One place where my faith has helped me with my science is that it has made me fearless. I take it literally when the Bible says ‘Fear only God.’ I’m not going to fear what all my colleagues are going to think of me. Before God all of the most intimidating professors really aren’t intimidating at all. With this perspective all fear of people vanishes. As a child I was quite nervous in front of people, detested public speaking and would weasel out of any public appearance, especially the weekly show-and-tell time at school. I would hide the object my Mom made me bring so I wouldn’t have to stand up in front of class and talk. I would have cowered in the presence of the Nobel prize-winners, CEOs, rock stars, You Tube luminaries, heads of state and other people that I have the pleasure to meet regularly these days. What brought about this change in me? Continue reading
Do you have a chronic health problem such as asthma, diabetes or arthritis? In the US, 125 million people (around 38% of the population) suffer from these types of diseases, and treating them takes up 78% of the healthcare budget. The figures are probably similar for other developed countries.
At the Faraday Institute summer course last month, the Oxford-based biologist Paul Fairchild explained that a significant proportion of chronic diseases could be treated by replacing just one of the patient’s cell types or tissues. The use of ‘stem cells’ is a rapidly growing area of research and medicine, but it also throws up some very significant ethical issues. Continue reading
All of us are motivated by something. It might be a desire to succeed, please others, follow a particular ethical framework, or perhaps live in the light of faith. Our motivations underpin what we choose to do with our lives; the causes we care about, the career path we pursue and the relationships we nurture. Such is the case for Dr Darren Evans from Newcastle University, who gave an inspiring talk on Christian motivations for biodiversity conservation at the Faraday Summer School in July 2019. Growing up on a housing estate, Darren was inspired to love nature by watching sparrows nest above his bedroom window and by feeding pigeons! Coupled with becoming a Christian at university, this led him to pursue a career as a conservation biologist.
Conservation is not only an essential component of 21stcentury biology, but it is also a deeply philosophical one. As a biology undergraduate I sat in many lectures on the theme “why we do conservation”. Darren asks his students the very same question when they begin their studies at university. Movingly, their interest in the discipline is usually underpinned by a love of the natural world that is often impossible for the students to verbally articulate. I strongly empathise with this feeling, but as Darren pointed out it is not how wider society tends to view conservation.
There has been an increasing focus in conservation over the past twenty years on “ecosystem services”: a framework concerning the benefits human beings derive from nature.The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, launched in 2001, rightly responded to a concern that humanity was taking nature for granted, emphasised by mapping ecosystem services onto constituents of human well-being. There is certainly great value in this, for example the mental health benefits of connecting with nature are now widely acknowledged. However, fast forward to 2019 and the picture for biodiversity has not drastically improved.
A recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) highlighted that an estimated 1 million species are threatened with extinction as a result of anthropogenic activity and that biodiversity loss is as great a threat to humanity as climate change. IPBES also framed their report based on the value of natural capital; the economic value of an ecosystem service. Is this the only way we can engage wider society in halting catastrophic biodiversity loss, by framing everything in economic terms? Darren argues not, and urged caution through the words of George Monbiot in 2012:
“Rarely will the money to be made by protecting nature match the money to be made by destroying it. Nature offers low rates of return by comparison to other investments. If we allow the discussion to shift from values to value – from love to greed – we cede the natural world to the forces wrecking it.”
The discussion here goes beyond motivation. Fundamentally, what affects our behaviour is our beliefs. This means that belief matters in biodiversity conservation. Beliefs affect our actions and the environment and land in which we live. We might feel comfortable having an oil rig blotting the landscape if it is our belief that we have a right to drive cars and use mobile phones.
In the UK it can be challenging for a conservation scientist to stand up in front of colleagues and explain how one’s beliefs motivate a drive to protect biodiversity, depending on what value framework you use. However, in other parts of the world, talking about beliefs is not off-limits. Darren passionately argued that to be a conservation scientist you’ve got to understand the local socio-political, religious and cultural landscape. Sadly this is not always a priority of western conservationists. However, there are a range of organisations around the world where people of religious persuasion are trying to make positive change. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because they know their belief matters, and are squaring the crisis with their own value system. Simply focusing on economics, which has been the pervading approach in the UK, does not match up with the values of why people have gone into conservation.
For Darren, and for myself, a belief in Christianity motivates a desire to care for the natural world. The underpinning ethic of twenty-first century conservation, that is, the intrinsic value of a species, has its basis in Judeo-Christian tradition. Chapter two of Genesis calls human beings to care and protect their fellow creatures, and it is revealed later on that God’s redemptive plan for creation includes the non-human species with which we share our world (e.g. in Isaiah 11, Hosea 2, Romans 8, and Colossians 1). Darren and his family try to live not only in this call to stewardship, but also prophetically, using conservation to point towards the kingdom of God that is to come. This is the ultimate motivator for practising conservation.
Christianity can provide a perspective that the conservation movement desperately needs; a perspective of hope and love. In the words of Simon Stuart, practising Christian and former Chair of the Species Survival Commission at the International Union for Conservation of Nature: “Every time we celebrate a conservation success story…we are strengthened in this present hope that God is working with us to redeem his creation.”What a glorious and encouraging truth.
When asked which was the greatest of the commandments, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22.37). Mark’s and Luke’s accounts (Mark 12.30; Luke 10.27) also include “and with all your strength.” Part of loving God with our minds is, at least for me, learning more about our minds. This includes learning about how our minds conceive of God, how we can develop habits of mind that might bring us closer to God, and how worship shapes our attitudes and thinking. These are precisely the sorts of things that are studied by psychologists of religion. Continue reading
Were you woken up in the middle of the night on 20th July 1969 to watch the very first moon landing? If, like me, you weren’t even born then, you will have to capture the moment by listening to others’ stories. Some families simply went outside to stare at the moon and think about the incredible fact that there might be a person walking around on it at that very moment. Continue reading
It is time to shake off a widely believed but mistaken idea of what science is and how it interacts with human life in the round.
For a long time now it has been the habit of science writers to present their discipline as if it was the be-all and end-all of knowledge, and everything else follows in its wake. Particle physicists have written about their forthcoming ‘theory of everything’ as if it amounted to the final word on the nature of reality, the very ‘mind of God’…The same fundamental error is promoted by neuroscientists who, waxing lyrical over wonderful magnetic images of the living human brain, have declared or implied that all the functioning of the brain is about to be laid open, with no input from the arts and humanities required. Continue reading
‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone –
while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment.
‘Have you journeyed to the springs of the seaor walked in the recesses of the deep?
Job 38:4-7,14,16 (NIV)
‘Do you know?’ God’s challenge to Job’s lack of humility before God stretches across time, space and all creation. The view of the universe that science gives enables us to answer some of the challenge. We weren’t there at the start of it all, yet our studies of the Earth and other planets, along with glimpses of the farthest universe and the hidden depths of the sea, enable us to perceive perhaps more of how God is at work in creation than Job. Continue reading