E.O. Wilson: from ants to biodiversity and creation care

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E.O.Wilson, 2003

Out of high respect to this great biologist, who died yesterday at the age of 92, I am breaking the rule to only document Christian scientists here on my blog. Yes, Wilson was not a Christian believer: we cannot say he never was because he was raised a Southern Baptist, but he said of himself that he could not see or feel any transcendence.

His specific field was myrmecology, the study of ants. My admiration comes from this angle: I did my PhD on honey bees and my latest article was on Erich Wasmann, another myrmecologist whose memory Wilson (and his co-writer Bert Hölldobler) kept carefully.

Wilson deeply delved into evolutionary biology, and was sometimes called the ‘Darwin of the 20th century’. His view was rather gene-centered, and also in his views on sociobiology, he followed the view that nature – rather than nurture – determines human behavior. In my notes, I keep the following words of Wilson:

“Human behavior – like the deepest capacities for emotional response which derive and guide it – is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function”

E.O.Wilson, On Human Nature, 1978

I am not following Wilson in his views. My notes continue with my own reflection: “If moral norms were the sole product of genetic determinism or cultural evolution, there would be no universally valid and timeless ethical principles.” But there are universally valid principles, as beautifully expressed here:

“Above himself and yet in the intimacy of his own conscience, man discovers the existence of a law which the tradition calls the “natural law.” This law is of divine origin, and man’s awareness of it is itself a participation in the divine law. It refers man to the true origins of the universe as well as to his own (Veritatis Splendor, 20). This natural law drives the rational creature to search for the truth and the good in his sovereignty of the universe. Created in the image of God, man exercises this sovereignty over visible creation only in virtue of the privilege conferred upon him by God. He imitates the divine rule, but he cannot displace it.”

Vatican Theological Commision, Communion and Stewardship, 60, 2004

Wilson was also an advocate of maintaining biodiversity and encouraging humankind to be “stewards, not conquerors” of the earth. And here comes another interface with religion: Wison did understand the power of religion and in his book on the Creation he addressed an imaginary Southern Baptist minister:

“Pastor, we need your help. The Creation is the glory of the earth. Let’s see if we can’t get together on saving it, because science and religion are the most powerful social forces on Earth. We could do it.”

E.O.Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to save life on earth (2006)

In the section “Religion and Ethics”, PBS explores this in the following interview:

A giant among scientists. Requiescat in pace! May he rest in peace!

A Cardinal praising Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmology

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On 1 November 1536, Schönberg wrote a Letter to Copernicus from Rome, which Copernicus made famous by including it in the preface of his book “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium”:

Nicholas Schönberg, Cardinal of Capua,

to Nicolaus Copernicus, Greetings.

Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you, and also to congratulate our contemporaries among whom you enjoyed such great prestige. For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe; that the eighth heaven remain perpetually motionless and fixed; and that, together with the elements included in its sphere, the moon, situated between the heavens of Mars and Venus, revolves around the sun in the period of a year. I have also learned that you have written an exposition of this whole system of astronomy, and have computed the planetary motions and set them down in tables, to the greatest admiration of all. Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject. Moreover, I have instructed Theodoric of Reden to have everything copied in your quarters at my expense and dispatched to me. If you gratify my desire in this matter, you will see that you are dealing with a man who is zealous for your reputation and eager to do justice to so fine a talent. Farewell.

Rome, 1 November 1536

Source: wikipedia

Catholic female scientists through the centuries

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The following blog post comes from a presentation I gave recently for some wonderful women across Europe in a monthly zoom meeting, called “Catholic Women in STEM”*. For some of the women presented here, you will find more information in previous blog posts – just follow the links.

Monasteries and Female Excellence in Science

First, let us go back in history for nearly 1.000 years.

Medieval monasteries allowed women to develop their talents, being free from the hardship that wives and mothers experienced at that time. And these women made their contributions in science, in art and in society. We start with contributions to science:

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.

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Asa Gray and Charles Darwin: lessons learned

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The American botanist Asa Gray and Charles Darwin were friends. Gray introduced Darwin’s Origin of Species to the American readership together with the message that evolution and the Christian faith were not at odds with each other.

In the article Asa Gray: Defending Darwin, Emma Hattersley, a student of Physics and Astrophysics who loves investigating the intersection between science and philosophy, provides a great summary on the lessons we can learn from Asa Gray and Charles Darwin today:

“Firstly, these letters make it clear that Darwin did not view discussing the religious implications of his work as unnecessary or unintellectual. His interest in understanding the world meant that, although not a Christian, he recognised that discussing the concept of God was vital. This can encourage us to have deeper conversations with non-Christian scientists. All scientific theories describe God’s world, under God’s governance, so can therefore be explored through a Christian lens.

Secondly, it’s worth noting that Darwin’s issues with Christianity were not primarily scientific. How often do we limit evangelistic conversations with our fellow scientists to simply explaining why science doesn’t disprove God? Although this issue, and other logical academic problems are important to discuss, many scientists are far more emotional than we give them credit for. Just as Darwin questioned God’s goodness after the death of his daughter, many scientists may hide deep pain and longing behind philosophical masks. Listening and counselling like Gray may, unlike with Darwin, help us to lead scientists to God.

