My Lords, it is a great delight and honour for me to open today's debate about a great man who represented a great era in our history, when scientific and technological developments moved us into a new world. This very building is a product of that age and I have been wondering whether the great man spent any time here in your Lordships' House. I feel sure, however, that had the Life Peerages Act been around then, he would have been a most distinguished Member of this House.
Charles Darwin was a man who asked questions and found many of the answers. He was a diligent collector and a meticulous observer who had the patience to spend 20 years evaluating his evidence and developing his theories. He has been called one of the most influential Britons of all time and the most important natural historian ever. There can be no doubt that his theory of evolution by natural selection shaped scientific thinking and dramatically influenced the society in which we live today.
His achievements are rightly being celebrated in this bicentenary year and this, in turn, has drawn our attention and recognition to the work of his contemporaries, such as Sir Richard Owen, the founder of the Natural History Museum, Wallace and Lyell—with whom he corresponded extensively—and William Paley, the Archdeacon of Carlisle, to name but a few. That also cross-references to the work of Mendel and other scientists, leading us on to the double helix of Francis Crick and James Watson in the 1950s. It is a compelling fact that 150 years after the publication of the Origin of the Species modern genetics has proved that all life is related.
Today is also a family occasion. Direct descendants of the Darwin family are present in your Lordships' House and some of the descendants of friends and colleagues of Darwin will be speaking in this debate. Another remarkable coincidence is that this is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of the Origin of the Species and the direct descendant of John Murray the publisher, which is still a family business, will re-enact the publication of the original book on
When I tabled this Motion for debate towards the end of last year, I was concerned that the bicentenary of this great man might not be duly recognised. In the event, I was proved very wrong. There has been almost overwhelming coverage: the splendid exhibition at the Natural History Museum; the Radio 4 series, preceded by one of the special programmes made by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg; the television series—need I mention Sir David Attenborough and Andrew Marr in this context?—innumerable books devoted to Darwin's life and times; and exhibitions and conferences up and down the country. The exhibition at Down House, Darwin's home, is particularly significant. In the words of Sir Barry Cunliffe, the chairman of English Heritage, that exhibition,
"places Down House firmly on the international map as one of the world's most important scientific heritage sites and brings to life the man and his family, his painstaking research and his groundbreaking theories".
There is even the launch of the Beagle project, about which we shall hear more from the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, in due course.
Perhaps I should explain my interest and involvement in the work of Charles Darwin. It stems from my love of Latin America, in particular, of Ecuador, where I was fortunate enough to spend a postgraduate year—now many years ago—and although my thesis focused on international law and economics, I became intrigued by the tales I heard of the Galapagos Islands and was infected by the enthusiasm of the then British ambassador to Ecuador, Gerard Corley Smith, who eventually become one of the first chairmen of the Charles Darwin Foundation, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The fact that Charles Darwin was so stimulated as a young man by what he found in Brazil and other parts of South America as well as in the Galapagos Islands warmed me to him. The amazing fact about the Galapagos Islands is that all the birds that Darwin saw are still there. However, the mocking birds—the main basis for his research, not the finches as is popularly thought—although still there, are critically endangered. There is an urgent need to preserve all the things that mocking birds depend on. There is a project led by Felipe Cruz of the Charles Darwin Foundation on the island of Floreana, so action is being taken. I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, intends to elaborate on it and on the invaluable work of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, which is trying to preserve the environment of the islands.
However, the fact remains that modern communications and, unfortunately, tourism have deprived the Galapagos Islands of the isolation that they had enjoyed for so many thousands of years. What Darwin saw there—cormorants that had lost the power of flight, lizards that swam out to sea, the mocking birds and the giant tortoises—may still be there, but they are threatened on a scale never before seen. It is important that there should be awareness of this and that appropriate action should be taken.
My Lords, this is meant to be a helpful interjection. The noble Baroness makes a fascinating point, but I shall pose one of the central questions. Some people think that the whole point of Darwin is that species have to die out. What are we doing to preserve them? That question is lurking around this debate.
