Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

2.26 pm

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on introducing this debate. There is a story that a group of scientists decided that there was no longer any need for God and picked one of their number to go and tell him so. The appointed scientist walked up to God and said, “We have decided that we no longer need you. We have reached a point where we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just shuffle off quietly?”. God, being a reasonable sort and used to rejection, responded, “Well, before I go, can we have one more human building contest?”. The scientist replied, “Okay. Great”. But God added, “We will do it like in the old days with Adam and Eve”. The scientist replied, “Sure, no problem”, and bent down to pick up a handful of earth. As he did so, God tapped him on the shoulder and said, “No, no, no. Find your own earth”.

The debate over Darwin’s Origin of Species and the creation accounts in Genesis, I dare to suggest, is one based on all sides on false premises. It is obvious that the accounts of creation in the beginning of the Bible were not written from the outlook of modern science. These accounts, or stories, do not tell us about the starting point of human evolution, neither are they essays in biology or any other natural science. They do not explain the formation of the stars; neither do they explain the elements of earth, fire and water. They form a poem not a treatise.

Several of these stories of creation, along with the stories of Genesis such as the murder by Cain of Abel, the building of the tower of Babel, the flood and Noah’s ark, speak about something universal that is true of humanity at all kinds of different times. Adam and Eve represent humanity; Cain represents all murderers; boats represent places of salvation from the chaos of life; and the tower of Babel exposes the vanity of human beings and the confusion of language. But at the centre of this raft of stories lie two things. First, that in the beginning there was nothing and, in Hebrew thought, what gives way to nothingness to become something is word—“and God said”. Secondly, in Hebrew thought, the meaning of life is that everything comes from God and goes back to God, but is sustained by the relationship with God.

Darwin’s Origin of Species—a scientific thesis about which it is easy, like in most things, to produce soundbites that do not tell the whole story—was a significant contribution within its time. The noble Lord, Lord

19 Mar 2009 : Column 380

Jenkin, has pointed out the limits of the research available to him for understanding how life developed and was formed. Like the physicists and evolutionary biologists of today, he was primarily interested in understanding the mechanisms by which the world and life came about and how they continue to function.

When I was a schoolteacher, rather more years ago now than I care to remember, my good atheist biologist colleague and I would have considerable fun joining in debate with our respective classes on God versus Darwin. Surprisingly, we agreed on a number of things: first, that there was no inherent contradiction in faith in God and the evolutionary development of the cosmos; secondly, that scientific study, as well as faith in God, leads to a sense of mystery, mystery in turn leads to inquiry, and inquiry to wonder; and, thirdly, we agreed that mystery and wonder lead appropriately to humility, and to respect for the intricacy, complexity and detail of that which is being created. Finally, we agreed that it led us to questioning that went beyond the “when” and the “how” to the “why”, particularly with regard to humanity’s role in the order of things either to exploit, control and destroy or to seek equality, refrain from oppression and to ensure justice and peace in society.

I am something of an amateur astronomer. Even the most casual watcher of the stars is quickly transported into wonder. Watch the stars with the naked eye, and you can see about 4,500. If you have an ordinary pair of binoculars you will see about 45,000. If you have a small telescope, however, as I have, some 70 sextillion—that is, 70 thousand million million million—become available to you. The Crab nebula in the galaxy of Capricorn first exploded its light to be seen on the earth in 1054. Although less bright today, that same nebula continues to expand at an astonishing rate of 7 million miles per day.

The universe is both old and new. It is not something simply past; it is something that is in being—in creation. Such statistics reveal us as a little lost planet revolving around one star among billions in a constantly expanding universe, making any belief that we have any significance in the scheme of things apparently absurd and pretentious. However, as we have heard several times today, Darwin’s research into the development of species did not lead him to belief or disbelief in God. It led him to wonder, and so it should lead us. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, talked about the “Beagle” experiment and the link with NASA, which I visited recently. What an enormous adventure lies before us in the exploration of an expanding universe, out of time and in time.

If we attempt to see the biblical accounts of creation as alternatives to scientific theories, we condemn ourselves to disappointment. The authors of Genesis concerned themselves with the linking of a people’s history and its God to humanity and the universe as a whole. They wished to confess their faith that God was truly universal, deeply involved in the existence and fate of everything. They sought a blueprint for right living. They set out to lead a life of harmony with reality.

The perilous state of our planet, and the risk of significant depletion of humanity due to the impact of global warming on sea levels and deserts, requires a resetting of the moral compass towards the mystery of

19 Mar 2009 : Column 381

creation, coupling it with wonder, respect and a wisdom that addresses the role of human beings as presented in the Bible, to use their gifts of intelligence and creativity to make the universe a place fit for all human, animal, bird and plant life to live in. As my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds has remarked, it is regrettable, to say the least, that in both religion and science the potential for good can so easily be turned to destructiveness and manipulation. I am sorry, I have lost my place. I was on cracking form until then.

