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Why We Can’t Separate Science and Ethics

Stephen Jay Gould SOURCE: Pat Greenhouse via AP Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously suggested that science and religion deal with non-overlapping areas of knowledge. The idea is useful for quelling debates about creationism, but it’s a mistake when developing public policy for the life sciences.

In his often-cited 1997 essay “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould made a provocative proposal to resolve the perceived conflict between science and religion:

No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap… The net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.[1]

Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria principle, which he abbreviated as “NOMA,” was more an effort to find common ground on which the warring parties might both stand in the evolution debates than it was to clarify broader questions about the organization of knowledge. Even so, the NOMA proposal generated its fair share of reaction from across the political and philosophical spectrum, from religious fundamentalists to atheist philosopher Richard Dawkins.[2] This is not surprising, given the strong feelings evolution debates generate. But as I’ll show, taking the NOMA point of view presents critical challenges for science policy development at the dawn of the 21st century. For more than four decades, many of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements—recombining DNA, transplanting organs, in vitro fertilization, mapping the human genome, mammalian cloning, embryonic stem cell research—have benefited from robust discussions about science and values. Now, as science presents even more opportunities to use technology to help, heal, cure, and enhance, it continues to evoke ethical, legal, and social responses—confirming that neither science nor the humanities alone can adequately guide policy. Earlier this month, we saw the conclusion of a long process of bioethical work that combined science and values when the National Institutes of Health approved 13 new lines of human embryonic stem cells, making them eligible for use in federally funded research.

While Gould’s NOMA principle may be useful to explore some of the more challenging bioethical topics of our day, it is important to understand precisely how ethics informs scientific debate, and what challenges remain by uncritically conflating secular ethics and religious ethics “magisteria” as Gould seems to do in his essay. Conflating these is both dangerous and counterproductive, for it is unarguable that these two areas of value inquiry are partially, but certainly not completely, overlapping. In fact, the field of bioethics plays a significant role in many of these debates by occupying the space between the magisteria. Gould’s suggestion that science, on the one hand, and religion/values/ethics, on the other, occupy separate isolated intellectual domains has enormous appeal for quelling arguments over hot-button issues like evolution. But this idea—that science and values do not intersect—has serious implications that impede contemporary science policy debates, particularly some of the messier ones that have preoccupied society in recent years: those that focus on questions about moral status and how persons can be treated; abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia are typical examples.

The real action can be found at those places where these two magisteria touch, where for perfectly sensible reasons that arise from the necessity of science policy construction, society finds itself trying to reconcile two completely different types of input: those about facts and those about values. In fact, the major bioethical challenges of the past few decades demonstrate that neither science nor ethics alone can effectively answer many science policy questions. Uncritically separating these questions into separate domains (as NOMA would have us do) will inhibit, not promote sound science policy. Progressive bioethics brings them together.[3]

Challenges from all sides

Gould published “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” in 1997 after spending a few nights at a Vatican conference sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He writes at length about how he had engaged Catholic priests in lively debates, which he found exciting and to some extent comforting (since the priests did not seem to be questioning the theory of evolution, but were more intent on questioning the political status of the creation science movement in the United States). The essay was his proposal to resolve what he took to be the perceived conflict between science and religion, especially with respect to evolution. It was a sincere effort to find common ground on which these apparently warring parties might both jointly stand on matters of intellectual inquiry generally, and on the evolution debates in particular.

Certainly Gould was not seriously proposing that no possibility existed for those trained in the study of morality to delve into matters scientific and vice versa; nor could I imagine that he held to the view that no serious exchange of ideas between these two groups was possible. As a philosopher trained in ethics but with a particular focus on health care and research issues, I was troubled by this implication at first reading more than a decade ago. I also remember thinking that he wasn’t really speaking to me because, after all, he was referring to religiously-based ethics not secular ethics (my own moral stance), and certainly not bioethics—the study of moral issues in the life sciences where I undertake my main research, teaching, and policy work.

