By Norman Boucher / November / December 1999
November 5th, 2007
We tend to see others in our own image. Walking across campus with Trustee and former BAM Board of Editors chair Ralph Begleiter '71 earlier this fall, I was not surprised to hear his astonishment at learning that most students entering Brown intend to concentrate in the sciences. Begleiter, a former CNN world-affairs correspondent who this fall gave up the globe-trotting life for a professorship at the University of Delaware, is better informed than most alumni about the Brown scene. Yet, like most people outside the University community, his sense of the place was distorted by the common view of campus as a haven for liberal-arts students interested in changing the world.

This image is no doubt a persistent hangover from the heady days of the "New" Curriculum, which at age thirty is hardly new anymore. The perception is partly correct: Brown's tradition of public service is well known. But the numbers for the class of 2003 reveal a more complicated picture: 43 percent of this year's incoming students are studying science, math, or engineering; 19 percent are focusing on the social sciences; and only 28 percent plan to concentrate in the humanities. (The remaining 10 percent of students are undecided).

To me, these numbers reveal a far more balanced and multidimensional University than is widely acknowledged outside the Van Wickle gates. When you combine this distribution of interests among the Brown student body with its relatively small size, and when you then add the culture of cross-disciplinary exchange that is so deeply rooted at the University, what you often get is a very interesting conversation between dissimilar disciplines.

A case in point is the essay by Professor of Biology Kenneth Miller that is this month's cover story. Adapted from his new book, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, the essay is a powerful argument against the view of science and religion advanced by so-called creationists, who believe that an acceptance of evolution is incompatible with a belief in a divine Creator. Miller, who as a member of the class of 1970 came of age at Brown just as the New Curriculum was emerging, approaches the subject from an unusual perspective. As both a practicing Christian and a molecular biologist, he is engaged in an intellectual journey that has a deeply personal dimension.

But Miller's book suggests a larger point. While I was completing the edit of his essay, the New York Times published an article about The Sun in the Church, a new book by science historian John L. Heilbron that describes how, from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries, the Catholic Church used many European cathedrals as solar observatories. While condemning as heretics astronomers such as Galileo, the Vatican was building into cathedrals impor-tant tools for collecting astronomical data, tools that helped confirm and advance many of the astronomical theories the institution was officially condemning.

There is a remarkable parallel between the work of Heilbron and Miller. Heilbron's description of Rome's careful astronomical science and Miller's thesis that evolution can actually deepen belief in a divine Creator are bold moves that should cause us to reexamine critically the accepted banalities about the relationship between science and religion. As Miller convincingly writes in Finding Darwin's God, the new information science keeps giving - especially, in recent years, information about the molecular workings of life itself - can often nullify old superstitions once and for all. But to find the significance of what science is telling us, we must look for explanations elsewhere. On campus, the scientists and humanists should have plenty to talk about.

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November / December 1999