Scott Gilbert: Baccalaureate Address

scott gilbert

Thank you, Class of 2012. It is a great honor to think that you believe that I have something interesting and meaningful to say to you at this time. I will do my best. But looking at all of you, let me first reciprocate the honor, and paraphrase to you and to your families the blessing of Odysseus upon the wonderful and youthful Nausicaa: Odyssey, Book 6:  "If you are human, one of those mortals living on the earth, your noble parents are thrice-blest, and thrice-blest your brothers and sisters, too. In their hearts they must glow with pleasure for you." Congratulations to everyone here - students and families - on your incredible accomplishments.

This is a special year for me, my retirement year from Swarthmore. Forty-one years ago, I was graduated from Wesleyan University as a double major in biology and religion. When I announced this double major to my parents, my father immediately replied, "So, you're going to be a mohel?"  That's about right - the only profession that could combine biology and religion was ritual circumcision.  Little did I know at that time, that this combination of majors would send me to lecture in the Vatican, in Jerusalem, and in Kyoto.  I could not predict, then, that my scientific field, embryology, would go in directions that would bring me into arguments and conversations concerning cloning, stem cells, abortion, and evolution. You've been hearing for years that you never know how you will use your liberal arts education. That's absolutely true.

I profess embryology, the science of how one's bodies are made, a science that is at the center of those debates (on stem cells, evolution, and abortion). Moreover, it is a science that seeks answers to ancient questions: How did I come into being? How does sexual union create a new life?  How do I come to look like my parents? How come I have only two eyes, and they are both in my head and nowhere else? How did my front and my back become different? How come some people have penises and others can have babies? What traits of mine are learned culturally and which ones did I inherit biologically? How am I like and how am I different from other animals? Why can't I grow back my hand like salamanders do? How do my muscles become connected to my bones?

"I am fearfully and wonderfully made," says the psalmist. But what is it to be fearfully and wonderfully made? How does one respond to this wonder and yir'ah/fear/awe of one's body? So today, I want to go back to the source of these questions: Wonder.  I'm going to make some hypotheses today concerning Wonder and the relationship of science and religion.

Embryology is a profession where wonder remains an operative category. Reviewers of embryology textbooks will write whether or not they think the book under consideration has captured the wonder of development. Wonder is actually expected in the teaching laboratory, and it is used as a motivation to learn the science. French embryologist Jean Rostand said it very well when he wrote, "What a profession this is-this daily inhalation of wonder." As an embryologist, I'm privileged to experience wonder daily and to expect to be amazed when I enter the laboratory. For many of us, though, wonder has become something we experience only on vacations or as a surprise.

I would contend that Wonder is a primary experience, the result of the mind encountering the universe. But only mystics, perhaps, can live in a state of perpetual wonder. For most of us, wonder has a short half-life and rapidly decays into two lesser, but still powerful components: Awe and Curiosity.  This is clearly seen in our language, where wonder has both these meanings. Curiosity is seen in the English expression, "I wonder." Awe is seen in the our declarations of "the wonder of the world." Awe and curiosity both originate from Wonder. From curiosity comes the quest for truth about the physical universe and the testing of ideas against other ideas and against experience; that is to say, the foundations of philosophy and science. From awe come the reverence and gratitude that are characteristic of the religious attitude. Science and religion, let me hypothesize, both descend from Wonder.

We see this genealogy from wonder in fragments, and I will try to put them together. First, let's look at the path to science. Plato and Aristotle both agreed that wonder is the beginning of knowledge. Echoing Plato's Theaetetus, Aristotle notes,  "For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize". At the beginnings of modern science, Francis Bacon (no friend of either Aristotle or Plato) reaffirmed that Wonder was "the seed of knowledge." Statements of wonder are not uncommon in the autobiographies of our contemporary embryologists.

One of the most important statements of wonder in embryology is from the medieval rabbi and physician Maimonides. He writes (1190):

"A pious man of my time would say that an angel of God had to enter the womb of a pregnant woman to mold the organs of the fetus...This would constitute a miracle. But how much more of a miracle would it be if God had so empowered matter to be able to create the organs of a fetus without having to employ an angel for each pregnancy?"

