Abbott, Alison. "Papal Confession: Darwin Was Right about Evolution," Nature 393, (31

 

Abbott, Alison. "Papal Confession: Darwin Was Right about Evolution," Nature 393, (31
October 1996), p. 753.

Munich. Pope John Paul II has acknowledged the existence of evolution, nearly 150 years after
Charles Darwin introduced the world to the idea that humans may not date back to God's seven
days of creation.

In a statement last week to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an international body of about 80
prominent scientists, the Pope accepted that the overwhelming volume of experimental evidence
in support of evolution could no longer be ignored. "Observational sciences describe and
measure with ever increasing precision the multiple manifestations of life and inscribe them in an
[evolutionary] timescale," he said.

Darwin had never been subject to the prolonged vilification that Galileo Galilei suffered from the
Roman Catholic Church because of his rejection of Ptolemy in favour of Copernicus. Galileo was
rehabilitated by John Paul II four years ago.

The strongest message from the Vatican on the theory of evolution had been in a encyclical letter
issued by Pope Pius XII in 1950. The letter, called Humani Generis (Of the Human Species),
warned of the threat Darwinism posed to central tenets of the Catholic faith. But it said that
evolutionary theory was generally acceptable, provided that it was presented only as a hypothesis
and not as a doctrine.

Pope John Paul II has now indicated that the Catholic Church is ready formally to accept
scientific evidence that evolution is more than just a hypothesis - something that has been
accepted in practice by most Catholic theologians for many years.

But, in his statement to the academy, the Pope drew a firm line between the material and the
spiritual. He said that it is acceptable to believe that "the human body originates from living
matter which predates it", but not that "the spirit is also a product of matter". The latter would
lead to an unresolvable conflict between science and faith.
Washington. George Brown, the senior Democrat on the Science Committee in the US House of
Representatives, has launched a blistering attack on his Republican opponents for their conduct
of congressional hearings at which well-known ‘sceptics' testified on the integrity of the science
associated with key environmental issues.

The three hearings, entitled "Scientific Integrity and Public Trust", dealt respectively with ozone
depletion, global warming and the danger of dioxins. They were called by Dana Rohrabacher
(Republican, California), chair of the committee's energy and environment subcommittee, to
establish if public science agencies were biased on these issues (see Nature 387, 329; 1995).

In a 64-page report published last week, Brown argues that the hearings not only failed to find
evidence for such bias but also "constituted an unprecedented assault on the peer-review system
and the scientific process itself". Brown says that the hearings "repudiated peer review"' by
exhibiting the view "that scientific truth is more likely to be found at the fringes of science rather
than at the centre". He accuses Rohrabacher of seeking to set up "a scientific court where the
subcommittee would determine scientific truth through testimony and questions".

Rohrabacher hit back quickly at Brown's allegations. "It is the very fairness of these hearings that
infuriated the left-wing ideologues" among Brown's staff, he said in a statement. "After 40 years
of autocratic, one-party rule, they are horrified that diverse points of view within the scientific
community have been given a fair hearing, with panels of witnesses equally divided."

The hearings, which took place late last year, gave a platform to well-known ‘sceptics' such as
Sallie Baliunas of Harvard University and Fred Singer, an emeritus professor of the University of
Virginia, who testified against the prevailing scientific consensus on ozone depletion. Patrick
Michaels, also of the University of Virginia, criticized prominent scientists holding mainstream
views on global warming.

Brown argues that neither Baliunas nor Singer has published any recent peer-reviewed research
on ozone depletion. His report also says that the ‘sceptics' were unable to substantiate their most
serious charge, namely that science agencies and the scientific process were systematically
excluding their views from consideration.

Balance testified at the ozone hearing that she had been told "by officers of federal funding
agencies" not to apply for funds "on certain questions" because "answering these questions
would undermine the possibility of getting new funds" and "might deter policy-makers from
‘doing the right thing"'.

The report says that Balance was asked to name the officials in question and to provide
information to back up this allegation, but declined to do so because of a fear of legal liability. In
correspondence with the committee, however, Balance alleged that some of her work had been
rejected for publication in Nature on political grounds. In response to an inquiry from Brown,
John Maddox, then editor of Nature, said that the decision to reject Balance's paper was "made
on purely technical grounds, which the authors had never chosen to rebut".

Brown says that the hearings "failed to produce credible substantiation for any of these claims of
scientific misconduct" but instead "showed science being conducted in an objective and
apolitical manner, consistent with the traditional norms of scientific integrity". He calls on the
scientific community to do more to counter publicly the positions of the sceptics.

But Rohrabacher's staff insist that the hearings were successful in highlighting the question of
how agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency conduct their peer review of science.
According to one Republican staff member, government funded scientists remain scared to
testify against mainstream positions on such questions as the man-made nature of global
warming.

Asked to comment on the report, Singer said that he had repeatedly published peer-reviewed
research on ozone, and described the report as "a campaign to smear people". Michaels said: "I
don't think I've ever seen scientists attacked so vehemently by people in Congress for their
beliefs." He said that the report was "an attempt to chill debate".