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Featuring guest Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin | Science & Wonder

Jeff Hardin's work as a scientist, exploring the intricate details of life’s origin, has only enriched his wonder toward the God who created it all, an awe which feeds back into his teaching and research.

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cells seen through a microscope

Jeff Hardin's work as a scientist, exploring the intricate details of life’s origin, has only enriched his wonder toward the God who created it all, an awe which feeds back into his teaching and research.

Description

Ever since he was a kid, Jeff Hardin has been fascinated by the natural world. His long standing avenue for connecting with creation has been science, whether old nature documentary series like Wild Kingdom or exploring the early development of nematode worms in his lab in Wisconsin. Jeff’s work as a scientist, exploring the intricate details of life’s origin, has only enriched his wonder toward the God who created it all, an awe which feeds back into his teaching and research.

  • Originally aired on June 09, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

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Hardin: 

What I tell my students on the first day of class, whether they are Christians like me, and I identify myself as a Christian at that point, or not, in other words, whether they share the worldview of the Hebrew poet writing that bit of Hebrew poetry or not, my goal is that they would think embryonic development is cool. And in fact that the details of our understanding of embryonic development should enhance our sense of wonder about it all. Knowing how complicated it is should extend well beyond getting an A on the exam and should give us this healthy respect and awe in fact, that’s enhanced when we understand the intricacies of this process.

I’m Jeff Hardin, I’m the Raymond E. Keller Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin.

Stump:

Hey everybody, welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump.

You may be wondering why it took us so long to get Jeff Hardin on the podcast. As it turns out, being the Raymond E. Keller Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin, sitting on the BioLogos Board of Directors, as well as serving on various other campus and faith related boards and committees fills Jeff’s schedule pretty quickly. But while the conversation is long overdue, the insights he offers are evergreen. Whether fostering awe and wonder of God’s creation through the scientific understanding, or explaining how Christian scientists can commit themselves to academic excellence without neglecting their faith, Jeff’s perspective bears the mark of studied thoughtfulness and genuine humility. And, if you’re interested, he also shares a bit about his lab’s current research on what the early development of a certain type of nematode worm can teach us about our early development as humans. I hope you’re interested. It’s pretty cool.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well, Jeff Harden, welcome to the podcast. It’s very good to have you here with us.

Hardin:

It’s nice to be here. Thanks.

Stump:

So for a long time, you’ve been on our list as an obvious candidate to talk to your BioLogos. Insider, you’ve been on the board for about as long as I’ve been at BioLogos, I think. And you’re a biologist and at R1 university and you also have a seminary degree that puts you right square in our sights as somebody interesting to talk to. But I’m guessing there are a lot of people in our audience who don’t know you as you’ve been toiling away up there in Wisconsin. And there are some gaps in my own knowledge of your story, so let’s start there. Where did you grow up? What was your family like?

Hardin:

Well, my parents actually went to the University of Wisconsin, but we moved away from the Milwaukee area when I was four, and I spent most of my growing up years in the Washington DC area. And I did high school there. So pretty much from all as far as I can back as I can remember, I grew up in Northern Virginia. My dad was an electrical engineer who worked for the army. And so that’s what took us to the DC area. I didn’t grow up in a home that would be characterized as a Christian home. When I was little, we went to the local church, a few blocks away from our house, and I have some childhood memories of that. But in fairly short order, my parents drifted away from any sort of traditional conventional Christianity, and I kind of grew up not having any particular religious orientation to my life in any way. One of the things that I was keenly interested in as a kid was science. So I was fed a steady diet of nature documentaries, Jacques Cousteau, Marlon Perkins, Wild Kingdom, National Geographic specials. And you didn’t have those on demand, so you had to watch them when they aired.

Stump:

Sunday night was Wild Kingdom, I remember that.

