National Catholic Register

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Pontifical Science Academy Banks on Stellar Cast

BY Gabriel Meyer

Dec. 1-7, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/1/96 at 2:00 PM

 

THE MEDIA FRENZY that greeted Pope John Paul II's recent statement acknowledging that evolutionary “theories” help account for the biological origins of life has drawn attention to the group of experts that advise him on scientific matters—the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

What's more, the Pope appointed four U.S. scientists, including three Nobel prize winners, to the 60-year-old academy during its biannual plenary session last October.

The academy's new members include Paul Berg, a biochemist involved in DNA research; Joshua Lederberg, a professor of molecular genetics; Joseph Murray, a pioneer in organ transplants; and Vera Rubin, an expert on the movement of galaxies.

These distinguished experts— most of whom have had long track records advising Church bodies on science—join the 70-member academy, commonly viewed as the most influential of Rome's 10 pontifical academies, which directly advise the Pontiff on matters ranging from the arts to archaeology.

Housed in the Vatican gardens and linked to the Vatican Observatory project in Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence, the academy traces its origins to the Academia Linceorum (from its emblem, a lynx), founded in 1603 to keep the Pope up to date on the latest scientific research. The modern academy, dating from 1936, chooses its members from among the world's most accomplished mathematicians and experimental scientists. Its purpose: To honor pure science, promote its freedom everywhere and to foster research.

If the four new U.S. members of the academy are any indication, diversity appears to be the academy's hallmark. Of the four, only one is Catholic. But what they do have in common is that all work in scientific fields that are on the “cutting edge” of today's interface between faith and science: DNA research, artificial intelligence, organ and cell transplants, life on other planets, the evolution of the universe.

Dr. Paul Berg, a 70-year-old biochemist at Stanford University, won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1980 for his fundamental studies of nucleic acids, the building blocks of life. A member of the U.S. Academy of Science and the American Society of Biological Chemistry, he was chairman of the Department at Biochemistry at Stanford Medical School in the early 1970s, and, before that, a professor of microbiology and a scholar in cancer research at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Berg, who was unable to go to Rome due to health reasons, told the Register that he'd not had prior dealings with the academy, and does not consider himself religious. Nevertheless, he was “pleased and honored to be a member of such an old and revered society [that] addresses fundamental issues in biology and their impact on Church teaching and on human affairs.”

The biochemist traced his involvement with the issue of faith and science to presentations he'd given to Catholic bishops in the early 1990s at the invitation of San Jose Bishop Pierre DuMaine—a longtime advocate of dialogue between religious leaders and scientists. The topic then was evolution. “I was very impressed with how open-minded the bishops were,” Berg said. “I had an expectation that we would be doing battle over evolution. But I was astonished to hear a leading bishop support the &lspuo;big bang’ theory of the origin of the universe.”

Hence, Berg was not surprised at Pope John Paul II's recent statement on evolution. “The statement was enlightened,” Berg said, “and acknowledged what most scientists believe to their core”: namely, that man did not simply appear out of nowhere, but evolved from simpler life forms.

For Berg, the question is whether “totally random events”—the effects of weather, environment and genetic makeup on the development of species—or “whether there's a guiding hand behind the process, an influence that predetermines the path development will take.”

The Pope's evolution statement differentiated between materialistic accounts of evolution, which ruled out divine involvement, and “spiritual theories” of evolution which, while allowing for biological processes, point to God as their author. The papal statement does not endorse evolution as part of official Catholic teaching, but acknowledge its plausibility on the basis of scientific evidence.

“Pure evolution,” said Berg, “[operates on the basis of] random mutations, each one contributing to the ultimate selective advantages.” Berg noted that, for many evolution-ists, “it is the ambient condition—not some indefinable factor—which determines whether particular species will disappear or predominate.”

Asked about the question of “evolutionary leaps,” an issue the Pope raised in his statement, Berg said that people had raised that argument before. “How can certain developments emerge in a stepwise way if there's no guiding hand? It you look at the whole picture, there are versions of organisms that are inefficient, these fall away, and we do move finally in a kind a stepwise process,” the biochemist said.

Nevertheless, the scientist said that the Pope's vision of a growing cooperation between science and religion is significant and important. “Scientists are positive about it,” Berg said. “Obviously, the Church could have gone another way.”

Dr. Vera Rubin, 68, another new appointee to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, probes that “enormity” professionally. A staff member of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Washington, D.C., she has devoted her career to the study of the motion of stars and galaxies, focusing more recently on movement within galaxies that can offer clues to their history and evolution. “How stars move tell us that most matter in the universe is dark,” Dr. Rubin said in describing her work to the Register. “When we see stars in the sky, we're only seeing five or 10 percent of the matter that there is in the universe.”