Indeed, my job, my career, is to discover some of the ways by which ordinary matter (whether divinely created or not) can form itself into an organized embryo.  It's amazing. The biologist and poet Miroslav Holub (1990) writes:

"Between the fifth and tenth days the lump of stem cells differentiates into the overall building plan of the embryo and its organs. It is like a lump of iron turning into the space shuttle. In fact, it is the profoundest wonder we can imagine and accept, and at the same time so usual that we have to force ourselves to wonder about the wondrousness of this wonder."

Yet, I write about the molecules and processes by which the embryonic stem cells interact with their neighboring cells to create the precursors of the brain, heart, skin, and gut. The knowledge of how this wonder takes place does not diminish it in any way. Rather, in positive feedback, it makes the process even more wonder-full."The amazing thing about mammalian development," writes embryologist Veronica van Heyningen, "is not that it sometimes goes wrong, but that it ever succeeds." So wonder can give rise to curiosity, which promotes the theorizing and testing that is science.  Wonder can give rise to knowledge. 

But knowledge is not wisdom. Moses, Jesus, Siddhartha, and Muhammad would have failed their SATs. None of them knew the number of protons in a carbon atom or the four bases of DNA. Knowledge is critically important, but it cannot pass for wisdom. Wisdom is how to use one's knowledge to lead a righteous life. It is the framework of the mind, not its furniture. "Awareness of the divine," writes religious philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, "begins in wonder."  For wonder generates not only knowledge, but wisdom.  He continues, "The beginning of awe is wonder and the beginning of wisdom is awe... Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe."

So here we have part of the genealogy from wonder. Wonder can generate curiosity and awe. From curiosity one gets knowledge. From awe, one can get wisdom. Commenting on the numerous times in the Bible (Proverbs 1:7; Psalm 111:10 ; Job 28:28) where awe is pronounced to be the beginning of Wisdom, Heschel claims that awe is the primary requisite of the religious attitude. "Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith." The Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle similarly viewed wonder, not faith, as the basis for worship. According to this perspective, Awe, rather than faith, is the principle attitude of the religious person, since Awe generates the reverence and gratitude that are critical for the religious view of the world. Thus, one can affirm the following lineages from Wonder: Wonder gives rise to curiosity and awe. Curiosity gives rise to science and philosophy; awe gives rise to religion.

Surprisingly, then, science and religion, instead of being antagonistic enemies, find themselves to be close relatives, cousins, grandchildren of Wonder. Any fights between them are within the family, not between aliens with separate genealogies.

So what do we do with this newfound family? Here, again, Heschel helps us by stating the problem in a stark existential manner: "It is not a sense of awe, wonder, or fear, which is the root of religion; but rather the question of what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder, or fear..." Moreover, warns Heschel, " As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines... Humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation."

The problem, then, is two-fold. First, why doesn't our civilization recognize wonder? And second, how do we respond to Wonder? To answer the first question, part of this decline in the sense of wonder is due to the structure of our disciplines. There is in Western thought a fear of Wonder and its power. Philosopher Mary-Jane Rubenstein has documented that one of the West's most important philosophical projects has been the internalization of Wonder into philosophy, making wonder, itself, an object explainable by rational thought. Wonder may have been the font of knowledge for Aristotle, but he claimed that after it initiated curiosity, wonder would be dangerous, preventing one from rationally realizing "the better state" of knowing the causes. Similarly, René Descartes and Francis Bacon saw wonder as a passion that precedes knowledge and which must be quickly jettisoned. To them, the rational control of the wondrous was a source of power. And in religion, wonder gets quickly replaced by theology and piety. So one important project, one that is visible in some areas of biology and religion, is to take Wonder seriously and to realize that it is becoming endangered. It cannot be assumed anymore.

According to the model I'm presenting, both science and religion depend on Wonder and will perish without wonder. So science and religion should be allies in preserving the sources of wonder. At the present, we have three enormous social sources of power: science, religion, and economic profit. As long as science and religion remain enemies, money wins. It will create technologies out of science for the pollution of the planet in the name of progress, and it will create theologies that conflate a person's worth with his or her financial worth. Imagine a series of real alliances between science and religion.

