Ursula Goodenough

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Ursula Goodenough
Ursula Wiltshire Goodenough 1998
Born March 16, 1943 (1943-03-16) (age 72)
New York City, NY
Fields Cell Biology

Washington University in Saint Louis,

Harvard University
Alma mater

Ph.D.- Harvard 1969 M.A - Columbia U.

B.A.- Barnard College
Known for

Religious Naturalism, Credo of Continuation, Covenant of Mystery,

Epic of Evolution

Ursula W. Goodenough (born March 16, 1943) is a Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the best selling book Sacred Depths of Nature. This highly regarded book has resulted in her teaching the paradigm of Religious Naturalism and the Epic of Evolution around the world and also her participation in television productions on PBS and The History Channel, as well as NPR radio broadcasting.[1] In December 2009, Goodenough began participating in a National Public Radio blog Cosmos And Culture.[2] She currently serves as president of the Religious Naturalist Association.


Goodenough earned her M.A. in zoology from Columbia University and in 1969 she completed her Ph.D. at Harvard University. Goodenough was an assistant and associate professor of biology at Harvard from 1971-1978 before moving to Washington University where she wrote three editions of a widely adopted textbook, Genetics. Goodenough joined the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) in 1989 and served continuously on its council and as its president for four years. She also served as president and is a member of The American Society for Cell Biology. She has presented papers and seminars on science and religion to numerous audiences, co-chaired three IRAS conferences on Star Island, and serves on the editorial board of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.


Goodenough, with her daughter Mathea, and Harry Belafonte at Goodenough's home on Martha's Vineyard.

Goodenough believes that the critical success factor for women balancing the demands of raising children and developing a career is knowing that you can do both. She says that realizing that a child's development are influenced by many people in their lives other than their mother has helped her achieve both her personal and professional goals. She is the mother of five children: Jason, Mathea, Jessica, Thomas, and James.

Science & Spirit describes her as a warm, brilliant and embracing woman, [whose] contradictions make up a harmonious whole – sort of like nature itself, and describes her book as a poetic and accessible bestseller.[3]

The Epic of Evolution[edit]

Goodenough Lectures in team-taught Epic of Evolution (WUSTL)

Goodenough taught a junior/senior level cell biology course at Washington University for many years.[4] Recently she has helped to begin a new 200-level course that is cross-listed under biology, physics and earth and planetary sciencesThe Epic of Evolution. The course is team-taught by Goodenough and fellow Washington University professors Clifford Will, Ph.D., professor of physics and Michael E. Wysession, Ph.D., associate professor of earth and planetary sciences. Bernard brings his expertise in physics, Goodenough her insight into cell and molecular biology and Wysession his knowledge of geophysics to the course. The idea is for students to contemplate the wide arch of evolution from The Big Bang and the subsequent expansion of the universe to the origins and progression of life on Earth. The course is predicated upon presenting the science of evolution along with challenging students to interpret the ways evolution has impacted other parts of life. Much of the inspiration of the course is drawn from Goodenough's work linking science with religion and philosophy through numerous publications and organizations of national symposia.

Use of the term ‘religious naturalism’ was initiated after Edward O. Wilson used it in his 1978 book On Human Nature. Loyal Rue, who was also familiar with the term from Brightman's book begin using it the 1990s. Subsequent conversations between Rue and Goodenough [both of whom were active in IRAS (The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science)] led to Goodenough's use of it in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature and by Rue in Religion is not about God and other writings. Since 1994 numerous authors have used the phrase or expressed similar thinking. Examples are: Chet Raymo, Stuart Kauffman and Karl Peters.

