Our Immediate Environment

It seems that every tribe and culture has been curious about its origin and has told itself stories in an attempt not only to place itself in a universal perspective of world history but to uncover means whereby “the gods” may look upon them with favor (Wilson, 1969, pp. 3-155). The attempt to find our place in the natural world, to understand the origins of our universe and in particular the origins of life, not only stimulate the professional scientist but also inspire the popular imagination through books and television programs. Cosmological inquiry has discovered a universe that is almost unimaginably large in space-time. Yet the human imagination is caught by the challenge of “other worlds.” Some, like Sir Martin Rees, former British Astronomer Royal, anticipate the colonization of our solar system. He speculates that our world may be one of many—the consequence of an infinity of Big Bangs. He is sure that the future is both exciting and dangerous: humankind has for the first time in its history the opportunity to destroy itself, but he believes that the “far future” evolution of humankind is in its own hands (Rees, 2013). A second absorbing area of inquiry concerns the Human Genome Project, finally completed in 2003. What the human body is made of, how it works, and how it hangs together as a complex, functioning set of organs has always been puzzling. The discovery that the gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity was the major step forward. When the project was launched, the expectation was that human genes would number in excess of 100,000, but in fact, it turns out there are 24,000 or so, just a few more than a chimpanzee. However, since genes do not appear to act individually but in consort, factorial 24,000 is a very large number to “manage” if that is what we discover we are dealing with.

In principle, the hope is that such a complete mapping of the genetic structure of Homo sapiens will lead to dramatic new developments in the personal treatment of disease via gene therapy. There is indeed the prospect of individualized treatment, though the whole matter of “treatment” and diagnosis has turned out to be far more complicated than was anticipated. We have, as it were, a list of words, but the unpacking of the syntax and grammar essential to understanding, let alone speaking, the language is only slowly becoming secure. Moreover, there are problems to be thought through, both technical and ethical, stimulating work in prospect.

It would be easy to conclude that given the immensities of (possibly) many universes, the slightness of human being hardly counts. However, there is more to be said. Size is not all that counts if one is to have an impact. An African friend pointed me to the African saying, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never spent a night with a mosquito!” Our curiosity has led us profitably to enhance our understandings of both the origin of the universe and the genetic foundations of our physical human being. The opportunities that our new response-abilities offer to our capacity to love the world and share in God’s creating are infinite. They range from the opening up of the universe to human exploration, eventual colonization, and managing the far future of our evolution to stem cell research and the design of personal gene therapies for the condition of an individual patient.

As a result, we have to rethink our perception of our place in the universe and what it means to be human: the stimulus will never end.

But the exciting fact is that the human brain is so constituted and has so evolved that it can, at any rate and in a formulaic pattern, conceive of the hugeness of the world and the minute complexities of the physical biochemistry of which we are constituted. To put that very simply, the human being has the wonderful capacity to hold together, in one whole system, what he or she believes about the world and his or her relationship to it. And moreover, human beings have the capacity to be sufficiently dissatisfied with the result so far, to want to go on responding to God’s lure to know more. It is no wonder that the study of the brain is attracting more and more interest.

Fr. Chris Corbally, SJ, president of the National Committee for Astronomy in Vatican City, was surely right to say in a lecture at the University of Charleston, “God gave the universe freedom to explore, and that’s the wondrous thing. So that scientists can go back and see all the various galaxies and star systems and life forms and extinctions that are, because of the patience of God to allow for the freedom of creation . . . It’s a much more satisfactory relationship with God than one which dictates every step of the universe” (Corbally, 2013). Grateful people appreciate the opportunities opened up by the God- given gift of curiosity and the freedom they thereby enjoy to engage in conversation with God.

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