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The Dartmouth
February 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Nobel laureate examines junction of science, faith

Sidney Altman, Nobel Prize winner and Yale University biology professor, emphasized the importance of valuing science in a faith-dominated society during a speech Tuesday in Moore Hall.

Altman, who is on campus as a Montgomery fellow, discussed stem cell research and intelligent design, two topics he said were "inextricably tied with faith."

Congress has avidly debated stem cell research, and many religious politicians argue that using embryos as a source of stem cells is destroying life, he said. In particular, a bill introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, would make cloning human babies illegal and place a two-year moratorium on all stem cell research in the United States.

"Many of our top scientists, if the Brownback bill is passed, would become criminals and would be prosecuted as such," Altman said.

Stem cell research has the potential to cure a variety of diseases by replacing dysfunctional or diseased cells with differentiated, specialized stem cells, usually taken from embryos.

President George W. Bush's bioethics committee proposed the moratorium because it believed that continued research would lead to cloning babies.

"This," Altman said, "is a specious argument. You are either for or against these ideas."

While Altman said that, in his opinion, cloning babies is immoral, he does not agree with the Bush administration's desire to further restrict this promising field of research.

Altman also addressed intelligent design, a theory that proposes that evolution occurred with the help of God. Altman said intelligent design undermines science and that the theory could not be taught simultaneously with evolution.

"Intelligent design is a theory in which thinking about fact is absent -- there is zero science," Altman said. "This is an issue that challenges science, and I will do everything I can to fight it as a supposed scientific fact."

Altman said that science has suffered from decreased governmental funding and from Congress' morals affecting legislation.

"A new era has arrived," Altman said, referring to the fact that stem cell research is the only kind of research prohibited in the United States. "It is my hope that we will have no laws restricting scientific research in our country."

Part of the problem may have to do with the fact that people look for simple explanations. For some, religion may be easier to comprehend than evolution, Altman said, making science education essential.

"We must educate non-scientists about the general knowledge of what scientists study," Altman said in an interview Tuesday with The Dartmouth.

The advancement of science also depends on the perseverance and determination of budding scientists, he said.

"You must work hard at your interests, and you must understand the substances being taught to you," Altman said as words of advice to Dartmouth students interested in science. "You have to have a desire to understand things around you and have the belief that it is possible to understand these things."

Altman hopes to contribute to science education by continuing to teach at Yale as well as continuing his research.