Pontifical Science Academy Banks on Stellar Cast
by Gabriel Meyer
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 (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
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 '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
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 evolutionists, "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 , 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
'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' views [on astronomy] are entirely in accord with
ours. I'm not aware of any Church positions that contradict modern
"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
"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
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.
Taken from the "National Catholic Register," December 1-7, 1996.
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