When he was young and Russia was in the throes of revolution, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) felt the “urgency of finding a meaning of life…in the bloody tumult.” But he was stuck between two poles that drew him equally: religion and science. He loved Darwin and he loved Dostoevsky. “The intellectual stimulation derived from the works of Darwin and other evolutionists was pitted against that arising from reading Dostoevsky,” he wrote towards the end of his life (Dobzhansky, The Biology of Ultimate Concern, 1967, 1). Resolving this tension became one of the driving forces of his career. In the coming decades, after he fled to America and became a “nonperson” in the USSR, Dobzhansky would emerge as one of the greatest biologists of the twentieth century, and his work would be characterized not by conflict but by the search for syntheses. There are three that stand out as lessons to be remembered: synthesis of natural selection and genetics, of democracy and politics, and of religion and science. In this post, I want to first look at the way Dobzhansky’s Eastern Orthodox background informed his science and contributed to the history of evolutionary biology.
Theodosius Dobzhansky’s unusual name was consequence of his mother’s prayers. As recounted by Dobzhansky’s daughter Sophia, “My father’s parents were childless for quite a while after their marriage and tried to remedy their condition by prayer and pilgrimage” (S.D. Coe, “Theodosius Dobzhansky: A Family Story,” Adams 1994, 13) Their prayerful journey took the Ukrainian couple to the shrine of St. Theodosius of Chernigov, and when they soon found themselves with child, they christened him with the saint’s name. Dobzhansky was thus enmeshed in Orthodox religious culture from his birth and before. He was descended from a long line of priests on his mother’s side (something he always felt important), and his affinity for Dostoevsky was as much genetic as aesthetic, for he numbered the great novelist among his maternal ancestors as well.
Science seeks truth in the natural world through observation and experimentation. Scientists are driven by curiosity, which encourages inventive thought, leading them to discover how nature works. Science is a tool to penetrate into the unknown physical world, which at first might seem incomprehensible. However, scientists know that within this perceived obscurity lies a perfected beauty, comprised of meaningful patterns waiting to be discovered. An example of this being, the brain, which remains largely unknown, is an exquisite universe of intricate, structural, nonrandom patterns, with functional implications for survival. Scientists make the assumption that nature is intelligible, bringing discovery of the unknown physical world to light. This supposition made by scientists is an ancient idea of the Church that has Scriptural resonance: “For as rain comes down, or snow from heaven, and does not return until it saturates the earth, and it brings forth and produces, and gives seed to the sower and bread for food” (Isaiah 55:10).
COVID has changed the lifestyles of almost every American (and even most citizens of the globe) since March 15 when quarantine orders, stay-at-home orders, mask orders, work limitations, social distancing, and many other such measures began. In many locations, these orders are in effect “until a vaccine for COVID is available.” The presumption is that a vaccine will render a person immune to serious infection from the virus.
Naturally, the world awaits the production of a safe and effective vaccine, not just any vaccine. What do we mean by this? A safe vaccine means that neither the disease for which the person is being vaccinated (in this case COVID) arises from the vaccine nor do any unwanted side effects (such as seizures or extensive allergic reactions). “Effective” means that the vaccine must actually protect against COVID, or at least against its consequences. In other words, the vaccine should prevent the viral infection in the first place, but if infection does happen, the vaccine would prevent it from being severe. In most vaccine trials in the US, scientists test and monitor thousands of people to establish that a vaccine is both safe and effective. The standards are rigorous, because unproven vaccines can have side-effects.
The development of a vaccine alone will not be sufficient to protect the population. We also need to think about production and implementation, given the extraordinary global demand. The scale is simply unprecedented. While some animal testing of potential COVID vaccines has been done in pre-clinical trials, there are very few people that have been immunized against COVID with any type of vaccine at this point.
Despite these great efforts going into the vaccine, many Christians in the US and abroad have asserted that they will not take any COVID immunization. The justifications for this have ranged from questions about what can be “slipped into” the vaccine to concerns about sources of cells used to grow the vaccine to distrust of scientific data in general. Let us look at each of these arguments.
The Orthodox Church and scientific knowledge typically parallel each other. In the event that a reconciliation appears unreachable between the Church and science, it signals that it is time to reconsider past traditions in light of current scientific evidence. Science cannot in any way dictate Orthodox theology, but rather provides a contribution to the theological aspects of the Church and to society in general.