Imagine evangelic Protestants with a serious view of stewardship allying themselves with evolutionary biologists for the protection of wetlands. Imagine staunch Roman Catholics making agreements with Planned Parenthood to protect the fetus by eliminating BPA and other fetotoxic chemicals from the environment. Yes, it means "dealing with the devil".  But let's assume that both creationist Protestants and agnostic biologists both want their children to see the loons landing on the lake and to know the taste of freshly caught trout. Let's assume that the Catholic Archbishop and the physician who prescribes birth control pills both want healthy babies in healthy families.  These are certainly not unreasonable assumptions.  And such alliances are forming. One recent example, taught here, concerns the groups mobilizing to stop mountaintop removal coal mining in the Appalachians.

Which brings me to another part of the story: The arts. Do not expect me to present a discussion of wonder and art. But since I am giving landscape examples, I should mention a passage from a book I read while auditing a course here on landscape painting: At the dawn of Chinese landscape painting, Lu Chi found it difficult to believe what he and other artists had accomplished: "In a sheet of paper is contained the Infinite. And, evoked from an inch-sized heart, an endless panorama."  The landscape painting was not just a picture, it was a mysterious creation that expressed the wondrous essence of the cosmos. Another landscape artist, in this case, the photographer Ansel Adams, wrote, "Both the grand and the intimate aspects of nature can be revealed in the expressive photograph. Both can stir enduring affirmations and discoveries, and can surely help the spectator in his search for identification with the vast world of natural beauty and the wonder surrounding him."  The arts have a role in transmitting wonder and even in creating new wonders.  The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were artistic and engineering marvels, not natural ones. Transmitting and creating wonder are not the sole roles of the arts (nor are they the sole goals of science or religion), but these purposes of creating and transmitting wonder are found at their origins.

I bring this up because the fight against mountaintop removal coalmining would have remained a local issue were it not for artists - filmmakers, painters, writers, and musicians - who bring the scientific and religious messages to the public.

So science and religion have a common origin in wonder, and the arts play important roles in the creation and transmission of wonder.

So now I want to continue discussing some alliances that could be made between religion and biology, and why the liberal arts should be playing a major role in forging such alliances. Certainly, one has to look at pluralities of perspectives concerning life. Each of us is experiencing this amphitheater in different ways. Some of us have been trained to readily see the architecture that recalls classical Rome; some of us will see a proscenium stage and reflect on the value of performance and ritual in our graduation; and some of us will see here an integration of nature and culture engineered in the garden. Some of us will smile as we enter into this grove of trees, and reflect on the semiotics of ancient initiation rites; some of us will recognize the garnet schist that came near the surface during the building of the Appalachian Mountains a billion years ago and whose colors the college adopted as its own; and some of us will see that the rhododendrons are blooming at the same time that their pollinators have metamorphosed into flying bees, and that the plants' colors and scents enable their symbiotic insects to complete the plant's life cycle. They know that these plants originated in the Himalayas and that in each flower, the male part makes its pollen before the female part can receive it, thereby preventing self-pollination. The walk leading to the amphitheater is lined with dawn redwoods, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, a critically endangered tree that was thought to be extinct until a single stand was discovered in China by Hsu and Cheng, in 1948.

To appreciate this amphitheater, then, one should know not only science but philosophy and art; not only sociology, but engineering. Alliances and connections. I hope that you are now appreciating the amphitheater in ways you had not before you came in. Several people helped explain the amphitheater to me. That is why the liberal arts education is so critical. It is the context wherein science, social science, and the humanities interact, appreciate, and enrich one another. Thomas Huxley, Darwin's friend and colleague, used a cultural metaphor to argue the relevance of science in liberal education:

"To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall."

I use Huxley for another reason, as well. He was probably the person most responsible for the current paradigm of warfare between science and religion. It was he who popularized the vision of evolution as a gladiator spectacle, and it was he who felt that as an agnostic, he had the right to teach biology at a first-rate university. In Victorian England, however, he could not teach biology at Cambridge or Oxford without being an Anglican clergyman. For nature was God's creation, and only men of God could interpret it. Science was in the service of religion. Huxley used evolution as a way of separating Nature from God, and in so doing, helped create and propagate the paradigm of science versus religion.  Neither of these paradigms - science in the service of religion or the warfare of science and religion - work well today. We need new paradigms relating the offspring of wonder.

One such paradigm may come from the mixing of evolutionary biology with embryology. This paradigm changes evolutionary biology from being a strictly competitive process to being a process that integrates cooperation with competition, with cooperation actually playing a dominant role. The living world, it seems, is full of strange alliances.

Let me quickly introduce two biological principles:

First, Reciprocal induction. This is how bodies are made. The fertilized egg divides several times and produces a few different cell types. These cells then interact with each other to produce new cell types and organs. For instance, when a group of cells extending from brain the touch the cells of the head epidermis, these epidermal skin cells are turned into the lens, and the brain cells are transformed into the retina. Interactions between brain cells and skin cells create the retina and the lens, and establish their positions in the eye. The retina and the lens did not exist before this interaction.  This reciprocal interaction created new things - a lens, a retina, an eye. During evolution, one builds new organs by changing the timing or placement of these interactions.

Second, Mutualistic symbiosis. Interactions between different species of organisms create new and stable types of organisms. The rhododendron cannot complete its life cycle without bees; and the bee needs the nectar from the rhododendron.  Here we see reciprocal interactions on a large scale, between adults. And this isn't the only major symbiotic relationship for our rhododendrons. The root cells of the rhododendron are invaded by a fungus that penetrates these cells. This fungus extends the surface area of the roots, enabling the rhododendron to absorb more water and nutrients. The rhododendron is thus able to supply food to its fungal partner (in addition to the bees). Reciprocity in embryonic development between cells and reciprocity between organisms: That's the way life is.

Now, I want to relate induction and symbiosis. Both reciprocal induction and mutualistic symbiosis are about parts interacting to create a new whole. Induction occurs when the cells of the embryo form new cells by their interactions. Symbiosis occurs when the life cycle of an organism depends on interactions with a different species. One of the things that embryological sciences have found: all life as it develops appears to be symbiotic. Neither animals nor plants develop from a single set of genes.  Some of the reciprocal embryonic induction are coming from cells of other species! The trees that you see are not individuals. Each tree is a community ecosystem. Not only is it not an individual. It never was. Its development is determined by several sets of organisms. Their very cells are populated by other cells. The parable is not only of the mustard seed, but of the orchid seed. Consider the beauty of the orchid. Note its symmetry, its color.  But consider also that the orchid seed cannot germinate when planted. It is too small and does not have the nutrients that will enable it to germinate. Moreover, its seed coat is too thick to allow nutrients to enter from the soil. In order to germinate, in order to make the beauty of the orchid, the orchid seed must fuse with a fungus spore. The fungus will provide the nutrients to allow the orchid to grow, and in so doing, makes its home and shelter. The orchid will enable the fungus to propagate, while the fungus allows the orchid to germinate. This is the way life works. One makes alliances that aid both partners.  The medical biologist Lewis Thomas (1974) wrote about this:

"There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along whenever possible. This is the way of the world."

Biologists Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan put it this way, when they say that the organism is:

"The co-opting of strangers, the involvement and infolding of others into even more complex and miscegenous genomes...The acquisition of the reproducing other, of the microbe and the genome, is no mere sideshow. Attraction, merger, fusion, incorporation, cohabitation, recombination - both permanent and cyclical - and other forms of forbidden couplings, are the main sources of Darwin's missing variation."

And it's not only for plants. I am made by associations. I am made by reciprocal interactions between the cells produced by the fertilized egg. And I am also made by interactions between me and the world. I am indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.  Ninety percent of all my cells and all your cells are bacterial, and they are intimately involved in making us who we are. Mammals do not form their intestines without bacterial help. We do not form our immune systems without bacterial help. We have outsourced developmental signals to our bacteria. There are salamanders that store algae in their reproductive glands so that the eggs become covered with photosynthetic plants that supply oxygen to the egg mass. There are bacteria that determine the sex of some insects, and some nudibranchs actually transfer the chloroplasts from their algal food into their skin and become solar powered sea slugs. After that single algal meal, they never have to eat again! There is probably no such thing as a biological individual. So evolution is probably more about cooperation than it is competition. Organisms that cooperate best survive best. I am Team Scott Gilbert.  I am as much a composite organism as the rhododendron. You may have read Bruno Latour's essay "We Were Never Modern."  The biological equivalent is "We were never individuals."

This paradigm of interacting entities that form selves by their interactions is beginning to take shape. In the writings of philosopher Donna Haraway, we see an ethic of "becoming with" where Deleuze and Guattari meet Darwin and Margulis. Instead of the Existential philosophy characteristic of the competitive evolutionary paradigm "I against All Others," she has a paradigm of  "I become with and through the other." And biological science says that this is not metaphor. Haraway was trained as an embryologist, and she relates the "becoming with" philosophy directly to both reciprocal induction and symbiosis.

We see this biological paradigm being expressed in certain religious views as well. The notion of an uncentered self becoming with others has, of course, been a major part of Buddhist thought. Indeed, the latest issue of the Swarthmore alumni magazine has an interview with professor Don Swearer about this very concept in Buddhist thought. But we now are starting to see this concept in Western religions. These strands were always there, but they are now becoming emphasized. The current Pope, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, noted that in Augustine's parity of substance and relation, "the undivided sway of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality." Can it be that Pope Benedict XVI is in agreement with lapsed Catholic Donna Haraway, who claims that "the smallest unit of analysis is the relationship."? The writings of one of the leading rabbis of the Nineteenth Century, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, claimed that,  "One glorious chain ...of giving and receiving, unites all creatures. None has power or means for itself; it receives in order to give; gives in order to receive, and finds therein the accomplishment of the purpose of its existence."  The Jewish toast "L'chaim" ("to life") is actually in plural form: "To Lives." Makes symbiotic sense. Our biology has caught up with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior's theological and ecological vision, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."  

So there may be a new paradigm emerging where religion and science can be allies. Interdependency is the way of all flesh. Reciprocal induction and mutual symbioses are excellent models-literally, win-win situations. We can see this historically. "Symbiosis" is a Greek word. The Latin translation of symbiosis, "convivencia" has a very technical meaning. It refers to the coexistence and mutual interactions between the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities during Umayyad rule in medieval Spain.  All three prospered together.

Indeed, today, science and religion will have to become partners in some sort of symbiosis, too, if they are going to preserve wonder and thereby preserve themselves. When we consider how powerful religion is in the affairs of the world, and how powerful science is in the affairs of the world, then it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of world history depends on the relations and alliances between these centers of power.

Moreover, such interactions are occurring, but very subtly. While most of the attention gets focused on the evolution/creation debates, the real action is occurring in conservation biology. I will make a hypothesis that the major arguments for species preservation come not from science, but from religion or morality, in general. When you go to the websites for conservation organizations and you look to see WHY species should be preserved, the scientific answers are phrased primarily in economic terms of what is possibly good for humans. Species should be preserved because (1) they might be making an anticancer drug such as taxol, (2) they may serve as unique food resources, (3) they can serve as biological checks on other species; (4) they are necessary for scientific inquiry; (5) they may be critical for soil aeration and other ecological services; and (6) their genes might be important for making products in the future.  This really doesn't get to the heart of the matter. Why preserve the mountain gorilla, the monarch butterfly, the leatherback turtle, the horseshoe crab, the Bengal tiger, or the California condor? What can we get from the Muhlenberg bog turtle that we can't find in red-eared sliders or painted turtles? The answer won't be found in the above list. I hypothesize that the answer actually is a religious, moral, or aesthetic perception that humans should not totally wipe out another species to extinction.

