|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
At this point, it is useful to draw attention to the role played by the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selectionAlfred Russel Wallace, whose generosity the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, has already referred to. It was Wallaces paper sent to Darwin on the species question in 1858 from the Malay Archipelago which so resembled Darwins own work on the question and caused him great unease. It prompted Darwins friends to encourage him to lay his ideas before the scientific community in 1858, when papers by both Darwin and Wallace were presented before the Linnean Society of London. A year later, Origin of Species was published.
Wallace was Darwins junior; he was much less well known in science and he was making his own way from a much less privileged background and earning a living, which in Darwins case was not a necessity. Wallace was a follower of the socialist Robert Owen, an advocate of land nationalisation in the 1870s and 1880s and, up to his death in 1913, a strong advocate of the rights of trades unions and the working class. The priority of Darwinwhose theories were by 1844 pretty well worked out, though revealed only to a limited circleis uncontested. Darwin also conceded to Wallace, if not priority, equality as far as the development of natural selection theory was concerned.
Wallace worked in the tradition of the self-taught artisan and working-class scientific endeavour of the early part of the 19th century, and Darwin in the tradition of the gentleman amateur. Both traditions have been eclipsed by modern science, yet in fact both men played a crucial role in the development of modern science. The key player here was Thomas Henry Huxley, whose brutality in debate has already been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. That brutality and pugnaciousness were central to Huxleys role as a propagandist of what is our modern concept of science and its role in our society.
Huxley argued not just for the empiric understanding of the world to create new scientists in our education system, but also that our education system should attempt to impart to all citizens a questioning, critical attitude towards all aspects of life. For Huxley, scientific education and research were the clue to national economic progress, and therefore it was an important function of government both to encourage education and to fund research. Huxley also helped to lay the foundation for the development of the modern university, transforming it into a secular institution in which scientific education and the scientific degree and research training played a key role.
From our vantage point in history, we are, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, mentioned, more sceptical about science as the means by which all moral, economic and political problems can be overcome. We now think that the worst aspects of scientism served, for a while at least, as a new form of religious belief which had some of the dogmatic qualities of the conventional ones. We are aware of the deep intractability of some of the moral issues raised. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, mentioned particularly the often nasty and brutal history of eugenics in the 20th century. Let us not forget in this context how Darwins remark in a letter to Galton in 1870, if we listen to it carefullyremember what noble Lords have said about how observant Darwin wascuts the ground from much of the nasty aspects of 20th century eugenics. Darwin casually observed to Galton, who I do not think particularly wanted to hear this message, that,
Darwinism remains a contested idea, and a great deal of reflection and debate is still needed about its meaning in the human sphere. However, its international importance cannot be denied. The idea was read avidly by the Chinese intelligentsia in the late 19th century as the key to understanding the means by which China could escape western domination and, in spite of a recent incident in Turkey, was seriously engaged with by many thinkers in the Muslim world; the idea has influenced the great novelists from Russia to England and social theorists from America to Italy.
When we talk about politics, we have to remember one thing. There is a perfectly legitimate conservative social Darwinist tradition, but there is also an equally well documented liberal social Darwinist tradition, and even a socialist Darwinist tradition, in politics. Again, they are well documented, and distinguished figures have been involved. Indeed, there is even an anarchist Darwinian tradition in politics. The reduction of Darwin to one particular conservative social Darwinist message does not reflect the reality and complexity of our history. Darwinism, therefore, still has an enormous claim on our attention.
Although mention has been made of them, I should say how great the various exhibitions and celebrations are. Whether it is the huge exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which merits nearly a days visit, or some of the smaller exhibitions at local galleries and museums, it seems that everyone is trying to come in on the celebrationsand rightly so.
I have been enormously impressed by the breadth of coverage. Perhaps I should also mention the coverage on the BBC, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper. If ever one is looking for public service
19 Mar 2009 : Column 396
I should like to call attention to the programme that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, mentioned. I refer to the project at Kew Gardens, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, to provide materials to schools to develop their understanding of the theory and processes of evolution. As the noble Earl mentioned, every primary school23,000 of themis receiving a treasure box which mirrors the one that Darwin took on the Beagle. There was a presentation about this in the Jubilee Room last week. The box contains a plant press, magnifiers, a plant identikit, a mini seed bank and all kinds of experiments that the children can do. They are all encouraged not only to do these experiments but to participate in the great plant hunt. I believe that, among other things, this will provide Kew with the best collection of daisy seeds possessed by any country. All primary school children are being encouraged to collect the seeds and to send them to Kew. We shall see what emerges from that and how many species of daisy can be derived.
For secondary schools, the Wellcome Trust is sending round Survival Rivals. This is a set of kits based on insects, bacteria and so on, and the children are encouraged to have a look at the whole processto see hands-on, if you like, evolution taking place.
