t f p g+ YouTube icon

Harmonizing Science, Ethics, and Praxis: Part 1

Bookmark and Share

January 7, 2013 Tags: Morality & Ethics
Harmonizing Science, Ethics, and Praxis: Part 1

Today's entry was written by Calvin DeWitt. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: In this three-part series, Cal DeWitt offers insights and examples of why science and ethics must work together to help us make informed, practical decisions within our society. DeWitt’s science-ethics-praxis model provides a framework by which we can live more effectively as God’s stewards.

Originally published in Song of a Scientist: The Harmony of a God-Soaked Creation.

It was late evening when three students at the University of New Hampshire approached me with a question. Earlier that day I had spoken at a symposium on “God, the Environment, and the Good Life.” “How do you, as a scientist, as a student of the Scriptures, and as someone directly involved in town politics, put it all together?” they asked. We moved our conversation to a table, and I reached for a napkin and sketched a triangle.

Science and Ethics

I grew up with the deep conviction that science and theology belong together. Nurtured in the Reformed tradition, I had learned that science and religious faith are compatible ways of looking at the world. It was a tradition that esteemed science—as well as the arts, politics, trades, and good housekeeping. It also esteemed the Bible, our rule of faith and practice, and the theological research and scholarship that enriches our understanding of Scripture. I grew up knowing that both creation and the Word came from the same Author—the Author of the universe, who is thoroughly and perpetually consistent.

I also learned that there is great concordance between the natural world and the Bible—the two great books enjoyed by my culture. Scientific study of how the natural world works is in accord with theological study of the purpose and meaning of life illuminated by the Bible. And so, for these students I wrote “science” at one corner of my triangle and “ethics” at another. Under “science” I added the explanatory question “How does the world work?" and under “ethics,” “What is right?”

My early childhood interest in reptiles had continued on through my teens, through college, and into graduate studies. In graduate school at the University of Michigan, I picked up on my love for the painted turtle, the first species that occupied my backyard zoo, and set about researching how it might control its body temperature. But working with creatures that move between land and water was complicated—especially when I tried to quantify evaporation from the turtles’ shell following their climbing onto a basking spot, and when I tried to record their body temperature underwater with thermocouples whose wires got tangled as my turtles moved through a variety of aquatic vegetation. That prompted me to me to shift my subject to a reptile that lived in a nearly water-less and nearly plant-less environment—a desert lizard.

My shift of subject from a reptile I had studied in a pond in my backyard zoo to one that lived in the desert of southern California led to many wonderful discoveries. It helped my research, but it did much more: it would also produce the third label I would add to the triangle I drew for those students.

In search of my new subject, the desert iguana, I traveled to the desert with Ruth, my wife and field assistant. I learned that its genus (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) comes from the Latin words for “thirsty” (dipso) and “lizard” (saurus). I learned about the marvelous ways this creature survives and flourishes in the desert with almost no water in extremely high temperatures. Eventually I reported my findings in my dissertation and in various scientific papers. But it was there in the desert that I also learned something unexpected about another species—our own Homo sapiens. I learned that we humans have immense capacity for taking action in areas about which we know next to nothing! Uninformed by science and ethics, we can and do act in ways that have great negative consequences on the world. And often we do so intentionally, eschewing scientific and ethical knowledge in cultured ignorance.

The site I selected for study of the environmental physiology and physiological ecology of desert iguanas was on the alluvial fan at the mouth of Deep Canyon—a dry river delta—several miles to the east of Palm Springs in what would later become the city of Palm Desert, California. About once in a century, this canyon would discharge floodwaters from torrential rains in the San Jacinto Mountains above on to this delta that fanned the waters out to the desert below. For a century or so, this alluvial fan had been as we observed it: a quiet, dry, gently sloping plain that provided a grand view of the desert below. The area’s infrequent deluges were mutely proclaimed by an Indian village whose remains rested high off to one edge, out of most floods’ reach—a revelation of the knowledge and wisdom of an earlier people. The absence of water did not diminish the ominous reality displayed in this sloping plain. Had a torrential rain dumped onto the mountains above, we could have been swept off our study site by its floodwaters.

One day, toward the conclusion of my field research, as Ruth and I studied how the Desert Iguana survived on this hot dry delta, we were startled by the arrival of jobbers who parked their tank truck near us and sprinkled water on the desert for a few days. Soon after, they poured a concrete slab for a house on the wet soil. It was one of hundreds—and later even thousands—of buildings that would be placed on this usually dry river delta. House would be added to house, and lot to lot, until the city of Palm Desert covered most of the sloping triangular plain. At some point during the next few decades, my study site would become the approach lane to a drive-in bank, and the once-abundant population of desert iguanas would be reduced to a specimen or two in the local zoo. The annual rainfall in this new city? Less than 3 inches.

A second surprise happened to the west of my study site, toward Palm Springs. First men with machines arrived and leveled some shifting sand dunes. Next they sprinkled the areas they had flattened from water trucks, and this was followed by a similar sequence of slab-laying and house-building. Earlier, developers had subdivided the flattened dunes by lines scribed on a plat map; these lines were then transcribed to the landscape as a housing “development” acclaimed and commended by Life magazine.