The celebration of Darwin’s bicentenary would be deeply enriched by a common commitment to cosmic peace. For those of us who believe that in the end everything both comes from and goes back to God, that can be our contribution; for those whose integrity does not let them make that step, then our common journey must be one of wonder, respect for mystery and a commitment to the welfare of the planet and its future. If that were to happen, this celebration would be truly valuable for the future of humanity.

2.35 pm

Lord Chorley: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on an imaginative choice of subject for our debate, and what an extraordinarily interesting debate we are having. The subject has brought out an unusual and lengthy list of speakers, containing three bishops—I follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells with some trepidation—and a kinsman of one of Darwin’s closest friends, the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. On the other hand, we are rather light on speakers from our own distinguished scientists in this House.

For my part, I have no real qualification to be speaking on Darwin—I am not a scientist, still less a biologist—but the development of scientific ideas and their interaction with society interests me. To some extent I shall be echoing what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said in his remarkable speech. The development of science against the background of 19th-century development is fascinating. There can be no question that Origin of Species is one of the great landmarks of the 19th century.

I want to talk about how Darwin and his book fit into the first half of that century. In short, one asks oneself where he was coming from, what he was building on, and whether the publication of Origin of Species 100 years ago, almost to the month, came out of the blue. It is fair to say that On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection did not come out of the blue. Indeed, Wallace, who had arrived at similar conclusions, mainly as a result of his work in the Far East, had implored Darwin to get on with it and publish. He had the altruism to realise that the sheer depth and weight of Darwin’s researches and thinking were superior to his own. We should remember this extraordinary act of altruism today, an act that, in our own era of competitive research, research assessment exercises and so on, is surely quite inconceivable. Let us remember Wallace.

The defining time in Darwin’s life was clearly the five years of the “Beagle” voyage between 1831 and 1836. He was in his 20s and in need of direction. He

19 Mar 2009 : Column 382

had no real training in field science, but turned out to be an outstanding field scientist. He was interested in just about everything. He was an acute, accurate and insatiable observer, whether it was the different beaks of goldfinches in the Galapagos, his ideas on the geomorphology of the development of coral reefs in the Pacific—on that, he was pretty well spot on—or his ideas on the effect on the geology of Patagonia and the Andes of earthquakes and the huge movement of land surfaces. He was a meticulous recorder.

To go back to Origin of Species, the salient point of natural selection is that it takes a huge amount of time. Developing the many millions of species that our planet is endowed with today takes thousands of millions of years. We have no problem with that today; we accept it. In Darwin’s day, though, it was a concept that our fathers were only just beginning to be comfortable with. It is fascinating to reflect that as late as the 17th century the highly distinguished, erudite and respected scholar Archbishop Ussher, a renowned authority, established with great thoroughness that our world was created by God on the evening of 23 October 4004 BC. We now find that rather funny, but the fact is that it was serious, authoritative and a generally accepted date. A hundred years later its acceptance was beginning to get a bit wobbly. My main point is that it was the development of geology, the understanding of stratigraphy, the tracing of fossil developments through the analysis of strata and the sciences of palaeontology and taxonomy that created the space in time, the thousands of millions of years, for species development to take place. In Darwin’s time, the two key people—two great geologists—were Hutton and Lyell; their dates were approximately 1800 and 1830. It is nice to have the kinsman of Sir Charles Lyell speaking here later this afternoon. What other Parliament can say that? It seems a great pity that we do not have a Darwin in the House, but there we are. There are plenty of them still around and they would be a great addition.

I continue with two quotations from Sir Keith Thomas’s splendid book Man and the Natural World, which puts this period of the early 19thcentury into a very correct perspective from a distinguished historian. He says:

“Only at the very end of the eighteenth century did pre-historic archaeologists begin to realize that the story of human development might be infinitely longer than had previously been appreciated. Between 1820 and 1840 the geologists vastly extended the supposed age of the earth, while the study of fossils and cave bones established that man had lived as far back as quaternary times. This new temporal framework made it much easier to accept the evolutionary theories of Lamarck and Darwin”.

As time is getting on I think I will skip my next quotation.

That is the pedestal on which Darwin built his great work. The fact that it was controversial is beside the point. It was some time, for example, before Lyell accepted the full flavour of Darwinism. There was, of course, the fascinating interchange between the predecessor of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, in his previous capacity as Bishop of Oxford. In 1860, at the famous meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at Oxford, the bishop good-humouredly speculated whether his antagonist, Huxley,

19 Mar 2009 : Column 383

the distinguished scientist and supporter of Darwin, was descended from an ape on his mother’s side or his father’s side. Huxley retorted that either way he would much prefer to be descended from an ape than a bishop. Not a very generous remark, but he was very much an agnostic.

