We established the annual V. Elving Anderson Lecture in Science and Religion at the University of Minnesota in order to honor the career of Dr. V. Elving Anderson, a distinguished geneticist, a long-time University of Minnesota professor, and a devout Christian. Our hope is that the Anderson lecture will become an institution at the University of Minnesota, a lecture given each spring by a distinguished scholar in the sciences, similar to the annual Holmer lecture in theology and the humanities that we host each fall.
Inaugural Anderson Lecture
Our inaugural Anderson lecture was given by Dr. Denis Alexander, a geneticist and the former director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Alexander’s topic was “Genes, Freedom, and God.” Dr. Alexander’s distinguished career and deep faith made him an ideal choice to honor the career of Elving by delivering the inaugural lecture.
Second Annual Anderson Lecture
Our second Anderson lecture was delivered by Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University. His talk was entitled “Biotechnology, Freedom, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” William Hurlbut is a physician and a professor at the Stanford University Medical Center’s Neuroscience Institute. A former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Hurlbut is an expert in the moral issues around biotechnology, the biological basis of moral awareness, and the integration of theology & science.
Third Annual Anderson Lecture
Our third annual Anderson lecture was delivered by Dr. Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. Her talk was entitled “Climate Change: Facts, Fictions, and the Christian Faith.” In her lecture, Dr. Hayhoe considered the scientific evidence for human-caused climate change and addressed common objections to such evidence. Speaking as both an internationally renowned climate scientist and an evangelical Christian, she also discussed why she believes that Christians should seek responsible solutions to climate change.
Remembering V. Elving Anderson
Our culture tends to see the relationship between science and religion as a war: full of conflict, ultimatums, violent words, and misunderstandings. But if you think of things this way, you’ll ignore people like Dr. V. Elving Anderson, people who have both lives of deep faith and distinguished careers in the sciences. For people like Anderson, harmony and peace, not violence and battle, characterize the relationship between science and religion because science helps reveal truth and beauty in God’s creation. Elving’s legacy is powerful and compelling, and he left an indelible mark on the lives of many in our community—including many Christian scientists. Here are a few of the tributes to Elving’s life and work that we collected from his friends, colleagues, students, and peers:
From Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and author of The Language of God:
For me, Elving represented a wonderfully winsome role model of the scientist-Christian. His own work on the genetics of breast cancer and epilepsy added important insights to difficult and complex fields that many others shied away from. But he was also one of the most thoughtful voices in the increasingly public debates about the need for limits for genetic research—arguing compellingly that all of our actions as scientists must be carried out with close attention to short- and long-term ethical consequences.
From Bryan Dowd, Professor, Division of Health Policy and Management, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota:
I met Elving Anderson many years ago through events sponsored by the MacLaurin Institute. He was a regular attendee at those events, and quick to make new friends. His field of study was way over my head, but I was impressed with the way that he continued to be a highly productive researcher when most of the faculty his age had retired. It is a model I have used to inspire others, and hope to emulate.
My field of study was not way over Elving’s head and he always had useful insights on health policy issues. He also was kind and patient with my questions about biology and epidemiology. He once gave me an article by James Shapiro, a microbiologist at the University of Chicago. Dr. Shapiro is famous (some would say infamous) for his view that the standard story of purely random mutation followed by natural selection couldn’t possibly explain the living world as we experience it because there simply hasn’t been enough time. Instead, of being purely random, it appears that the mutations themselves are adaptive. Newsweek’s coverage of that discovery in 1996 was published under the heading, “Darwin: Call your office.” Were it not for Elving, I likely never would have heard of James Shapiro.
I didn’t attend Elving’s church, but I heard stories of dedicated service and the same loving care that he demonstrated for his fellow human beings at the University. The University was greatly enriched by his presence and is impoverished by his absence. I personally miss him very much, but look forward to learning more from him when we both have infinite time on our hands and the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the universe to help us with the tricky bits.
From William Oetting, Professor of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology, College of Pharmacy, University of Minnesota. Professor Oetting delivered the following eulogy at Elving’s funeral on Saturday, March 15, 2014:
Elving was considered by most as a scientist who studied complex genetic disorders, though his accomplishments go much further both within the field and beyond.
Elving initially earned an Associate of Arts from Bethel College in zoology, back when the college only had two-year degrees. During that time he was also involved in helping teach in the zoology lab. He then entered seminary, and at the same time continued to teach zoology. I am sure that during this time he could not help but think about the intersection of science and the Christian faith and would write about this later in his career. He left the seminary after two years and attended the University of Minnesota, earning his Bachelors of Arts, Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees.
After graduate studies, Elving returned to Bethel as an assistant professor of Zoology later becoming chairman of the Department of Biology and eventually Dean of Students.
In 1960 he joined the National Institutes of Health to investigate the inheritance of disease working with the Perinatal Research Study. He then came back to the University of Minnesota, becoming the Assistant Director and later Director of the Dight Institute of Human Genetics. He was also an effective teacher in Human Genetics to both undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Zoology.
Elving was an important member of a number of scientific organizations. He was involved in the creation, and in 1979, became the president of the Behavior Genetics Association. In 1981 he was president of Sigma Xi, a scientific research society, and on the board of the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies. He was also an active member of several other scientific societies, such as the American Society of Human Genetics.
Elving was a highly collaborative researcher, and I think that this is how he wanted to do science: as part of a team. He worked on the genetics of breast cancer, as well as epilepsies, familial neonatal convulsions and other neurological disorders, diabetes, and several rare genetic disorders, though most of his work was in breast cancer and epilepsies.
