March 23, 2011

Noted Scientist Martin Nowak Discusses God and Creation

Martin Nowak delivers his lecture on "Evolution and Christianity."

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"Science is no replacement for religion."

Some might consider this a surprising statement from an internationally acclaimed biologist and mathematician. But this was the idea explored by Harvard University professor Martin Nowak when he came to The Catholic University of America on March 22 to deliver the lecture, "Evolution and Christianity."

He told the audience of more than 150 CUA professors and students that "we are confronted with many questions that do not have a scientific answer. It would be naïve to think that every aspect of human life could be addressed by science."

Nowak is the director of Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. The Austrian-born scientist is known for his work on the mathematical description of evolutionary processes, including the evolution of cooperation and human language, the dynamics of virus infections and human cancer, among others.

Recently a Harvard colleague described him as "the greatest evolutionist ever." He is the author of more than 300 papers published in scientific journals. His just-published book, SuperCooperators: The Mathematics of Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed), is being hailed as "a fantastic journey into the science of cooperation."

Nowak's address, which launched a thought-provoking discussion of the interplay between religion and science that continued after his lecture ended, was part of CUA's semester-long lecture series based on President John Garvey's inaugural year theme, "Intellect and Virtue: The Idea of a Catholic University."

President John Garvey, Nowak, and Chair and Professor of Biology Venigalla Rao

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Nowak began his talk with an overview of evolution, leading to "a proper dialogue between Christianity and evolution."

In outlining a timetable of creation, he began with the creation of the universe, otherwise known as the "Big Bang," 13.7 billion years ago followed by the creation of the solar system, when the sun came into existence, 4.567 billion years ago. Approximately 3.5 billion years ago, said Nowak, came bacteria.

And from bacteria, higher cells of eukarya (organisms whose cells contain a nucleus) came into existence some 1.8 billion years ago. Complex multicellularity is approximately 600 million years old. And the fourth "nature event," according to Nowak, is human language. Scientists don't know exactly when this first occurred, although it is more than 200,000 years old.

In posing the question, "What is evolution?" Nowak noted it comes down to reproduction: Reproduction of information (heredity), reproduction of mistakes (mutation); and reproduction of different rates (selection).

Nowak said, "The only things that evolve are populations. A new mutant arises and there is a probability that the mutant takes over the population. In the process of evolution, randomness is very important. Mutations are random events."

People have a problem understanding how evolution based on randomness can be in accordance with God's will for the unfolding of life on earth, said Nowak.

Sophomore Tim McEvoy (in gray T-shirt) is among more than 150 people at the lecture.

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"I don't think it is a problem for us [the Catholic Church] in the same sense that randomness is also the fundamental basis of all physical law. Randomness does not mean the same as completely without guidance. The process can be random but guided."

Nowak said evolution is constructive, and construction requires cooperation. Humans invented a new mode of evolution, said Nowak.

"Evolution required reproduction of information. Human language allows unlimited reproduction of nongenetic information. The evolution process involves people talking to each other, listening to each other. It is no longer based on genetic information. It distinguishes us when compared to all other species because we invented a new way for evolutionary process to occur amazingly fast in our ability to adapt to a new environment.

"Religion, like language, I want to argue is a human universal. There is no human civilization that has not discovered religion. Religion cannot be suppressed."

Nowak pointed out there is tension in the discussion about Christianity and evolution. There are three challenging perspectives that play into this tension, he noted.

One perspective claims that evolution is wrong and that the world is 6,000 years old and that Genesis is a scientific account of historic events. This is incorrect science and weak theology, said Nowak.

Another perspective is more subtle. Intelligent design says that evolution is largely correct but some structures are so complicated that God must occasionally jump in to help, he noted. Nowak said this is weak science because there is no scientific evidence to prove that there is something that could not have evolved. It is weak theology, he noted, because it implies that God steps in only when things get too complicated.

After the lecture, Nowak signs copies of his books for guests.

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The biggest challenge in the discussion of Christianity and evolution, says Nowak, is "scientific atheism, which says 'science is all that is needed for understanding the world… Religion is false or absurd.' "

To this, Nowak said, "The God concept of well-formulated theology, certainly of Catholic Christian theology, is more sophisticated than what is rejected by most scientists. The god that is rejected by scientific atheists is not the God that is taught by the Catholic Church." He said scientific atheists are "overstepping a purely scientific interpretation."

Referring to the teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Nowak said, "God is the creator and sustainer of the earth. God is the ultimate cause of all that exists.

"So what is the proper interaction between science and religion?" asked Nowak. "Scientists should admit that science does not provide every answer… Religion and science must work together."

The presentation was followed by nearly 30 minutes of lively discussion between Nowak and the audience.

Afterward, Timothy McEvoy, a sophomore from Layette, N.J., who is majoring in physics and biology, reflected on the presentation.

"It is important to reconcile what I learn in the classroom with what I learn in church. The understanding of the interplay between faith and science is important. Learning about one makes me want to learn more about the other."

Carlos Taja, a graduate student and teaching fellow in CUA's School of Theology and Religious Studies, said Nowak's lecture made him think about "how faith really does contribute to the reality of what a scientist ultimately can ponder as mystery."


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