Hardin:

Yeah, you got it. I was really enthralled with the natural world as a kid. I always thought that I would be a scientist one day. As I was growing up, I developed an interest in physics. In fact, in high school, I studied German because a lot of great physicists were German speakers. So that was kind of the orientation of my life in terms of science. Now, meanwhile, I told you that I hadn’t really grown up in any particularly Christian sort of home. But when in middle school, I had a really profound experience, which was that one of my classmates invited me to, well, to make a long story short, what turned out to be a youth revival meeting. I got to this meeting, and I realized that well, this wasn’t just a time with free food and music, but there was a point to these proceedings. The speaker was talking to me about things I’d never really thought about or heard about. He was talking to me about the good news of the central message of the Christian gospel. Now, I didn’t get it that first time. But for some reason, several months later, I went back to another similar event. And at that point, I had a really dramatic conversion. I realized that there were some things that were true about me that were problems that I simply couldn’t solve. One of those problems was what the Bible calls sin, and that this was keeping me from having a relationship with God, but God loved me and he had done a lot to make it possible for me to know Him through Jesus. So I had a very dramatic conversion. This was in a Southern Baptist church, this youth revival, but most of my friends went to the United Methodist Church, so that’s where I went after I became a Christian. My parents were great, they took me to church, dropped me off. I went to church, did youth group, and they would come pick me up. I really felt supported by them, even though they themselves were really not moving in any Christian circles. I would characterize their own belief system as sort of New Age spirituality. 

Stump:

Yeah, so this newfound religious faith. Did you perceive any conflict with the science that you were interested in? Or how did those two develop in tandem then?

Hardin:

Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, I really didn’t feel a conflict between science and my Christian faith. Now, maybe that’s because I was a youngster and a bit naive. But certainly, my parents, although they themselves had drifted from Christianity, when I was little, they presented a different model for how to think about this. I remember when I was a little kid, my dad would read me a book and one of the books that he read to me was about the fact that no matter where we went, in fact, if we went as far as Sirius, the Dog Star, if we went light years away from Earth, God would still be there. And so I think those fragments of those kinds of things from my upbringing, laid a foundation for me that wasn’t one where the starting point was an ineluctable conflict between Christian faith and science. 

Stump:

Well keep the story going here. So now you’re in high school. You’re like physics. You’re a Christian. Where does the educational journey go from there?

Hardin:

Well, I was also interested in music and so I looked for a university that would combine physics with clarinet performance—I’m a clarinet player—and there’s not a lot of those out there.

Stump:

Alright, so what’s the list? [laughs]

Hardin:

Yeah, the list was pretty short. So it turns out Michigan State University had the cyclotron laboratory and they had these two great clarinet professors. So instead of going to a school in the state of Virginia, where I grew up, I went to Michigan State as an undergrad. And I started off majoring in physics and music performance. Well, I don’t know about you, but during my freshman year, let’s just say that was a period of discovery for me because I realized number one, my math skills were not good enough to be a top flight physicist. I did great in the first quarter. But then in the second quarter we did electromagnetism and, trying to do integration by parts and spherical coordinates, I realized my classmates could see the answers and I was having trouble, I had to slog through it. At the same time, my clarinet professors were saying, You’re not serious if you don’t practice at least five hours a day on your primary instrument, plus all the other music stuff that you have to do. And I realized, oh, boy, I maybe should reconsider my career trajectory. My brother at the time, my younger brother, contracted bacterial meningitis and he almost died . He went through numerous disfiguring operations. So just really, he’s a remarkable guy who has been through a lot. But because of that experience and visiting him in the hospital and seeing all of that, I decided that I would switch to a pre-med track at the end of my freshman year. And so I did that, I became a zoology major. So I ended up getting a degree in zoology as one of my degrees. And then remember, I had studied German, because that’s what physicists spoke well, I just kept the German going and I got a German degree as well. So that’s what I ended up with at the end of undergrad.

Stump:

There are a few German biologists too, right?

Hardin:

Yeah, quite a few. 

Stump:

Okay, so after undergrad?

