Maria Kirch

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On 29 December 1720, the German astronomer Maria Kirch died in Berlin. Her father, a Lutheran pastor, believed that she deserved an education equivalent to that given to young boys of the time. From by her father and her uncle, she learnt mathematics and astronomy going on to study with and work together with the amateur astronomer Christoph Arnold. Through Arnold she got to know the astronomer Gottfried Kirch and despite the fact that he was 30 years older than her they married. Kirch was official astronomer of the Berlin Royal Academy of Science and her and Maria ran the Academy’s observatory together for many years. In 1702 she became the first woman to discover a comet but the credit for the discovery was given to her husband. When Gottfried died in 1710, Maria applied for his position arguing correctly that she had done half of the work in the past. Despite her having published independently and having an excellent reputation as well as the active support of Leibniz the Academy refused to award her the post. She worked in various other observatories until 1717 when her son was appointed to his father’s position, Maria once again becoming the assistant. Despite having more than proved her equality to any male astronomer Maria never really received the recognition she deserved. However, she was admitted by the Berlin Academy of Sciences.

Idea for this post: The Renaissance Mathematicus, Sorry Caroline but you were not the first, Maria was.

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William Paley: “There must be chance in the midst of design”

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Did William Paley really say this?

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On 25 May 1805 William Paley died. He is best known for his work “Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature” in which he compared God to a watchmaker. When I found this quote shared on twitter and facebook by The Economist on occasion of the anniversary, I asked: “Did he really say this?” YES. But only as a premise to be contradicted.  So, in fact:   NO. He did see chance only as an appearance of chance, like the accidental coincidence of two designed events, or chance as the result of the ignorance of the observer. [1]

We should acknowledge that in his time, chance and randomness had not yet the same importance as in our times. He knew nothing about radioactivity or Brownian notion. He did not know about DNA and random mutations.

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Lima beans, parasitic wasps and Charles Darwin

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When Lima beans are attacked by a caterpillar, they know how to defend themselves:

Plants have evolved a wide range of direct and indirect defensive strategies against being eaten by herbivores, like the indirect defense using semio-chemicals, i.e. chemicals that carry a message. The caterpillar of Spodoptera littoralis [1], the African cotton leafworm or Egyptian cotton leafworm, is a noctuid moth found widely in Africa and Mediterranean Europe. The cotton leafworm caterpillar is attacked by two parasitic wasps, one belonging to the Ichneumonidae, the other one to the Braconidae.[2]

We are amazed by the “smart” defense mechanism that plants have evolved during their evolutionary past.

But these parasitic wasps? If we remember correctly, Ichneumonidae are bad guys, at least this is their reputation.  Charles Darwin (who died on this day in 1882) wrote in a letter to his friend Asa Gray on 22 May 1860:

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.

Would Charles Darwin have judged differently had he known that plants have called the Ichmeumonidae to help them defend themselves? I don’t know. But I doubt it.

Charles Darwin’s concept of God was one of “God as Designer”, as portrayed by William Paley. This concept is outdated in a world where we think in ecosystems, and in interconnectedness.

In the 21th century, we need another perspective on God’s action in creation.  I propose the following text in Pope Francis encyclical “Laudato Si”:

Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator.(49) God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature, and this gives rise to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs (50). His divine presence, which ensures the subsistence and growth of each being, “continues the work of creation”.(51) The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship”(52). [3]

__________

[1] Mithöfer A, Wanner G, Boland W. Effects of Feeding Spodoptera littoralis on Lima Bean Leaves. II. Continuous Mechanical Wounding Resembling Insect Feeding Is Sufficient to Elicit Herbivory-Related Volatile Emission. Plant Physiology. 2005;137(3):1160-1168. doi:10.1104/pp.104.054460.

[2] Morales, J, Medina, P, Vinuela, E. The influence of two endoparasitic wasps, Hyposoter didymator and Chelonus inanitus, on the growth and food consumption of their host larva Spodoptera littoralis. BioControl 2006; 52, 145-160. doi: 10.1007/s10526-006-9026-4

[3] Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 80; (49) : cf CCC 310; (50) Gaudium et Spes 36; (51) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 104, art. 1 ad 4; (52) Ibid., In octo libros Physicorum Aristotelis expositio, Lib. II, lectio 14

 

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

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03.02.1983 Friedenskongreß der CDU im Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, Bonn.

[written in September 2014] On September 4, 2014, Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the leading German Protestant theologians, died in Munich.

Some refences to his book “Confessions of a Trinitarian Evolutionist” caught my attention. Here is one:

“God always used creatures to bring about other things. Think of the function of the earth in the first part of Genesis. The earth is addressed by God to assist in His act of creation. First, the earth is addressed to bring about vegetation. So we may wonder, ‘How can the earth, an inorganic reality, bring about an organic reality, vegetation, and then bring about the  self organization of organisms from inorganic materials?’ Yet, this is the Christian creation story. The second address of the earth is even bolder than that! God addresses the earth to bring about animals. And the text means higher animals. Such boldness does not really characterize even Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin wouldn’t have dreamed to have higher animals spring immediately from the earth, from inorganic matter. Darwin is much more moderate than that. In criticizing the doctrine of evolution, our creationist friends among Christian theologians should read their Bibles more closely.“

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Antoinette Brown Blackwell

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[im Juni 2014 geschrieben]

ABBAntoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921): sie war die erste amerikanische Pastorin, eine Frauenrechtskämpferin, Naturphilosophin und Evolutionsforscherin, Zeitgenossin von Charles Darwin. Ihr mutiges, aufrechtes Leben, in dem sie überholte Strukturen ihrer Zeit aufbrach und doch zugleich altbewährten Werten treu blieb, ist im besten Sinne des Wortes innovativ. Zeit Ihres Lebens war sie beruflich aktiv, Ehe und Familie – sie hatte 5 Töchter – waren eine partnerschaftliches Unternehmen. Ihr Leben war bewegt und spannend, und so ist das Buch auch geschrieben. Continue reading

„GOD“ as a NEW DIMENSION and „FLATLAND“

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[written in October 2013]

A few days ago, I met a wonderful young lady, scientist, who grew up in one of the Eastern European countries where she never came close to learning about  God, faith and religion. Something really new for her is the easiness that everyone here in Western Europe has using these concepts – whether they agree or not.

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Dr. Quantum: Flatland

It reminded me of “Flatland”, a novel written in 1884 by Edwin A. Abbott, an English schoolmaster. It is narrated by a Square living in a two-dimensional world. One night, he is visited by a Sphere, or, rather, from his point of view, a Circle of varying diameter. The Sphere has come to explain to him that there is a dimension he knows nothing about…

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