God and Zoology

© Hardin lab, http://worms.zoology.wisc.edu

This post is an extract from an interview with Jeff Hardin, Professor of Zoology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Part 1 here, part 3 here.)

“The first time I peered down a microscope at a living sea urchin embryo when I was a graduate student at Berkeley I was absolutely hooked on developmental biology. Christians, when they’re doing science, are experiencing something that I call ‘doxological fascination’.  In other words, they’re locked in on the minute details of something – which academics tend to do – and yet they’re doing it for God’s glory, in the same way that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) in all the margins of his manuscripts. [I know a scientist who writes SDG on all her lecture notes and in her lab book – Ruth]. They’re trying to, in Keplerian fashion, ‘think God’s thoughts after him’.

I teach two main courses, cell biology and developmental biology.  In each of these courses I start by telling the students that my main goal for the semester is that they would think cells, or embryos, are cool. They laugh, but I go on with this quote that I love:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

Albert Einstein, from The World As I See It

I want them to be much better than dead by the end of the semester! My students don’t yet understand how incredible embryos are, and my goal in teaching biology is that they would not be the sort that are sitting around ‘picking blackberries’. I think that this is a new idea to some of my students, and it’s a touch point that I have in common with them, whatever their faith commitments are.

In my introduction to developmental biology I use some ancient Hebrew poetry, from Psalm 139, where David is musing about embryonic development. Even when he was developing in the womb, God was there and David uses poetic language to talk about how his own body was formed. He doesn’t understand that process, but he knows it’s fearful and wonderful. So I tell my students, whether you share David’s worldview – as I as a Christian happen to – or you don’t, by the end of the semester I want you to share this sense of wonder about the incredible intricacy of developmental biology and the processes that we have the privilege of studying. Usually in the teaching evaluations at the end of the semester there are lots of comments saying, ‘Wow, he actually cares about this material’.”

I love this example of someone who is passionate about his work, and who works hard to transmit that passion to his students. I meet so many people who are surprised that a scientist might think in this way – they feel as if science somehow squashes all the life and meaning out of things – so the more people who get to hear stories like this one, the better!


C.elegans (roundworm) embryo. © A. Cox, worms.zoology.wisc.edu

I had the privilege of speaking at Greenbelt this summer, and while I was there I heard Rob Bell speak on the creative process in a talk entitled ‘Pure Undiluted Slog’. His main point was that creativity is primarily about how you see the world. In order to do anything at all creative you need to be able to look at things in a way that is somehow unique and articulate it in a way that people can identify with.

Bell used the example of Moses’ encounter with God in the wilderness of Horeb. If Moses had been trudging around with his head down he wouldn’t have seen the bush that was on fire. If Moses hadn’t been an observant person he would not have noticed that the bush was still intact despite the flames, and God wouldn’t have been able to get his attention in the way that he did. And the bush is always burning – God is always trying to get our attention in some way or another.

I also spent some time this summer in Madison, meeting with a number of scientists (see my earlier post with Kathy Strabala). One of the scientists I met was Professor Jeff Hardin, Chair of Zoology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Molecular biology and biotechnology have convinced me that science is a creative process, and when I asked Jeff about the part that awe and wonder played in his own work in developmental biology, he came up with exactly the same point as Rob Bell.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was on to something when she wrote that ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries’. Taking time is a fundamental aspect of this.  For example, there’s the story of the burning bush in the book of Exodus.  Moses takes the time to stop and observe what’s happening.  I can’t help thinking whenever I read that story, that if Moses hadn’t really taken the time, if he had been too focused on his agenda (maybe thinking about the next grant application), how would God have grabbed his attention?

Science is a different sort of creative process to writing, sculpture or film-making, but it’s a creative nonetheless, and looking at the world and coming up with original ideas is about the most important aspect of doing science well. (Part 2 of my interview with Jeff Hardin is here, part 3 here. More about Jeff’s work here.)

Our Father, The Creator

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

This fabulous quote was used by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan in his commentary on Psalm 148 (BRF/Lion, 2003). Psalm 148 almost feels as if it was written by a scientist, it is so tidy in its structure – moving from the outer reaches of the universe and zooming in to the tiniest creatures.

Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights above…

Praise him, sun and moon, praise him all you shining stars…

Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths…

you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all ceaders,

wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds…

Coggan says that

We are bidden to listen to the song of praise that creation sings, to join in the ongoing hymn of the universe. We are to become aware of our place in creation, of our relationship with the creator, with all creation and all created beings. This will lead to a realisation of our own littleness and yet to a realisation of the uniqueness of our humanity.

Coggan’s last point is what gets me – that I worship a God who created the universe, and I can call him ‘Father’ (daddy, even!) I can be amazed by an incredible view from the top of a mountain or by something I have seen down a microscope but I don’t have to be overwhelmed by my smallness or weakness. The one who’s responsible for the universe cares about me and enjoys my every act of worship. Worship is everything I do that’s offered to God, like a kid running to its parent with a picture for the fridge. I’m not earning something, I’m worshipping a God who already loves me. If only I could constantly keep that in mind and not get distracted by blackberries…