As a science-minded kid in the '60s, I loved to read stories about the march of science against the unholy trinity of ignorance, superstition and dogma. Dogma was the worst, and so the early 17th-century drama of Galileo's persecution by the Roman Catholic Church for his heretical belief that the earth revolved around the sun particularly captured my imagination. Galileo was a martyr for scientific truth against religious dogma. In my pantheon of heroes, that put him right at the top.
After I grew up and became a scientist, Galileo's story stayed in my mind as the emblem of a long-standing conflict between religion and science. And I knew the struggle wasn't over. Here, in modern-day America, my own field of geology has been under constant attack by an increasingly vocal creationist movement. So imagine my surprise when I was researching a book on the history of geology and encountered the story of Danish geologist Nicolaus Steno. Just decades after Galileo, Steno sparked a major revolution in scientific thought, one that still reverberates in today's creationism/evolution controversies. His example demolishes the simplistic notion of an inherent hostility between science and the church.
Steno was primarily an anatomist, but he is best remembered for his pioneering studies in geology. In 1669 he published in Florence -- Galileo's old stomping grounds -- a startling proposal: that the fossils and rock layers of the earth, if studied scientifically, gave a chronicle of the earth's history at least as valid as the accepted version in the verses of Genesis. Memories of Galileo's transgression were still painfully fresh, and, if anything, Steno's ideas would seem to have been more provocative than Galileo's. How did the 17th-century Church react? Was Steno condemned? His work suppressed?
Not at all. There wasn't a peep of official complaint. Steno wasn't criticized, much less condemned. In fact, he was put on a fast track to priesthood and then a bishopric. To top it off, in 1988 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. A treatment less like Galileo's is hard to imagine.