in the past they got them on the sly, digging up fresh graves.

In April 1788 a student at a New York City hospital jokingly told a boy that he was dissecting the boy’s mother. When the boy’s father found that her coffin had been robbed, the discovery set off two days of uproar. Many of New York’s doctors hid in the city jail, where they were defended by local civic leaders, it also including diplomat John Jay. A mob pelted them with stones, knocking Jay unconscious. Only a volley from the militia, which killed three rioters, dispersed the crowd. The people of New York acknowledged, as a petition against grave robbing put it, that dissection served the “benefit of mankind.”

But they didn’t want their loved ones “mangle[d]... out of a wanton curiosity After the riot, the state legislature appeased the public by giving doctors the corpses of executed criminals.

Other disputes, though not lethal, changed lives. In 1883 Sir Francis Galton, an English anthropologist, coined the word eugenics, which he later defined as the study of hereditary factors that “improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations. Inspired by eugenics, a number of U.S. states passed laws in the early 20th century allowing those presumed to have bad genes to be sterilized by government order.

In 1927 the case of Carrie Buck, a young woman in a Virginia home for the feebleminded, reached the Supreme Court. Writing for an 8-1 decision, no less a Judge than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said society could “prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind......,three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (Buck’s mother and daughter allegedly shared her disability.)

The Catholic Church condemned sterilization laws in 1930, but the political process backed science, as it was then understood. The mass murder of “unfit” individuals and ethnic groups by the Nazis gave eugenics a black mark that can never be washed off. But the issue marches on; in 2004 a eugenics supporter won the Republican congressional nomination in Tennessee’s Eighth District (the GOP disavowed him).

Controversy surrounding evolution has had a similarly long shelf life. In 1925, Tennessee made it unlawful for public schools to contradict the “Divine creation of man” by teaching that man instead “descended from a lower order of animals.” John T. Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Dayton, taught just that to bring the law into court.

Clarence Darrow, the celebrity defense attorney, and William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential loser and evangelical orator, headlined the opposing legal teams. Scopes lost his case, and Bryan lost his reputation when he agreed to be cross-examined by Darrow on the literal meaning of the Bible.

But the Scopes trial also made a moral point. Bryan reminded the court that two Chicago teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, had murdered a younger boy the year before to prove that they were Nietzschean supermen, capable of committing the perfect crime. Their attorney, Darrow, had saved them from the death penalty by arguing that Friedrich Nietzsche, and the universities that put him in their curriculums, bore the responsibility for the defendants’ actions. If the philosophy of the superman could lead to murder, Bryan argued, then the state had good reason to control what was taught in schools. The curriculum debate continues to boil. In 2005 Bush said that both intelligent design (a stealth creationist theory) and evolution ought to be taught in schools.

People disagree passionately about science and morality because they care about them, and when their disagreements involve public policy, the forum for resolving them will be politics. Neither religion nor science can expect a free pass in the court of public opinion or in the voting booth.


TIME Magazine

August 6, 2007 (Pgs. 52-53)

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