90th Anniversary of the Mendel Medal

Commemorating the Ninetieth Anniversary of The Mendel Medal

Villanova University (1928-2018)

Throughout its ninety-year history, it is humbling to reflect that the Mendel Medal has brought some of the world’s most prominent scientists to the Villanova campus.  Honoring the achievements of these extraordinary individuals, including six Nobel Laureates (five of whom were awarded the Mendel Medal since it was reestablished in 1992), has enabled Villanova’s faculty, students, staff, and guests to engage the most salient scientific topics confronting contemporary society and culture.

Like all significant events, the establishment of the Mendel Medal should be placed in the context of its time: the 1920s, when Darwin’s theory of evolution was contested as undermining traditional religious values and biblical belief, culminating in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. The Tennessee legislature passed a law that made it a misdemeanor punishable by fine to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”  

It is interesting to note that the Scopes court case was contrived and deliberately staged in order to attract publicity to test the law.  The science teacher, John Scopes, was actually unsure whether he had ever actually taught some evolution, but he purposely incriminated himself so that the case could have a defendant.  He urged students to testify against him and coached them in their answers.  He was indicted on May 25, 1925 after three students testified against him at the grand jury.  According to reports, one student afterwards told reporters, "I believe in part of evolution, but I don't believe in the monkey business.” That is how the trial got its moniker.

This is the atmosphere in which Father Joseph Dougherty (PhD biology), the head of the Villanova College science division, advocated that the Board of Trustees establish the Mendel Medal.  Father Dougherty’s career was highly influenced by the seminal Augustinian geneticist Gregor Mendel.  An authority on the Mendelian laws of heredity, Father Dougherty lectured widely on Mendelian theories, and worked tirelessly to build the College’s pre-medical program. In 1929, he was involved in renaming the rebuilt College Hall, the main administrative and classroom building which had been destroyed by fire, as Mendel Hall (now Tolentine Hall).  It remained the major science building on campus until the Mendel Science Center was constructed in 1960.

The significance of the Mendel Medal is that it affirms there is no contradiction between science and religion. At the time that the award was established—and even today, according to a study by the Pew Research Center—scientists were roughly half (51 percent) as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power. In contrast, 95 percent of Americans believe in some form of deity or higher power. In establishing the award, the Board and Father Dougherty were not trying to assert that one was superior to the other or to challenge non-belief.   Rather, science and religion were perceived as two separate but harmonious entities. The Mendel Medal is a symbol of Villanova’s choice to celebrate the compatibility of science and religion by honoring “outstanding scientists who have given practical demonstration of the fact that between true science and true religion there is no real conflict.”

Not surprisingly, the hotbed issues of science and religion of Father Dougherty’s time continue to thrive today. When President Obama nominated the renowned geneticist Francis Collins to be the new director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a number of scientists and pundits publicly questioned whether his devout religious faith should disqualify him from the position. In particular, some were concerned that an evangelical Christian who believes in miracles might not be suited to fill the nation’s most visible job in science. Nevertheless, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Dr. Collins on August 7, 2009. 

Villanova honored Dr. Collins with Mendel Medal in 1998 for his work as director of the National Center for Human Genome Research. This was eleven years before he assumed the NIH position.  The choice of Dr. Collins proved fortuitous, as his 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, is an in-depth account of the compatibility of science and belief in God.  His quote from St. Augustine’s commentary on the Book of Genesis, cautioning Christians against dismissing knowledge that people hold to as being certain from reason and experience, seems remarkably contemporary.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics, and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and . . . the writers of our Scriptures are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

The editors of Villanova Magazine asked Dr. Collins to comment on the significance of the award for a special issue featuring Mendel’s legacy.  Dr. Collins wrote:

At a time when the noisy polarization of the science and faith worldviews gets most of the attention, Villanova’s Mendel Medal reminds those who are willing to listen that there are wonderful opportunities for harmony to be found, and that rigorous science for the believer can even be a form of worship.

Today, the issue of teaching evolution continues to create controversy.  The 2009 Mendel Medal recipient, Dr. Kenneth Miller, was the plaintiff's lead expert witness in the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005.  That case challenged the school board's mandate to incorporate intelligent design—a religious argument that rejects the theory of natural selection and argues that the complexities of the universe suggests an intelligent cause in form of a supreme creator—into the curriculum. The mandate of the school district was, with Dr. Miller’s testimony, overturned. 

In the Mendel issue of Villanova Magazine, Dr. Miller, a devout Catholic, commented on the significance of the Mendel Medal.  In his response, Dr. Miller seemed to echo St. Augustine for whom faith and reason are “the two forces that lead us to knowledge.”

