Robert May: 'The core values of science are under threat'

From an annual address to the Royal Society, entitled Threats to Tomorrow's World, by the society's president
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The Independent Online

The values of the Enlightenment have on balance - often one step backward for two steps forward - made the world a better place. Today, however, fundamentalist forces are again on the march, West and East.

In the US, the aim of a growing network of fundamentalist foundations and lobby groups reaches well beyond "equal time" for creationism, or its disguised variant "intelligent design", in the science classroom. Rather, the ultimate aim is the overthrow of "scientific materialism", in all its manifestations.

In the Islamic world, we also see enlightenment threatened by extremist sects, whose acts evoke the brutal practices which gave us the word "assassin". The really sad thing is that none of these fundamentalist beliefs are grounded on, or representative of, the mainstream religions they profess to serve. Fundamentalist Christianity is widely considered as irrelevant to modern theology as it is to modern science. The extremist views and acts of fundamentalist Islam find little sanction in the Koran.

More generally, many of the "moral dilemmas" that are said to arise from scientific advances - such as stem cell research - do not in fact arise from any conflict between science and ethical universals.

Ahead of us lie dangerous times. There are serious problems that derive from the realities of the external world: climate change, loss of biological diversity, new and re-emerging diseases, and more. Many of these threats are not immediate, yet their nonlinear character is such that we need to be acting today. And we have no evolutionary experience of acting on behalf of a distant future; we even lack basic understanding of important aspects of our own institutions and societies.

Sadly, for many, the response is to retreat from complexity and difficulty by embracing the darkness of fundamentalist unreason. The Enlightenment's core values, free, open, unprejudiced, uninhibited questioning and enquiry; individual liberty; separation of church and state - are under serious threat from resurgent fundamentalism, West and East.