Both sets of experiments, at primary and secondary levels, are encouraging students actively to participate with hands-on experiments, which is so important in motivating young people to get involved in science. These days, science lessons are too often about watching videos or watching someone else do the experiments rather than doing them yourself. Indeed, the great plant hunt project, in part, encourages children to go out on thinking walks. I thought about this when the noble Lord, Lord Lea, talked about the damp banks that came from the Origin of Species. In formulating his theories of evolution, Darwin went on thinking walks around Down House. With no laboratory, he used the grounds of his home to devise experiments and test his ideas. Therefore, the children are not only gaining knowledge about plants and the world around them but learning the importance of the systematic collection and collation of materials, and the detailed observation of changes over time. They are learning about the importance of drawing conclusions from those observations, which are the basis for theories, and then subjecting those theories to testing, retesting and discussion by others, which is precisely what Darwin did in developing his ideas. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells said, it is about introducing children to the common journey of wonder and mystery.
One of the books that I was given over Christmas and read with great pleasure was called The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. It is about the
19 Mar 2009 : Column 397
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, mentioned the importance of scientific method which came down to us from Darwinof systematic collection, detailed observation, drawing conclusions from those observations on which to base theory, and testing those theories. Those form the basis of scientific method, and adherence to the strict tenets of that methodology has stood British science in good stead over two centuries. We are rightly proud of our achievements in science. Our Ministers boast of how we are second only to the United States in our contributions to world science, punching well above our weight in terms of highly cited scientific publications. Our universities and scientific institutions are sought after by the foremost young scientists in this world. It is interesting that in the past three weeks there have been three important speeches on science policy. The first was by the Minister for science, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson; the second was by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Mr Denham; and the third was by the Prime Minister himself.
The thrust of those three speeches was to question whether we have the current allocation of science funding appropriate to the challenge of meeting the recession. In particular, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, raised the issue of whether the Government needed to focus on certain areas more than others to increase the economic impact of the research base. It is not the place or the time to go into these issues, but I hope that some day we may induce the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, to come before the Chamber and debate science policy. To date, he has not answered one Question or one debate relating to his department.
In the year of the Darwin bicentenary it is worth emphasising one of the central tenets of scientific research and method. By definition research is about experimentation. If we undertake experiments, almost by definition we do not know what the outcome will be. Increasingly the Government are putting pressure on scientists to identify when putting forward project proposals what the economic impact will be. Yet, how can we know what that economic impact will be until we have completed the experiment? If the Government seek too rigidly to support science only when we can identify significant economic impacts, there is a very real danger that we will take up only low-risk projects that are well tried and tested, and for which we know the results, rather than the new creative ideas that come from the long patient process, as with Darwin, of collection, observation and being allowed to think outside the box. That is very important.
Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Hooper on initiating this splendid debate. It has been so revealing that several noble Lords have such distinguished ancestors associated with Darwin, including my noble friends Lord Jenkin of Roding and Lord Lyell, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, but more of that anon.
Several noble Lords have rightly dealt fully with Darwins unique and outstanding contribution to science and his very careful and humble construction of his theory of evolution. I should like to deal mainly with the man, his family and Down House. My interest in Charles Darwin began when Sir Hedley Atkins, my chief at Guys Hospital, took charge and lived in Down House in Downe, Kent. He took over this splendid old house which was very much in need of repairs; the ground floor was overrun with chickens. He raised a great deal of money, including fees from his private surgical practice, to transform the house and extensive gardens into a most attractive place. He lived on the top floor with his family while the ground floor was the Darwin Museum, which could not have had a more enthusiastic curator than Sir Hedley.
The village of Downe spelt with an e at the end was originally spelt without an e but in the early 19th century it was changed to its present spelling. It was said by some that it was to avoid confusion with County Down in Ireland. Darwin and his family did not approve of the change and continued with the original spelling.
Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury and when he was eight his mother died and he was looked after by his three elder sisters. At school his unusual interest in chemistry earned him the nickname Gas. As his father considered that his 16 year-old son was spending too much time shooting game, he sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine, but he left after two years having seen, and been horrified by, a child having an operation without an anaesthetic. He then studied theology at Cambridge, where he secured tenth place in the bachelor of arts degree in 1831. Shortly after, he sailed on the Beagle and the five-year voyage of hardship was the making of him. As has been mentioned, he was unfortunately plagued by intolerable sea-sickness, but nausea was also a problem on land, according to his autobiography. Darwin wrote:
Although it has been suggested that the Galapagos Islands clinched his great theory, that was probably not the case. Having visited the Galapagos Islands, I fully agree with the enthusiasm of noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, for those wonderful islands, but I was pleased not to have experienced Darwin's finding that the islands were frying hot.
Darwin was immensely wealthy. While he was still in his 30s, he had £80,000 of investments and two large farms in Lincolnshire and in the 1880s, he bought thousands of pounds worth of railway shares, so working for nothing on the five-year expedition was not exactly a problem.
His evolutionary theories were also bound up with his botanical work, which was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Livsey of Talgarth. He conducted thousands of crossings to prove that cross-pollinated plants produce better offspring than those that self-pollinate. He had a vested interest in the subject of inbreeding as he had married his cousin from the Wedgwood family. Indeed, he agonised over the possible harmful effects on his children. As it transpired, he need not have worried too much as
19 Mar 2009 : Column 399
He was always making lists, and before marrying, he made two lists of the pros and cons of marriage. Emma, who became his wife, was a devoted and loving soul, but she was not very keen on her husbands work. During the course of one of his lectures, he turned to her and said, I'm afraid this must be very wearisome to you. She politely replied, Not more than all the rest.