A tireless devotion to the search for truth is at the heart of the scientific enterprise. The ultimate justification for that search is the belief that there is reason and order to exis­tence, and that human understanding is equal to the task. These beliefs are just as integral to the Christian faith.

Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade, the 2017 Mendel Medal recipient, told the Villanova students at her lecture how lucky they were to be at a university that celebrates the heritage of Gregor Mendel.  Her words affirm the vision of Father Dougherty and the Villanova Board of Trustees in establishing the Mendel Medal.  They also demonstrate that Mendel’s legacy extends beyond the classroom and the lab, and is integral to the Augustinian ethos of the university, as stated in the University’s Mission Statement: “the dialogue between faith and reason drives the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and fosters St. Augustine’s vision of learning as a community ethos governed by love.” 

Pope John Paul II emphasized the example that St. Augustine’s search for truth had on Mendel.  In marking the 100th anniversary of Mendel’s death in 1984, he said,

Gregor Mendel was a man of Christian and Catholic culture. During his life, prayer and praise sustained the research and reflection of this patient observer and scientific genius.

Based on the example of his teacher, St. Augustine, Gregor Mendel learned through the observation of nature and the contemplation of its Author to unite with one leap the search for the truth with the certainty of already knowing it in the Creator-Word.    

 

Pope John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences that commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis, which affirmed there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, recognized “evolution as more than an hypothesis.”

The Church has a long history of appreciation for the sciences.  Although Pope Pius XI established The Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936, its roots are in the Academy of the Lynxes, which was founded in Rome in 1603 as the first exclusively scientific academy in the world.  Today, the Academy is composed of eighty members, is an independent entity within the Holy See, is international in scope, multi-racial in composition, and non-sectarian in its choice of members.  Its activities range from a traditional interest in pure research to a concern with the ethical and environmental responsibility of the scientific community.  

The ethical and environmental responsibilities of the scientific community have been of special concern of the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences. In the 1940s and throughout the Cold War, these concerns centered on the consequences of using technology to develop ever more powerful nuclear weapons.  Speaking before the Academy at the beginnings of World War II in 1941, Pius XII lamented the development and use of new technological weapons in war.  He described science as a “double-edged sword in the hands of men, capable of both healing and killing” and warned that “war is lacerating the world and is employing all available technological resources to destroy it.”

Weapons of mass destruction and nuclear war continue to threaten humankind.  However, another kind of destruction caused by humans, namely the devastation that threatens the welfare of the earth and the environment, has come to the fore, as a major yet controversial concern that has its skeptics.   Pope Benedict XVI—who earned the moniker the “Green Pope” for his efforts to make Vatican City more environmentally efficient—expressed fear for the continued existence of life on the earth.  He wrote of the necessity to “Respect the interior laws of creation, of this Earth, to learn these laws and obey them if we want to survive. This obedience to the voice of the Earth is more important for our future happiness . . . than the desires of the moment. Our Earth is talking to us and we must listen to it and decipher its message if we want to survive.” 

Pope Benedict’s words anticipated Pope Francis’s now famous encyclical Laudate Si’ in 2015, in which Francis issued an “urgent challenge to protect our common home … to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.” 

Despite the science, both evolution and climate change continue to be controversial and, although distinct, linked in the mutual embrace of skepticism.  Twelve years after the Dover decision, The New York Times carried a story with the headline, “Evolving Tactics Helping Creationists Put Science on Trial in the Classroom.”  Citing a report about “the endearing strength of the forces that embrace the biblical account of creation or reasonable facsimiles of it,” the article detailed how “the rejection of broad scientific consensus extends to issues like climate change.”  What is different, according to the article, is that such people may feel emboldened by the current atmosphere of populist nationalism held by government officials both in the United States and abroad that “shares their doubts on some matters and has acted on them.

Mendel certainly falls within the tradition of concern for the earth.  He is famously honored for his discovery of the laws of heredity and for helping to shape the world’s collective understanding of genes, crossbreeding, and heredity. Nevertheless, it is important to remember his achievements as a polymath. He published important works from his meteorological observations, while his study of bees also shaped his thinking on heredity. Mendel’s concerns for the environment are especially relevant today and were commemorated in the university’s second Mendel Symposium in 2017: “Care of Our Common Home: Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato Si’.” 

Villanova University is justly proud to celebrate its ninety-year vision of the compatibility of science and religion that Father Dougherty and the Board of Trustees intended.

Image of Mendel statue on Villanova campus
Image of Mendel statue on Villanova campus