His research began with his Ph.D. dissertation topic analyzing the environmental and genetic contributions to breast cancer. This work was presented in his book Variables Related to Human Breast Cancer, authored in 1958 with Sheldon Reed, who at the time was the Director of the Dight Center and who is considered the father of modern genetic counseling. This study analyzed 544 families with a total of 4,418 family members. The results of this study provided some of the earliest evidence that breast cancer clusters in families and thus pointed to the existence of genes that increase risk for breast cancer.
In the early 1990s Elving, along with several researchers at the University of Minnesota, including myself, went back to these same families and expanded them in an effort to identify these genes that Elving postulated should exist. This work resulted in several published several papers on these families.
Elving’s real interest was in studying the genetic bases of neurological disorders and spent much of his time in the study of epilepsies. He was one of the first to push for a genetic basis for epilepsies. He authored several books including the, Genetic Basis of the Epilepsies in 1982 and co-authored theGenetics of the Epilepsies in 1989. He also authored and co-authored many research papers on this as well, including a study that showed mutations in potassium channel gene KCNQ2 is a cause of inherited epilepsy of newborns. In researching epilepsies Elving moved from postulating the genetic basis of epilepsy to being part of identifying the genes and mutations associated with this disorder.
Though Elving published important work expanding our understanding of complex genetic diseases, he played another equally important role in writing and talking about the role scientists have in the use of this information. In his book, On Behalf of God: A Christian Ethic for Biology, written with Bruce Reichenbach of Augsburg College, they discuss Christian ethics in response to bioethics and human genetics. Their goal was to advance our understanding of and appreciation for what a Christian stewardship ethic has to say to thoughtful persons entering the twenty-first century.
It is amazing to me the number of individuals that I have found that have worked and interacted with Elving. Here are some quotes form two of these individuals.
Ilo Leppik, Professor in my Department of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology provides these memories that help us understand Elving’s passion for research:
“When I first met Elving back in the mid-1970’s, genetics in epilepsy was not a very fertile field. But Elving had the foresight to understand that with the advances being made in genetic testing, this branch of science would bear great fruit. I would see him at our weekly epilepsy conferences at the U and he would always be trying to impress us with the importance of this topic. I visited him many times at his office in Diehl Hall and was impressed by the piles of family trees he had compiled. I also recall his great excitement when the work he had collaborated on in benign neonatal seizures led to the description of the first chanelopathy, the K+ channel. In his later years, he worked tirelessly, organizing international collaborations for genetic studies.”
“My most intense work with him was editing a book based on a conference he helped organize:Genetic Strategies in Epilepsy Research. This came out as both a hard cover book and supplement of a journal I was founding editor of.”
“What I remember most about Elving is his very warm personality. I was interested in cross-country skiing, and for many years he and Carol hosted a group of skiers at their cabin in Hayward, Wisconsin. They would feed us, make sure we got up in time in the morning, and allowed a bunch of tired and sweaty skiers to use their lovely cabin to recuperate after the grueling Birkebeiner ‘race.'”
(I see from this that Ilo put “race” in quotation marks, so I am not sure how close to the front of the race they were.)
Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, provided these thoughts: “For me, Elving represented a wonderfully winsome role model of the scientist-Christian. His own work on the genetics of breast cancer and epilepsy added important insights to difficult and complex fields that many others shied away from. But he was also one of the most thoughtful voices in the increasingly public debates about the need for limits for genetic research—arguing compellingly that all of our actions as scientists must be carried out with close attention to short and long-term ethical consequences.”
Elving enjoyed his pursuit of genetic understanding. He saw the potential good that this information can provide. He also saw potential misuses of this information and through his writing brought this to our attention. His goal was not only to impact science, but to understand how science was used and how it impacts society.
Elving is a perfect example of the type of scientist and person that I wish to be: To have a passion for science, and an appreciation of who we are and what we are doing as it impacts society and our responsibilities before God.
From Dr. Bruce Reichenbach, professor of philosophy emeritus at Augsburg College and coauthor, with Elving, of On Behalf of God: A Christian Ethic for Biology:
Sharon and I have had the privilege of knowing Elving and Carol Anderson for more than thirty years. Many things can be said about Elving, but three are noteworthy. First, Elving was a person of deep faith who saw and furthered the connections between religion and science. He had a passion for inviting others into this journey, bringing out the best of their ideas and contributions. Whenever we met, he would come with a handful of scholarly articles about science and religion, new discoveries, or editorials for me to read and discuss.
Second, Elving was truly interested in other people. He sincerely wanted to know more about others, their lives, their experiences, and their faith journey. His focus was never on himself. When we returned from our travels, Elving and Carol always asked us to share our experiences with them. Third, he was extremely generous with his time, abilities, and possessions. As an example, he and Carol warmly invited us to use his Wisconsin lake cabin for our family. He was generous with his time, as we worked together on our co-authored book On Behalf of God. Much more can be said about his gentlemanliness, warmth, and humility, but it is enough to say that we have lost a truly great Christian and friend.
From Dr. Philip Rolnick, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas and chair of the Science and Theology Network:
To have known Elving Anderson was a privilege. He was, quite simply, one of the most outstanding men that I have ever known.
Elving was a very gifted man, and he developed his native gifts, as witnessed by his outstanding career in genetics. But he was also a very insightful man. He had a wonderful way of sizing up a situation. For many years, he was one of the leading lights of the Science and Theology Network (STN), and we will all miss him and his insightful leadership.
Elving was also a man of dignity and faith. A conversation with Elving Anderson was both pleasurable and instructive. To have known Elving Anderson is to know that, by the grace of God, there are still good men who do some very good things.
Here are several other tributes to Elving: