Louis Agassiz: Scientific Interpreters of a Divine Conception


louis aggasizOn 14 December 1873, Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) passed away at Cambridge, MA. He was a Swiss-American biologist known for his writings on taxonomy and geological history.

After studying at Paris under Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), he emigrated to the United States in 1847 and became director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. His studies of ichthyological fossils (fish) brought him into connection with debates about Darwinian evolution, about which Agassiz expressed various reservations due to its possible polygenetic implications. These issues, he publicly debated with his colleague Asa Gray (1810–1888) at Harvard in the 1860s.

Earlier in his career, Agassiz had undertaken studies of glaciers, regarding the geological damage caused by glacial movements, working in collaboration with William Buckland (1784–1856). In the 1870s, Agassiz accompanied the United States Coastal Survey to Brazil on board the ship Hassler where he reported various findings on South American fish species, a scientific excursion which drew a commendation from Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

An excerpt from the introduction of Agassiz’s “Essay on Classification” (1857) reveals some of the theological considerations which animated his writings in the years prior to the publication of Origin of Species (1859):

“The divisions of animals according to branch, class, order, family, genus, and species… Are these divisions artificial or natural? Are they the devices of the human mind to classify and arrange our knowledge in such a manner as to bring it more readily without our grasp and facilitate further investigations, or have they been instituted by the Divine Intelligence as the categories of his mode of thinking? Have we, perhaps, thus far been only the unconscious interpreters of a Divine conception, in our attempts to expound nature? and when, in our pride of philosophy, we thought that we were inventing systems of science and classifying creation by the force of our own reason, have we followed only, and reproduced, in our imperfect expressions, the plan whose foundations were laid in the dawn of creation…?

Continue reading


Theodor Schwann: Schools of Teleology


theodor schwann

On 7 December 1810, Theodor Schwann (1810–1882) was born in Neuss, Germany.

He was a physician and physiologist known for his research on cell theory, enzymes and metabolism. His original discoveries included the Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system and the digestive enzymes pepsin and yeast. Educated at the Jesuit college of Cologne, he became friends the Fr. Wilhelm Smets, a priest and novelist, whose writings emphasized the individuality of the human soul and the importance of free will. While much of Schwann’s writings were left unpublished during his career, his work’s value was recognized years later by Louis Pasteur (1822–1895).

“The principle result of my investigation is that a uniform developmental principle controls the individual elementary units of all organisms, analogous to the finding that crystals are formed by the same laws in spite of the diversity of their forms.”

Late in his career, Schwann began to explore some of the theological aspects of his work in biology. The book Thinking About Matter: Studies in the History of Chemical Philosophy (1995) describes some of the theological aspects of his research as follows:

The 19th-century cell-theorist Theodor Schwann resorted to a similar argument in his exclusion of vital forces. Schwann’s target was a vital force that allegedly formed the organism in the same way as an architect might construct a building according to a plan. But is the vital force conscious of the plan? Schwann suggested that the idea only made sense if it is. How can a simple force change its action in order to realize an idea, unless it does have the characteristics of an intelligent being? At that point in his argument, Schwann had recourse to theological considerations. He wrote that he had always preferred to seek in the Creator rather than in the created the cause of the finality to which the whole of nature bore witness. He even drew a parallel between the vital force and the horror vacui of the scholastic philosophers, which for Robert Boyle had epitomized a vulgar theological error. If this argument did real work for Schwann, then we should perhaps be cautious before driving too complete a wedge between German and British styles of teleology… It should now be clear that there has been no simple correlation between vitalism and natural theology. It would be more accurate to say that where theological arguments have intruded into debates about the nature of living processes, the divisions have reflected divisions within natural theology itself.”

“Theodor Schwann.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Brooke, John Hedley. Thinking about Matter: Studies in the History of Chemical Philosophy. (Aldershot, UK: Variorum and Ashgate Press, 1995), 93.
Image: Cloudinary-dot-com

George Porter: Faith requires Further Knowledge and Understanding


george porter

On 6 December 1920, George Porter (1920–2002) was born in Stainforth, UK. After serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War, he began graduate school at Cambridge University, graduating in 1949, studying under supervisor Ronald Norrish (1897–1978), with whom Porter would later share the 1967 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Manfred Eigen (b.1927)  “for their studies of extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very short pulses of energy.”