Apparently others from both ends of the ideological spectrum had the same reaction, suggesting that he may not only have stepped into shallow water, but that there were some hungry fish swimming around his ankles. In a Google search for the phrase “Non-overlapping Magisteria,” the 5th of the more than 53,000 hits comes from Conservapedia [The Trustworthy Encyclopedia]:

This theory is demonstrably faulty because it is obvious that the intelligent design of the universe would leave behind perceptible evidence allowing the existence of God to be inferred without reference to faith. Furthermore the NOMA principle would directly contradict Biblical evidence of miracles which if observable by scientists would be demonstrably true. To embrace NOMA would be to consign the entirety of scripture to metaphor and storytelling.[4]

At the other end of the spectrum, Richard Dawkins spends close to eight pages in The God Delusion taking direct aim at what he calls Gould’s “confident, almost bullying, tone,” before metaphorically shaking his head and concluding, “I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote…”[5] I happen to be more sympathetic to Dawkins’ moral point of view than I am of those at Conservapedia, but when an idea is attacked from both sides it suggests that there is something more than meets the eye.

I want to explore the fact that Gould’s defense of NOMA is open to at least two challenges. The first challenge is about the content of the religion magisterium itself: notably that Gould refers to the conflict as between science and religion, apparently leaving no room for secular ethical contributions to the “non-scientific” magisterium. The second challenge is about the implications for science policy if we took NOMA seriously.

Where’s the secular ethics?

With respect to the first challenge, Gould’s explication of NOMA as a response to the conflict between science and religion may have been a shorthand route for referring to a broader category of moral investigation. But referring to the content of the religion magisterium as including “questions of moral meaning and value” was either sloppy or intentional. If we rule out “sloppy” on the grounds that whatever one thinks of Gould, sloppiness is not something normally associated with his writing, then we are left with this description as intentional. Yet Gould offers no reason for why he has cast this net in this way.

In this formulation Gould may be drawing a circle around the subject of morality that at once may be too large and too small: conflating under one uncritical umbrella two similar but not identical domains of teaching about ethics and morality strikes me as casting an uncritically large net, particularly since not all of religious teaching is about morality. At the same time the net is too small because he inadvertently restricts discussion about morality only to those who are theologically trained or inclined. If we took Gould seriously I suppose non-religiously based moralists could simply ignore NOMA on the grounds that Gould wasn’t talking to them. In the extreme that’s somewhat disingenuous, but at very least it makes conversation on these issues next to impossible.

Ethics, which is the academic study of morality, enjoys many roots, both secular and religious. Admittedly, the distinction between one’s own morality and its origins (which may come from one’s parents, schools, religious institutions, civic organizations, and the like) is different from the academic (one might even say scientific) study of ethics.[6] Whether for pragmatic or benevolent reasons, why don’t we simply agree that Gould might have intended to refer to those who work in the area of ethical inquiry—whether secular humanists, evangelical moral theologians, true believers, or atheists—may all be qualified to comment on and investigate deeply “questions of moral meaning and value”?

A further aspect of this challenge concerns the need to come to agreement about of what Gould “could possibly have meant” (as Dawkins wondered) or, said another way, what he was hoping to describe. Gould may have been describing a benevolent approach designed to achieve a type of respectful accommodation. He may have been thinking of NOMA as a truce between science and religion—an effort to achieve a form of peace following a tough battle that no one really won (or will win). In such a model, the accord provides the necessary space to allow the two magisteria to co-exist by setting the rules of any subsequent engagement to avoid unnecessary (and unproductive) skirmishes in the future.

Evidence for this runs throughout Gould’s paper, the most obviously near the end of the article, when he writes “I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution.”[7] This may have been his belief, but Gould tips his hand a little that he has more in mind than a mere accord when he further says, “NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance.”

It is also plausible that Gould may have been describing something less diplomatic, more like intellectual isolationism. In this account NOMA is a type of Maginot Line or a Berlin wall—a fortified barricade that is erected to keep one group out of the others’ territory. He provides us with an example by referring to Pope Pius XII’s 1950 Humani Generis, which cautions that evolution is just a theory not yet proven and one should be very cautious about drawing any premature conclusions about its veracity.[8]

I’m prepared to admit, in the spirit of the “concordat” model Gould was promoting, that he wasn’t trying to discriminate on the basis of secular vs. religious ethicists, nor was he seriously suggesting that only “ethicists” can talk about ethics, or that only “scientists” can talk about science.[9] (Besides, he spends four paragraphs in his paper offering his own moral point of view on science). And finally, let’s agree that Gould was not as scientifically precise as he could have been in describing this magisterium, and that were he alive today he might take up the challenges of both Conservapedia and Dawkins and consider at least revising this particular aspect of NOMA to refer to the magisteria of values or perhaps a magisteria of ethics. I’d like to think he’d be open to these gentle revisions to NOMA. Yet even with these compromises, a second serious challenge awaits, and this is where the real action is.

