- This is the second half of TSSM’s interview with Megan Levis. We talked at greater length about this graduate student’s research and its good fit with values-informed thought, with the Society of Catholic Scientists, and even literature. The Society held its third annual conference at the University of Notre Dame a few months ago.
- In Megan’s presentation to the scientists at the SCS annual conference, she posed the question: How do you distinguish and exercise ethical responsibilities when something like brain organoids are “made in the image and likeness of man rather than the image and likeness of God.” Organoids are multicellular systems built from brain tissue. Are they just cell cultures or something so akin to the human being—particularly when they are brain organoids—that ethical duties arise out of respect for human dignity? This is a relatively new field where the scientific understanding and moral consideration still must develop in tandem, she explained. A New York Times article touched on some of the questions being raised.
- Megan’s own main research project as part of her graduate studies at Notre Dame deals with microfluidics. They are devices, a kind of miniature bio-reactor, in which researchers can grow cells and small organs. Her goal is to make it easier and less expensive to make microfluidics that can be used in future research. Here are resources on microfluidics from the journal Nature.
- Her collaborations in this area came about from her meeting with a leader in microfluidics technology, Dr. Fernando Ontiveros, while they were both attending a previous SCS conference. His team is exploring new applications for microfluidics, such as the growing of organoids.
- At what point should moral concerns tied to the dignity of the human person “kick in” when dealing with the brain and brain organoids? Where do you as a person reside in the body? The existence of a capacity for rational thought is a conventional scientific benchmark for the existence of personhood, Megan said. There are many theories of the complex brain-mind-body connection with personhood. The human person is a complex creature, not reducible to the brain or body alone. Here’s an exploration of some insights from National Geographic.
- There is a real role for literature in helping us to explore the many questions that combine operational questions of engineering and more abstract, integrated thinking about persons, Megan says. She recommends renowned author Walker Percy, who explored such subjects in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. He comments that being a human is inevitably an uncomfortable process involving tensions within our nature. Our culture tends to look to science for answers to the big questions of human nature, but literature and art are pathways to answers too; literature allows us to think without predispositions and suppositions, to discover truths about ourselves and the world that transcend scientifically measurable parts. As Megan put it, the ability to wonder about the world is a gift that is transmitted sometimes through engineering and sometimes through literature and art.
- Megan has been able to work with Ontiveros while he has done research and prepared journal articles at Notre Dame. With the support of mentors and advisors, she has embraced opportunities at Notre Dame and elsewhere to spend time thinking about faith and science in relationship. She attended a conference with like-minded graduate students interested in these connections. She has appreciated the insights of SCS president Stephen Barr and microbiologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, a speaker at this year’s SCS conference. Barr is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. Austriaco has recorded a podcast available through the Thomistic Institute titled The Science and Practice of Christian Prayer.
- What does Megan recommend for graduate students and others who want to advance in their bioengineering studies while staying informed and mindful about the faith-related aspects? She highlights the power of community, building friendships and conversations over time with a diverse range of people on similar journeys, including philosophy and science. One can attend relevant lectures and conferences, such as those sponsored by Notre Dame’s De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. She recommends the resources of the Collegium Institute. Building and updating such mindfulness is a long-term process requiring persistence, she adds.
In today's episode we sit down with Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a Dominican friar, biologist, and bioethicist on the faculty at Providence College. Similarly to our interview with Fr. Lawrence Machia, we discuss the way in which science and a vocation to both the priesthood and life in a specific religious order intertwined in his life, with the additional perspective that his Filipino heritage contributes to his understanding of his vocation and the culture here in America.
- Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., Ph.D., is a Dominican priest and molecular biologist, on the faculty of Providence College. See his page on the college’s website.
- Cells carry a genetic program for self-death for the good of the organism. Cancer cells do not exercise this self-death. Here is one explanation of that phenomenon.
- Fr. Austriaco belongs to the Eastern Province of the Dominican Order. An early introduction within that order entails learning to remain silent, to trust in the loving presence of God. We talked about the American cultural propensity for busy-ness as a key to one’s sense of success.