My Lords, that was a helpful interjection, and some of my distinguished colleagues will be able to tackle that question much better than I can.
I was on the point of moving from that aspect of Darwin's life to explore a little the controversy over his theory of evolution and the concept of intelligent design. In other words, the arguments of the Bible literalists and those who say that Darwin's theory reduces humanity to a by-product of blind forces against those who say that God cannot exist because there is no evidence to prove it. I realise that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and doubtless other noble Lords will be exploring this further before there is another helpful interjection.
My view is that between the extremes of the argument lies a middle path. I agree with the view that faith and science are not fundamentally opposed to one another, and I also believe that faith is a gift. I somehow feel that Darwin was not an extremist. He saw what he saw, his observations were scientific and his methodology was rigorous. As he says in his autobiography, at one stage in his life, he was convinced that,
"there is more in man than the mere breath of his body".
I think that is a wonderful way of describing what many of us feel. Yet we are told that he died an agnostic, so not only did he not know, but he did not know whether it was possible to know, which I understand is the definition of an agnostic. The reasons for Darwin's loss of faith are of interest and relevance to believers and non-believers today. Questions about what constitutes legitimate and sufficient evidence for religious beliefs or how we understand or accommodate suffering within a religious context continue, and doubtless will continue, to be asked. However, it is important to remember and be guided by the fact that in spite of everything we are told, Charles Darwin remained as courteous and respectful to those who retained religious beliefs as he was to fellow agnostics. That is an example to be followed.
Finally, in considering the celebrations of this bicentenary year, we should also consider the legacy and look to the future. Much is known about 5 per cent of the universe, which leaves the challenge of the remaining 95 per cent. The Large Hadron Collider project in Geneva may give us some of the information and some of the answers on this. It may even give us more information on the Higgs particle, the so-called God particle. The important thing is that there should be people who question and people who are prepared to do the necessary research. Who will be the next genius to follow in Darwin's footsteps? Are we doing enough to encourage young people to take an interest? I believe that this debate and the many celebrations of the Charles Darwin's great achievements help us to move things forward.
This has been an absorbing subject on which to prepare for a debate. I have learnt a huge amount in doing so, and I look forward to learning more from the many distinguished participants in today's debate.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing this extraordinarily interesting debate. It is topical not only because it celebrates Darwin's bicentenary but in other ways to which I shall draw your Lordships' attention. As the noble Baroness explained, Darwin made a wonderful discovery and his scientific principle is full of depth and subtlety—other noble Lords will be able to explain the science far better than I can—but it is also a powerful idea that when removed from the subtlety of science to the bluntness of politics becomes a pretty blunt political instrument.
There are no special ethics for science. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, science deals with the "how", so it does not need its own ethical system. It is when you move on to the "therefore" and what follows the science that ethics and morality enter the equation. Because there is no special morality attached to how nature works, unscrupulous people extend the absence of the need for special ethics to the "therefore" and to what follows.
That was used to justify slavery and colonialism by Europeans. If only the fittest survive, there is no point in helping the less fit or the feeble-minded to survive, argued Malthus. If Darwin is right, why not use eugenics to breed better humans and to help natural selection along? It is to the great credit of this Parliament that a Bill to that end was talked out in 1912. Not so in the United States. There, the Supreme Court agreed that it was legal to use sterilisation by force to strengthen the US breeding stock. As we know, those ideas reached a climax in Germany with the ideas of the master race and the elimination of the Untermenschen. All that was justified by Darwin's theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest and the use of Darwin's theory as a means to view other people as fundamentally inferior and not like us.
"We do not need a society based on Darwinian competition between individuals".
Fortunately, our parents and grandparents understood that Darwin's theories are more subtle and less violent. That we are all equal was understood and celebrated in 1945 with the declaration of fundamental rights at the United Nations, repeated and reinforced by the charter of human rights that each member of the European Union must sign up to.