Rubin, who is Jewish, got her Ph.D. from Georgetown, a Jesuit-run university in Washington, D.C., and has had a long association with Father George Coyne, head of the Vatican Observatory. In 1986 Rubin taught at the Vatican Observatory's first summer school for graduate students at Castel Gandolfo.

Of the three U.S. appointees interviewed by the Register, she was the only one able to attend the October symposium and be personally inducted into the academy. Dr. Joshua Lederberg, professor emeritus of molecular genetics and informatics at Rockefeller University and a Nobel Prize winner, who was also appointed to the academy, was unavailable for comment at press time.

&lspuo;DIRECT LINKS WITH POPE’

“I feel enormously honored to be appointed,” she said, adding that she especially appreciated the academy's “direct links with the Pope.” The academy's president and four councilors report directly to the Pontiff rather than through a Vatican dicastery. With John Paul still recovering from his recent surgery, the nine new members of the academy were welcomed by a Vatican official on the first morning of the symposium, Rubin said, and given the customary medal and the pontifical academy's chain of office.

Rubin's years of working with Vatican astronomers leads her to de-emphasize the split between science and religion. “I'm not a theologian,” she said, “and I must say honestly that Vatican astronomers&spos; views [on astronomy] are entirely in accord with ours. I'm not aware of any Church positions that contradict modern science.”

“In my own life,” said Rubin, “my science and my religion are separate. I'm Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history. I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe.”

Dr. Joseph Murray, 77, the only Catholic among the four recent appointees to the Academy, a Nobel prize-winning pioneer in organ and cell transplants, sees faith and science more closely intertwined. “Is the Church inimical to science? Growing up as a Catholic and a scientist—I don't see it,” Murray told the Register. “One truth is revealed truth, the other is scientific truth. If you really believe that creation is good, there can be no harm in studying science. The more we learn about creation—the way it emerged—it just adds to the glory of God. Personally. I've never seen a conflict.”

Murray, who is professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, was, like Berg, unable to attend the Rome gathering because of health problems. Long associated with the Vatican Ministry of Health, the surgeon had had few dealings with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences before his recent nomination.

Like most scientists, he welcomed the Pope's statement on evolution. “I know many of my non-Catholic friends welcomed it, some of the agnostic scientists, or atheists, repelled by what they understood as a basic Christian opposition to evolution, were pleased as punch that a person like the Pope would come out in favor of it,” he said. “I think the important thing to realize is how little we know about anything,” Murray related, “how flowers unfold, how butterflies migrate. We have to avoid the arrogance of persons on either side of the [science-religion] divide who feel that they have all the answers. We have to try to use our intellect with humility.”

Murray, who performed the first successful human kidney transplant in 1954 on identical twins, has long been sensitive to the ethical questions that continue to gather around use of organ and cell transplants in the treatment of human disease. “As far as the ethical dangers in organ donations—that was with us from the very beginning in early 50s,” Murray said. “One of the Nobel laureates wrote then that [transplants] might lead to a pernicious market in human organs. Well, it's happened, particularly in those from foreign countries.”

Middlemen can offer $10,000 for kidneys from live donors in poor third world villages, he said. “The buying and selling of organs is intrinsically evil. But my thesis has always been that religion won't stop [the traffic in organs], and the law won't. Only the medical profession itself is in a position to prevent it in the long run, particularly by careful monitoring of the sources [of organs for transplants].”

Murray believes that religious leaders and the medical profession can cooperate effectively in developing ethical solutions for complex medical and moral problems. “Take the 1960s debate on the medical definition of death in terms of brain function,” he said. “We had input from the Catholic Church, from the National Council of Churches, from rabbis on that one. We wanted to be sure that we in the medical world were thinking clearly about it.”

“There are a lot of moral problems that my Jesuit training has helped me with,” Murray added. “In my own conscience, I've never had a conflict between my religious upbringing and my science.

What Murray thinks is essential to the effectiveness of the dialogue between religion and science is humility. “There's no question that a lot of scientists are arrogant,” he said. “But sometimes theologians should keep their mouths shut, too. Bishops are sometimes too quick to give definitive pronouncements on scientific affairs.” Murray cited artificial insemination and the handling of frozen embryos as examples. “I'm a little disappointed that some Church leaders will come down hard on artificial insemination as if we scientists are playing God. We aren't. We're just working with the tools God gave us,” he said.

Said Murray, there's no reason that science and religion have to operate in an adversarial relationship. “Both come from same source, the only source of truth—the Creator.”

Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.