“Thirdly, Gray shows how Christians who believe in evolution do not need to fear that they have watered down their faith or their scientific credibility. It is incredible to me that it was a man of God who Darwin felt understood his work best. Gray also never made the mistake of limiting God’s creative power through evolution’s mechanism. Although I don’t in fact agree with every single one of Gray’s opinions on the combination of evolution and theology, I agree with his basic philosophy; the choice of one or the other is unnecessary.”

Frans Alfons Janssens: The Catholic priest who discovered chromosomal cross-over

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Frans A. Janssens, Catholic priest and biologist

Frans Alfons Janssens (Sint-Niklaas 23 July 1865 – Wichelen, 8 October 1924) was Catholic priest and the discoverer of crossing-over of genes during meiosis, which he called ‘chiasmatypie’. His work was continued by the Nobel Prize winner Thomas Hunt Morgan to develop the theory of genetic linkage.

Janssens was ordained Catholic priest on 18 September 1886. Shortly afterwards he was sent to the Catholic University of Louvain to study Biology. In 1890 Janssens got his Doctoral degree in Natural Science. In 1891 he was awarded a scholarship for his thesis and was thus able to visit several laboratories of marine zoology abroad (Banyuls, Arachon, Den Helder, Naples and Roscoff). Also in 1891 he became a teacher in Math’s and Natural Science at the St. Lieven institute in Gent. Then he was sent by his bishop to the brewery school in Munich and the famous brewery institute, Carlsberg, in Copenhagen, with a view to founding a brewery school in Gent. Well educated, Janssens returned to Belgium, where he was a co-founder of the brewery school of the St. Lieven institute in Gent. In 1893 Janssens taught bacteriology there. Meanwhile he continued his scientific research in cytology.

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From 31 to 40: Christian women scientists

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“Remember that you are not scientist or Christian, you are Christian scientists. Integrate faith and reason!” – this is paraphrasing from the homily given yesterday at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Catholic Scientists. And all women portrayed here are just this: Christian scientists, some from the Catholic faith tradition, some were Protestant and some were Orthodox. With this blog post, we bring the number of women scientists portrayed on our blog to forty – and counting! The previous installments are here and here. This time, we cover women from two centuries, five from the United States, two from Scotland, and one each from Russia, Ukraine, and France.

Katherine Mary Clerk Maxwell (née Dewar) (1824 – 1886), was a Scottish physical scientist best known for her observations which supported and contributed to the discoveries of her husband, James Clerk Maxwell. Most notable is her involvement with his experiments on color vision and viscosity of gases.

Marcella O’Grady Boveri (1863-1950) was the first woman graduate in biology from MIT (1885). From 1889 to 1896 she headed the Department of Biology at Vassar College for women in Poughkeepsie, New York. She then went to Würzburg to spend a sabbatical with Theodor Boveri. One year later she married Boveri at the Convent of the Good Shepherd in Troy, and during the next 18 years until Boveri’s untimely death in 1915 she was her husband’s close scientific collaborator. She worked with skill and interest, but without formal recognition, on her husband’s work to understand heredity and development as going beyond the localization of the Mendelian hereditary factors onto the chromosomes. They investigated the interaction of cytoplasm and chromosomes, and demonstrated its relevance in heredity and development. In 1926, she returned to the States and taught biology in the established Albertus Magnus College. She was a stimulating and influential teacher, a mentor, and a role model.

Lucy Agnes Carter (b 1875) was one of the first students enroled at Notre Dame Training College, which opened in Glasgow in 1895 as a teacher training institution for Roman Catholics. She became Sister Bernardine of Jesus and a member of the teaching staff at Notre Dame Training College. In 1921 Sister Bernardine became the first woman (and only the second person) to be awarded a PhD by the University, for a thesis entitled “The somatic mitosis of stegomyia fasciata”. (Stegomyia fasciata is the old name for the yellow fever mosquito Aedes aegypti).

Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890 –1980) was the first Afro-American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1943. Her Catholic faith was an inspiration for her commitment in education and leadership. She advocated constantly for equal opportunity for the poor and the abolishing of segregation.

Natasha Sivertzeva Dobzhansky (1901 – 1994) was a biologist by training. She married Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1924 in the cave church of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra. Both worked in Kiev and in St. Petersburg on Drosophila melanogaster. The couple moved to the United States in 1927. Only recently, her scientific contribution came to light.

Celine Fasenmyer (1906 – 1996) was a Catholic nun and a mathematician, most noted for her work on hypergeometric functions and linear algebra. After getting her Ph.D., Sister Celine published two papers which expanded on her doctorate work, and returned to Mercyhurst to teach and did not engage in further research. The beauty of her method is that it lends itself readily to computer automation. The hypergeometric polynomials she studied are called Sister Celine’s polynomials.

Virginia Apgar (1909 – 1974) was an American physician, obstetrical anesthesiologist and medical researcher, best known as the inventor of the Apgar Score, a way to quickly assess the health of a newborn child immediately after birth in order to combat infant mortality. She was the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Unbeknown to many of her medical friends she was deeply religious. Her favorite hymn was -“Take My Life and Let It Be, Consecrated Lord to Thee.”

