Science and Faith

Author: Professor Werner Arber

Science and Faith

Professor Werner Arber*

During the Eighth General Congregation held on Friday afternoon, 12 October [2012], Professor Werner Arber, President the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and professor of microbiology at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, gave the following report, entitled: "A Reflection on the relationship between sciences and faith". Cardinal Robles Ortega, Delegate-President on duty, introduced Prof Arber recalling that he won the Nobel Prize, with Hamilton Smith and Daniel Nathan for discovering restriction enzymes. Arber has been a member of the Council since 1981 and was appointed president in 2011.

Curiosity is a basic property of the human mind. On the one hand, it is the driving force for scientific investigations seeking the identification of natural laws. On the other hand, curiosity is also at the basis of the interest of every human being in order to understand the fundamental laws of nature as an essential contribution to our search for meaning and truth. Whereas the sciences are unable to find relevant answers to all the raised questions, especially the ones which transcend the natural sphere, various beliefs (including those rooted in religion) also have an important place in answering the question about meaning. They constitute essential parts of orientational knowledge that serves as a guiding base for human activities. In this context we raise here the question of mutual relations and the compatibility of scientific knowledge and essential contents of faith.

For about 60 years we have known that life activities are dependent on genetic information that is encoded on very long filaments of the nucleic acid DNA. The specific linear sequences of only four different building blocs (nucleotides) encode for all life activities and for the control of their expression at the required times and sites within organisms. If we compare the sequences of nucleotides with the sequences of letters in our scripts, the genetic information of single-cellular bacterium corresponds to the content of a book. For example, the widely studied E. coli bacterium compares with the information content of the Bible. In contrast, multicellular plants and animals have genetic information corresponding to an encyclopedia of 100-1000 volumes. The human genome corresponds to about 700 such volumes.

In the natural generation of genetic variants both particular gene products and some non-genetic elements are generally involved. The products of so-called evolution genes act thereby as variation generators and/or as modulators of the rates of genetic variation. Non-genetic elements can be effects of chemical or physical mutagens. One can assume that in the long-term past evolution, the evolution genes had become fine-tuned to exert their evolutionary functions consisting in the occasional generation of novel genetic variants. These processes are largely contingent with regard to the site of the DNA sequence alteration and also with regard of the time of the mutagenesis. The rates of any kind of genetic variation are naturally kept quite low. This ensures a comfortable stability to the genetic information of the living organisms, a precondition for a sustainable life in populations. In conclusion, the living world takes active care of biological evolution thanks to its natural potency to undergo biological evolution. In other words, biological evolution is a steadily ongoing natural process of permanent creativity.

We are aware that the natural potency to evolve is the source of biodiversity and that the ongoing biological evolution also guarantees a steady, although very slowly progressing, replenishment of bio diversity. However, in view of the largely contingent generation of genetic variants, one cannot expect that lost biodiversity can become precisely reconstituted in future evolutionary progress. Replenished biodiversity can rather be expected to represent mainly novel kinds of mutant organisms.

Scientific insights into the laws and constants of nature are cultural values from the following two points of view: On the one hand, established scientific knowledge enriches our worldview and thus it contributes to our orientational knowledge. On the other hand, scientific knowledge can also open novel approaches to technological applications, innovations to the benefit of our lives as well as of our environment. Since such innovations will often contribute to the shaping of the future, we should ideally postulate that any respective decision should depend on a carefully exerted technology assessment and, on the other hand, that the civil society and the Church are ready to take co-responsibility together with the scientists and with economy carrying out a novel shaping of the future with prospective benefits for mankind and for its environment. Such measures can contribute to ensuring sustainability of the process and thus of the long-term future development on our planet.

We are aware that our societal life requires some binding rules of conduct which should become integral part of our orientational knowledge. In modern societies, politically established legislation ensures that recommended rules of conduct are widely followed. Acceptance of such rules can be facilitated if their principles are also anchored in a religious faith. In the Christian society, important rules of conduct were propagated by Jesus Christ throughout his life and ever since that time have been widely followed by Christians. Nevertheless, it is an important task of today's societies to update the established set of rules in paying particular attention to our acquired scientific knowledge. In this context, I assume that if Jesus Christ would live among us today, he would be in favour of the application of solid scientific knowledge for the long-term benefit of humans and of their natural environment, as long as such applications leading to a shaping of the future could ensure that the relevant laws of nature are fully respected.

Let us briefly illustrate this postulate by a particular example: Thanks to the recent advances in genomics, proteomics and metabolomics, it has become possible to direct biological evolution in order to better fulfill our needs for a healthy nutrition as a contribution to medically relevant improvements. The Pontifical
Academy of Sciences devoted a study week in May 2009 to this issue with particular emphasis given to transgenic plants for food security in the context of development. Our Academy concluded that the recently established methods of preparing transgenic organisms follow natural laws of biological evolution and bear no risks anchored in the methodology of genetic engineering. Indeed, these methods involve local sequence changes, a rearrangement of segments of genetic information that is available in the concerned organism, and/or the horizontal transfer of a relatively small segment of genetic information from one organism into another kind of organism. As we have already outlined above, these are the three natural strategies for the spontaneous generation of genetic variants in biological evolution. The beneficial prospects for improving widely used nutritional crops can be expected to alleviate the still existing malnutrition and hunger in the human population of the developing world.

For long periods of time, curious human beings acquired scientific knowledge mainly by observing with their senses and aided by mental reflections including logical reasoning. Genesis in the Old Testament represents — in my opinion — a testimony for an early scientific world-view which already existed several thousand years ago. This book also reflects a consistency between religious faith and available scientific knowledge. It proposes a logical sequence of events in which creation of Earth may have been followed by the establishment of conditions for life. Plants were then introduced and these provided in a next step food for animals before human beings were finally introduced. Leaving aside the question of Revelation, this is clearly a logical narration of the possible evolutionary origin of things by imagined events leading to the nature that the ancient populations observed. From the genealogy outlined in the Old Testament, I can also conclude that its authors were aware of phenotypical (i.e. genetic) variants. The described persons have their own personal characteristics and they are thus not genetically identical clones of Adam and Eve. In these narratives, the early available religious faith and scientific knowledge on evolutionary developments are consistent with each other. It is today our duty to maintain (and where needed, to re-establish) this consistency on the basis of the now available improved scientific knowledge. In my opinion, scientific knowledge and faith are and should remain to be complementary elements in our orientational knowledge.

Emphasizing the evolution of life and of its environmental habitats, we have outlined here how scientific knowledge can influence, together with other elements of our orientational knowledge, human activities including the application of scientific knowledge for the benefit of the human well-being and of an intact environment serving for a long-term sustainable development of our planet Earth and its inhabitants. The given examples can be extended to any other feasible activities based on available scientific knowledge that may serve us for a sustainable cultural development. In this respect, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences strives to fulfill its tasks to critically follow the development of scientific investigations and the projects of applications of acquired knowledge. It periodically issues publications, informing the scientific world, the Church hierarchy and all Christians and people of good will, both in book form and digitally on its web site and it also makes relevant recommendations in favour of a safe, responsible and sustainable development.

* President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and professor of microbiology at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 November 2012, page 9

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