Apply for the Fall 2024 semester now!

Martin Nowak

Martin A. Nowak is Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University and Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. He works on the mathematical description of evolutionary processes, including the evolution of cooperation and human language, as well as the dynamics of virus infections and human cancer.

Professional Background

Martin A. Nowak is Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University and Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. He works on the mathematical description of evolutionary processes, including the evolution of cooperation and human language, as well as the dynamics of virus infections and human cancer. A corresponding member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Nowak is the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Weldon Memorial Prize of Oxford University, the David Starr Jordan Prize of Stanford University, and the Akira Okubo Prize. He is the author of over 400 papers and four books. Evolutionary Dynamics(2006) provides an overview of the powerful yet simple laws that govern the evolution of living systems. SuperCooperators (2011) argues that cooperation is the third fundamental principle of evolution besides mutation and selection. Before his tenure at Harvard, he held positions at the University of Oxford and at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

Education

1983-1989 University of Vienna, studying Biochemistry and Mathematics
1985 First Diploma: Biochemistry (with highest honors)
1987 Diploma thesis: Theoretical Chemistry
1987 Second Diploma: Biochemistry (with highest honors)
1987-1989 Doctoral thesis: Mathematics
1989 Doctor rerum naturalium (sub auspiciis praesidentis)

Citation

Written by Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, on May 2015 at the Induction in the College of Fellows

Martin Nowak, scientist, author, educator and mentor, loyal son of the Church, the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology salutes you:

G. K. Chesterton once remarked about Darwin’s The Origin of the Species that it is a book that everyone has a vague sense that they have read. “Evolution” so much controls our imagination that it is now applied to any phenomenon that admits of gradual change over time –whether ideas, or social institutions or plants and animals.  Philosophers can appeal to evolution to shore up otherwise indefensible assertions concerning things about which they have ceased to think.

We have a fuzzy notion that biological evolution is a cruel affair that involves mutation, natural selection and therefore “the survival of the fittest.” You yourself have described the popular notion of evolution:

Humans are the selfish apes. We’re the creatures who shun the needs of others. We’re egocentrics, mercenaries, and narcissists. We look after number one. We are motivated by self-interest alone, down to every last bone in our bodies. Even our genes are said to be selfish.

Yet, as you are demonstrating through mathematical modeling corroborated in laboratory experiments, it is likely that our fuzzy notion is a wrong one:

Previously, there were only two basic principles of evolution— mutation and selection— where the former generates genetic diversity and the latter picks the individuals that are best suited to a given environment. For us to understand the creative aspects of evolution, we must now accept that cooperation is the third principle. For selection you need mutation and, in the same way, for cooperation, you need both selection and mutation. From cooperation can emerge the constructive side of evolution, from genes to organisms to language and complex social behaviors. Cooperation is the master architect of evolution.

By “cooperation” you have made clear that you intend something specific: not merely that cells and organisms work toward a common aim, but “that would-be competitors decide to aid each other instead.”

While others have insisted upon the significance of cooperation in understanding biological evolution you have been the first to demonstrate the significance of cooperation through mathematical mapping of viral infections, cancers and even the development of human language. You have delighted in demonstrating the usefulness of mathematics to organize the biological sciences.

Your professional achievements have been considerable: having studied biochemistry and mathematics at the University of Vienna with Peter Schuster and Karl Sigmund, you were awarded the PhD sub auspiciis praesidentis in 1989. You were invited to Oxford for postdoctoral research where you remained until, in 1998, you were invited to Princeton University to lead their Program in Theoretical Biology at the Institute for Advanced Study. In 2003 you were recruited to Harvard where you now serve as Professor of Mathematics and Biology and Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. You have authored over 400 articles and four books and have been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Weldon Memorial Prize of Oxford University, the David Starr Jordan Prize of Stanford University, and the Akira Okubo Prize of the Society for Mathematical Biology.

In your insistence upon cooperation as a principal of evolution you have opened the possibility for discourse with other disciplines, including philosophy and theology. You have consistently held for the dignity – and joy – of free intellectual inquiry and have regarded your scientific work to be an expression of your Catholic faith.  What is remarkably present in your work is the fact that you are at play –which is to say that you are pursuing the truth for its own sake and taking delight in doing so.  You stand as witness to the freedom that is ours, so beautifully articulated by Pope Benedict XVI:

It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free.

We are truly grateful that you have consented in freedom to collaborate with us as we seek to understand more fully and to engage more effectively the culture and world that we inhabit.

Therefore, as an expression of our esteem and gratitude, and in virtue of the authority invested in me by the Board of Trustees of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, I am privileged to bestow upon you, Martin Nowak, the degree Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, and to name you a Fellow of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology.

Selected Media