Conservation with a purpose

Dragonfly
© Steph Bryant

Could a Biblical understanding of our relationship with nature be the key to effective and purposeful conservation? As part of this current series of guest posts, Steph Bryant, coordinator of the God and the Big Bang project, writes about the relationship between human beings and the planet. She considers the damage we have done, and whether there is any place for hope as we explore ways to remedy the situation and better care for the world around us.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enthralled by animals. This fascination has steadily grown into a love for scientific knowledge, which helps me to understand the natural world. It was of very little surprise to anyone who knew me that I found myself studying Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, specialising in zoology and focussing my final year studies on ecology and conservation science. For me, an appreciation of the natural world leads naturally Continue reading

Earthworms and Orchids: Why the founders of modern science cultivated virtue

© Alfred Borchard, www.freeimages.com
© Alfred Borchard, http://www.freeimages.com

I met a man at a conference this year who said he has spent his whole life studying. I have no idea how he funds his insatiable appetite for new knowledge, but it seems he has spent his days going from one topic to the other, modelling himself as a renaissance man. He told me stories of people in 1970’s Germany who spent ten to fifteen years on a single undergraduate degree, often taking just one class at a time. For him, learning was of such value that it was worth approach it steadily and patiently, as a means in itself. I find this attitude a bit extreme, but it’s an interesting way of looking at life!

I recognised this perspective when I heard Richard Bellon, Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, speak recently on values in the scientific community. Bellon has been studying Victorian scientists, or – as he says on his website – ‘obsessing about men with muttonchops who obsessed over the sex lives of plants’. Continue reading

A Virtuous Circle?

Scientists and policymakers discuss values in science  © photo used with permission.
Scientists and policymakers discuss values in science
© photo used with permission.

Scientists in Europe are concerned about values. A massive new research and innovation programme called Horizon 2020 was rolled out last December, with the first round of grants being awarded this summer. A number of people have been raising questions about some of the ethics behind this effort, and in November last year they came together at a workshop on “The Value(s) of Science”.

Horizon 2020 is the second biggest source of non-military funding for scientists after the US National Institutes of Health. It already includes allowances for legal or ethical differences in each country, accountability structures to prevent academic fraud and plagiarism, a ban on the creation of embryos purely for research purposes, and many other ethical guidelines.

Professor John Wood, Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities and chair of the Christians in Science board of trustees, felt that other values needed to be included in the mix Continue reading

Science and Religion in the Writings of CS Lewis

Image from http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com

Last week at the Faraday Institute we hosted Michael Ward, chaplain of St Peter’s College Oxford, and expert on the writings of CS Lewis. In his seminar Ward spoke about Lewis’s treatment of science and religion. CS Lewis was in favour of science, but attacked scientism. You can see this in his portrayal of Uncle Andrew or Eustace Scrubb in the Narnia books, or Professor Weston in That Hideous Strength. Anything that strips humans of their values and respect for each other is to be strongly resisted.

Lewis’s model for the relationship between science and religion was very straightforward. Religion is the worldview that affects all of life, and science is a just one of the areas that is affected Continue reading

When Christians disagree

Shortly before New Year an episode of the programme ‘Belief’ was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 that included an interview by Joan Bakewell with Faraday Institute Director Denis Alexander. (I have waited so long before making this post because I had hoped to link to the recording, but it disappeared for a few months. Here it is.)

The interview was an in-depth conversation with Denis Alexander about his beliefs as a Christian and a scientist. As someone who knows Denis fairly well, it was interesting to hear more about his life and faith. The first third of the interview covered his early life – growing up in a Christian home, how he came to personal faith at the age of 13, and his experiences as a student in Oxford in the 1960s (during which he was president of ‘OICCU’ – the Inter Varsity Fellowship Christian Union).  There were also quite a few questions about his 15 years working in the Middle East. In the remaining 20 minutes or so of the interview Denis clearly and concisely handled a series of very direct questions from Bakewell on everything from the evidence for the resurrection to the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and explained the Christian gospel in a very clear and relevant way.

What I found most striking and challenging in this interview was when Denis Alexander referred to the particular ethical dilemma that he encountered in Beirut when helping to set up the new National Unit of Human Genetics there in the early 1980s. This was the first time that a prenatal diagnostic clinic was established in the Arab World, so Denis was faced with the question as to what prenatal genetic tests should be established – involving therapeutic abortions for the affected foetus – all this done in the midst of a civil war without the benefit of an ethics committee. Although generally anti-abortion, the decision that Denis came to was to test for those genetic diseases that caused slow, painful death in children less than the age of around 8-10 years – a ‘liberal’ view for those who think that abortion is wrong under all circumstances.

I have thought long and hard about this interview and my own reaction to it, and am left with this thought. During his own ministry Jesus focused on a few key issues, and showed a surprising amount of indifference to subjects that are now hotly debated in Christian circles. Among his close group of followers were a tax collector who collaborated with the Romans, and a Zealot who had sworn to kill them. Developing a working theology around the issue of war just didn’t seem to be on the horizon at all for Jesus, though it was – like abortion – a matter of absolute life and death. For Jesus’ followers, their relationship with him and their focus on the primary issues cemented them together as a group that remained cohesive long after his death and resurrection, and together they impacted the world in a way that has never been seen before or since.