Hardin:

Well, so as an undergrad, I was heavily involved with a parachurch ministry, which is now called Cru. I was involved as a student leader in that organization throughout college. But I thought that I would do an MD PhD and I was accepted to do that at a couple of really fine institutions. But for some reason, as I got close to April 15, which is when you have to sign and commit to one of these places, I was getting increasingly uncomfortable and anxious. And I didn’t know why. So I attended a retreat. And this was a retreat where they were trying to recruit you to go into campus ministry, and I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to do that. But I needed to get away and ponder what I should do. The main speaker at this retreat was a seminary president. So I laid out my story to him, and he said, Well, I think you should go to seminary. Of course, what is he going to say, as a seminary president, I thought he was nuts. But then I went home, and I was living with some other Christian guys. And after a lot of prayer, I decided not to do the MD PhD and decided instead to enroll in Theological Seminary, a place called the International School of Theology. I got a master divinity degree there eventually.

Stump:

Yeah, so after seminary, you must have had your sights set back on science? Connect the dots there for us.

Hardin:

Yeah. So I compressed the MDiv into a couple of years, and between years one and two, I was kind of uncertain what I should be doing. I had met this woman at a summer theological institute, where I was a teaching assistant, and she was a student in the class I was teaching and she’s now my wife, Susie. And I told Susie, you know, I’m not sure what the next step is. Are you really willing to hitch your wagon to someone like me? And thank God she was and in the fall of my second year in seminary, I felt a strong call to go back into academic science. I had had these interests in physics and I had a math minor and I wanted to combine that with my biological training, and so I thought about a PhD in biophysics. And Susie, who I had, by that time, become engaged to, was in campus ministry with Cru at University of California, Berkeley, so I got to see the Berkeley campus. And through a series of amazing events that I think were incredibly providential, I was able to get into the biophysics Ph. D. program, even though I had been in a theological seminary. So that launched me back into academic science at Berkeley.

Stump:

Well, I said earlier that Wisconsin is an R1 University, which is a technical distinction in the Carnegie Classification System, but what does that mean for what your job looks like? How do you actually spend your working hours?

Hardin: 

That’s a great question. So R1 universities put a high premium on research. Tenure track faculty like me, when we are hired here, it’s almost always true that the expectation is that a substantial part of your academic life will be spent doing research, or in the case of scientists like me, we typically direct a research group, which includes undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. So a lot of my time is spent doing research. Another big chunk of my time is spent teaching, and I’m in a department which used to be called the zoology department, now it’s called Integrative Biology. A lot of our teaching mission is directed towards undergraduates, which was something that I really wanted. So most of my teaching has been at the undergraduate level in cell biology and in something called developmental biology, the science of embryonic development. 

Stump:

So let’s dig in a little deeper to the actual science of what you’ve done then. I’ll note that the URL for the Hardin lab is worms.zoology.wisc.edu. What are you doing with these worms?

Hardin:

Well, I am a developmental biologist and developmental biologists are fascinated by a fundamental question. That is, how do you start with a fertilized egg, a single cell, and wind up with an incredibly complicated organism. A human infant, it’s estimated, has between 10 and 15 trillion cells at birth. One thing you appreciate if you’ve ever held a baby in your arms is how incredibly reproducible this process is, all of the exquisitely delicate little structures, fingers, toes, ears, nose, face, entire body, well, all of that starts in the embryo. To create an organism requires the embryo to build itself and that involves two fundamental things. One is that cells have to become specialized. And we know that that involves changes in the genes they turn on and off, so there’s some nature there. But there’s also nurture, cells have to talk to one another and communicate via complicated signaling pathways, and lots of developmental biologists study those things. But there’s another thing that you have to do. If you think about it, having a bunch of specialized cells with no particular spatial ordering would be a mess, you’d have an eyeball thrown in the bag, you know, toenails, hair follicles, if they’re all mixed up without any ordering, obviously, you don’t have an organism. And so there’s another process which has to occur concomitantly with this process of specialization and that is something called morphogenesis. That’s a big word, that just means how form arises. This is the embryo construction project where it actually has to put cells together in an intricate spatial order. That’s what my lab studies and that involves things like cells moving around, they need a machinery for that, and they have to coordinate when and where they’re going to do that. Cells have to stick to one another and they have to sometimes lose their stickiness towards other cells. That’s something called cell adhesion, you get the idea. So you’ve got to construct the embryo, as well as produce specialized cell types. These things work hand in hand and an ever increasing spiral of complexity from this one cell zygote that doesn’t look particularly complicated, but under the hood actually is, to something that looks incredibly complicated, like a newborn baby. The worms come in because of a simple philosophy that most basic developmental biologists have. You can learn a lot about a Mercedes by studying a Toyota. What do I mean by that? Well, if you open the hood of a Toyota, and I happen to drive a hand-me-down Toyota from my in-laws, who gave me a very nice Toyota that I happen to drive. Now, if you look at that Toyota,  there’s an engine under the hood and lots of parts there. If you open up the luxury car, and my son John likes luxury cars, so I have a lot of experience, at least vicariously looking at his fancy cars, if you open the hood on one of John’s fancy cars, it’s got a lot of the same engine parts. Now it has some bells and whistles that the Toyota doesn’t have, let’s be clear about that. But the fundamental operating principles are the same. So if we study the Toyota well, that’s going to carry over to our understanding of the Mercedes or the Maserati, or whatever kind of fancy car you want to choose. So those kinds of organisms that allow us to understand humans in this way are called model organisms. And the nematode worms that we study are one of those model organisms. It’s the nematode worms, caenorhabditis elegans, it’s kind of like a fruit fly. Maybe you learned about fruit flies in high school, and it has a lot of the same virtues.