An Epic of Evolution Journal was published from 1998 till 2000 with articles by noted authors — Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, Jennifer Morgan, Connie Barlow, and Goodenough.[5] She makes frequent use of the term and uses it to extrapolate from the concept of evolution to a guiding belief for mankind. She writes in Sacred Depths – "Emerging Religious Beliefs: When the responses elicited by the Epic of Evolution are gathered together several religious principles emerge that I can believe, serve as a framework for a global Ethos". She continues – "Theologian Philip Hefner offers us a weaving metaphor. The tapestry maker first strings the warp, long strong fibers anchoring firmly to the loom, and then interweaves the weft, the pattern, the color, the art. The epic of evolution is our warp, destined to endure, commanding our universal gratitude, and reverence and commitment." [6]

Concerning the Epic of Evolution, she writes “the epic is a fantastic myth that happens to be true of the material Universe”.[7]We do have something of a story here, a true story, that we can work with religiously should we elect to do so." [8] “The Epic of Evolution is such a story, beautifully suited to anchor our search for planetary consensus, telling us of our nature, our place, our context. Moreover, responses to this story — what we are calling religious naturalism — can yield deep and abiding spiritual experiences. And then, after that, we need other stories as well, human-centered stories, a mythos that embodies our ideals and our passions.” [6]

Religious naturalism[edit]

The paradigm of religious naturalism began evolving in the late 1940s but did not attract attention until the 1990s when Goodenough and others such as Loyal Rue [9] and Jerome A. Stone [10] began writing about it. Goodenough has supplied major postulates to this evolving concept, such as – Nature is Sacred; Credo of Continuation: Covenant with Mystery; Global Ethos; and Shared Worldview. She has also contributed to the development of The Epic of Evolution and Emergence that are part of the basic doctrine.[11]

Goodenough on religious naturalism - “I profess my Faith. For me, the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty, and my ability to apprehend it, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value. The continuation of life reaches around, grabs its own tail, and forms a sacred circle that requires no further justification, no Creator, no super-ordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose other than that the continuation continue until the sun collapses or the final meteor collides. I confess a credo of continuation. And in so doing, I confess as well a credo of human continuation”.,[11][12]

Goodenough is probably the best known influential thinker on Religious Naturalism.[13] She lays out some of her own concepts on it in her NPR blog.[14] Phil Mullin in an essay summarizes major themes in Goodenough's book and several of her shorter publications. He describes her religious naturalism and her effort to forge a global ethos grounded in her penetrating account of nature. He suggests parallels between her deep accounts of nature and Michael Polanyi's ideas.[15] Michael Lotti also points out her desire for a global ethos and to develop Religious Naturalism from the sacredness in nature. He adds that although Goodenough does not believe in a personal god, she never criticizes those who do.[16] Goodenough in Naturalizing Morality[17] defines her concept of mindfulness and morality for Religious Naturalism. The individual perspectives on religious naturalism of Loyal Rue, Donald A. Crosby, Jerome A. Stone, and Goodenough are discussed by Michael Hogue in his 2010 book The Promise of Religious Naturalism.[18]

Dalai Lama[edit]

Ursula Goodenough in Dharamsala, India with Richard Gere, Eric Lander and a Buddhist Bhikkhu
Ursula Goodenough in Dharamsala, India with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In 2002, Ursula Goodenough was a member of a five-scientist panel invited by the Mind and Life Institute as part of an ongoing series of seminars on Western science for His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and his inner circle of monk-scholars. Previous seminars explored particle physics and neuroscience. This was the Dalai Lama’s first foray into cellular biology. Goodenough found him a quick study:"He’s very interested in science and really wants to understand this stuff. We’d been told that he knew about DNA and proteins, but when I started it became clear that he had very little background. Of course, one is left to wonder how many of the world’s leaders understand DNA protein.” Goodenough was joined by scientists Stuart Kauffman, Per Luigi Luisi, Steven Chu and Eric Lander on her next trip to India. Goodenough was invited back to Dharamsala, India to lecture again in 2005.

