When you have kids in school, sometimes you are faced with the basic questions of existence. Reviewing my seventh-grader for a Science test, we came across the question: Can living matter come from non-living matter?
I vaguely remembered this from my own Science class decades ago. Once upon a time, spontaneous generation was thought to be true because maggots appeared to come from rotting meat, but carefully protecting the meat from flies showed that the appearance was false, and the theory of spontaneous generation was abandoned.
But, I wondered, is that still the case today? Is this Science text of the 21st century (a secular one, sad to say, in my son’s Catholic school) going to say that new findings – quarks, muons and the sub-atomic particles of the Higgs boson so recently in the news – have now shown that life can come from non-living matter and even that something can come from nothing?
Well, glad to say, the 2001 textbook backed up what I had learned as a schoolboy. Spontaneous generation is still impossible. Living things can only be generated by other living things, a process called biogenesis (another vocabulary word for my son to memorize). Ever the catechist, I pointed out to my son that the secular textbook completely skirts the issue of origins – i.e., what was the first living thing from which all other living things were generated in a chain of life-giving events? He seemed intrigued but looked more interested in finishing the review so he could go out and play before dinner. The Unmoved or Prime Mover from Aquinas’ “proofs” of the existence of God would have to wait, but I did slip in a brief sentence or two about faith and science.
“Science doesn’t really have an answer to origins. As you see it here presented, science just deals with the created world, with the matter and mechanisms that are already there. What science does – and it is a great thing that it does, please understand – is to study what is already there and try to find out how this great thing called the world works, and how the material world can be harnessed, refined and directed to the good of mankind. Science has brought us agriculture, engines, cars, rockets, indoor plumbing, and the like. These are great achievements, but they don’t give us any answers to the basic question of where everything came from. For that we need theology and the very reasonable belief that all things have their origin in the eternal and all-powerful God.”
My son had one observation, and not the one I expected.
“Yes, dad, but not all science has made life better. Look at nuclear weapons.”
Indeed. Sometimes science makes life more dangerous and complex, and tempts us to immoral choices.
We moved on with the textbook’s vocabulary words, but later I paused to appreciate the great intellectual heritage we have as Catholics. The Church is too often accused of being “against science” for its stance on abortion, contraception, mercy killing, embryonic stem cell research and the like – some of the evils that I could add to my son’s statement on nuclear weapons. Yet the Church, almost alone, has preserved the rich intellectual tradition and categories of thought that allow any meaningful discussion on such issues beyond “what science can do it must do,” or “what feels good is good.”
We may have limited success introducing these Catholic or universally true concepts into the current cultural or political mix, but at least we can seek to teach our children well – not just to “change the culture” for the next generation, but mostly for the sake of their own intellectual integrity and maybe even their salvation. It’s the least a dad can do in the course of a Science review.