- How can we think about the intersection of biological science and moral theology? Fr. Austriaco said this. Biology can help you figure out what’s good for you and what’s not good for you. We are creatures shaped by God through an evolutionary process that took place over a long time frame. Our fulfillment includes trying to understand which of our instinctual desires are perfected and which ones still have to be mastered. That’s the gist of Catholic moral theology. God calls us to joy, and that includes our fulfillment as the biological creatures we are. We must figure out what pleasures achieve the fulfillment of our nature and lead to joy. Pleasure is a grace; it can be a very good thing so long as the pleasure is ordered to our true human nature, our integral human fulfillment, what Christ calls us to.
- Is there a sense in which the Catechism of the Catholic Church is like an “owner’s manual” for the human being in living out a human life? Fr. Austriaco explained that the Gospel is a love letter from God, inviting us into friendship. The Catechism shows us the expectations that come with accepting that friendship. It’s not about what we “have to do” but what we want to do because the friendship is offering the relationship with Christ that brings us fulfillment. An “owner’s manual” concept suggests rules to follow to avoid car malfunctions, but our pursuit is more of a proactive response to God’s invitation of love and happiness. A mechanistic approach like an “owner’s manual” still suggests “I’m in charge” as an individual with a checklist—a deeply American interpretation, as Fr. Austriaco pointed out.
- Shortly after speaking at the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists, Fr. Austriaco also spoke at the Vita Institute, sponsored annually by the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame as an intensive overview of Catholic pro-life principles.
- You can see Fr. Austriaco’s talk to the Society’s 2019 conference on YouTube. You’ll also find there a video of Fr. Austriaco’s 2017 lecture, “Defending Adam after Darwin.”
16:00 dogs and chocolate; biology gives us a specific perspective on what is good and bad for us.
18:00 pleasure and its purpose as well as how it leads us astray
20:00 Bill and the "owner's manual" perspective
22:00 rules secondary to relationships
The conversation involving Dr. Condic, Dr. Giesting and Schmitt turned to the complexities of the nation’s debate about abortion. That debate engages a mix of biological facts (which may or may not be probed in the full context of updated knowledge), personal experiences, and deeply held principles, positions, and emotions including authentic sympathy for the circumstances in which pregnant women find themselves. Although providing scientific insights is a crucial advancement of the debate because people deserve to have comprehensive information, the laying out of certain biological facts alone will not necessarily change minds, Condic said.
In many cases, much of the public presentation of the abortion controversy dividing people is manufactured, but there is room for honest discussion on particular grounds. We each can play a part in adding to human understandings in this controversy. People evolve their judgments on the wide scope of the debate incrementally over time.
But the search for a full overview is complicated; indeed, Dr. Condic referred to difficulties she and her brother Samuel Condic encountered (different vocabularies, etc.) in compiling their book Human Embryos, Human Beings. The book aims to bring together philosophical and biological insights about human life at its beginning. In short, the abortion debate requires us to spend more time in listening to each other, asking questions, probing the basis of people’s stances, and less time in simply lecturing, she said.
Paul talked about his experience with identical twins in his family. Twinning is a complex arena for understanding “who you are,” raising core questions with biological and philosophical implications. Our discussion around the microphone extended to research on the topics of compaction and chimeras. Condic has written a book that delves into the complexities. Untangling Twinning is scheduled for publication this summer.
There are also biological phenomena complicating an understanding of our human nature in sexual terms. There can be complex factors differentiating between one’s genetic sex and one’s hormonal sex, Condic said. A very small segment of the population has genetically compound sexual identities. Intersex disorders can occur in a variety of ways, although in the vast majority of cases questions of a person’s gender identity are not grounded in physical causes, Condic said. Studies in some areas raise questions within the LGBTQ community itself. Among many, endeavors focusing on a “gay gene” that would undergird a statement that “I was born this way” have been diminished by a view that gender identity is fluid or is driven by non-genetic factors.