Marguerite Perey (1909-1975) was a French chemist who identified francium, element 87, the last naturally occurring element to be discovered (07 Jan 1939). She joined the Institut du Radium in 1929 as a technician to be the personal assistant of Marie Curie. Perey focussed on actinium for many years because it was considered a possible source of francium by alpha decay. Unlike Marie Curie, her first employer, Marguerite Perey kept her faith in God and His providence.

Olga Aleksandrovna Ladyzhenskaya (1922-2004) was a Russian mathematician. She was known for her work on partial differential equations and fluid dynamics. She provided the first rigorous proofs of the convergence of a finite difference method for the Navier–Stokes equations. She was a charitable and profoundly religious person.

Mildred Fay Jefferson (1927-2010) was the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1951. Jefferson was known as a notable surgeon, speaker, and a pro-life advocate. Dr. Jefferson had a career-long interest in medical ethics, medical jurisprudence, and the connection between medicine and law, including their impact on society and public policy. In total, 28 American universities and colleges have awarded Dr. Jefferson with honorary degrees in recognition of her efforts in the field of medicine and her pursuit of social justice.

Ladislaus Batthyany-Strattmann, the “doctor of the poor”

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I currently spend four weeks here in Kittsee, a small village where Austria, Slovakia and Hungary meet. There is not much to be seen: fruit trees, fields and wind turbines. And there is a castle with a small and nice park. And this village was home to a saint: Ladislaus (Laszlo) Batthyany-Strattmann, also called “doctor of the poor”.

He was born into one of the oldest Hungarian aristocratic families. In his youth, he experienced much suffering: his parents got divorced, his father remarried, his mother and some of his brothers and sisters died early. Already in high school, he developed a deep piety to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Nonetheless, he was a rebellious student, he even was thrown out of school and made his final examinations in another city.

His father wanted him to study something useful for maintaining the large family estates. He started agriculture in Vienna but was also drawn towards physics and astronomy. Seeing his father’s long suffering with cancer, he returned to his original wish to become a physician. In 1898, he married Countess Maria Theresia (Misl) Coreth, a deeply religious person who would become the mother of thirteen children and a loyal helper in Battyany’s hospitals. In 1900, Battyany received his degree in medicine. In 1902, he built a hospital at first for  some 30-40 beds, but during World War I  the capacity was enlarged to over 100 beds. Battyany’s main interest was surgery and ophthalmology. He became well known for his surgery on cataracts; he remained always at the top of the state-of-the-art and scientific progress in his discipline. He was elected in 1915 as a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

He was famous for treating and caring of the poor, sometimes even supporting their travel to the hospital financially. He was convinced that in exercising his profession, he was an instrument in God’s hands. Each morning he would ask God for blessing his patients and his work. When his patients left the hospital, he gave them a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the following inscription: “You came to us to find health for your body. Do not forget your soul, so precious that Christ died for it on the Cross.”

In 1919, in the peace of Trianon, the region of Burgenland was allocated to Austria. Therefore, Battyany transferred the hospital in Kittsee to the regional government and moved permanently to Körmend where he built another hospital. In 1929, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and 14 months of severe suffering followed. He wrote to his daughter Lilli: “I do not know how long the good Lord will make me suffer. He has given me so much joy in my life and now, at the age of 60, I must also accept the difficult moments with gratitude”. He died on 22 January 1931. The day before his death he asked his family: “Take me to the balcony so that I can shout to the whole world that God is good!”

He was faithful, loyal and full of charity, in concordance with the motto of his family – “fidelitate et caritate”, “loyalty and charity”.

Picture: battyany.at

John Polkinghorne (1930-2021)

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John Polkinghorne, 1930 – 2021

John Charlton Polkinghorne, rest in peace. I learned a few days ago that he passed away on 09 March 2021. He was an amazing voice in the dialogue between science and faith. He was an English theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest. A prominent and leading voice explaining the relationship between science and religion, he was Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge from 1968 to 1979, when he resigned his chair to study for the priesthood, becoming an ordained Anglican priest in 1982. He served as the president of Queens’ College, Cambridge, from 1988 until 1996.

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Annie Darwin: “We have lost the joy of the Household”

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Annie Darwin (1841 – 1851)

Anne Elizabeth “Annie” Darwin was born on 02 March 1841. She was the second child and eldest daughter of Charles and Emma Darwin, and died at the age of 10, after several months of severe illness. Her premature death was a severe blow to her father. As Nick Spencer explains, Annie’s suffering made it more difficult for Charles Darwin to maintain his faith in a benevolent God and brought him further away from being a Theist towards being an Agnostic.

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Lent, Dust and DNA

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Dandelion, © Isabelle Le Dren

Today many of us start Lent, this special time of grace and preparation to celebrate the redemptive suffering and the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we are reminded that:

“You are dust and to dust you shall return”

Genesis 3:19

We are mortal beings, created by God out of the dust of the earth, from the materials of the universe around us – carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen …. : we are made of stardust! And to these physical elements our bodies will return. 

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