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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Intermune: Right Back Down Again | Main | Perverse Incentives In Clinical Trials »

May 6, 2010

Unintelligent Design

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Posted by Derek

If you're looking for some ammunition in a creationist argument, evolutionary biologist John Avise of UC-Irvine has provided plenty in a new PNAS article entitled "Footprints of Nonsentient Design Inside the Human Genome". He goes over a number of not-too-intelligent-looking kinks in our genes.

This same point has occurred to many other people before, of course (I went on about it a few years ago here), but Avise has done a real service by collecting the arguments in one place in a clear and concise way. Exons and introns, spliceosomes, disorders of gene transcription and regulation, the unreliability of mitochondrial DNA, duplicons, pseudogenes, mobile DNA elements - they're all here, and all (to my eyes) much better explained by random, nonsentient tinkering than by thoughtful design.

Avise tries at the end to propose evolution as a helpful adjunct to religon, but I don't think his argument is going to fly with the people who might be most in need of it:

Evolution by natural causes in effect emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God’s motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. No longer must we anguish about the interventionist motives of a supreme intelligence that permits gross evil and suffering in the world. No longer need we be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings (including those that we now understand to be commonplace at molecular and biochemical levels). No longer need we blame a Creator God’s direct hand for any of these disturbing empirical facts. Instead, we can put the blame squarely on the agency of insentient natural evolutionary causation. From this perspective, the evolutionary sciences can become a welcome partner (rather than the conventionally perceived adversary) of mainstream religion

No, we're not going to get rid of theodicy that easily. The people whose beliefs most draw them to creationist and ID arguments tend, I'd say, to see life (and most especially intelligent human life) as one of the most important parts of Creation. Humans are, according to the Bible, the absolute peak of the entire process, and are thus the deserving subjects of continuous special attention from the Deity. Very few people with these foundations to their beliefs are willing to allow random evolution to share the stage.

Comments (79) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Intelligent Design


COMMENTS

1. road on May 6, 2010 8:06 AM writes...

i can't believe this garbage makes it into a national journal FOR SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH.

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2. sgcox on May 6, 2010 8:45 AM writes...

Hmmm, it is actually a well writen paper with reasonable summary of chaotic nature of human genome. The last part of the discussion is of course unnecessary.

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3. Vader on May 6, 2010 9:04 AM writes...

"Very few people with these foundations to their beliefs are willing to allow random evolution to share the stage."

Rather more than a few, but they don't make all the noise and get all the attention. Beware observational bias due to selection effects.

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4. God on May 6, 2010 9:14 AM writes...

Stuff like this really irritates me. Maybe I I'll order up a case of pancreatic cancer for this guy...

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5. Hap on May 6, 2010 9:34 AM writes...

1) Wow, you've hit the big time when God reads your blog and comments.

2) #1 - you mean like J. Chem. Ed.?

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6. God on May 6, 2010 9:53 AM writes...

I've been following Derek pretty closely since the publication of his 2004 paper on inhibitors of hormone-sensitive lipase, which I thought was a nice approach to diabetes therapy.

The whole diabetes issue is a little embarrassing from my point of view, I just never anticipated that people would eat so much.

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7. DC on May 6, 2010 10:03 AM writes...

The author's logic fails on his misguided assumption that if God were to exist, we would have a "perfect genome". Would dwarfism be considered a a defect? How about color-blindness, or a tendency to be obese?

Does God promise a perfect world, too? Basically, this is the problem of evil in disguise, an issue on which countless theists and atheists have debated upon for centuries.

Thus, I echo #1: what drivel is this in a SCIENTIFIC JOURNAL?

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8. partial agonist on May 6, 2010 10:06 AM writes...

Derek may have a unique opportunity, to take note of the IP address of God!

I wonder where God hangs out. I always guessed it was in EJ Corey's office.

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9. geezer on May 6, 2010 10:06 AM writes...

Without Adam or Eve's DNA as a control, I'm not sure how Avise can assume that the imperfections in our DNA now are evidence of a lack of sentient intervention how many millions years ago? Evidence of a genetic linkage to disease is by no means non-sentient. Perhaps this was the plan all along...and I'm not religious! I think Avise may have got caught up in some cognito ergo sum-type conclusions here. One higher being's trash is another man's treasure...

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10. MTK on May 6, 2010 10:17 AM writes...