We have to be very careful about applying Darwin's theories to the human race. As many scientists have pointed out, adaptation in nature is through genetic change, but it is through co-operation that most human societies have been successful. There has been a lot of talk about adaptation and survival in the face of climate change: yes, adaptation through co-operation and survival by not polluting our environment and destroying our resource base, which might imply shared interest in the rather subtle Darwinian way, all in the spirit that we are one species.
We may be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Remember all those millions who have suffered by the application of Darwinian theory to the human race in the past. No to that. Adaptation and preservation in climate change are right for moral and ethical reasons and for survival reasons: the ethics and morals of doing good. Darwinian science will help to teach us how to do it; morals and ethics will teach us why we should do it. We confuse the two at our peril.
My Lords, the biggest temptation in this debate today will be to look back only in a historical sense at the great achievements of Charles Darwin, to glorify his scientific research and evaluate his achievements. However, on occasions such as this, we must look forward with optimism and inspire a new generation of young scientists. Who better as a role model than Darwin to take them forward?
The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, is to be congratulated on enabling this debate to take place today, and for the way that she introduced that great man's contribution to society. Her contribution is a model of how best to celebrate the life of Darwin.
Charles Darwin ignited a revolution not just in biology, but also in society, as part of the wave of science, progress and optimism that pervaded Victorian Britain. The public appetite for the natural sciences was seen in packed lecture halls. Editions of Darwin's Origin of Species sold out rapidly not just in the halls of learning but in railway stations.
The year 2009 gives us the opportunity to celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin, perhaps one of the most significant scientists ever, and not just for his work on natural selection. He was also a great botanist and geologist—arguably the father of ecology and biodiversity studies. We celebrate his bicentenary at a time when British society needs its scientists more than ever and needs the public to understand the scientific process not blindly but with informed trust in the people who carry out scientific research on our behalf. It is because of that need that I hope the 2009 celebrations—and, importantly, the legacy of those celebrations—will become an inspiration for young men and women throughout the country to embrace science as the Victorians did: as a fundamental of basic literacy and an integral part of their intellectual lives.
For my part, I would like every comprehensive school in the country to be presented with a bust of Charles Darwin and a selection of books, Voyage of the Beagle and perhaps Fossils, Finches and Fuegians by Richard Darwin Keynes, so that interested pupils can be inspired by Charles Darwin's open-mindedness and determination—remember that he suffered appallingly from seasickness, yet stuck out five years on HMS "Beagle"—and the sheer adventure of discovery.
That brings me to the question of a legacy for the 2009 celebrations and the importance of engaging young people in science education. Lectures and exhibitions have taken place. It was a real mission this year to fascinate young minds. It was when Darwin set foot on HMS "Beagle" that the intellectual journey began that led to his writing, somewhere in the Pacific in 1835, that if his observations of the variation among Galapagos mockingbird species was borne out, that would "undermine the stability of species". How appropriate that his "Eureka!" moment came at the age of 26 on a British survey ship.
The message of Darwin needs to be transferred to a new generation. I must declare an interest in the HMS Beagle Trust. I have no direct financial interest in the trust. Neither, I believe, does my fellow trustee, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who very much regrets that he cannot be here today. Present here is David Lort-Phillips of Pembrokeshire, a descendant of one of the leading crew of the original HMS "Beagle". He has undertaken tremendous preparation work for the trust, as has Peter McGrath, a tall-ship skipper and youth trainer from Whitby. It is their enthusiasm that has inspired this address. My interest is in science education and exploration. As the son of a master mariner, inevitably I am fascinated by this project.
It is important that I inform those here today of the basis of the Beagle Trust project. The plan is to build a replica of HMS "Beagle" during the current years of celebration of Darwin's bicentenary. Once built, the new ship will retrace the circumnavigation of 1831 to 1836, which was made under the command of Robert FitzRoy and carried aboard a young Charles Darwin on a journey that he called the most important event of his life.
