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Subjunctive Science

Scientists are hot in pursuit of the secrets of life and how to create it. In the July 3, 2010 issue of Science News, Charles Petit reports on one such effort being conducted at the Harvard Medical School, where a team of scientists and graduate students are determined to create life "from scratch" in an effort to show how Darwinian evolution could have developed out of chaos and randomness.

Petit explains that the aim of this effort is "to show how unguided natural events might have led to life on earth in the first place..." To accomplish this the scientists are pursuing a wide range of carefully guided activities to create artificial cells and then teach them how to make proteins.  As Petit writes, "unlike the first time - when life formed on its own - the second time it will get a boost from human ingenuity."

These scientists, and others like them in various labs, believe that order - Darwinian evolution - developed by sheer chance and then proceeded in spite of chance to overcome the very character of chance and create an orderly universe where life flourishes. Petit summarizes their view: "Once you light Darwinian evolution, it takes off."

Just like that? Well, Petit explains, certain conditions and activities must be "firmly supposed" of course. Firmly supposed? Yes, because it is obvious that "higgledy-piggledy chance" no longer rules the cosmos; Darwinian evolution is the order of the day. But then, to get to this conclusion one has to be willing to tolerate a certain amount of "sheer speculation."

So if I understand this correctly, scientists are using highly rational and intelligent procedures, carefully coordinated, assessed, and improved, in order to show how "higgledy-piggledy" chance "may" have created proteins which "might" have led to the beginnings of life.

In language study the subjunctive mood is the mood of "possibility." It does not assert, it proposes; the helping verbs "could," "might," and "may" are present to indicate a degree of uncertainty. But I thought science was the realm of certainty? Would scientists be willing to settle for "applying heat to water might make it change to a gas"? Or "leaping from a seventh story window may cause a body to fall to the earth"?

Besides the fact that the scientists who are conducting these experiments seem blind to their own presuppostion that some kind of order and intelligence had to exist for life to begin, this trafficking in the subjunctive is not typically the way of scientific thinking. It indicates a discipline at work in an area where reach exceeds grasp and "could be" is good enough, if it "seems" to demonstrate the validity of Darwinian evolution. These, of course, are statements of faith, not of proven fact.

Some things, you know, should just be left to God.

T. M. Moore
T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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