And now, while driving my car through drifting sand on paved streets, I came upon a brand new ranch-style house—cracked in the middle, with one end hanging several feet down into a deep wind-scoured hole. A nearby neighbor complained to me that Riverside County did not send plow trucks frequently enough to keep the streets clear of continually drifting sand. People settling in houses newly placed in desert sand seemed to know nothing about the place they had chosen to live. Their subdivision stood in the blowing winds and the shifting dunes of the open desert. In air-conditioned oblivion—in cars and houses that protected them from the desert’s searing heat—they did not know their place.

It was a startling illustration of how human knowledge about how the world works (science) and about what ought to be (ethics) had had little effect on the decision of the people who settled in these desert dunes (praxis). The dune levelers had transformed dirt-cheap land into high-priced lots. Presumably the human settlers to whom the developers sold knew nothing of shifting dunes or alluvial fans; neither did anyone tell them of their precarious situation. The “developed” landscape, as I beheld it, was a silent testimony to the cultured ignorance of these well-intentioned home buyers and to the arrogance and greed of those who enticed them to buy. Living there, they knew next to nothing of the “there” where they lived, the desert and dunes. Their praxis was divorced from desert knowledge (science) and desert wisdom (ethics).

For the students in New Hampshire I added “praxis” to the third corner of the triad, along with the question, “What then must we do?” The corners of the completed triangle provided the framework for me to address their question.

Part 2 describes the science-ethics-praxis triad that Dewitt drew for his students.

Dr. Calvin B. DeWitt is a scientist, writer, and conservationist whose work builds bridges among environmental science, ethics and practice. DeWitt is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, co-founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and Director emeritus of the Au Sable Institute. He serves as president of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists, an organization dedicated to responsible stewardship of creation, and lives at the Waubesa Marsh in Wisconsin, were he has created a sanctuary for animals to travel a glacial drumlin island that emerges from the marsh.

Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
Roger A. Sawtelle - #75821

January 7th 2013

Sadly the problems of Palm Springs are not unique. 

Human beings have repeatedly made the mistake in thinking they they can make nature bend to their will.  Many scientists have been guilty of this, so let us not make the distinction based on science versus religion.

Indeed ecology is a relatively new science brought into the light by “The Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson and the effects of DDT. 

Richard Dawkins is clear evidence that Darwinism and ecology not really compatible.


Calvin DeWitt - #75844

January 9th 2013

Yes, Roger, the problems of the Palm Springs area are not unique, but tell a story that has been repeated in many ways across the landscape.  These problems are the ones I deal with later in the same book from which my writing was reprinted: Chapter 6, “Community Singing in Lives and Landscapes” (pages 111-145).  In this chapter I tell how I and other members of my town addressed this in our Town of Dunn, just south of Madison, Wisconsin.  (Google: “Town of Dunn” and “Song of a Scientist”).  It is an encouraging story that provides much hope, and one that is fullly respectful of science and religious beliefs.  I hope you enjoy it!

Cal DeWitt

jkorstad - #75959

January 14th 2013

Thanks for your response Cal.  Always good to ‘hear’ from you!  :-)  Shalom, John

aliya wilson - #79164

April 26th 2013


Brilliant article! It’s so refreshing to see there still exist some real blogs today which are actually worth reading.

Ruan Dao - #77667

March 20th 2013

Your picture and the question above it is diffcult for to answer. this is very nice one and gives in depth information. thanks for this nice article. ffxi gil | Archeage Gold

fahad ahmad - #79795

May 10th 2013

This article has a lot of unique and quality information. I found this to be not only well written, but engrossing and intelligent. The writer’s views are appealing and interesting. This couldn’t be written better. boost your bust

Fahad Blogspot - #79798

May 10th 2013

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading  Cna training

Fahad Ahmad - #79800

May 10th 2013

I am sure this post has helped me save many hours of browsing other similar posts just to find what I was looking for. giveaway

Rock Chill - #79979

May 13th 2013

I love your site, you give so many great tips especially since I use word press and the plug-in section of your blog is great. some of the tips i get here I can’t find anywhere else. how to get free ultimate game cards

Rider Merry - #80030

May 13th 2013

I really appreciate your work, you have been a great contributor and always share news that I can’t find on other resources. new study hall

Fahad Ahmad - #80043

May 14th 2013

You can comment on the contest on the blog. You might syndicate it’s brilliant. Your blog testimonials might thicken your cross links. amazing miracle commision

Alix Mix - #80125

May 15th 2013

Nice to read your article! I am looking forward to sharing your adventures and experiences. buy nootropics

Mike Bresnun - #80126

May 15th 2013

This is highly informatics, crisp and clear. I think that everything has been described in systematic manner so that reader could ps3 emulator

<a href=“http://www.playstation3emulator.org/” rel=“dofollow”>ps3 emulator</a>
Madeeha Hina - #80146

May 15th 2013

It should be acclaimed that vce microsoft does not betoken that God does not accept acumen of approaching events. Christians care not to be exam collection microsoft afflictive with the abstraction of God interacting with his conception through chance. We generally call a seemingly-random http://www.exam-collections.com/vendor-Microsoft.html

Page 1 of 1   1