He moved into Down House in 1862, where he worked for 20 years on his theories and perfected his books. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned, his thinking walks were a marked feature around Down House. In the 1860s, Down House was described as an infirmary run by his wife because he suffered ill-health and once vomited every day for a month, which left him emaciated. He suffered from poor health for a large part of his life, and there have been many theories to explain this, including Chagas disease, which is prevalent in South America.
Among his achievements, he introduced four bank holidays, which for many years were known as St Lubbock days. When I first met the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, 30 years ago, I suggested to him that we ought to revert to the original name of St Lubbock days. Especially we should do so today in view of the recent behaviour of the banks.
Sir John worshipped in the church in Downe Village until the vicar preached a rather uncharitable sermon attacking Darwin's theories. He then transferred his allegiance to Farnborough Church, where he was later buried.
As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, mentioned, Darwin was devastated by the death of his oldest daughter with typhoid in 1851. That seriously affected his faith, which was not exactly helped by subsequent opposition to his work from some parts of the religious world. In 1869, Professor Huxley was at a party in the house of John Knowles in Clapham Common where he coined the term agnostic, which he took from St Paul's reference to the Greek altar to an unknown God. He denied that he was an atheist, but he exhorted all men to know how little they knew and said that the origin of all things must be unknown and unknowable.
Darwin himself was not anti-Christian, but had problems with several doctrines, as the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, mentioned. I very much agree with what my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding and his great-grandfather, Professor Fleeming Jenkin, said about Darwinism and Christianity.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is customary from this Dispatch Box to thank the originator of the debate, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for producing an occasion that we will all recall with a great deal of pleasure, given the diversity of viewpoints that have been expressed and the celebration of such a significant man as Charles Darwin. I congratulate her through slightly gritted teeth. The House will appreciate that it is quite difficult to give a government view from the Dispatch Box on the nature of the perspectives that have been revealed in this debate. After all, this Government do not do God, but we do not do atheism or agnosticism eitherno Government ever do. Governments seek to be representative of the breadth of opinion and viewpoints in our country. Inevitably, the collision over such fundamentals as have been raised in the debate makes the position of the government spokesman in response somewhat challenging.
So the House will forgive me if I elide some of those points and concentrate on some of the slightly more prosaic and a little less intellectual ones, while at the same time very much appreciating that we could not have had this debate todaycertainly not in the House where the Bench of Bishops is well represented, or while we have such significant contributors as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, expressing a different viewpointwithout recognising that Darwin raised fundamental issues about beliefs in society, a debate that continues to the present day.
I can do nothing else but express thanks to the noble Lords, Lord Livsey and Lord Chorley, for mentioning Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy. He was the original headhunter, after all, who commissioned Darwin as the naturalist on the Beagle. FitzRoy, of course, became the founder of meteorological science. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who cannot be here todayhe is at a conference in California on climate change and expressed his regretwould never have forgiven me if I had not mentioned FitzRoy in the context of a debate on Charles Darwin. I am very grateful for the fact that I can mention not only the contribution made by Vice-Admiral FitzRoy but the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Livsey and Lord Chorley, for having mentioned him earlier. The debate is testimony to the fact that Charles Darwin is
19 Mar 2009 : Column 401
It is clear that Darwin saw that every living thing was related, that everything shares an ancestry, and that the vast diversity of life on earth results from processes that have been at work for millions of years and that are still at work today. Darwins explanation of this great unfolding of life through timethe theory of evolution by natural selectiontransformed our understanding of the living world, much as the other great scientists whom we salute, such as Galileo, Newton and Einstein, have revolutionised our understanding of the physical universe.
On natural selection and change, I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Haskel for indicating that social Darwinism can produce from Darwins basic concepts a distorted perspective on social developments. One of the supreme ironies of those who took this position to the most absurd, pretentious and catastrophic consequences, namely Nazism, took a concept from the concept of change and yet boasted that they would create a 1,000-year Reicha contradiction of the way in which Darwin expressed evolution. That merely indicates how dangerous it can be when fundamental scientific concepts, which must be understood and thought about carefully, are crudely distorted by those who propagandise on the basis of a limited understanding, or by those who have full understanding but who are prepared to distort.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for his perspective on this and for pointing out that there are other derivations of social Darwinism which are totally removed from social fascism. There is, for instance, liberal Darwinism. That goes to show how careful we have to be when we translate carefully worked out thoughts. It was pointed out that Darwin expressed positions into which he entered noted reservations. Of course we celebrate his definition of changeit is his theory that makes him the great scientist that he is and why we are celebrating him today in this debatebut he also entered caveats into his careful understanding of the debate that were contained within his theories. The problem that we have had with certain aspects of the social translation of these ideas is that it has been done crudely without such caveats and without understanding the subtleties and the reservations, and has turned the ideas into propaganda rather than any form of scientific theory.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|