Stump:

Of being able to develop quickly or reproduce quickly?

Hardin:

Yeah, they reproduce quickly. They’re transparent, so you can see them with fancy microscopes, which we do a lot of, you can manipulate them genetically, you can make mutants and see what happens when you perturb one gene, what effect does that have on embryonic development. You can also engineer embryos using tools like something called genome editing to edit bits of DNA to deliberately change genes that you’re interested in and look at the effects. You can also take proteins and glue a little fluorescent bit onto them so you can watch proteins in cells in a living embryo doing what they’re doing for the embryo. And we do a lot of that in this lab.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, personal stories, and curated resources for pastors, students, and educators. And we’ve recently launched a new animated video series called insights. These short videos tell stories and explore many of the questions at the heart of the faith and science conversation. You can find them at biologos dot org slash insights or there’s a link in the shownotes. All right, back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

So go back to 1991, you get this new job here and start up a lab. What are some of the questions that you had at the time about this developmental process? You’ve just described for us here that you have been able to answer over the course of your scientific career and maybe what are some of the questions that have not yet succumbed to your being able to answer them very clearly?

Hardin:

That’s a great question. Well, I mentioned at the outset that I’m the Raymond E. Keller Professor of Integrative Biology. Who is Raymond E. Keller, you might ask. Well, the named professorship that I have is a unique one, it allows me to provide my own name for the professorship. Ray Keller happens to be the guy I did my PhD with and he suggested that I work on a particular project involving another model organism, the sea urchin embryo. Maybe you know about sea urchins from sushi and eating uni or something, but sea urchin embryos are great for studying a fundamental process. There’s a tube that forms your entire digestive tract. That’s true for humans and it’s also true for things like sea urchins. So in my PhD I studied how this tube forms from a flat sheet of cells, how does it bend inward, sort of like poking a partially deflated beach ball inward, if you can imagine that. Then once you’ve got a short, squat cylinder, how do you make it longer to go across the entire length of the embryo, and it turns out to do that second thing, cells have to change position in a highly orchestrated way. Think line dancing or some complicated choreographed dance moves. But now imagine that the cells of the embryo are doing kind of their own flashmob. And that’s what they have to do. That movement is called convergent extension of cells wiggle between one another along one axis to make the structure longer along the perpendicular or orthogonal axis. And Ray Keller was kind of the godfather of this convergent extension business. I got into that as a grad student, and continued to study that as a postdoctoral fellow when I came here. That’s one of the fundamental things that I worked on. It turns out in the last three decades, and we’ve made a lot of progress, through the work of many, many scientists, in understanding how this intricate choreography actually takes place. And we know that it involves ways in which the cells know their front from their back ways in which cells once they know their front, from their back, produce little doodads that allow them to crawl and wiggle between one another. When they do that they have to make and break adhesive connections, all of those things have gone into that. So it’s really satisfying to see that we push back the boundaries of knowledge in this area pretty substantially during my career, and my lab’s certainly been a part of that. 

