Eric Wieschaus — Transitioning from a Religious College Student to an Adult Scientist

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LC: So as I run out of time I wanted to poke you on one last thing that I saw in an interview. This one is translated from German by Google so you’ll have to forgive me if this is not exactly what you said, but it’s in Der Standard. You were talking about the differences between American and European society and you said “Yes, faith is still very important in our country. It gives meaning to peoples’ lives. I was also raised religiously but it just wasn’t for me. Religion doesn’t help me with the big questions of humanity–after death, suffering, and love.” I wonder if being a scientist does help you with these questions or think about them in some way. As an embryologist you maybe have some unique sense of what it means to be an organism and how we come to be. 

EFW: I think it is clear that being a scientist and seeing things from a scientific perspective has shaped most of my ethical views in complicated ways because there are certain parts where I’m very conscious of how does one justify ethics, and I use basically a utilitarian sense of a consequentialist view of evaluating an activity. But how I think about an embryo or about embryonic stem cells is heavily influenced by my understanding of genetics and what happens in an embryo. If you don’t know things you make up stories, and stories can get in the way of a deeper understanding and a more fair evaluation of the reality. 

It’s interesting, I was raised religious. I went to mass every day through most of my undergraduate years–this was in the 60s and you could have mass with guitars. It was the whole kind of underground mass religious experience, and I didn’t know any other way of being moral other than through my religious training and religious beliefs. 

And then some things happened and mostly as a young person–they’re issues that had to do with sex and sexuality–and through all those things I realized that it didn’t really match who I was and what I wanted to be, and that I couldn’t be who I really was unless I left the church. And it was about that same time that I was transiting from being just another fly bottle washer in a lab to doing experiments. And some people have sometimes asked me did science replace religion. You gave up this big thing in your life which was religion, did science take that place? 

And I basically feel no. But in a certain sense science gave me a richness. For a lot of people when they leave religion there’s a huge hole in their lives. And for me, there was just more to do. I left religion, science didn’t become my religion or anything like that. But in retrospect it is true that I benefited from the richness of science to continue my life and also to understand those issues like death (laughs). When you think about death it’s pretty awful, how do you… What is true is that I don’t find any answer other than one that’s based on the science intellectually satisfying or emotionally satisfying. I’m kind of warped now into being this scientist. 

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