Current research[edit]

mating Chlamydomonas

Goodenough and colleagues are studying the molecular basis and evolution of life-cycle transitions in the flagellated green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. They have cloned genes in the mating-type (mt) locus and genes regulated by mt that control the transition between vegetative growth and gametic differentiation and zygote development. These include genes responsible for mate recognition, uniparental inheritance of chloroplast DNA, and gametic differentiation, allowing them to study their function and their evolution during speciation.This work has led to looking at Chlamydomonas as a potential for producing algal biodiesel as a transportation fuel. Her lab will attempt to enhance triacylglycerol biosynthesis production via genetic manipulation.[19]

Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences[edit]

Dr. Ursula Goodenough was elected a Fellow in 2009 in to Section 2 – Cellular and Development Biology, Microbiology and Immunology (including Genetics) [20]

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has elected as members the finest minds and most influential leaders from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the twentieth. Members are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs. Current membership is about 4,000 American Fellows and 600 Foreign Honorary Members which includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.[21]




  • Lee, J-H., S. Waffenschmidt, L. Small, and U.W. Goodenough. 2007. Between-species analysis of short-repeat modules in cell wall and sex-related hydroxyproline-righ glycoproteins of Chlamydomonas. Plant Physiol. 144: 1813-1826.
  • Lin, H., and U.W. Goodenough. 2007. Gametogenesis in the Chlamydomonas reinhardtii minus mating type is controlled by two genes, MID and MTD1. Genetics 176: 913-925.
  • Ferris, P.J., S. Waffenschmidt, J.G. Umen, H. Lin, J-H Lee, K. Ishida, T. Kubo, J. Lau, and U.W. Goodenough. 2005. Plus and minus sexual agglutinins from Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Plant Cell 17: 597-615.
  • Umen, J.G., and U. W. Goodenough. 2001. Chloroplast DNA methylation and inheritance in Chlamydomonas. Genes & Development 15: 2585-2597.
  • Umen, J.G., and U.W. Goodenough. 2001. Control of cell division by a retinoblastoma protein homolog in Chlamydomonas. Genes & Development 15: 1652-1661.
  • Ferris, P.J., and U.W. Goodenough. 1994. The mating-type locus of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii contains highly rearranged DNA sequences. Cell 76, 1135-1145.
  • Ambrust, E.V., P.J. Ferris, and U.W. Goodenough. 1993. A mating type-linked gene cluster expressed in Chlamydomonas participates in the uniparental inheritance of the chloroplast genome. Cell 74:801-811.


  1. ^ The American Society for Cell Biology
  2. ^ 13.7: Cosmos And Culture
  3. ^ "Ursula Goodenough to Give 2009 Cookson Lecture". Retrieved 2010-07-18. [dead link]
  4. ^ 210A: Epic of Evolution
  5. ^ Epic of Evolution Journal
  6. ^ a b Ursula Goodenough - The Sacred Depths of Nature, Oxford University Press US, 1998, page 272, ISBN 0-19-512613-0
  7. ^ How Grand a Narrative– Ursula Goodenough
  8. ^ Epic, Story, Narrative– Ursula Goodenough
  9. ^ Religion is not About God – Rutgers University Press , 2005, book flap, ISBN 0-8135-3511-5
  10. ^ The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion, SUNY Press, 1992.
  11. ^ a b Ursula Goodenough - The Sacred Depths of Nature, Oxford University Press, 2000, page 171, ISBN 0-19-513629-2
  12. ^ Video Interview - Speaking of Faith - KRISTA'S JOURNAL, April 7, 2005
  13. ^ Frederik Mortensen
  14. ^ Are You A Religious Naturalist Without Knowing It?
  15. ^ The Sacred Depths of Nature and Ursula Goodenough’s Religious Naturalism
  16. ^ Review of Ursula Goodenough's "The Sacred Depths of Nature" by Michael Lotti
  17. ^ Naturalizing Morality
  18. ^ The Promise of Religious Naturalism - Michael Hogue, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Sept.16, 2010, ISBN 0-7425-6261-1
  19. ^ Chlamydomonas reinhardtii
  20. ^ Academy Announces 2009 Class of Fellows retrieved 7/09/09
  21. ^ American Academy of Arts and Sciences retrieved 7/09/09

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]