Why should Duquesne University organize Darwin 2009: A Pittsburgh Partnership?

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In the past we have been questioned as to why we hold a Darwin Day at Duquesne University.  This year, we are organizing Darwin 2009: A Pittsburgh Partnership.  Why should a prominent Catholic University do this?  For several reasons:

1. Universities exist to explore ideas and to further knowledge.
The fundamental role of the University is one of exploration and sharing of ideas.  Perhaps one of the best definitions of what a University is was provided 150 years ago by the noted Catholic theologian, John Henry Cardinal Newman: “If I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or "School of Universal Learning." This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot; - from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.” (The Idea of a University, JHN, 1854).

2.  Science departments exist to teach science and the scientific method.
Science is not dogma, but a “way of knowing”.  Scientists rely on the scientific method, which is a particular way of going about exploring the natural world.  Observations are made, hypotheses are formed from them, and then these hypotheses are tested again and again until we gain confidence that we understand what is going on in nature.  We think the scientific method provides us with an accurate description of nature mainly because it works, often and well.  This is as true of evolutionary biology as it is of physics or chemistry.  Among non-scientists, there is often confusion about what science is, how it is performed, and what constitutes “good” science and “bad” science.  This is particularly true with regard to evolution.  Those people interested in learning about the overwhelming evidence that establishes evolution (e.g., common descent and natural selection) as a scientific fact can go here or attend Darwin 2009! 

3.  The Catholic Church is not at odds with science, even evolutionary biology.
This fact may come as a surprise to most people, including many Catholics.  Catholics are not biblical fundamentalists.  It is the Catholic position that “truth cannot contradict truth”, meaning that faith and reason are not in conflict, even if we don’t completely understand how to reconcile everything between them.  This includes modern evolutionary theory.  A more extensive treatment of how the Church views its relationship with the sciences can be found here (thanks to Dr. Anne Clifford, Dept. of Philosophy and religious studies, Iowa State University).  An interesting overlapping viewpoint from the late evolutionary biologist (and agnostic), Stephen Jay Gould, can be found here.  Indeed, the Vatican is holding its own evolution symposium (with an impressive list of speakers) in honor of Darwin’s 200th birthday.  One of the main goals of Darwin 2009 at Duquesne University, in addition to providing opportunities for basic science education, is to dispel the widespread misunderstanding that all, or even most, religious believers must make the false choice between faith and reason.

What is also not commonly known is that the Vatican has a formal and sophisticated system for gathering information on scientific trends so that it can remain current with new discoveries.  It does this through the Pontifical Academy of Sciences*.  The Academy is an advisory body to the Pope that consists of many of the leading scientists of the world.  Indeed, most of these men and women are not Catholic and are elected by the academy itself so the Pope is clearly not cherry picking.  Among the 80 or so members are twenty-eight Nobel laureates (!) including noted biologists Paul Berg, David Baltimore, Rita Levi-Montalcini, and Joshua Lederberg.  Other members include the physicist Stephen Hawking, the former director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Fotis Kafatos, and the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and noted ecologist, Peter Raven. 

*The current membership of the Pontifical Academy can be found here.  A bit about its history and role can be found here.  A recent article from Nature magazine outlining the surprising sophistication of the Vatican’s science knowledge can be found here.

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