Frederick Gregory

Above: Frederick Gregory

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Frederick Gregory

Head of the CLAS

Professor Frederick Gregory’s life’s work is chronicling the history of science so his philosophical stance might surprise you.

He has taught for 30 years at the University of Florida and 2008 marked the appearance of his textbook, “Natural Science in Western History,” published by Houghton Mifflin (now Cengage), the first survey of its kind in the field. This year a series of 24 video- and audio-taped lectures of Gregory’s gloss on the Darwinian Revolution produced and distributed by the Teaching Company became available.

And yet the man who has devoted his life to the scholarly investigation of science’s progress and its lucid presentation offers a seemingly pessimistic view of the whole endeavor. “Truth is inaccessible,” he tells his history of science class. “We can’t get it, but we have to aim for it anyway.”

Gregory is 66 and plans to retire in December, but his determination to chronicle science’s never-to-be-requited search for truth appears undimmed. He made his name as a scholar of German clerical and scientific thinking in 19th century. He hopes the bookend of his career, “Natural Science in Western History,” will also leave its mark.

Historians of science have traditionally chosen topical books to illuminate their lectures, Gregory says. So he is unsure whether his synthesis of the history of Western science from Aristotle to Thomas Kuhn will strike a chord among his peers.

The fact is, says Robert (Jay) Malone, executive director of the UF-headquartered National History of Science Society, Gregory’s work is the first textbook of its kind in a long-established field. “We really didn’t have a suitable textbook, which is hard to believe for teaching the history of science. We’re not all that young of a profession.’’

Release of video series coincides with Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” which details the theory of biological evolution guided by natural selection.

Gregory, who holds degrees from Wheaton College, the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Harvard, deploys a subtle grasp of the interplay between science and religion as he interprets the Darwinian legacy.

The past president of the National History of Science Society refers to himself as a person of faith. He says that many of his fellow parishioners in mainline or liberal theological traditions may be too confident of the reconciliation between Christianity and Darwinism.

“They just want to be modern and think that takes care of it,” he says during an interview in his office on campus. “Most people say they want to be Darwinists and Christians at the same time. That’s not easily done.”

In his lectures on the Darwinian Revolution, Gregory discusses the conflict between Intelligent Design theory and natural selection. Intelligent Design is the idea that the complexity of life is the product of a designer. The classic illustration of this idea is that when one finds a watch lying on the beach, one asks who is the watchmaker. Intelligent Design is at odds with the Darwinian conception of natural selection, which posits that a small fish species might change with many small adaptations over time by, for example, crawling out of the water and evolving lungs to avoid being eaten by bigger fish.

Gregory concludes that Intelligent Design is not science at all because it depends on supernatural causes to explain biological evolution. The details are not subject to falsification so Intelligent Design has the effect of “stopping scientific inquiry.” In other words, no one is able to show how to prove that there is or isn’t a watchmaker.

And while scientists are by definition engaged in a scientific enterprise, Gregory notes that they too begin their investigations with an un-testable metaphysical assumption. For Darwinian theorists, it is the notion that natural causes can explain all evolutionary processes. It is their failure to acknowledge that their conclusions also rest on belief, not on their science with which he finds fault.

He says the modern-day controversy is often dominated by the extremes represented by those who want God at the center of scientific explanations, and those who won’t countenance any suggestion of a deity’s intervention. “It gets polarized and it always ends in a shouting match.”

As a result, areas ripe for fruitful contemplation are generally ignored in public debates.

Gregory observes that the long-running clash between anti- and pro-Darwinian forces in the United States could use a dose of what his own classes bring to the subject: civility.

“I’ve had some people say you know this person gave me their personal religious belief, I don’t think that’s appropriate in class,’” he says. “And I say, ‘No, on the contrary, as long as it’s done with civility and as long it’s done without a dogmatic insistence that other people believe, I think that’s what’s really meaningful to people, to be able to say what you really think.’ So, largely people have been able to do that and I haven’t had a problem in this context, but I don’t know how to translate that to the larger society.’’

Credits

Writer

Richard Goldstein

Photo

Jane Dominguez

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