Science, ethics, and public policy

Whatever one’s interpretation about the scope of these two magisteria, the real action for science and ethics is not at the level of big questions such as whether God exists, or how do proteins fold. (Despite Dawkins’ protests, I’m prepared to grant that there are questions that substantially belong to one and not the other magisterium simply because it makes sense to place them there). The real action can be found at those places where these two magisteria touch, where for perfectly sensible reasons that arise from the necessity of science policy construction, society finds itself trying to reconcile two completely different types of input: those about facts and those about values.

It is at this location where taking Gould seriously may actually have profound and immediate effects on the interplay in civil society between science, ethics, and policy. What would contemporary science policy debates look like if we took NOMA seriously?[10] Gould himself recognized this issue when he wrote:

This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.

I believe this somewhat passing comment is actually the key to understanding the nature of the line-drawing activity he proposed in NOMA. This is the space at the border where the magisteria touch—and it is precisely where the bioethics and policy action takes place.

I would suggest that it is at this horizon between the magisteria that NOMA faces its greatest challenge, where neither magisterium alone is sufficient to determine the proper course of action. Indeed, for more than four decades, some of science’s greatest accomplishments occurred in concert with a parallel ethics conversation, including both secular and religious ethics perspectives. Let me relate two well-known examples.

In the late 1980s, when James Watson testified before the U.S. Congress, requesting $3 billion to undertake the human genome project, he made a further request that 3 percent of this money be spent each year to study the ethical, legal, and social issues arising from the effort to map and sequence the genome. When Francis Collins took over as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, that amount was raised to 5 percent. This apportionment of the larger genome project appropriation was more than just a funding decision; it was a statement about the fundamental, necessary connection between science and ethics. As entwined as the double strands of the helix, science was trying to map and sequence the genome while simultaneously mapping and sequencing the ethical issues. Indeed, our job at the Genome Institute, where for a period I was a program director in the ELSI program, was to support research that anticipated and addressed the ethical issues.[11]

Indeed, it may only be stretching the point a little to suggest that if Congress had not been assured that experts were addressing the ethical issues at the same time as the scientific ones, I doubt very much that Francis Collins and Craig Venter would have stood together in the East Room of the White House with President Bill Clinton in 2000, announcing the completed rough draft of the human genome.

The second example occurred in 1997—a little less than a decade after Watson’s congressional testimony, in the very year Gould published his NOMA paper—when the world was captivated by the announcement from the Roslin Institute of the birth of the first adult mammal born as a result of somatic cell nuclear transfer—commonly known as cloning. Dolly hit the international stage like a thunderbolt. Upon learning the news, President Clinton issued an Executive Order to all federal departments and agencies declaring that “no federal funds shall be allocated for cloning human beings,” and suggested legislation in the U.S. Congress that would have prohibited “the attempt to create a child using somatic cell nuclear transfer.” Clinton then directed the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to “undertake a thorough review of the legal and ethical issues…and report back to me in ninety days.” NBAC completed this task, considering both scientific issues focused on safety and ethical dimensions of the research, and recommended to the president that human reproductive cloning should not be undertaken at that time.[12] More than a decade later, both Congress and the American public appear committed to the same objections as those expressed by NBAC and subsequent bodies, that human reproductive cloning is still a bad idea for the same reasons.

NBAC’s deliberations on human cloning, like the deliberations on embryonic stem cell research a year later (with which I was involved in my capacity as NBAC Executive Director), were instances in which science and ethics were jointly enlisted to examine a profound matter for any civil society—determining whether a scientific practice should be banned, permitted, or encouraged. In reflecting on the Dolly story, NBAC Chair Harold Shapiro and I observed that:

Thus, while the various philosophical approaches provided substantial inspiration and guidance to our discussions, we knew that we would not be able to arrive at a set of recommendations solely through a process of philosophical reasoning and deliberation. [13]

Our point was simple but profound: the Dolly story is not intended as a defense of the role of bioethics as a perfect arbiter of tough cases that neither science nor ethics alone can resolve. It is a story about the nature of the conversation between science and ethics that is necessary for science policy to proceed in a democracy.

Moreover, this conversation does not always result in granting permission for the use of a technology. Embryonic stem cell research went through similar conversations—supported by President Clinton, then severely restricted by President Bush before President Obama reversed a Bush executive order and permitted federal funding. The stem cell story is equally worthy of a magisterial analysis, particularly given the near obsession in the United States with debating the moral status of the developing human embryo. But that will have to wait.