The quoted paragraph is not the meat of the argument, but the author's opinion on the ramifications of his conclusions. The argument is not phenotypic, but more genotypic and expression centered.

Basically the mechanisms necessary are so haphazard and inefficient that the more logical conclusion is unintelligent design, or no design, rather than intelligent design.

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11. alig on May 6, 2010 10:24 AM writes...

I never understand why people think intelligent design and evolution are exclusive. Obviously we can see things evolve, but Monsanto has been very successful at intelligently designing new crops. Or do evolutionist think corn evolved the gene to be immune to round-up and rice evolve to express beta-carotene?

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12. CanChem on May 6, 2010 10:31 AM writes...

@8 - if EJC was god they'd be called the Corey-Woodward-Hoffmann rules like he always wanted.

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13. God on May 6, 2010 10:39 AM writes...

The apparent randomness of the genome has nothing to do with viruses, transposons, or any of that genetic nonsense. It was just too big a project to do by Myself, and so we ended up with the usual problems inherent in any product that is designed by committee.

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14. processchemist on May 6, 2010 10:48 AM writes...

Well, interesting article, apart from the consideration about theodicy... as european, I'm not so much familiar with the creationists that abound in the land of the free, but I have the strong suspect that some centuries of philosophic and theologic debate are elegantly forgotten in this conclusion...

"However, every year is witness to renewed pressure on textbook
publishers and on state and local education boards to inject
intelligent design (ID) into the science curricula of public schools."

Not in my country, thanks God...

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15. Fred on May 6, 2010 10:48 AM writes...

The human body is such a disaster, full of failure points, I am sure no omnipotent Supreme Being would wish to be associated with it. I suppose that is why we are born without bar codes striped across our butts.

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16. Chemjobber on May 6, 2010 10:49 AM writes...

Lord God of Hosts,

I have a few questions, but I'll limit them to just one. When will the chemistry job market recover in the US? Thanks!

Your loving disciple,

CJ

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17. God on May 6, 2010 10:58 AM writes...

ChemJobber,

The market should start to pick up in 2012, but the recovery will be short-lived, as we have a major meteor strike scheduled for October 13, 2014.

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18. David on May 6, 2010 11:05 AM writes...

As one of the world's approximately 1+ billion Catholics (and 50-70M in the USA), I have to take issue with the "very few" comment. Catholic theology has no issues with natural evolution. The particularly Puritan/fundamentalist/Baptist/evangelical Protestant strain of Christianity that dominates "religious" discourse in America is an aberration due to the relatively few adherents' outsized lobbying influence.

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19. Larry on May 6, 2010 11:07 AM writes...

Derek, are you channelling the irreducibly complex Rudy Baum?

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20. Anonymous on May 6, 2010 11:29 AM writes...

#11 OMG!!! I knew it Monsanto (ie humans) are GOD!!

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21. Laura on May 6, 2010 11:29 AM writes...

Kyle Finchsigmate's 2008 post on this topic says it all. Does anyone else still miss his blog?

http://www.thechemblog.com/?p=756

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22. Hap on May 6, 2010 11:34 AM writes...

His and ChemBark. Sigh.

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23. Katherine on May 6, 2010 11:37 AM writes...

As a Mormon, I agree with David. Mormon theology has no issues with evolution either. They co-existed quite nicely in my class notebooks at Brigham Young University. (If they hadn't, I would have found a different university, and probably a different theology.)

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24. john on May 6, 2010 12:09 PM writes...

I haven't gotten to far into the paper yet. Actually trying to get some bench work done today, but the first thing I had to ask was "Is this paper really making it into PNAS on it's own merits?". If it wasn't for the Kansas school board issues, people like Dawkins etc. and the ridiculous circus that has come up around evolution in the United States would this have a shot?
I also realize that there has already been a lot of debate about PNAS as a scientific journal, but we cannot let news media and popular culture drive which scientific papers make it into high impact journals. The quality and potential impact of the science should make that determination. In my opinion this argument belongs in a specialty journal. Putting it in PNAS though is a great way to get publicity though, way to go PNAS.

Permalink to Comment

25. TFox on May 6, 2010 1:44 PM writes...

Am I the only one to read "theodicy" as some kind of portmanteau for "theological idiocy"? It's not, unfortunately, it just refers to any response to the problem of evil. Eg, Avise's paper could be called a theodicy.

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26. Sili on May 6, 2010 2:37 PM writes...

