Harmonizing Science, Ethics, and Praxis: Part 1

| By Calvin DeWitt

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.


About the Author

Calvin DeWitt

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.


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