Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Scientist and Lawyer Face Off Over Evolution, Faith and God: Round One

A physical chemist and a patent lawyer exchange words over whether scientists must have as much faith as reliegious people to believe that life started out from non-life.

Scientist and Lawyer Face Off Over Evolution, Faith and God: Round One

Over the next few days, I’ll blog about some letters exchanged between a scientist and a lawyer. Their argument: Whether scientists must be as faithful as religious people to believe life originated from non-life and evolved into its present forms. The exchange continued for several rounds, which I’ll continue to post. Which one takes which side? You might be surprised.

Then, in a week or two, I’ll write a column in which biologists and other experts weight on their argument and whether the scientist or the lawyer employs more scientific, critical thinking.   

The letter that kicked it all off was published in the Inquirer’s letters section:

Scientific questions and the belief factor

An article by Faye Flam raised an interesting question (" 'Belief' in evolution? It may be the wrong word," June 27).

I would like to relate this to abiogenesis, the theory that biological life arises from nonliving matter. Myriad theories speculate how this may occur. Unfortunately, there is scant scientific evidence to support any of them. Many are diametrically opposed (for example, life originated in a reducing vs. a nonreducing atmosphere), and, of course, they cannot all be correct. Still, some conclude that one "must" be right. The facts thus far have prompted some scientists, including Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Francis Crick, to speculate that life must have arisen from a source outside of the Earth, a proposal for which there is also no evidence.

So, it would seem, to "believe" in abiogenesis does indeed require faith.

Elisa Winterstein

Feasterville

The follow-up came to me by e-mail from Steve Mendelsohn of Penn Valley, PA. He originally sent it to our letters to the editor section but it was rejected.

In her letter to the Editor on July 5, Elisa Winterstein concludes that faith is required to "believe" in abiogenesis (i.e., the theory that biological life arises from nonliving matter) because scientists are not sure whether, for example, life originates in a reducing vs. a nonreducing atmosphere.  Unfortunately, Ms. Winterstein has confused belief in abiogenesis with belief in a particular version of abiogenesis.

If I tell you that the Phillies and the Marlins played a complete baseball game yesterday in which the Phillies were leading 14-2 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, you might have enough evidence to "believe" that the Phillies won the game, even if I didn't tell you the final outcome, but you wouldn't know for sure.  Nevertheless, faith is not required to “believe” that there was in fact a winner of that game.

So, too, with abiogenesis.  Scientists might not yet know whether life originated in a reducing or a nonreducing atmosphere, but that does not mean that faith is required to "believe" in abiogenesis, just like faith is not required to "believe" that there was a winner in a baseball game when you don't know for sure who the winner was.  Simple logic will suffice.

Steve Mendelsohn

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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