Can we update NOMA?

Gould’s description of two magisteria faces both conceptual and practical challenges. In particular, serious problems arise when policymakers attempt to develop science policy through an appeal to either magisterium alone. That much we’ve learned from NOMA and the evolution debates. So long as we envision NOMA as a concordat or a line on a map, it is not up to the task of helping resolve difficult matters of policy. Enter bioethics. If anything bioethics occupies the space between the magisteria, a position that acknowledges the necessary and close connection between science and ethics.[14] Placing bioethics in this position is an example of progressive policy development, in which we seek solutions to even deep policy problems using a pragmatic approach, without appeal to ideology.

Perhaps we should think of bioethics as something more akin to a translation device, like the famous Rosetta Stone. An approach that attempts to bridge these magisteria, unlocking some of the stories that they are each trying to tell may be a more productive way of engaging the warring parties.

Eric M. Meslin, Ph.D. is the Director, Indiana University Center for Bioethics, Associate Dean (Bioethics), Indiana University School of Medicine, and Professor of Medicine, Medical and Molecular Genetics, Public Health, Philosophy at Indiana University, Indianapolis.

This article is adapted from a talk presented at the conference “Darwin’s Living Legacy—a Conference on Evolution and Society” Bibliotheca Alexandrina, November 16, 2009.


[1] Gould, S.J., “Nonoverlapping magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22.

[2] Dawkins, R. The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books , 2008).

[3] Moreno JD, Berger, S. eds. Progress in Bioethics: Science, Policy and Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

[4] See Accessed on November 12, 2009.

[5] Dawkins. R., The God Delusion, pp. 77-85.

[6] Here again, another loaded point: is ethics amenable to “scientific” study? Consider the statement above by Conservapedia “ Other examples exist of whether ethics can be the object of study (even empirical study). In a thoughtful paper on the concept of the “common morality” the philosopher Tom Beauchamp describes the design of an empirical study that might prove the existence of his view of the common morality. Beauchamp, T. L., “A defense of the common morality,” Kennedy Inst Ethics J 13 (3)( 2003): 259-74.

[7] But there is other textual evidence of this interpretation when Gould describes his response to a priest who had asked him about whether evolution was facing any intellectual challenges, especially from creationism, Gould replied, “no” and then went on to say:

“…We all left satisfied, but I certainly felt bemused by the anomaly of my role as a Jewish agnostic, trying to reassure a group of Catholic priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief”. [italics added for emphasis]

[8]It is pretty clear from Gould’s own writing that his inclination is towards the respectful accommodation perspective than of intellectual isolationism. For example, his reading of Pope Pius XII was that the pontiff came very close to making threatening noises to those who might permit any incursion by science into religion (Catholicism in particular). This is more than mere isolationism, and starts to look like coercion. Indeed, Gould goes to great lengths to praise Pope John Paul II, whose October 22, 1996 statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences made clear that evidence for evolution was sound and proven.

Maybe Gould thought that John Paul’s statement, which he clearly preferred over Pope Pius, was a move to shore up the respectful accommodation approach.

Maybe he thought that the Pope’s words would mean that creationists might now leave well enough alone.

Maybe he thought he could devote more time to his research on evolutionary theory rather than having to defend evolution.

So much for what we may think Gould meant, or what his real motivation was. I am not inclined to overly analyze this. Besides, I thought he was pretty clear about his views. What about the challenges.

[9] Dawkins asks this in a delightfully acerbic way: “What are these ultimate questions in whose presence religion is an honored guest and science must respectfully slink away?” p. 79.

[10] I am well aware that I have altered the focus from “science” to science policy. This is not a trivial distinction.

[11] Meslin EM, Thomson EJ, Boyer JT, “The ethical, legal, and social implications research program at the National Human Genome Research Institute,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1997; 7:291-298.

[12] National Bioethics Advisory Commission. Cloning Human Beings (1997).

[13] Shapiro, HT and Meslin, EM., “Relating to History: The Influence of the National Commission and its Belmont Report on the National Bioethics Advisory Commission,” in JF Childress, EM Meslin, and HT Shapiro, eds. Belmont Revisited: Ethical Principles for Research with Human Subjects (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005), pp. 55-76.

[14] Moreno JD, Berger, S. eds, Progress in Bioethics: Science, Policy and Politics.


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