Now, in terms of what we don’t understand very well. Well, it turns out that cells are not solo artists, they’re doing this, as I’ve said, in groups, so cells have sort of a sociology within the embryo. We’re just beginning to understand how groupings of cells work together to change the shape of sheets of cells. Embryos have to bend and fold and extend all kinds of tissues and trying to understand that is going to force us to understand how cells work together in groups. It turns out, one of the things that they have to do is they exert forces on one another, so there’s that physics coming back. And I’m really interested right now in how cells exert forces on one another in coordinated ways to change the shape of an embryo. We’re beginning to understand that much better, that’s thanks to engineers and physicists becoming interested in this kind of biology. But we have a long way to go.

Stump: 

So the way you just answered those two questions there, I think, provides a segue for us to at least start heading toward the religion aspect of your thinking in this regard, too. Because the first question you answered, there’s a lot of anthropomorphic kind of terms used about these cells, right? And I think that causes some people, who perhaps are at least mildly aware of science and faith discussions to say, Man cells have to know what each other is doing, or cells are intending or trying to do, this sounds teleological. There must be some people that would latch on to that kind of description and say, Now, come on, there must be something else going on here, something beyond the science that doesn’t explain that. And yet, that was the question that you said you figured out in the lab. When you got to talking about the second one, though, the language became about forces—we’re trying to figure out how one cell exerts force on another cell. That sounds much more in keeping with sort of the traditional scientific understanding, as opposed to that more anthropomorphic sounding way of the questions you have figured out. What do you make of that?

Hardin:

Well, first, in my own defense, we try to keep the level of technical jargon in this discussion to a minimum. 

Stump:  

Yup, fair enough.

Hardin:

I don’t think of cells having a collective consciousness or something like that. When I say cells need to know which way to move, it’s because cells can emit signals, which are received by neighboring cells using receptor molecules on their surfaces, which act like molecular antennae to allow a cell to receive that signal. Then it’s pre-programmed, in some ways, with a limited repertoire of responses to that signal. That’s very cumbersome what I just said. So it is true that sometimes, with in a popular discussion, we’ll use words like know and sense or something like that in a way that might lead some people to think that there’s some overarching, intelligence exerting effects on individual cells and rearranging them like checkers on the checkerboard or something. But really, scientists don’t think in that way about how embryos develop, it’s really better to think about the unfertilized egg having molecules in it, when that egg is fertilized, it sets in motion, a set of chemical reactions inside of that cell that leads to molecules being moved to different locations. As cells divide then different cells have different properties that allow them to communicate with one another. Eventually, in the period of morphogenesis, when the cells have to move around, we are thinking about chemical influences on the surface of cells leading to changes within cells and involve building blocks, assembling into chains of molecules and doing all those kinds of things. So we use shorthand that sounds teleological, we didn’t actually define that word. This is the notion that there’s a directedness to natural processes. Now, embryos are, I think, the quintessential example of something that seems teleological. Aristotle thought about acorns moving to oak trees, he studied animal embryos a lot, he was one of the first great natural scientists. There is clearly an endpoint: fertilized human eggs, form human embryos, give rise to babies. In that sense, there is a directedness, that it’s easy to discern if you just look at what’s going on in the womb. But when scientists talk about teleology, they’re usually not talking about some sort of vital force that’s directing the components of an embryo. Some people in previous generations did think that way, but I think that would not be a common view today. Now having said that, can we recast the discussion about the goal directedness of embryonic development in a way that scientists are comfortable with? That might involve processes or things to think about that emerge from the component parts of the embryo, or a hierarchy over time of things that are unfolding in the embryo, but we tend not to find it productive to think about non-physical additives to the process as an explanatory factor from a scientific perspective. But to go beyond that, I think it requires philosophers like you to think about these things, requires from a Christian perspective at least, theologians thinking about, well, if, if God is working through these processes, what do we mean by that exactly? There are a lot of things to unpack there from a Christian perspective.

