by Walt Hearn
Once upon a time . . . Wait, that's no way to begin a history; that's the way to begin a story. Well, once upon a time, trying to make a point, I looked up the derivation of both those words. I've forgotten what that point was, but I remember how the two words are related―a big surprise to me. Surely, I had thought, a prefix, hi, has been added to story to indicate a "higher" (more systematic or academic?) kind of story. No, it's the other way around: story is a shortened form of history.
History stems from an Indo-European root, *weid-, meaning "to see" or "know." From it, the Greek verb eidenai ("to know") produced the form histōr. morphing into the Latin historia, by then meaning "learning by inquiry; narrative." The same root also led to the Sanscrit vēda ("knowledge," the basis of Vedantic philosophy) and, via Old German and Old English, to our modern word wisdom. In addition, that Indo-European root led to the Latin videre ("to see"), from which we get vision and evidence.
That's a lot of freight for one train of thought, but you get the idea. History is wisdom demonstrated by presenting evidence in narrative form. If there's a difference between history and story, it's not that history is the "true" or "complete" story. It's even been said that "all history is fiction"―meaning that individual historians make their own choices and "connect the dots" in different ways.
In "Players" in this issue, my dots are contributors to the science-faith dialog (some dottier than others). My historical connection is the crossing of our paths. Here are a few stories I didn't have room for:
Then and Now
Rice, my alma mama, celebrated its centennial in 2012 as a "private research university." It now has some 6,500 students (of whom maybe 2,500 are grad students). In my day the student body numbered about 1,200 (including a mere handful of grad students). Yet, what was then "Rice Institute" had outstanding engineering departments, PhD programs in several areas, and even a football team (the “Owls”) in the Southwest Conference―unusual features for a small independent school. Rice's origin had been unusual, too, as a provision in the will of a tycoon who had made his fortune in Houston. William Marsh Rice was murdered in New York in 1900 in a famous murder case (in which the butler really did it). With substantial growth of its original endowment, Rice charged no tuition until 1965.
A young biologist named Julian Huxley had come from Oxford in 1913 to establish a biology department. He returned to England in 1916, but one of his assistants stayed to become the professor from whom I took freshman biology. As a text we used the 1938 edition of The Science of Life, written by Huxley and writer H. G. Wells (author of the sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds). Huxley was the grandson of T. H. Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog." Rice was proud of its thoroughly secular status.
When I entered Rice in 1942 I had been a Christian for maybe six years. The Rice BSU (Baptist Student Union) met weekly across Main Street at a building called "Autrey House." After WWII we were outgrowing that venue and asked the Dean of Students to let us meet on campus. "No way," he said, "SRC is all the religion we need." The SRC (Student Religious Council) was officially recognized but was totally defunct. I finagled my way onto the SRC and, with a few BSU buddies, managed to initiate regular prayer meetings on campus. When those meetings began to grow, the dean caught on to our scheme and called me in to lecture me: "There will be no religious conversions, understand?" I had to choke back a laugh, but replied respectfully, "Yes, Sir. We'll do our best." (After two years as an enlisted man, I could put a lot of sarcasm into a "Yes, Sir.")
That's why I got such a big laugh listening to an audio tape from the 2014 meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). On the tape, ASA's director Randy Isaac chatted with sociologist Elaine Ecklund about her ongoing investigation of scientists' religious beliefs. Her preliminary findings had been reported in Science vs. Religion: What scientists really think (2010). ASA past-president Jennifer Wiseman, director of AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), served as host for the discussion. What bowled me over was Jennifer's introduction of Ecklund as "Autrey Professor of Sociology at Rice and Director of its Religion and Public Life Program." "Wow," I thought, "Things have changed." In fact, since then I've learned that Rice University now has an endowed professorship in, of all things, Biblical Studies. Go, Rice! Go, Owls!
Here and There
Young scientists ought to travel whenever they can. My trips to the two ASA-RSCF conferences at Oxford mentioned in "Players" were wonderfully educational for me, although that 1965 conference was not my first trip to Europe. In the summer of 1956, Baylor Med physiologist Roger Guillemin and I each gave a paper at the 20th International Physiological Congress held in Brussels, Belgium. My paper was on my early efforts to isolate a biologically active brain peptide being studied by Guillemin. For that research, a decade later he shared the Nobel Prize (with a competitor, not with me).