From Photobiology.info: “Photobiologists use a number of spectroscopic techniques to understand how photobiological processes occur… Aborbance changes, from milliseconds to nanoseconds, following excitation with a nanosecond pulsed laser can monitored using a CW light source such as a Xe arc lamp… The polychromatic beam is passed through a spectrograph, either to select the wavelength at which the reaction kinetics are monitored or to measure transient spectra as a function of time.”

This excerpt from an article written by Prof. Porter had included a reflection on faith and contemporary scientific understanding:

“The discoveries of Copernicus, Darwin, and the molecular biologists have irrevocably changed our beliefs about our place in the world… If, then, we have changed our traditional faiths through increased knowledge of ourselves and our universe, is it not possible that our way to a new faith, a new purpose for life, is through further knowledge and understanding of nature? This is the true relevance of science… There is, then, one great purpose for man and for us today, and that is to try to discover man’s purpose by every means in our power. That is the ultimate relevance of science, and not only of science but of every branch of learning which can improve our understanding. In the words of Tolstoy, ‘The highest wisdom has but one science, the science of the whole, the science explaining the Creation and man’s place in it’.”

His 1976 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture was entitled “The Natural History of a Sunbeam,” with the episode segments: Pt.1. “First Light”; Pt.2. “Light and Life”; Pt.3, “Leaf From Nature”; Pt.4. “Candles From the Sun”; Pt.5. “Making Light Work”; Pt.6. “Survival Under the Sun.”

Nonell, Santi & Cristiano Viappiani. “Basic Spectroscopy.” Photobiological Sciences.
Porter, George. “The Relevance of Science.” Engineering and Science 38.2 (1974): 22-23.
“Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.” The Classic TV Archive.
Image: © Royal Society Publishing.

Lewis Thomas: An Epiphany out of Entropy


lewis thomas

On 3 December 1993, Lewis Thomas (1913–1993) died in New York, NY. He was an American physician who served as the Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine, and who was known for his regular essays published in the New England Journal of Medicine. His books included: “The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher” (1974), “The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher” (1979), “Late Night Thoughts on Listening” (1983), “The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher” (1983), “Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher” (1990) and “The Fragile Species” (1992).

Among the topics explored by Dr. Thomas in his writings was the role that arts, poems and myths play in forming society’s understanding of science. The following selection from the book A Long Line of Cells: Collected Essays (1990) is one example:

It is a general belief that we need our diseasesthat they are natural parts of the human condition. It goes against nature to tamper and manipulate them out of existence, as I propose. ‘Then what? What on earth will we die of?’ Are we to go on forever, disease-free, with nothing to occupy our minds but the passage of time? What are the biologists doing to us? How can you finish life honorably, and die honestly, without a disease? This last is a very hard question, and therefore just the sort of question you should look around for a poem to answer, and there is one. It is ‘The Deacon’s Masterpiece’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)… Inside the verse, giving it the staying power to hold to our minds for over a full century, is a myth about human death. Moreover, it is a myth for the modern mind.

“[T]he nineteenth-century view of disease…assumes that there is always, somewhere, a weakest part, as though foreordained. Without fundamental, localized flaws in the system, it might simply age away. As it is, it is doomed to break down prematurely, unless you can figure out how to find and fix the flawed item. Dr. Holmes, in the science of his day, saw little likelihood of this, but he did see, in his imagination, the possibility of sustained perfection. The Deacon is his central, Olympian Creator, symbolizing Nature, incapable of fumbling. What he designs is the perfect organism… Then, the successive acts of creation… For a full, unblemished hundred years of undiseased life, each perfect part supported by all the rest…

Continue reading

Jędrzej Śniadecki: Deism vs. Theism Debated Among the Scientists


Jędrzej_ŚniadeckiOn 30 November 1768, Jędrzej Śniadecki (1768–1838) was born at Żnin, Polish-Lithuania.

He was a physician, chemist and biologist, who is today remembered for the development of modern Polish terminology in the field of chemistry through his publication ‘Początki chemii’ (‘The Beginnings of Chemistry’). His older brother was Jan Śniadecki (1756–1830), author of a text on the history of mathematics and probability theory from antiquity.