Of course Christians do need to debate these secondary issues and try to resolve our differences. But when that doesn’t happen we need to keep working together. The fact that I was tempted not to mention Denis Alexander’s interview on this blog because of the abortion issue shows how some topics can distract us from other very helpful things – like a scientist baring his soul and defending his Christian beliefs in a very public broadcast.

Animal Rights, Human Responsibilities?

A few weeks ago I discussed this passage in Genesis 9 with some colleagues at the Faraday Institute. God gave Noah and his family animals to eat, but there was a level of respect or care for life: ‘But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.’ And human life was valued more than the lives of animals – there’s something different about us. Ethicists such as Peter Singer would have difficulties with that approach – he thinks that an adult chimpanzee is worth more than a human infant, but he’s in a minority (I hope!)

At this week’s Faraday seminar, David Williams of the Cambridge University Vet School spoke on ‘Animal Rights, Human Responsibilities?’, drawing on the material in his Grove booklet of the same title. He gave a thorough survey of Bible references to animal welfare and the thinking on animal rights from Aristotle to Tom Wright. He brought out the tension between care for animals and the value of human life. His overall message is summed up in this excerpt from Matthew’s gospel:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Matthew 10:29-31

A rather extreme example of this principle in action, that Williams describes in detail in an online paper, was the colourful and controversial missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. He was known to care for animals as well as humans in the hospital he ran in Gabon. In looking down a microscope at trypanosomes he wondered: if we should have reverence for life, how could he kill them when they infected his human patients? He decided it was a necessary evil.

I was a fly on the wall at a Test of Faith day course in Durham last weekend. One of the delegates there spoke about how in the past people had a strong sense of humankind as being God’s creatures, alongside the other creatures He had created. We have lost sight of our creatureliness, and lost a dimension of worship along with it. Richard Bauckham describes this in a paper on Christians and animal rights:

The biblical passages cited [in the previous portion of the article] all relate to the idea of the human ‘dominion’ over other creatures. They envisage a ‘vertical’ relationship of humans to animals, in which humans are in some sense set ‘over’ other creatures. But the Bible also uses another, complementary way of portraying our relationship to animals. This is a ‘horizontal’ relationship in which we stand alongside other creatures. The key thought is simply that they and we are all creatures of God. This thought is just as prominent in the Bible as the idea of ‘dominion,’ but it has been given less attention. In my view, we shall only get the ‘dominion’ right if we also get the relationship of fellow-creatureliness right too….

In my view, the most important way in which Scripture sets us alongside the animals as fellow creatures is its portrayal of the worship of God by all of god’s creation (Isa 42:10; Ps 69:34; 96:11). Modern readers of the Bible sometimes take such passages to be mere poetic fancy. Of course, they do not mean that other creatures worship God in the ways that we do. Other creatures worship God just by being themselves. They exist for God’s glory. Their worship expresses the value they have for God.

The best way to learn to value other creatures is to learn to worship with them, to recover the sense, so powerful in the book of Psalms, that our own worship is part of the worship of the whole creation. In worship we do not stand above our fellow-creatures, but beside them and before the God who created us all. The Bible never suggests that we help other creatures to worship. Rather, a passage like Psalm 148 gives the strong impression that they help us to worship. Coming to appreciate the value they have for God raises our hearts and minds in praise to their Creator.

Affective Computing

It’s not a typo, it definitely is ‘affective‘ computing. Rosalind Picard runs a research group at the MIT Media Lab (very cool intro video) that looks into ways in which computers can interpret and respond to human emotions. She visited the Faraday Institute this week to give a lecture on ‘Playing God? Towards machines that deny their maker’ (which will be online soon). Besides describing some fun and no doubt very useful new technology, such as a sociable robot called Kismet, there was plenty of food for thought.

What I find exciting about Rosalind Picard’s work is that, on top of as her natural fascination at what can be done at an engineering level, she has really thought about the most positive uses of this technology.

One of the main applications of Rosalind Picard’s work in affective computing is for people on the autism spectrum. She has worked directly with people diagnosed with autism to develop systems that help them to interpret and respond to emotion.  For example, they have developed some incredibly sophisticated technology that reads facial expressions and tells the user what they mean. This is an very complicated skill that most people develop intuitively. Think about how many different meanings a smile can have: I like you, I’m pleased to meet you, I’m surprised, I’m shy, I’m embarrassed, and so on. Ros discovered that the easiest way to teach the computers to analyse facial expressions was to ask the individuals with autism themselves – as they have learned this skill the the hard, non-intuitive way.

In her interview for the Test of Faith book Ros also described how they tried to anticipate how this technology could be used against people and to build in features that stop that. For example, if someone is wearing a sensor that indicates their stress levels, they should have control over it so that people cannot manipulate them in any way.

You could look at the output of places like MIT and focus on scifi-like scenarios of robots taking over the world, but this really isn’t the reality…