Controversial or not, there is surely no question that the Origin of Species was one of the great milestones of 19th century science, to be placed alongside the discoveries and work of Faraday and Clerk Maxwell in the fields of electricity and electromagnetism. Nevertheless, in the field of biology we should not forget the massive contribution later in the century of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, whose experiments in garden pea breeding led to his formulating the basic principles of heredity. He established the notion of genes and recognised that genes obey simple statistical laws—today a basic principle of biology.

2.43 pm

The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, with his description of Charles Darwin’s meticulous observations and record-keeping. That is the theme that I would like to follow. How do we inculcate in the modern generation, particularly pupils at primary schools, secondary schools and through into universities, this great ability for observation and deduction therefrom?

I declare an interest as chairman of the trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I want to concentrate on Darwin’s contribution to plant sciences, but I must first thank my noble friend Lady Hooper for giving us this great opportunity to explore, as so many people in the House today have done from different directions, the relevance and contribution that Darwin can make to some of the overarching issues with which we grapple.

Although Darwin wrote more books on plants than on anything else, he did not in fact consider himself a botanist. He was really very modest about this. His first major work had been on barnacle taxonomy, and his early enthusiasm as a child had been studying beetles and much else on his field walks. He felt comfortable in zoology and, of course, geology but he did not have an equivalent training in botany. He tended to defer to the director of Kew at the time, Joseph Hooker, on plant matters. In his will he left money to Kew to compile an index to the names and authorities of all known flowering plants and their countries. That was a heroically ambitious concept, which has not been completed today. He left £250 a year for five years. Not unnaturally, an official from a government department, a forerunner of Defra, asked the obvious question: what is going to happen when the money runs out? Well, the Government and now international Governments have picked up the tab. It is a project which, it appears, will at last be coming to fruition, in 2010. As signatories of the Convention on Biological Diversity, we have enshrined in that targets, with the deadline of 2010, of the global strategy for plant conservation. Kew is very proud to have a leading role in this, and it now looks realistic to say that this checklist will appear next year.

19 Mar 2009 : Column 384

Darwin wanted this list for purely scientific purposes, but it is now internationally recognised as critical for practical conservation purposes. After all, you cannot produce local conservation plans unless you know what is there in the first place that you are trying to conserve, and whether these plants are common or rare locally, nationally or regionally. You then need to understand to what extent individual species are dependent on each other and what role they play in determining the prevalence of other species.

Darwin’s 200th anniversary this year and the global strategy for plant conservation deadline next year have proved excellent opportunities to draw public interest in the key role that plants play in making life possible on this planet, and demonstrating how living organisms have evolved on a basis of mutual interdependence. The current concern—a topical one—of the decline of the honeybee population, and the implications for food production, is just one example of our rather belatedly recognising what was blindingly obvious to Darwin: that one depends on the other.

Next year is also the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society, and I declare an interest as a fellow. As the world’s oldest science academy, its anniversary will provide another platform to increase public involvement in science and it will build on the momentum of Darwin’s bicentenary celebrations. The Royal Society is planning a full programme of events to promote the scientific ideas, questions and issues of the 21stcentury among new audiences, following up the work of my noble friend Lord Jenkin on the Science and Society report, which he mentioned in his fascinating speech.

Darwin’s insight made him a genius but his methods of observation and collection of data were simply robust, as the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, said. He was methodical and very thorough. These are methods which are accessible to children. My noble friend Lady Hooper asked whether we are doing enough to interest young children. Throughout this week, all 23,000 maintained primary and special schools in the country are receiving a treasure chest from Kew containing everything needed to take part in the Great Plant Hunt. This is funded by the Wellcome Trust and will encourage primary school children to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin. Pupils aged five to 11 will be taught to explore habitats and grow plans; they will also have the opportunity to collect seeds and send them to Kew’s millennium seed bank at Wakehurst Place. I believe that this is a truly inspired initiative by the Wellcome Trust and I pay tribute to my colleagues at Kew, who have contributed so much of the material for teachers. I pay tribute also to the chairman of Royal Mail, Allan Leighton, who has arranged for the chests—23,000 of them—to be delivered free by Parcelforce, so a round of applause for Royal Mail from me.