Educated at the Szkole Głównej Koronnej, earning his medical degree in 1791, Śniadecki completed post-graduate research for a year at the University of Padua in chemistry and physiology. Returning to Poland, he became professor of chemistry and medicine at the Main School of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Imperial Vilnius University), and from 1806-1836 he was the president of the Warsaw Medical Science Society. An early text by Śniadecki, “Teorya Jestestw Organicznych”/ “Theory of the Organic Issue” (1804), had outlined a theory of biological metabolism as the defining feature of living organic matter. Around this time, he successfully treated the disease rickets (vitamin D deficiency) using increased exposure to sunlight (which increases endogenous production of vitamin D). Several years later, he published a dissertation “Rozprawa o nowym metalu w surowej platynie odkrytym” / “The New Metal in a Raw Platinum Discovered” (1808), in which he announced the discovery of an element named Vestium, later recognized in 1844 to be the element with the atomic number 44, i.e. Ruthenium, identified by chemist Karl Claus (1796–1864).

In regard to his religious views, Śniadecki is recognized as having been been a deist. Historians have noted the following on the theological debates at Polish universities in 18th-19th centuries:

“[T]he period, for the most part, was marked by bitter and superficial polemics between the defenders of traditional religious concepts and the pioneers of a new science and a new philosophy. In these polemics, however, there appeared, slowly and not always consciously, a series of views regarding the world and life, which was characteristic of the Polish Enlightenment. They expressed the view that all reality, natural and social, is bound by uniform laws, that these laws might be learned by men. Due to the knowledge of these laws, rational and useful activity becomes possible, which in turn leads to social progress and happiness of mankind.

Continue reading

Choh Hao Li: Faith and Fate in Research


choh hao li 2b
On 28 November 1987, Choh Hao Li (1913–1987) died. After studying at Nanjing University, he carried out postgraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley and then later joined the faculty of Academia Sinica in Tapei, China.

He was a biochemist known for discoveries including the isolation and determination of the amino acid sequence of human pituitary growth hormone (somatotropin), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH).

In a 1979 article “Afterthoughts: Faith and Fate in Research” published in Research Management, Prof. Li wrote on some of the differences (and also complementary aspects) of faith and fate: “Faith and fate form a continuing dialectic in each person’s life… Faith enhances possibility, enlarges one’s horizons, and helps one to face the most difficult problems… Fate, on the other hand, is a privilege which makes one individual (or group) luckier than the next.”

choh hao li 3a

The article concludes with a quote from German physicist Max Planck (1858–1947):

choh hao li 4a

“Choh Hao Li.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Li, Choh Hao. “Afterthoughts: Faith and Fate in Research.” Research Management 22.6 (1979): 42-42.  Image: NIH-National Library of Medicine.

Athanasius Kircher: Jesuit in Perpetual Motion



On 27 November 1680, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) died in Rome.

He is remembered for his writings on Egyptology, geology, biology, magnetics and combinatorial mathematics. An archaeologist and phenomenal linguist, he was an avid collector of scientific experiments and geographical exploration.

He probed the secrets of the subterranean world, deciphered archaic languages, experimented with alchemy and music therapy, optics and magnetism. Some commentators regard him as the founder of Egyptology. He is known to have read the work of Ibn Wahshiyya, who had proposed the link between ancient and Coptic Egyptian centuries earlier. Kircher was also fascinated with Sinology and wrote an encyclopedia of China, in which he noted the early presence there of Nestorian Christians.

A recent reference to Fr. Kircher at the 2010 Geological Society of America meeting noted his efforts toward an early theory of evolution:

“Kircher’s evidence for an evolving Earth were drawn from observation, collection, experimentation, and received testimony of others… Kircher argued that the Earth in ancient times was of a wholly different character from today… He states that nothing is perpetual, but all things are fleeting and subject to the fates of fortune. He substantiates his claim of an evolving Earth by citing (1) global sea level changes, (2) rising and falling of mountains, and (3) occurrence of fossils… Kircher maintained that the ultimate natural forces behind these changes are a perpetual heat engine within the Earth and the external opposing forces of the Sun and Moon.

Continue reading