God works in mysterious ways (except of course when he agrees with us).

Our's not to reason why (except of course when we tell everyone else what to do).

Yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Katherine, if there's no intelligent design, how did all traces of Jewish ancestry disappear from the aboriginal Americans' genomes? And what is the process for turning dark the skin of people unpleasing to the Lord?

My impression is that the RCC has been growing more circumspect in their support for the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection since the death of the last popester (I wonder why? Could they be losing customers?), but I'll let David have this one for now. Rome has far more direct problems with theodicy at the moment.

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27. rhodium on May 6, 2010 4:26 PM writes...

If you want examples of intelligent design, try Spiderman or Wolverine. Shooting spider silk out of my palms, now that is good design, as is the ability to open bank vaults with my fingernails. Whoever designed this body had no imagination whatsoever.

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28. Phil on May 6, 2010 5:23 PM writes...

Sili: "if there's no intelligent design, how did all traces of Jewish ancestry disappear from the aboriginal Americans' genomes? And what is the process for turning dark the skin of people unpleasing to the Lord?"

I assume these are ridiculous Mormon dogma. Pretty much every religion has some serious stupid injected into it by the people in charge at the time. It doesn't necessarily mean some of it isn't right.

There are many scientists and science-literate people who do believe that a Creator and evolution are not mutually exclusive. This is just such a charged issue on both sides - look at the condescending rhetoric Derek quotes - that the extremes are the only opinions that seem to be heard.

Permalink to Comment

29. Sili on May 6, 2010 5:36 PM writes...

There are many scientists and science-literate people who do believe that a Creator and evolution are not mutually exclusive.
Indeed.
I assume these are ridiculous Mormon dogma. Pretty much every religion has some serious stupid injected into it by the people in charge at the time.
Yes. It's the Mormon origin story as recorded in the most perfect and inerrant book ever written. You really cannot be a cafeteria Mormon in the style of the Catholics.
It doesn't necessarily mean some of it isn't right.
Stopped clock. Twice a day. Yaddah yaddah yaddah. Permalink to Comment

30. Gumby on May 6, 2010 5:36 PM writes...

Interesting argument. The problem is that you are taking what our genome is now (or from the recent past) as what it always was. The laws of thermodynamics don't allow things to go from worse to better, but rather the other way around and while humans are said to be the "pinnacle of creation", we have come a long way since then; lost genetic diversity and corruption goes a long way towards the problems we see now.

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31. Hap on May 6, 2010 6:00 PM writes...

30: You can clean your room, can't you? In doing so, you're creating more order, so why is it possible? It happens because you expend energy to clean the room, and so in using the energy you create disorder in some other way that more than makes up for the loss of disorder.

A system can gain order so long as the universe as a whole becomes less ordered. Life on Earth has the Sun as a very large energy source. We can evolve (and gain order) because the entropic cost of increased order is paid by the Sun. Over time, we accrue energy from the Sun as plants use it to fix CO2 - they act as a savings account for energy, which animals and other life can then withdraw. Because of that, there's no reason to assume that genomes and life in general will get worse over time - the order they gain is paid for elsewhere, but is surely paid for.

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32. Morten G on May 6, 2010 7:10 PM writes...

@ TFox "Am I the only one to read "theodicy" as some kind of portmanteau for "theological idiocy"?"
I read it as a portmanteau for tedious actually. Or tediously maybe.

@Hap Thanks for correcting the idiot's interpretation of the laws of thermodynamics. That always makes me so annoyed when someone pulls that out. And before someone yells at me for saying idiot I direct you to the meaning of the word "A common term for a person of low general intelligence." In fact your response is so good I want to write it down but I would probably lose it somewhere.

The fact of the matter is that science can't disprove the existence of God as he/she/it is defined (it's an article of faith) but a literal interpretation of the bible is only valid if you consider the Creator God to be either extremely fallible and limited (which would be strange since the creator was powerful enough to create the entire universe) or really quite cruel. Or if you want to get really bizarre God created the universe as it would have looked if he had never existed. I all of these cases it shouldn't really matter to you if other people believe in God or not. That goes for atheists too.

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33. Hap on May 6, 2010 7:40 PM writes...

What people believe matters because it should affect what we do (perhaps not in an obvious and straightforward way, but somehow) and thus impinges on what is done to others. People can still do bad things for good reasons, though - it's generally better to attack what people do that's wrong rather than their reasons (because their ostensible reasons may have little to do with their actions, and because controlling thought is neither achievable or desirable).