- Our discussion of totipotent, pluripotent, and plenipotent stem cells helped to clarify a complex subject of great importance to many people, such as those who suffer from diseases awaiting therapies capturing the power of these cells. Dr. Maureen Condic, as a pioneer in this field, contributed insights in 2013 by developing the concept of plenipotent cells. See her journal article.
- Our discussion also led to a sense of wonderment about the ability of cells to follow such complex paths of development, starting with the organism created when sperm and egg combine. The product and the process can easily be dismissed as a simple mass of cells, or one can recall Psalm 139:14, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” In this episode, we discussed how it seems viscerally sad that the amazement, which is itself so full of potential, can be lost in everyday discussions of human life.
- Related to this, Dr. Condic pointed out that there is an unfortunate lack of philosophical education among many scientists. Here is a blog post from Scientific American discussing synergies between science and philosophy—synergies which are at the core of this podcast’s mission.
- We discussed the relevance of the philosophical concepts of form and substance. Here’s a web page explaining those concepts.
- This book, written by Dr. Condic and her brother sounds like it is a rare and valuable synthesis of philosophical and biological insights about life: Human Embryos, Human Beings. She noted in our episode that such an extended, on-point synthesis is rare for various reasons, including the need to clarify vocabulary used on both sides of the dialogue, avoiding the risk that we will talk past each other.
- She has written another book, this one examining the biological and philosophical issues around human twinning, Untangling Twinning. It is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2019. For now, a computer search using this title yielded, as one of the first finds, a copy of a news release written by TSSM podcast co-host Bill Schmitt and posted at classicaltheism.com.
- University of Utah’s information page for Dr. Maureen Condic. She is an Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy, with an adjunct appointment in Pediatrics. Her research focuses on the role of stem cells in development and regeneration. She has taught human embryology in the University’s Medical School for 20 years.
- See Dr. Condic’s biographical summary in the list of speakers at the Society of Catholic Scientists 2019 conference titled, “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” At the conference, this embryologist and specialist in developmental neurobiology delivered the St. Albert Award Lecture: “Human Beings are Defined by Organization.”
- Dr. Condic is the 2019 recipient of the St. Albert Award, named for Saint Albert the Great, the Catholic Church’s patron saint of natural scientists. The award is given annually to a Catholic scientist whose life and work give witness to the harmony that exists between the vocation of scientist and the life of faith. See more details about the award, including its previous recipients.
- Dr. Condic’s previous awards include the Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Research Award, created in 1973 and presented by the March of Dimes to support a young scientist’s promising new research. The March of Dimes was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, initially to fight polio. Today, the foundation focuses on health problems in babies, especially premature birth, birth defects, and low birth weight. Find context for the program of research support here.
- Dr. Condic also has been the recipient of a Scholar Award for research from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience.
- In 2018, she was appointed to the National Science Board. The NSB establishes the policies of the National Science Foundation and serves as advisor to Congress and the President.
- She is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which is dedicated to promoting the Catholic Church’s consistent life ethic and supporting research in bioethics and moral theology.
- When confronted with alternative views and occasionally accused of being “brainwashed” with a pro-life stance, Dr. Condic says one must ask, what view actually makes more sense of the world? A quote from the episode: “What vision of the world actually accounts for most of the data? In my experience, it’s a Christian vision of the world, and particularly a Catholic vision of the world, that very much endorses precisely the kind of questioning mind that promotes scientific investigation….”
- Another key thought from the episode: The information generated in scientific disciplines is so huge, it forces many scientists to make their own fields of specialized inquiry “narrower and narrower.” Also, “they have no time” to give deep consideration to many big questions about life, the world, and the origin of the universe. “Particularly in biology, there’s such an intoxication with success.” Individuals who are indeed brilliant and making remarkable progress for people may become confident that they can answer all the important questions.
- Starting at about the 22-minute mark in this episode, Dr. Condic tells the story of an event that changed her life and produced her commitment to public advocacy and public education.“ She saw a need to combat ignorance or oversimplification about scientific advancements and to be “an advocate for patients and knowledge and factual information.”
