How can certain events that took place in 17th-century Italy have much relevance to those of the 21st? I’m thinking of the way one of the greatest men in history, the father of physics, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), was treated by the Roman Catholic Church.

The fact that his story is still relevant says much about the cyclical nature of history — and also about the failure of science and of reason to replace superstition and mumbo jumbo. Its failure to consign religion and other irrational practices to the scrap heap says much about the human mind.

I was left with these thoughts after a recent trip to the theater, where I saw the marvelous “The Life of Galileo” by the master German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). It is the story of how Galileo’s work vindicated the theory of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), by showing that the Earth did indeed orbit the Sun, rather than vice versa.

Political decisions

So, far from being the center of the universe, Galileo recast the Earth as a mere speck orbiting an ordinary little star. The inference that we are alone in a godless universe was outrageous to the Church, and Galileo, dragged before the Inquisition and imprisoned, was forced to recant. Brecht’s play is about the consequences of scientific discoveries.

Science doesn’t have a PR agency to sell itself to the public. Instead there is the media, and industry, which have their own agendas. And then there are the political decisions made with tools provided by science, perhaps the most infamous being the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. (On the day Hiroshima was bombed, Aug. 6, 1945, the British actor Charles Laughton was working with Brecht to stage “Galileo” in Los Angeles. When the news broke, Laughton remarked to Brecht: “Wrong kind of publicity, old man.”)

Perhaps it is because of this — the perception that science is responsible for so many ills — that it is regarded with distrust by many people, even as they reap the benefits of modern science in hospitals, at work and in front of their TVs and on the Internet. We are more used to seeing “mad scientists” in films than boring, rational scientists.

Galileo was mocked for his proposals, and imprisoned. Fearful of torture, he betrayed his own giant intellect and renounced his views. The Church did eventually see the colossal error of its ways and issued an apology. Unfortunately this came from Pope John Paul II, in 1992 — 350 years after Galileo’s death.

So how is this relevant now, and what’s it doing in a column called Natural Selections? Easy.

The friction between science and religion is as troublesome as ever, and the Copernicus/Galileo revolution has since been equaled only once. That was in 1859 when the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82) connected us to the non-human world with his book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life,” and the theory of evolution by natural selection swept away our “God-given” sense of identity.

The friction is noticeable all the time. For example, at the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, in Omaha, Nebraska, patients can receive hormonal and surgical treatment, apparently to help them conceive. The service is offered to women who believe that the conventional, now routine method of IVF is unethical with respect to Catholic thinking. The Washington Post last week called the institute’s approach “anti-science.” It quoted an obstetrics expert as saying that the institute promoted treatments that are not scientifically proven as being safe or effective.

For another example, there is George W. Bush’s hobbling of U.S. scientists over stem cells. Bush has prevented the use of federal money to fund stem-cell research, on the basis that the destruction of spare embryos equates to “murder.” Whether Americans can continue to stomach this will be seen when the dust settles after yesterday’s midterm elections — and, even more so, the next presidential election.

Meanwhile, scientists sick and tired of the Bush administration’s faith-based position on stem cells, and its refusal to act to prevent climate change, have formed Scientists and Engineers for America.

“When the nation’s leaders systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis,” the SEA says, “scientists and engineers have a right, indeed an obligation, to enter the political debate.”

Persistent rumors

And of course, there is the ongoing “debate” (I hesitate to honor it with the word debate: to any rational person there is no debate) about “intelligent design,” which is another way of saying “creationism.”

In Oklahoma, Bill Crozier, the Republican challenger for state superintendent of public instruction, wants “intelligent design” to be taught in schools. And there are persistent rumors from Rome that Pope Benedict XVI wants the Church to embrace “intelligent design.”

I don’t have the answers as to why irrational thought and faith-based explanations persist in the face of verifiable, testable propositions about the world. A common complaint from creationists is that evolution can’t be observed. Even if that were a problem (which it isn’t), then just this week, in the journal Nature Genetics, a team from the University of California, San Diego, demonstrate rapid evolutionary changes in bacteria, observed almost in real time, over a few days.

“Paleontologists look at the fossil record to study how evolution of dinosaurs and other animals occurred over millions of years, but in the case of the E. coli bacterium, new technology has given us the ability to observe evolution as it is occurring over a matter of days,” said Bernhard Palsson, the senior author.

In other words, the team can show evolution — adaptation to new conditions — taking place before our eyes.

I don’t expect this will cause any creationists to reassess their way of thinking, precisely because their way of thinking is based on faith, not reason. That’s why a play about Galileo, a man who lived four centuries ago, is still relevant today.

And if the Church changed its mind about Galileo, perhaps there’s hope that others will change their mind about evolution.

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