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34. djd on May 6, 2010 8:59 PM writes...

@ Morten G "[In] all of these cases it shouldn't really matter to you if other people believe in God or not. That goes for atheists too."

I care what they believe because they act on those beliefs.

Many (most?) religions teach their adherents to believe things despite absent or even contrary evidence. (Note: nonreligious authoritarian systems also do this.) If someone attempts to use faulty reasoning to understand the world, they will fail. Actions based on this misunderstanding have adverse consequences for them and for others.

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35. Anonymous on May 6, 2010 10:49 PM writes...

is faith used to understand the world, or to understand oneself?

Science does not pretend to offer truth, for truth can only come from induction (within?).

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36. Ian Musgrave on May 6, 2010 11:13 PM writes...

John wrote: but the first thing I had to ask was "Is this paper really making it into PNAS on it's own merits?".

Yes, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA publishes work in a wide variety of fields, including the sociology of and impact of science. Creationism and Intelligent Design creationism are important influences in America, and there has been substantial pressure to include one or more flavours of creationism in teaching at American schools. This paper addresses important aspects of this issue.

Morten G wrote: The fact of the matter is that science can't disprove the existence of God as he/she/it is defined (it's an article of faith) but a literal interpretation of the bible is only valid if you consider the Creator God to be either extremely fallible and limited (which would be strange since the creator was powerful enough to create the entire universe) or really quite cruel.

And yet that is what creationism and Intelligent Design creationism want to do. For those of us outside the US, it is hard to conceive of these ideas being sufficiently widespread to threaten science teaching, but in the US it remains a persistent threat.

One of the things that Intelligent Design creationists have been harping on about is their alleged ability to detect "Intelligent Design" (read God) in the genome, they have a particular bee in their bonnet about "junk" DNA not being "junk".

This paper addresses the background to the issue (Intelligent Design Creationism in the US), and a key plank of the ID attack on science teaching (we all know that a creator could set up the genome anyway it pleased, but the ID crowd are focussed on seeing human engineering style design in the genome, and the paper specifically refutes that).

This can be very hard to understand unless you have actually had to try and counter creationist anti-science.

sgcox wrote: Hmmm, it is actually a well writen paper with reasonable summary of chaotic nature of human genome. The last part of the discussion is of course unnecessary.

Yes, that last bit is necessary. Remember this paper is written in the specific context of Intelligent Design Creationism and its attacks on science and science-teaching. And its the PNAS of the US, and the US is where ID is a continuing danger to science education.

Permalink to Comment

37. Anonymous on May 6, 2010 11:45 PM writes...

Is there any evidence for the existence of God?
Then why is He even being mentioned in a Science journal? You can't refute the existence of God without circumventing/eviscerating/rescinding the scientific method.
Other than that it was cool.

Beliefs and actions are two very different things.

Permalink to Comment

38. Katherine on May 7, 2010 12:26 AM writes...

Sili, if I interpreted those passages the way you seem to think I should, would I be a regular reader here? You've acquired some unpleasant ideas about religion somewhere. Please don't take them out on me.

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39. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on May 7, 2010 1:33 AM writes...

I have my own theory about "supreme beings."

If there is a "supreme being," (he/she/it/they) (doesn't/doesn't/doesn't/don't) give a d*mn about humans or any other creatures.

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40. Sili on May 7, 2010 3:33 AM writes...

Sili, if I interpreted those passages the way you seem to think I should, would I be a regular reader here?
I didn't realise you were a prophet of the Church. Sorry. Or do they let just anyone interpret scripture these days?

Sorry, but I have no trouble believing religion and science coëxist in your books and your brain. We humans are exceptionally good at compartmentalising.

That still doesn't change the fact that the book, you as a Mormon are required to believe to be the truth as infallibly revealed to Joseph Smith, is ripe with claims that fly in the face of the discoveries of science. The only way you can be a scientist and a theist is to ignore one 'magisterium' when dealing with the other.

I merely grabbed the genetic claims at random since they're so close to chemistry. Had this been LanguageLog I woulda mocked the 'reformed Egyptian' and the Book of Abraham instead.

Anyway, go have a look at the Apostle before you think too much. I gather that's frowned upon.