- Dr. Condic also provides a valuable, clear update on parts of the debate about disease treatments using embryonic stem cells as opposed to adult stem cells, with research on the latter having resulted in a huge number of clinical trials and prospects for various treatments. A major new phase of the research has moved on to the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, which do not raise the same ethical issues as embryonic cells.
- In presenting the St. Albert Award during the Society of Catholic Scientists conference, president Stephen Barr, Ph.D., pointed out Dr. Condic’s “courageous public defense, on scientific and philosophical grounds, on the human status of human embryos.”
This is the second part of our panel discussion with two conference attendees, Merissa Newton, a philosophy instructor at the University of New England and Geoffrey Woollard, a cancer researcher at the University of Toronto.
[This file is vastly improved from the original version; Bill was able to provide a backup from his portable microphone.]
The individual videos of the conference talks are or will be posted soon at https://www.catholicscientists.org/ideas/theme/video-archive
After laboring through some technical problems, here is our first full post-SCS Conference episode.
We had a panel discussion with two conference attendees, Merissa Newton, a philosophy instructor at the University of New England and Geoffrey Woollard, a cancer researcher at the University of Toronto.
This conference was a heady experience, and as a self-taught amateur podcaster and interviewer, I was absurdly far out of my comfort zone. Things went surprisingly well save for one critical error: I neglected to do much of any testing of my laptop and microphone before I started recording. A whole bunch of lessons I hopefully learned there... In any case, today's audio may be the worst of the conference. I had to think long and hard about whether to air this episode, or what if anything to cut. Bill had backup audio starting halfway through this episode, so feel free to skip ahead to about 17:10 to miss the problematic section.
The individual videos of the conference talks will be posted soon at https://www.catholicscientists.org/ideas/theme/video-archive
We had more insane audio problems on this episode; Paul's audio from Zencastr was unusable. I had to record a new introduction and first question, then splice in our backup recording from Zoom.
Jonathan Lunine is a prominent planetary scientist. He teaches at Cornell and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences; he has won a Urey award and holds a number of other academic distinctions. He worked with the radar and other instruments on the Cassini mission to Saturn and is co-investigator on the Juno mission now in orbit at Jupiter as well as on the MISE instrument for the Europa Clipper mission. He is on the science team for the James Webb Space Telescope, focusing on characterization of extrasolar planets and Kuiper Belt objects.
I opened the interview by asking his side of the story of the beginning of the Society of Catholic Scientists. We discuss its growth so far and how it is reaching the point where hopefully more members will become involved in planning and carrying out activities.
We discussed the overall trajectory of conference themes so far. (Remember, kids, two points may suffice to draw a straight line, but not to define a trend!) The first SCS conference topic was Origins (mostly of the physical universe). The second focused on the Human Mind and Physicalism. This third one zooms out somewhat again and covers humanity more broadly, and touches on two hot-button points:
- If we have all these distinctively human features (consciousness, free will, etc.), is there any way of knowing when in absolute, archeological/geological time those came into existence?
- Given all our biological and electronic capabilities, we can change our own bodies and brains in radical ways, and these capabilities are only going to grow. Where should we stop? What channels should these abilities be directed into, and where do the dikes belong?
Jonathan hopes that the diversity of speakers, not just from different sciences but across the science-facing pieces of the humanities, will become a hallmark of the SCS conferences: a place where badly needed interdisciplinary conversations are fostered. We discuss the difficulties inherent in our siloing, not just of academic disciplines, but of journalism, too.
Once again, SCS conference will happen June 7-9 at the University of Notre Dame. We will be providing bonus episodes during the conference as we discuss the topics and speakers with conference attendees, and will have breakdowns of the conference and speaker interviews rolling out over the ensuing weeks.
Also be sure to check the SCS website for videos of the actual talks!
Today we continue our conversation with Stephen Barr about this year’s Society of Catholic Scientists conference, which will feature great speakers discussing the nature of humanity and its bounds in terms of time and technology. You can see a full list of speakers here and the program for the conference here.