Stump:

Let’s try to unpack a couple of those. So did God knit us together in our mother’s womb? How do we understand… Well, let me ask it this way, does understanding the natural process by which cells develop, by which zygotes develop into full organisms, does understanding that somehow take away from the mystery, the awe? I mean, we often even talk of the miracle of birth, of how this process works that’s so remarkable. When you dig into it and understand those details, does it just become like, oh, yeah, this is just a machine that cranks out cogs in this way?

Hardin:

Well, let me begin by telling you a bit about what I do on the first day of class in my embryonic development class here at Wisconsin. I actually quote from that song that you alluded to earlier about, which is Psalm 139. And you may remember, if you know that piece of Hebrew poetry, that it talks about us being fearfully and wonderfully made. If you look at the wider context of that psalm, that psalm is really about God’s omnipresence, there’s no place we can go, where God is not there. And that includes when we were in the womb. The psalm does use knitting language, as you said, it uses the language of embroidery or tapestry production. If you know anybody who’s in that business, you know that’s a process. And it’s a complicated process that starts from individual threads, which are woven into a pattern. So that’s a beautiful description of what actually happens and what scientists have uncovered about embryonic development. What I tell my students on the first day of class, whether they are Christians like me, and I identify myself as a Christian at that point, or not, in other words, whether they share the worldview of the Hebrew poet writing that bit of Hebrew poetry or not, my goal is that they would think embryonic development is cool. And in fact that the details of our understanding of embryonic development should enhance our sense of wonder about it all. Knowing how complicated it is should extend well beyond getting an A on the exam and should give us this healthy respect and awe in fact, that’s enhanced when we understand the intricacies of this process. So, no, for me, the goal is not to dissect embryonic development and leave it bleeding on the floor. That would be sad. For me, as a scientist, and I think most Christians who are scientists have this very same feeling about what they study, understanding a process evermore deeply enhances my appreciation for the one who makes these processes possible, who’s God himself.

Stump:

Nice. Are there ways that science has directly influenced your faith? Or that opposite direction of influence, ways that your faith has influenced your science? And I don’t mean in some very concrete sense where God comes out in the results of an experiment or something and gets peer reviewed, and everybody says, wow, that was a miracle. But these two ways of thinking, these two commitments that you have to understanding the world is a scientist and your commitment to God and to Jesus, ways that these interact beyond just Yes, I’m a Christian, and I’m a scientist?

Hardin:

Well, there’s another piece of Hebrew poetry that I like to talk about in this regard and that’s Psalm 19. You may remember that it begins by the psalmist, declaring the heavens declare the glories of God. Now, I’m not an astronomer. But what’s remarkable about the first part of that psalm is that the Hebrew poet describes the regularities of heavenly bodies. And for him, this reflects the faithfulness of the creator who lies behind it. He says about these heavenly bodies day to day they pour forth speech, that word in Hebrew is literally bubbling up. If you’re as old as I am, you may remember a show called The Beverly Hillbillies that bubblin’ crude, bubbling up. So there’s this irrepressible aspect of studying the creation, the natural world that God has made, that it’s designed to point us towards him. In a sense, the creation is a book that lies before us something that we can study. But you may also know that later on in that psalm, the poet makes a pivot, and he talks about the law of the Lord being perfect, and how it enlightens the soul. And by it, my servant is warned, those kinds of things. So there’s a second book, the Bible, that we need to be equally studious about. One author, two books, this is an old idea, not a new one for me, but it shapes how I think about the interface of science and Christian faith in my own life. I don’t seek an incredibly tight articulation between what I learned from the Bible, the scriptures, and what I learned from studying God’s world. But I think I should also expect that studying both should, that they should mutually enhance one another in terms of my own appreciation for the God whom I love, and whom I serve. Now, the interesting thing at the end of that psalm is that the psalmist ends by saying something that you maybe hear in church a lot, may the words of my mouth and meditations my heart be acceptable in your sight, oh, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. So at the end, after studying these two books, there’s a response of the writer back to God, to be faithful to what he’s learned. I think about that piece a lot. Embryonic development is part of a set of technologies that are, well, we’re in the midst of a radical transformation technologically in our ability to manipulate human embryos. As someone who is thinking about putting together what we learn from science and what we learned from the scriptures, I think about that a lot. How is the knowledge that we’re gaining, how can that be put to appropriate uses, God honoring uses? As a Christian, that means that I’m going to spend time thinking about things that are outside of getting my next grant or writing my next scientific paper. What’s the wider context within which I’m doing developmental biology? And how can I help my students to think about that more deeply? So in my developmental biology class, we take a couple of lectures and we talk about bioethics, even though it’s a science class. The reason for that is that, as a Christian, I want to help my students to become better citizens to think well about these things. They are going to be leading our society at the time when these technologies ripen sufficiently, that we’re going to have to grapple with huge questions.