On the bus from the airport to the university where the Congress met, I sat next to a big, friendly guy who, though born in Austria, spoke American with only a slight accent. Kurt Weiss and I introduced ourselves to each other as Christians who customarily attended the huge annual meetings of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB, or just “the Federation"). Out of our friendship arose the Federation Christian Fellowship, now called the Experimental Biology Christian Fellowship. It still brings together Christians in the preclinical medical sciences. At the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Tulsa, an annual Lectureship in Biomedical Ethics is named for Kurt, who until his death in 1987 was a highly respected professor of physiology there. On that bus in Brussels I introduced him to ASA. In 1979 he served as ASA president.
At that 1965 Congress, we were both fairly new to the scientific game. I was a bit anxious over being asked to chair a session at which papers could be given in any language, although I could preside in English. While I was keeping time on one speaker, a guy who looked like a maintenance employee suddenly appeared in back of the room. He rushed down to where I was sitting on the platform and whispered excitedly into my ear in rapid French. I didn't understand a word of it but nodded in recognition. After he left, I began to worry. Had he been telling me that the building was on fire, or warning of a bomb threat? I think that was the first international conference during the Cold War in which USSR scientists were allowed to participate. At the reception the first night, a couple of burly guys didn't respond to my friendly attempt to greet them in Russian. I found out later that they were KGB "handlers," on hand to keep Soviet scientists from fraternizing too enthusiastically with Westerners.
In the early 1970s, a different kind of Cold War put me and Duane Gish on the same platform at Dordt College. Institute for Creation Research publications insisted that Duane had never lost a debate with an evolutionist, so I was glad that we were merely presenting our contrasting views, not debating. So I can't say that I “won,” but Duane definitely lost points with that audience. It was nothing I said, but the fact that his talk ran way over his allotted time, leaving me less than half of mine. The students got increasingly nervous as I sat there revising my notes downward. Watching the time pass, I came up with a bright idea for teaching origins in public-school science classes. Why not give creationism and evolution "equal time," meaning time proportionate to the amount of time each side claims the process took? In a semester, with a ratio of six 24-hour days to billions of years, the creationists would get far less than one second―but what could be fairer than "equal time"? The Dordt students got a big laugh out of it, easing tension in the lecture hall, but otherwise the idea went nowhere.
The term "science diplomacy" has recently been bandied about. The U.S. has had an international program "for world peace" through cooperation in using and maintaining an orbiting space station. That program was put in jeopardy by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict of 2014. Another example was a hyperspectral survey of Afghanistan taken from the air in 2007 by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). It revealed massive mineral deposits, including rare earth elements that go into electronic devices. Exploiting such deposits could make Afghanistan a wealthy nation―if there's anything left after our military and the Taliban get through with it. A news story in the August 15 (2014) issue of Science, titled "Mother of all Lodes," told of problems getting more data by helicoptering USGS "boots on the ground" in and out of dangerous areas. The article also told of complicated negotiations between the USGS and such U.S. government agencies as the Department of Defense (DOD) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)―not to mention the Afghan government agencies.
Science may have a role in international diplomacy but it seems to be a field for which few of us are prepared. It's a cinch I wouldn't be much good at it. Over my academic career I tried to be diplomatic with students, colleagues, and institutions, but I know when I've met my match. When people have fixed opinions, as in the science-faith field, the best-meaning diplomacy is not always successful.
For example, in Berkeley I've been good friends with both Bob Russell of CTNS and Phil Johnson of the ID movement. As a law professor at Cal, Phil thought he should give a lecture at CTNS to generate academic discussion of his ideas. Bob turned him down, bent on gaining and maintaining approval of CTNS by the scientific establishment. Each approached me as a friend of the other, asking me to "talk some sense into him." I tried setting up a meeting between them in the neutral environment of my living room, providing tea and crumpets. It quickly became obvious that they were at loggerheads. The meeting adjourned before they could pray together or even sample the crumpets. As a diplomat, I had struck out. What I still laugh about, though, is that afterward each party to the negotiations confided to me that the other party's irrational behavior might stem from some kind of mental problem.
So at least the parties could agree on something. Maybe they were both right. Unyielding stubbornness―like an inability to laugh at oneself―may indicate a mix-up in one's neural circuitry.