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41. Cartesian on May 7, 2010 4:40 AM writes...

If God is understood as the first cause like in philosophy, following a scientific reasoning this should not be a problem, but there are different ways of understanding God.

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42. partial agonist on May 7, 2010 7:22 AM writes...

#35: is faith used to understand the world, or to understand oneself?

Organized faith seems to be commonly used to claim that one set of beliefs is above all others, to belittle, demean, or dehumanize those with different viewpoints, and ultimately to silence them, often by killing them.

If there is a God, he/she likely loathes the fact that virtually all religions are a flash point for human hatred, and while many of them strive to do good deeds, on balance they do far more harm than good.

Permalink to Comment

43. MedChem on May 7, 2010 10:23 AM writes...

Let's assume the subject matter being christianity for now.

One common mistake those who attack it make is that they don't try to understand the theology to see if it's consistent with those observations upon which the criticism is based. For example, remember "the Fall"--according to the Bible God changed a lof of things (genetics definitely being one of them) when sin entered the world. In the plant world, thorns apparantly started to appear where they didn't exist before. Men according to the Bible, had since then lived gradually shorter life spans from close to 1000 years to around 100.

Permalink to Comment

44. Katherine on May 7, 2010 11:32 AM writes...

If most scientists' understanding of religion, and what it does and does not "require" of its adherents, is anything like Sili's, no wonder there's so much venom in the comments whenever religion comes up.

Certainly there are religions that expect their adherents to do no thinking, and to accept scripture as infallible. The ones David mentioned upthread seem to me to fall into that category. But to assume that all religions require similar mindlessness - and to persist in asserting that mine in particular does, when its doctrine quite explicitly states the opposite - seems quite unscientific. And it certainly doesn't make for a very interesting conversation.

Permalink to Comment

45. otakucode on May 7, 2010 12:00 PM writes...

For those who have not studied history, most especially the history of scientific investigation and sociology and how things changed with Descartes and his cohorts during the Enlightenment, it might seem possible for religion and science to co-exist. It is not, however, possible. Prior to the Enlightenment, people believed in religion as much as they believed in science. They believe that there was 1 world. Not a metaphysical and a physical one, just 1 world. They believed prayer could cure disease as reliably as gravity would pull an object to the earth. The Enlightenment allowed people to ease into scientific belief. It didn't look like they were completely abandoning their superstitions when they simply said "There is a spiritual world and a physical one, religion rules the spiritual, and science the physical." That gave society breathing room. It gave them the room to finally discover and start to expand science without worrying about stepping on the toes of the priests too much. Over time, and with a bloody battle at every single advance, science took more and more away from what was relegated to the 'spiritual world' and moved it into the 'physical world.' We're getting to the point where there is hardly anything left at all in the 'spiritual world.' Soon, we'll be faced with the final battle, where either we admit there is no 'spiritual world' and religious beliefs are just myths and superstitions... or else society will turn away from science and back to religion. Do not dare think the outcome is certain, it is not. Society has been turning more and more anti-intellectual and irrational over the past few decades. If we do plunge back into a pre-Enlightenment mode of belief, we can expect to welcome back all the disease, suffering, and widespread death that worldview brings.

Permalink to Comment

46. otakucode on May 7, 2010 12:00 PM writes...

For those who have not studied history, most especially the history of scientific investigation and sociology and how things changed with Descartes and his cohorts during the Enlightenment, it might seem possible for religion and science to co-exist. It is not, however, possible. Prior to the Enlightenment, people believed in religion as much as they believed in science. They believe that there was 1 world. Not a metaphysical and a physical one, just 1 world. They believed prayer could cure disease as reliably as gravity would pull an object to the earth. The Enlightenment allowed people to ease into scientific belief. It didn't look like they were completely abandoning their superstitions when they simply said "There is a spiritual world and a physical one, religion rules the spiritual, and science the physical." That gave society breathing room. It gave them the room to finally discover and start to expand science without worrying about stepping on the toes of the priests too much. Over time, and with a bloody battle at every single advance, science took more and more away from what was relegated to the 'spiritual world' and moved it into the 'physical world.' We're getting to the point where there is hardly anything left at all in the 'spiritual world.' Soon, we'll be faced with the final battle, where either we admit there is no 'spiritual world' and religious beliefs are just myths and superstitions... or else society will turn away from science and back to religion. Do not dare think the outcome is certain, it is not. Soci