Schools are responding enthusiastically as they receive their chests. The programme has been rolled out just this week—Sir David Attenborough delivered the first chest—and one can already see results coming up on the Great Plant Hunt website. So here is a really exciting project. It has been pitched at children of absolutely the right age to capture their enthusiasm. It was, after all, Darwin’s peregrinations in the countryside,

19 Mar 2009 : Column 385

finding beetles and things, which gave him his lasting interest in natural history. I hope—and think there is a very good chance of it—that the Great Plant Hunt will inspire another Charles Darwin of a future generation.

I was very interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, speak about the rebuild of HMS “Beagle” for scientific research and educational purposes. We are talking about a different, older generation here. A square rig with satellite communication—it sounds a bit of a contradiction—will enable links to laboratories and classrooms around the world. It will be an enormously helpful opportunity for an older age group to engage in the kind of science that Darwin was doing himself.

Darwin still has the ability to inspire pupils and students to participate in the collection of data about life on this planet. From this, we will develop a better understanding of the interdependence of species. As we are the most destructive of all species, we should learn how to put in place local, national and international initiatives which protect our fragile ecosystems. It was Darwin who made us realise that all species are related. From this stems an appreciation of how critically important it is for us and future generations to understand the constraints under which we should manage our lives. We deplete our natural resources and degrade the diversity of life at our peril.

2.52 pm

Lord Birt: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for initiating this debate. I also apologise to her and other noble Lords for not being in my place at the beginning. I shall read her remarks in Hansard with great interest.

Like other noble Lords, I have had the privilege of visiting the Galapagos Islands; indeed, I did so with the good companionship of the noble Lord, Lord Powell, who is sitting in front of me. Like everyone else who goes to the Galapagos, I was simply enthralled.

Charles Darwin was in his mid-20s when he visited the islands as a scientific officer on the “Beagle”. Remarkably, he was there for but a month, but he did not, however, just look on in wonder. Rather, he collected specimens and information and immediately took note of the striking differences between similar species in different habitats, whether the giant turtles or the “perfect gradation in the beaks of the different species” of finch. Darwin’s powers of observation proved simply extraordinary.

Back home, he ruminated on and continued to observe nature, and he conceived a theory. He thought the unthinkable: that the world was not created in seven days; that species, as his fellow scientists at the time believed, were not fixed in time. He then spent decades systematically collecting evidence from fossils, animal breeders and horticulturalists to help to support and to refine that theory. The readable and accessible masterwork he then produced, 150 years ago this year, proved to be the foundation of much of modern science and was a vital step in explaining the development of life on earth.

Darwin, as other noble Lords have suggested, was a great British genius, who sits in our pantheon alongside Shakespeare and Newton. Science since his time

19 Mar 2009 : Column 386

has moved forward in leaps and bounds. Genetics has unravelled the double helix, and mapped the commonalities and differences between species. Fossil finds have supplied the missing links. Geology has explained the development of that molten, encrusted volcanic ball, uniquely stabilised by its moon: the earth itself. We now understand that, long after Big Bang, yet still an unimaginable 3 billion years ago, a laval inferno deep under the sea, perhaps the result of tectonic plates colliding, fused, in a freak chemical accident, some core elements into microscopic cells, and began the process of life itself.

Darwin helped explain how millions of tiny incremental variations since, over tens, hundreds or even thousands of millions of years, could eventually combine to produce a dazzling myriad of ever-more complex and capable species, migrating from sea to land to air—350,000 species of beetle alone. Darwin helped us to understand the single tree of life, with humankind a twig at the end of a branch, a relatively recent arrival among earth’s species.

Darwin ushered in the era of rationalism. His bequest is to help us understand that we are not set aside to have dominion over all nature, as I was taught at my Catholic school, but rather that we are but one part of nature’s infinitely complex web.

If Darwin would have approved of our growing respect for nature, he would surely have been disappointed by the slow march of rationalism—here I strike a slightly dissonant note from other speakers. Fewer people now may believe in the supernatural and life after death, but some still take solace in cults or homeopathy. Some defy science and embrace creationism and intelligent design. Many still cling to the comforts of the old religions, which sought to explain existence before science did. Darwin might well be surprised that Britain still has a state religion, hardwired into our constitution.

Every species is special in some way because it has survived. We cannot fly like a bird or run like a cheetah. Rather, our evolutionary inheritance is our unique power to understand and to affect the world. We increasingly appreciate that it is in our own self-interest as a species not to overwhelm the earth and its multitude of plants and creatures but to strive to maintain harmony with it.

The challenge for humanists and for other children of Darwin is to create a world based on respect both for nature and for each other, a world where science and evidence displace prejudice and bigotry, a world based on ethical values which aim to maximise the sum total of human happiness here on earth. The most celebratory and life-enhancing funeral that I have ever attended was conducted by humanists, but the movement is not yet woven into our social tapestry.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page