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The explanations of science


The evolution of religious thought
Christian de Duve Scientist
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I'm getting very old; in fact I've reached an age where many people don't live any more, at which many people don't live anymore and so, approaching the end, I felt somehow that I could not die on a lie. I could not just let the little world around me think that I agreed with... with what, to me, was mostly nonsense. And so the last book, Life Evolving, I decided to come out of the closet and speak. And so the book is a... and that's probably a reason why it was not very successful in the United States – the book is really addressed to my friends, to my Louvain colleagues, and in fact the preface of the book is a reminder of my youth. I tell them about how when I was a boy scout and I was standing round the campfire at night and singing, I felt this religious fervour that animated me in those days, and then I tell them how I changed my mind later, and I apologise to them for coming out and saying so, and so, I explained, that's the preface, and the end, again, tells the same thing. So writing that last chapter was something that was very important for me, very difficult. I had to really find the wording and also I had to... to clarify... clarify my own thoughts, which were far from clear on the subject. I'm not sure that my thoughts are clear today but somehow I found a way that, probably, my desire to compromise and not to hurt people too much, I don't know. Maybe it's just because I was educated that way and all the traces left by this early childhood and education remain in my brain, in my mind. But I've found what, to me, looks like a rather satisfactory explanation although it is not really an explanation and the line of thought is the following. Religious... religion has always been a part of the human psyche; it's always been... I mean, you go back to the earliest civilisations and you always find belief in something – you find rites, you find ceremonies, sacrifices sometimes, and very often belief in an afterlife. I mean, Egyptian pharaohs did that and so on. That is understandable, but it's nonsense; it's just because the universe... the world is full of unanswered questions, and so not having the answer to those questions, we invent answers and we invent answers that will be a consolation to us. That will be... so we love life and so we like to think that there will be an afterlife and so on. We don't understand the world and therefore we don't understand life, so we attribute life to some kind of special force. We don't understand the universe so we think the universe was created by a god; so this is a very natural way of answering those questions that always were asked, I think, by human beings as soon as they had the brain to formulate the question. And so during the millennia that have passed, we have seen this evolution also of religious thought; there are very few people in the world that do not have some kind of religion. Even Freemasons have a religion – they even have rites, they have beliefs, they don't have dogmas.

Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013) was best known for his work on understanding and categorising subcellular organelles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his joint discovery of lysosomes, the subcellular organelles that digest macromolecules and deal with ingested bacteria.

Listeners: Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark has recently retired as Editorial Director of BioMed Central Ltd, the Open Access journal publisher. He obtained a D. Phil. from Oxford University and was originally a research biochemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in London, but left research to become Biology Editor and then Deputy Editor of the journal Nature. He then became Managing Director of Current Biology Ltd, where he started a series of Current Opinion journals, and was founding Editor of the journal Current Biology. Subsequently he was Editorial Director for Elsevier Science London, before joining BioMed Central Ltd.

Tags: Life Evolving

Duration: 5 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008