Stump:

We hear sometimes from scientists who are Christians, but are not particularly keen to advertise that fact very widely for fear of discrimination, or at least just the curious glances from colleagues who don’t quite understand how someone who takes seriously the scientific method can also believe in the supernatural, right? You don’t sound like one of those kinds of people, you open your class with a psalm, you talk about bioethics, and I’m sure your Christian faith comes through in that regard as well. How has that gone for you in a secular setting like this? With your colleagues, and the scientific enterprise as a whole that maybe sees you have a seminary degree on your CV? What’s with that?

Hardin: 

The first thing I want to say is that, and this surprises mainly some of the Christian students that I interact with as a professor, is that I have never really felt any direct opposition or friction because I am a Christian, who is a scientist. Which is to say that, I’ve had a great career. I mean, I’ve been incredibly grateful to be in Wisconsin, it’s a great place to do science. And my colleagues, I think some of them may be curious about my Christian faith commitments, some may be puzzled, a few may be less than happy about it, but overall, I think the key thing, at least in the sciences, and I’m sure it’s true in other disciplines, is that if you strive for excellence in your academic pursuits, if people see that you’re that you’re wanting to do that to be excellent. And for me, that means honoring God’s creation by investigating it the best way I know how. I think that that’s going to garner respect among your colleagues. I mentioned I was the department chair in my department for 13 years, I was also director of an honors biology program here for 18 years. So clearly, if you’re in positions like that, that’s saying something about the regard that your peers have for you. And I’m grateful for them, it’s just been a great place. So I think that’s one thing I would want to communicate to, especially Christians who are thinking about careers in science, is that you can do this, it’s possible to do this. Now, there is a small, but disproportionately vocal minority of atheists in the sciences, some may immediately think of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. And certainly there have been times when I’ve been in discussions with scientists of that ilk. They’re disappointed that I am a person of Christian faith. But, I have to say that one of the great things about the BioLogos foundation is that it was started by someone who was more than willing to identify as a Christian, Francis Collins, and there are more people like Francis or in a smaller, more modest way myself perhaps, out there, than some people realize.

Stump:

You gave a little bit of advice earlier to young, budding Christian scientists about the pursuit of excellence in their disciplines. Do you have any advice specifically about topics that, as you sit where you are here now and look toward the future, of not just science, but perhaps even this interface of science and faith for the potential of scientists to contribute to the work of God’s kingdom here and now? Are there particular topics that you might say, this would be a really good direction for you to start going? I think this is going to be really important in the future for real quality scientists who also take their faith seriously to work on?

Hardin:

Boy, that’s a great question, but maybe a difficult one. One of the things that’s true, and that I say to Christian and non Christian audiences often, is that the 21st century is the century of biology. Which is to say that we are, we are learning about the biological world at breakneck speed. And smaller than a breadbox biologist like me, people who study molecular, genetic, and cellular details of biology have been incredibly successful. What we’ve been less successful at is integrating what we’ve been learning into a bigger picture thinking. A great example of this is neuroscience. I have many colleagues in my department and across the university who are incredibly good neuroscientists studying some very tiny, intricate corner of the functioning of nerve cells or brains or other things. But a challenge for the future is taking that information and integrating it in thinking about brains as a whole, how they relate to minds. What is the relationship between the nuts and bolts, the parts of a brain for example, and the emergent functions of a brain, or our sense of ourselves as human identities that persist over time and all of those kinds of questions that you philosophers help us to think about. Biologists need to interact with smart people like you, Jim, to become more sophisticated. So I think one of the areas that is ripe for development in the future is the multidisciplinary interface between basic science in an area like the functioning of the brain, or other areas of science, like the origins of the universe, or quantum mechanics, or all of those kinds of complicated things that remember, I’m a physics wannabe, so I have to talk about those. And not just understanding those, but what does that mean? Can the world of meaning, and my Christian faith and forms that world, speak to the medical questions that arise from the science? Not, maybe get in there and kind of bring philosophy directly to bear on a benchtop experiment in biology or the functioning of a telescope or a particle accelerator. But I think where Christians in science have a unique role to play is the interface of the world of meaning with the world of science. And I think there are no better questions than those in my own area—as we develop the ability to manipulate the human genome intentionally, is that a good idea? Towards what ends should we be manipulating the human genome? How should we think about that? I think people want to increase their health. Yes, we understand that. But there are often unintended consequences from the manipulation of the biological world that we have to take seriously. And not only that, we’ve talked about this teleology that gets at not just the goals towards which natural processes seem to be directed, but also gets at thought with the wider purposes of the world and purposes of we humans who live in it. And that, I think, is an area where Christian voices can be very, very important. I’m becoming very interested in something called the genome observatory. There’s a group, one of the people involved in this is Ben Hurlbut, at Arizona State, and I have a colleague, Kris Saha, who are part of a program to help all of us to think well about the manipulation of the human genome—who should be making the decisions about whether that’s a good idea and if it is, how we should be pursuing that? And bringing people together, and certainly people of Christian faith should be part of those discussions.

Stump:

Wow, very interesting. May it be so that there will be such discussions and Christians at the top of their fields contributing to them. Well, we are out of time here. I’m trying to get into the habit of asking our guests what books they’ve been reading or listening to lately, how about you?

Hardin:

I’m one of those people who is reading multiple books at the same time. I’m not a serial reader. And one of the books I’m reading right now, is a book by a former professor at University of Wisconsin, named Michael F. Guyer. And it’s called Being Well-Born. Michael F. Guyer was in our department, the beginning of the 20th century, and he was heavily invested in the eugenics movement. And that’s something that as a department chair, I got our department to think about, that we need to deal with the past there. I’m working with some historians and people in the genetics department, a different department from my own, to wrestle with this past. So that’s a fascinating book, but a troubling one. I’m also reading a book by a sociologist James Davison Hunter, rereading it, called To Change the World. The irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world is getting me to think about what does it mean to be a Christian in this particular moment, and what does it mean to be faithful in that context. He loves the idea of something called faithful presence, which got a lot of buzz when the book came out, but it’s 10 years down the road. And I think a lot of the things that he says there are even truer today. Here’s the last one, I’m reading a book by a guy named Alexander Schmemann, who is an orthodox theologian. He wrote a little book for people who were thinking about becoming priests in the Orthodox church called For the Life of the World, it’s about the Christian sacraments. But he talks a lot about how it is that we, as Christians should think about the world. Is it an opportunity for worship? And is that an opportunity for us to be in dialogue with those who don’t come to the world from a Christian perspective? And I’m really loving some of his insights, especially as he thinks about what it means to live in a secular age. So that’s a short one. I highly recommend that one.

Stump:

Cool. Well, thanks, and thanks for talking to us today. I hope we can do it again sometime.

Hardin:

Thanks so much, Jim. It’s been a pleasure.

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you  will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin is chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin. In addition to numerous scientific research articles relating to embryonic development, Hardin is senior author of World of the Cell. He received a Master of Divinity degree at the International School of Theology in Southern California, where he met his wife, Susie, who worked in campus ministry with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ). He is on the national advisory board for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship’s Faculty Ministry and serves as faculty advisor for the Navigators and InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship on the UW-Madison campus.

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