150 years of Science, plus more

In its 150 years of nationhood, Canada has produced a number of major scientific advances, sometimes resulting in a Nobel Prize. It is easier to comment on earlier advances that have proven to be important in the intervening years. More recent advances have not yet had a chance to prove their impact, but the recent Nobel Prize to Arthur B. McDonald of Queen’s University in 2015 (for showing that neurons have mass) suggests that Canadian scientists are still making important discoveries.

In 1908 Ernest Rutherford, then at McGill University, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the atomic nucleus, work which formed the foundation of our current understanding of physics. At University of Toronto, Frederick Banting and Charles Best identified and purified insulin, a life-saving hormone for those with diabetes, for which Banting received a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1923. In 1934 Wilder Penfield founded the Montreal Neurological Institute and using new techniques pioneered the treatment of epileptic disorders by focal lesions in the brain.

The Canadian David Hobel, working at Harvard, studied the visual system in cats; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981 for discovering orientation neurons, as it opened our understanding of how our brains process sensory information. John Polanyi of University of Toronto received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work exploring the way chemical reactions occur (the broad area of chemical kinetics).

In 1993 Michael Smith of University of British Columba was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work facilitating site-specific changes to DNA (our genetic material). Working at Bell Labs, Willard Boyle created the charge-coupled device, a light-sensitive device that provides the basis for all digital photography; this work earned him the Nobel Prize in 2009. Depending on your definition of Canadian, at least 10 more Canadian individuals have been awarded Nobel Prizes across all the science awards in the past 150 years.

Cost and care
But 150 years is only a fraction of the time that people have lived in the territory now called Canada. Indigenous peoples of the First Nations have been residents of this land for much, much longer. It is only recently that we have come to appreciate the wisdom and knowledge that these communities hold and how much they can teach us about living in this world that our Creator, Jehovah, has given us. Before Europeans came to this land, for multiple generations, First Nations lived in harmony with the creation. It can be argued that they were much better stewards of this land than we have been. Their respect for God’s world puts to shame most of us who are much more recent immigrants.

The current debate and concern about our world and the way we are impacting the environment by our current dependence on oil or harvesting wood have sparked fierce opposition from indigenous peoples; witness the pipeline debate in British Columbia. This opposition comes from a deep, long-held appreciation for the creation and its natural richness. With the current concern about and awareness of climate change, we are only now coming to realize the true cost of our western lifestyle.

Part of the reason for the success of our modern science is the way we break down problems to small analyzable components. However, when taken to its extreme, this tendency is called reductionism, because it blinds us to the big picture. Indigenous knowledge more explicitly recognizes the inter-relation among the various pieces of creation and so ultimately shows more respect for the world as it now is. As people who recognise we are not the owners of creation but stewards of God’s world, Christians need to acknowledge that we have not always treated the garden in which we live with the care that God has asked of us.

As Canada celebrates 150 years as a country and we look at the accomplishments of scientists in this land, we as Christians must also recognise the gift that our First Nations have blessed us with in their knowledge of and respect for the creation. We must learn from them; otherwise, we may not recognise our sin of ownership that is sometimes part of our relation with God’s creation.  



  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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