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Prince sparks worthwhile debate

British royal family members are supposed to open shopping centers, lend their profiles to postage stamps and provide fodder for tabloid newspapers _ not necessarily in that order. The British royal family, officially "above politics," is not supposed to ignite a serious national debate on humanity's relationship to the natural world.

But that is precisely what the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, has done. In a nationally broadcast BBC Reith Lecture, the prince attacks "scientific fundamentalism" and the worship of rationality over "a sense of the sacred." He calls for a new integration of science and reverence for nature, deploring developments such as genetically modified food and mechanistic approaches to life that deny spirituality. The prince wants us to find God, hug a tree and stop confusing scientific knowledge with ultimate truth.

Prince Charles, an organic farmer and environmentalist, has been honing these ideas for years. He has clashed with Tony Blair's Labor government on the wisdom of allowing genetically modified crops to be grown where they could be cross-pollinated with others, and called for a reduction in pesticide use. But never before has he taken his platform _ described by one pundit as a mixture of Wordsworthian English Romanticism and Greenpeace politics _ to the nation so directly.

Environmental campaigners, religious groups from Anglicans (which, when he becomes king, he will head) to Hindus, and even a few scientists, have applauded the prince. Many other scientists, including the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and the hard-shell Darwinian Richard Dawkins, are having a collective hissy fit, calling the prince an aging hippy, an anti-rationalist, a "woolly thinker," even a pagan.

Dawkins pronounced scientific rationalism the pinnacle of our achievement, "the crowning glory of the human spirit." A geneticist accused Prince Charles of wanting to get rid of penicillin, pasteurization, air conditioning and everything else that makes modern life better _ and longer _ than in the days when we all died at 30.

Even several days after the prince's lecture, the news, the letters pages, the pubs and the dinner parties are full of furious discussion: Whatever else he has done, the prince has sparked a national forum on the relative positions of God and science in the 21st century.

This is in itself extraordinary. How many rich, Western, secular nations take any time to think about their relation to the universe? No matter which side of the prince's admittedly somewhat rambling argument you come down on, it's a debate worth having. Is the natural world there for us to exploit or should we try to live in harmony with it? Is God to be found in nature or only in the fraction of a second that was the Big Bang, the birth of the cosmos?

We made the atomic bomb because we could, even though scientists like Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein expressed severe moral reservations about it. We are now _ or we should be _ debating the ethics of patenting DNA, cloning and genetic manipulation. Surely there is some room in the discourse for the soul.