Aravinda Chakravarti on Science and Spirituality
  Aravinda Chakravarti     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

You know, this is a very easily stated question. And I’ll give you my answer which perhaps seems clear, or hopefully perhaps seems clear to you. Maybe I should say the following; that people’s views about how they view religion and how they interact with the morals and customs of religions across the world, is so much a part of their growing up that it might be difficult to disentangle the two. I mean they are essentially imprinted with their beliefs early on, not that we can’t change them or modify them. And I think the answer, before I give you the answer; it has something to do with when I grew up and where I grew up.

So I grew up in essentially a new independent India, in a city that was very multi-cultural and very diverse. At least at that point in time it was. This was Calcutta. And it was very Western in thinking then simply because the English, whether you think they left or were kicked out in 1947. So I grew up in a home that was not very religious. But my parents were Hindu, and I was born a Hindu. I went to a school that was run by English Methodists. It was actually quite curious because this church, it was a church school. And it later had a pastor who came from Atlanta, Georgia who actually in his thinking was much more of a Southern Baptist, I now recognize. And my friends were of all religions. I mean, clearly Muslim, because many of them were in Calcutta. I had friends who were Jews and Christians, because they comprised a significant part of the community of Calcutta. At least then they did. And then when I went to an undergraduate school where again I think at that point in time religion was no part of the discussion. I also grew up at a time not far from the discussion on, if you remember what the ‘60s were like. So science you might say was such a great explanation for what was happening that I never felt that I needed religion to explain myself, my world or the future. So I grew up, not only not needing religion, but nobody around me said that I needed it in order to personally develop or develop my ideas or have the social interactions that I did. But I was clearly aware of it simply because of all that I told you, of my surroundings.

So because I’m not that colors my views of whether religion is important or not in science. And how scientists deal with it is, of course, a separate questions. I don’t think it’s important in science. And I think if one believes as I believe that we have to find more and more rational ways of explaining the world around us. Not that religious belief do not impact on that. I think that the rational system of beliefs is much, much more important despite what our ancestors have used to explain the world around us.

Many scientists have a peaceful co-existence with their religious beliefs and science. I have not been able to do that. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t raised the question myself and every time science has won out. How some people do it, I don’t know. I couldn’t do it and I haven’t been able to do it. And I think increasingly we will be at odds. There’s no doubt in my mind that we cannot maintain two systems of belief because one is based on really reason and the other is based on faith. And I have no explanation for how these two things can be combined. I’m not saying that people don’t, but I think increasingly they will be at odds with one another.

Aravinda Chakravarti received his Ph.D. in Human Genetics from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston (1979). After a postdoctoral year at the University of Washington in Seattle, he joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Biostatistics and later the Department of Human Genetics as a professor.

In 1994 he moved to Case Western Reserve as Professor of Genetics and Medicine to apply genomic and computer-based methods to study common diseases that arise from a combination of genetic and non-genetic factors.

Dr Chakravarti is one of the Editors-in-Chief of Genome Research, and serves on the Advisory and Editorial Boards of numerous national and international journals and societies. He is a past member of the NIH National Advisory Council of the National Human Genome Research Institute and has chaired the NIH Subcommittee in the 3rd 5-year Genome Project Plan, and continues to serve on several NIH panels.

In 2000 he became Professor of Medicine at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and was named director of their new McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, where he is currently the Henry J. Knott Professor and Director.