Professor Lewis Wolpert CBE FRS
Distinguished developmental biologist and Vice-President of the British Humanist Association
Lewis Wolpert was born in 1929 into a strict Jewish household and was, he records, “quite a religious child” until “I gave it all up around 16 and have been an atheist ever since.” He originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa, but changed to research in cell and developmental biology in 1955. He is Emeritus Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London. He was chairman of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science for four years and has written and spoken widely on scientific issues, for example in The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, and Prospect and on radio and television. He has said: “I would like the public to understand that science is the best way to understand the world, and that it always goes against simple common sense.”
His books include A Passion for Science (with Alison Richards, Oxford University Press, 1988) andPassionate Minds (with Alison Richards, Oxford University Press, 1997 ) which consist of interviews with scientists, Malignant Sadness — The Anatomy of Depression (Faber, 1999) and The Unnatural Nature of Science ( Faber, 1992). One of his books of particular interest to humanists is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (Faber 2006). In it he explores why 70 per cent of Americans believe in angels, and thousands more that they have been abducted by aliens, why every society around the world has a religious tradition of some sort, and what makes people believe in things when all the evidence points to the contrary. Buy any of his books at Amazon.co.uk through this link and a small commission will go to the BHA.
He spoke about religion and science in “The ideas interview” with John Sutherland in The Guardian on April 11, 2006:
The beliefs of science are, of course, the most reliable we have about how the world works so could these, with time, become everyday beliefs? I very much doubt it. Our belief engine, programmed in our brains by our genes, operates on different principles. It prefers quick decisions, it is bad with numbers and sees patterns where there is only randomness. It is too often influenced by authority and it has a liking for mysticism. And that, as I say, will probably be with us for ever.
In Genetic Futures news he wrote about science and moral values:
It is essential to recognise that reliable scientific knowledge is value-free and has no moral or ethical value. Science tells us how the world is. That we are not at the centre of the universe is neither good nor bad, nor is the possibility that genes can influence our intelligence or our behaviour. Dangers and ethical issues only arise when science is applied to technology. But ethical issues can arise in actually doing the scientific research, such as doing experiments on humans or animals, as well as issues related to safety. An important distinction is thus between science and technology, between knowledge and understanding on the one hand, and the application of that knowledge to making something, or using it in some practical way.
Lewis Wolpert is also an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association, and was one was one of the 43 scientists and philosophers who in March 2002 signed a letter to Tony Blair and relevant Government departments, deploring the teaching of Creationism in schools. He was also one of the signatories to aletter supporting a holiday on Charles’ Darwin’s birthday, published in The Times on February 12, 2003, and also sent to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. In July 2009 he joined other eminent scientists and educators calling for vital changes to the proposed science curriculum for primary schools in England in a letter to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
His Wikipedia entry
More interviews with Lewis Wolpert can be read athttp://www.abc.net.au/rn/inconversation/stories/2006/1634181.htmhttp://www.anat.ucl.ac.uk/staff/miscpages/wolpert.pdf