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Wednesday, 17 May, 2000, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Prince's potshot misses the target
prince surrounded by penguins
Prince Charles gets close to nature in the South Atlantic
By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby

Prince Charles's latest diatribe against genetically-modified food seeks to put scientists in their place.

In a contribution to the Reith Lectures, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday night, he decries humanity's "inability or refusal to accept the existence of a guiding hand."

And he warns his listeners against "treating our entire world as some 'great laboratory of life', with potentially disastrous long-term consequences."

The implication seems clear: science is a double-edged tool, but religion has the only answers that matter.

Perhaps that is unfair to the prince. He does speak of the need for "a balance between the heartfelt reason of instinctive wisdom and the rational insghts of scientific analysis."

Zealots challenged

But much of what he says makes it sound as if he believes that science and religion are implacably opposed.

There are both scientific and religious zealots who are convinced that they are right, and they alone.

young pig in field
A genetically-modified pig - an interference with nature
But a surprising number of people manage to keep a foot in both camps, and to retain their integrity while doing so.

You no longer have to be a flat-earther in order to call yourself a Christian, nor an atheist if you want to win respect in any number of scientific disciplines.

The edges are blurred, and if anything they are becoming less distinct, not more.

Dr Maureen Palmer taught physiology for 16 years at the university of London. Now she is an Anglican priest, sub-dean of Guildford cathedral in Surrey.

She belongs to the Society of Ordained Scientists, more than 80 clergy in the church of England and other churches, all of whom were working scientists before ordination.

Dr Palmer told BBC News Online she was bemused by Prince Charles' broadside.

"I worry about it because it seems to me just so simplistic. He appears to be totally unaware that we've been modifying plants and animals since the dawn of time.

Strange advice

"Some of what he says is good. We do need to rediscover a reverence for the natural world, seeing ourselves as part of it, not controlling it.

"That would be fine if we had all the population controls we needed, if life expectancy were still 30 years, and most children died in infancy.

cathedral statue by moonlight
Science and religion both seek answers
"But the real world is not like that. The prince seems so out of date. I don't know who he mixes with.

"And the gap between the Christian faith and science is nothing like as big as people think it is."

In championing the role of the unseen creator he invokes, and telling scientists they must not seek to change nature, the prince runs real risks.

Tilting at windmills

He may encourage the religious fundamentalists, the people convinced that the biblical account of creation is literally true and that Darwinism is a delusion.

He may antagonise the very many scientists who will find it hard to recognise themselves in his outburst.

And he will not make life any easier for the Maureen Palmers, the people who try to keep two disciplines informing and enriching each other.

For some people, Prince Charles is a hero, the man on the white charger who challenges the conventional wisdom.

The danger is that he will turn out to be a modern Don Quixote, riding out on his donkey to do battle with an enemy of his own imagining.

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