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'The Most Bogus Ideas': Science, Religion and Creationism in the John Maynard Smith Archive

Helen Piel (notes)

Abstract

The science and religion question is one of continued interest in academia and in the non-academic public. In terms of biology, discussions almost inevitably revolve around evolution and (human) origins, contrasting Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection to the Biblical account of creation and origins in Genesis. The eminent British evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) engaged with religion more generally and creationism specifically. His archive, held by the British Library, contains relevant material from the 1960s to the 1980s: Maynard Smith kept publications sent to him by Jehovah's Witnesses, discussed the differences between science and religion on school radio, and publicly debated with creationists twice. These engagements reveal that for Maynard Smith there was a choice to be made between science and religion; he chose science. Religion may have poetic value but it lacks the explanatory powers of science. Especially during his encounters with creationists and their extreme views, Maynard Smith made use of Karl Popper's philosophy of science (in particular, Popper's concept of falsifiability) to demonstrate that creationism was not a scientific theory and thus not a valid contestant in answering questions about life and (human) origins.

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