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Locating Human Values Within Science


Locating Human Values Within Science

Emily Zygiel

Foreword from Karl Giberson: The following post is from Emily Zygiel, an honors Biochemistry major at Stonehill College, taking my Science & Belief class. On the final exam I asked the class to explore how the facts of science and the values of religion combine to their worldviews.  Emily wrote the following essay, rejecting the premise of the question, the first student who has ever done that. 

Emily’s discussion was so insightful that I wanted to share it on my website.  It has been lightly edited.


I am a scientist. Every day, I gain a deeper understanding of nature at its most elementary level.

I am imperfect. Every day, as I gain a deeper understanding of nature, I realize how much I don’t know and will likely never know.

I am an agnostic. Every day, as I realize how much can’t be explained, I wonder if there is a god.

Though scientific thought appeals to me, I know that it will likely never answer the most fundamental questions of our existence. It is hard to avoid letting years of training as a scientist get in the way of existentialist thought. When I think, “there could be a god,” it seems like there is something in the back of my mind that rejects the possibility due to a lack of evidence. I have been wrestling with ideas of purpose and existence, and I still have no idea why I am here, or why anything exists at all. I’ve been told that feeling this way is part of the human experience, which is simultaneously comforting and terrifying. For me, being inclined to scientific thought has made it hard to comfortably accept religious ideas. However, I don’t think that being scientifically minded and lacking identification with an institutionalized religion makes me any less capable of maintaining a set of values.

To me, “factual” religious claims don’t exist. Facts are observations that have been scientifically confirmed. If an observation or claim has not yet been scientifically proven, it is not a fact. In this way, I don’t find the discussion of claimed “facts” within religious scripture to be interesting. What is more interesting to me is the association between religious belief and a core set of values.

I reject the idea that values are rooted in religion for the following reasons: (1) there is significant homology of values among distinct religions; (2) non-religious species exhibit values; (3) there is a developmental inconsistency between religious thought and the expression of values. In this way, my values are just as fundamentally based as every other species with sufficient genetic homology, regardless of religious identification. I do, however, understand the cultural reasons for the modern prominence of an association between religious belief and a system of values.

“All religions share a common root, which is limitless compassion,” said the Dalai Lama. “They emphasize human improvement, love, respect for others, and compassion for the suffering of others.” With so many different religions, what is the likelihood that each religion has come to hold the same core values? The first traces of organized religion were seen during the Neolithic revolution about 11,000 years ago, at which time our species transitioned from separate foraging bands to empires. Anthropologic evidence has shown that virtually all state societies during this time period justified political power by invoking divine authority. Polytheism originated with Hinduism in 2500 BC, and pantheism is thought to have originated in African and American Indian cultures. The monotheistic thought of the Judeo/Christian/Muslim line of religions originated in 2000 BC. Thus, religious thought developed separately and took on many different forms in these societies. Still, these diverse religions encompassed a common set of values.

To claim that such similar values developed separately among so many different populations is analogous to claiming that thousands of organisms all separately evolved to have five digits. It simply is not plausible.  Why would so many reptiles, birds, and mammals not have four digits or seven digits? Why would so many religions value love, compassion, and respect? Why not perseverance, intelligence, and beauty? The answer to both of these questions lies within our DNA.

Evolutionists reason that the mystery of the five fingers can be explained by common ancestry. This explanation, however, cannot be applied to the similarities in religious thought. There was no single ancestral religion. Thus, there must be an alternative explanation for the apparent overlap of values among religions. The values common to all religions are evidence that these values are not religious at all and are, in fact, natural behaviors for human beings that are rooted in our genetics. These values are not a result of religious belief; they are simply emphasized in sacred texts and therefore often invoked in a religious context.

The genetic origin of values often thought to be religious becomes even clearer when observing chimpanzees or bonobos—our close relatives—with their children. Chimpanzees exhibit a wide range of human emotions, including compassion, love, and respect. Does this mean that communities of chimpanzees hold religious beliefs? It is more likely that chimpanzees and bonobos simply have an earlier version of the genetic tendencies that enable human beings to exhibit similar emotions and values.

So, why are so many different societies religious? Religious belief is a natural inclination, one that provides the comfort of a bigger picture in which everything we know and value doesn’t simply disappear when we die. At some point in human evolution, we gained the cognitive ability to think more deeply about the world and our purpose; we searched for deeper meaning.

Both the core values and the inclination toward religious thought are rooted in our genetics. However, one is not necessarily linked to the other. There is no genetically based link between the development of religious thought and the development of values. Love and compassion can be seen in several of our evolutionary ancestors and relatives, while religiosity is unique (to the best of our knowledge) to human beings.

Every nihilist, atheist, agnostic, and religious person, in this way, has the capability to have the same fundamental values and has the capability to adopt some type of religious thought. What, then, makes us all choose to have different values and different religious beliefs if our genetic material programs us to exhibit the same values and the same inclination toward religious thought?

The idea of nature versus nurture is often invoked to explain differences in spite of almost identical genetics. From the moment an individual is born, countless external factors influence every decision that he or she makes. These factors are usually divided into three categories: experience, exposure, and learning. External stimuli can even make a type of modification to our genetic material. Epigenetics is a field of study that analyzes the heritable chemical modifications that result from environmental factors. Both the nature versus nurture concept and epigenetics can account for the variations in adopted religious beliefs and values among human beings.

Considering the likely genetic but un-linked roots of religion and core values, how have the two come to be so strongly associated?  The history of science versus religion in the US has classified religion and core values into two separate realms: that of facts and that of values. Why is science not associated with morality? Science and its predominating theories, such as that of evolution, has picked up a number of “dark companions” throughout its cultural history in the US, to use a term Karl Giberson coined in his book Saving Darwin. The theory of evolution was used as justification for the eugenics movement in the US—a movement proposing the sterilization of people deemed to be “less fit,” to prevent their reproduction. The Nazis used the theory of evolution by means of natural selection as a rationalization for their “final solution,” in which they proposed to exterminate the Jewish population. Even public issues in modern science have promoted moral debate, such as stem cell research, cloning, and animal testing. For these reasons, it is understandable why science hasn’t come to be associated with an expression of values in US society.

Conversely, why is religion associated with values and not facts? As I said earlier, religious institutions adopted the values that are natural to human beings in their scriptures at the dawn of religious thought.  Furthermore, religion is not readily associated with facts because scriptural accounts and “god of the gaps” explanations have been combated by scientific findings. Thus, the baggage surrounding science and religion creates a need for the separation of the factual realm of science and the moral, value-oriented realm of religion.

Placing the idea of values on the basic, fundamental level of genetics provides a more dynamic image of a person. Perhaps religious thought has adopted similar values to attempt to define personhood. In my opinion, constraining values within the scope of religion limits personhood. Yes, a child could read Romans 13:7— Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor—and understand what it means to have respect. However, can’t a person also develop a sense of respect from an inspirational mentor or parent, from listening to Beethoven, by observing the work of van Gogh, or experiencing any of the other magnificent displays of human talent that have been created in spite the helplessness of the human condition?

I believe in these less institutionalized sources of values. I respect the brilliance of great scientists like Einstein and Newton, who have revolutionized the way we think about the world. I love those who have given me life and supported me during it. I am compassionate toward those who haven’t been given a fair shot at life. This sense of compassion drives me to explore the chemistry of biological systems because the more we know, the better equipped we are to treat or cure those who have genetic material that gave them human values and religious inclinations, but didn’t give them the physiological ability to live long, happy lives. For me, my value of compassion has driven me towards the scientific realm of facts. Thus, I dispute the containment of values to a religious realm and of facts to a scientific one.