I'm glad to say that in many of these conservation websites, especially the general ones, one also finds non-scientific reasons to preserve biodiversity - curiosity, beauty, and wonder. The NaturServe site is explicit about this. After mentioning wonder and curiosity, this organization asks, "Does every species have a right to exist? If so, then our call to preserve creation is clear. But even if not, humility in the face of our capacity to despoil the land is called for... Many of Judeo-Christian heritage believe their faith enjoins them to be responsible stewards of creation, and similar themes run deep in other religious traditions as well."  Two things: First, this very idea highlights the inversion of nature and humanity during the past fifty years. We are being called upon to preserve Nature. Nature needs us. Nature never needed us before. Nature was a source of wonder and terror. It is now weak and needs our help. This is what Bill McKibben has called "the end of nature.' Not the end of organisms, but the end of this idea of a powerful, sublime, wonder-inspiring, and independent other. Second, this site identifies species conservation as a religious, not a scientific, idea.  So, while I'm constantly angry at religions for their insipid attacks against evolution, I'm not all that dispirited when I hear that America is a religious country.  The question is how to use that spiritual impulse. I think that the disagreements over the origins of biodiversity pale in significance when compared to the benefits of alliance for the preservation of biodiversity.

Indeed, under the symbiosis model that I am proposing, one of the roles played by religion and ethics will be in deciding what is a wonder and what is atrocity. The European pioneers heading Westward viewed mountains not as wonders but as infernal obstacles. Science may tell us that mountaintop mining destroys the habitats for fish and invertebrates, and destroys streams. But it is not science that makes the judgment that this is wrong or that it is not worth the economic advantages gained by mining the coal.  

And this is where I end today-with religion and science being taught at a liberal arts college. Science education at a liberal arts college is a unique thing. First, it is a conscious symbiosis with the larger intellectual community, wherein nascent scientists also learn philosophy, religion, political science, arts, economics, and numerous other disciplines. My European colleagues are astounded when I tell them that I teach science to poets, historians, and musicians. This context benefits both science and humanities.  First, as part of this symbiosis, students in humanities and the social sciences learn scientific methods of data interpretation and acquisition. One of the programs of the liberal arts college is that its alumni should recognize excellence in whatever form it might take. One of the programs for teaching science at liberal arts colleges is so that its alumni can recognize garbage no matter how well it is packaged. In these days of official-looking websites, humanities students can gain much from scientific standards of evidence. And reciprocally, the science students benefit enormously from the humanities. Physiologist and philosopher Robert Root-Bernstein found that among scientists who have made major discoveries, nearly all of them have been trained or self-trained in literature or the arts. They were not the technocrats; they were the ones who saw patterns. This week is the fiftieth anniversary of the operon model in biology. Francois Jacob, one of its discoverers, notes that it was the result of both intuition and science, what he calls "night science." It relied on seeing similarities between different operations of the cell and putting them together in a new context. The pioneering neurophysiologist Santiago Ramon y Cajal said that scientific discoveries could best be made by those who combined science with art and literature. Schroedinger made tapestries, Marie Curie wrote poetry, and Rosalind Franklin, Richard Feynman, and Michael Faraday each painted.  Moreover, many of the science students take courses in, and have friends who are studying religion. And here, religion is not taught as a set of dogmas, but as an inquiry into the meaning of life, death, and society. At liberal arts colleges, science students can see how religion can be respected, not seen merely as superstitious remnants of past beliefs. And students of religion and the other humanities can see science as a creative human endeavor, not the robotic accumulation of new facts.

The liberal arts college forms what historian and anthropologist James Clifford has called "Contact Zones," regions where different cultures become juxtaposed to each other.  These contact zones, whether in the planet, in embryos or colleges, are where new things emerge.  Here, students of science, humanities, the performing arts, and the social sciences literally sit at the same table. Commensalism is the biological term for this type of symbiosis-it literally means "eating at the same table."  It's one of the best parts of Swarthmore College and a model to the world. If a new paradigm is going to come into being, you're the people who will have to do it.

If a new paradigm is to emerge, one that will save wonder, it will have to be generated between people who appreciate, respect, and even understand the other, who can truly become with the other. At Swarthmore, you have participated in the wonderous, you've been fortunate to live here expecting wonder inside and outside the classroom. May you live your lives integrating knowledge and wisdom, experiencing, appreciating, creating, and protecting Wonder.  Keep making strange friends and unexpected associations. Thank you.