Reviews: "A View of Science, Reason and Religion"

Fossils in America -- Science and Religion -- A Giant Moon

by Keith Thomson, Yale University Press, 2008

In the mid-1700s frontiersmen uncovered mastodon bones in present-day Kentucky. In this unique and fascinating book, Thomson, a professor emeritus of natural history at the University of Oxford, takes us from the mastodon bones through finds of many unsuspected kinds of animals—tiny ancestors of horses and camels, birds with teeth, cattlelike creatures with claws and, of course, dinosaurs. All this is fascinating, but what makes the book unique is that Thomson links the emergence of the new nation to the discovery of its fossils.

Along the way, he turns up many surprising gems. American proponents of the New World, for example, were eager to prove that the native animals were larger and fiercer than those of the Old World. Thomas Jefferson and others even suggested that the recently discovered mastodon had been carnivorous. They were not without provocation: the Comte de Buffon, the great French naturalist, disparaged the fauna and flora of the Americas, going so far as to sneer that "in the savage, the organs of generation are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female."

by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton. Princeton University Press, 2008

Titan, one of Saturn’s roughly 50 moons, is aptly named. At 5,150 kilometers across, it is larger than Mercury. It also boasts turbulent orange skies, methane monsoons, equatorial sand seas and a polar hood. So intriguing is this moon that when NASA and the European Space Agency launched the Cassini satellite in 2004 to explore Saturn, they designed a separate probe—Huygens—that would detach and drop through Titan’s haze. Lorenz, a planetary scientist, and Mitton, a science writer, vividly describe this encounter with an alien landscape; excerpts from Lorenz’s log convey what it was like to be involved in the mission. “Psychologically,” the authors write, “Huygens made Titan a real place—a place to which we might soon return.”

by Stuart A. Kauffman. Basic Books, 2008

Complexity theorist Kauffman acknowledges that the very notion of “reinventing” the sacred is likely to incite angry reactions from those who believe that a Creator God exists and that the sacred is an expression of His being and law. But his provocative argument for a different understanding of God is compelling:

“Is it, then, more amazing to think that an Abrahamic transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient God created everything around us ... in six days, or that it all arose with no transcendent Creator God, all on its own? I believe the latter is so stunning, so overwhelming, so worthy of awe, gratitude, and respect, that it is God enough for many of us. God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe. It is this view that I hope can be shared across all our religious traditions, embracing those like myself, who do not believe in a Creator God, as well as those who do....

“This view is not as great a departure from Abrahamic thought as we might suppose. Some Jesuit cosmologists look out into the vast universe and reason that God cannot know, from multiple possibilities, where life will arise.... Such a God is a Generator God who does not know or control what thereafter occurs in the universe. Such a view is not utterly different from one in which God is our honored name for the creativity in the
natural universe itself.”

This article was originally published with the title "Fossils in America Science and Religion A Giant Moon."

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