Eric Lander on Spirituality & Science
  Eric Lander     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Jun 2003

Being an educated person requires—being a full person, requires a certain ability to deal with dissonance. You know, I’m Jewish, was raised Jewish. I brought up my kids in the Jewish tradition. We celebrate Jewish traditions. And the religion means something to me.

At the same time, I’m a scientist. And data means an awful lot to me. And I clearly believe in evolution and it’s really hard to get away from the undirected nature of change selected by environment and, you know, the science I do has really, leaves very little room for purpose in evolution. That science has as purposeless and here. And yet there are deep reasons to want to have purpose in life. Just as— and so one makes purposes in life. And I don’t attempt to reconcile the religious side and the scientific side. Just as I don’t try to ever argue that the scientific way of knowing is the only way of knowing.

You know, literature has ways of knowing that are non-scientific. But are helpful. Art has ways of knowing that are different. Music has ways. And maybe someday people will be smart enough to integrate them into one common way of knowing. But as much as I am—I’m probably as—I’m deeply, deeply a scientist. And yet I’m not a scientific—I don’t believe in a scientific hegemony about knowledge that science is the only way to know about the world or even the best way to know about all aspects of the world. It is a way that everybody has to confront. It is a really important way to know about the world. And it’s important we make progress about the world. And yet I’m still willing—I still do have very deep respect for other ways about knowing of the world. And I haven’t figured out, or reconcile them and I don’t think you can reconcile them. I think, in fact, I think in fact it’s a mistake to reconcile them. Because it requires passion to make progress and if you were to try to get some diluted version that had a little of this and a little of that and sort of compromised all the way, you would have had—the Human Genome Project wouldn’t have worked. It worked because you had passionate people disagreeing. You had strong and different opinions and different views. I think that’s the way it is with the structure of knowledge. That it’s important to have a strong scientific view and strong religious views and strong literary views contending and disagreeing with each other because I don’t believe in the reasonable man. I’m not accused that often of being the reasonable man who balances all things. I think understanding and progress play themselves out by battles amongst strongly held alternative ideas. And it’s only in that battle that you see what to do.

So, it’s a long-winded answer to your question. But, yes, there is a spiritual side. There’s a lot of sides and they all should all exist in their way.

Eric Lander earned his A.B. in mathematics from Princeton University (1978) and D.Phil. in mathematics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University (1981).

He first came to the Whitehead Institute as a Whitehead Fellow in 1986, while still an assistant professor of managerial economics at the Harvard Business School and is currently Director of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research and Professor of Biology at MIT. As director of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research, Dr Lander has been one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project, contributing 30 percent of the total sequence of the human genome and developing and making freely available many of the key tools used in modern mammalian genomics.

He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and has been awarded the Beckman Prize for Lab Automation, the Chiron Prize for Biotechnology, and the Gairdner Award for his outstanding contribution to genomic research.

Lander has attended every human genome meeting at CSHL. At the request of Jim Watson, Lander gave his first lecture at the 1986 CSHL symposium on the Molecular Biology of Homo Sapiens.