The new "Beagle" will host modern scientific research, and scientists will be paired with teachers and students to address important questions of evolution, biodiversity and climate change. A charismatic international flagship for science, she will be used to promote wider public engagement and learning programmes. It is planned that the boat will be constructed in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, and space has been provided by the port authority. The cost, estimated on plans prepared by one of the world's most respected classic shipbuilders and riggers for a sailing square rigger with lines and rigging based on the HMS "Beagle" of 1831, is £5 million.
The lead scientific programme will involve DNA bar-coding and environmental metagenomics to detect and identify new species of marine life, working in collaboration with astronauts aboard the international space station to produce ground-truth space imagery of oceanic phenomena, and hosting individual peer-reviewed research projects proposed by leading scientists both ashore and afloat. The plan is also to put young people into this situation so that they can benefit from scientific research on the spot in the areas which Darwin actually visited.
The rebuilt "Beagle" will provide a 20-year legacy for the Darwin celebrations, and people will become interested in science, as Darwin did, in a memorable experience aboard a tall ship. The project has enormous potential, and the "Beagle" project already has a partner in NASA in the States, which has signed an international space Act agreement for the project to work with the crew of the new "Beagle" on observing and sampling the little understood oceanic phenomena. British school children will be able to talk to the crew of the new "Beagle" and, through them, to astronauts on the international space station. I hope that the Minister for Science might find it worth a word of congratulation to a small educational charity in Pembrokeshire, which has entered into a formal agreement with what is arguably the most famous scientific body in the world.
This project has the potential to remember Darwin and to inspire a new generation, and I ask the Government to help to support this project positively. It is a route to promoting our scientific and maritime inheritance while providing a beacon for the youth of the 21st century.
My Lords, our thanks and congratulations are due to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on bringing this subject into the public domain and on introducing it with her usual clarity. The debate clearly has many dimensions; we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, on the politics of the issue, which was very revealing, and from the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, on the science education aspect, which is equally important. I also notice that three bishops are going to speak. They will no doubt discuss the theological dispute that arises around Darwin. I propose to concentrate on the Galapagos islands and the problems facing Ecuador, in whose territory they lie
My interest in this whole subject started at school, where my term coincided with that of two Darwin brothers, Erasmus and Philip, one younger and one older. Both are the great-grandchildren of Charles Darwin, and both are strong supporters of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, which has done such noble work in this field. During my long association with Latin America, I have always sought the right opportunity to visit the islands, and despite the fact that I had already been around the continent for 35 years or more, I did not finally get there until 1990. I must say that, once visited, they are never to be forgotten. It was, and should remain, an earthly paradise.
Since 1990, the visitor and resident populations have grown enormously. Visitor numbers have grown from 40,000 in 1990 to 140,000 in 2006, and to 170,000-plus last year. Obviously, Ecuador benefits enormously from tourism on the mainland, particularly in the mountains; the area around Quito, with its volcanoes, is beautiful and fascinating to visit. Ecuador not only has mountains and coastline but runs into the Amazon jungle, so it is very diverse country that definitely benefits from tourism. Tourism has, however, affected the archipelago, and the Government of Ecuador now recognise that the Galapagos islands are at risk and have made serious efforts to address the problems. I will say more about that later.
I do not have precise figures for the increase in the population, but I know that it has risen by a percentage similar to the increase in visitor numbers. Here the problem is quite different; an increase in the number of residents means an increase in the need for services, and new residents demand concessions from which they can derive income, such building new hotels and bringing in more people. The overall risk is further exacerbated.
Another related problem is the introduction of new species of both plants and insects. The numbers have risen from 112 in 1990 to more than 1,300 today. That figure includes 490 introduced insects such as red ants and dengue mosquitoes, to mention but two. This is a very serious problem for the Ecuadorian Government, who are trying to reconcile the Galapagos islands as a World Heritage Site, as they have just been designated, with the current socio-economic situation on the islands, which is rapidly becoming unsustainable. The good news, however, is that the Government of Ecuador recognise this and are consulting sensibly with the Charles Darwin Foundation, which is located on the islands and does very valuable work, and with representatives of the Galapagos Conservation Trust. I have a feeling, and I very much hope that this is the case, that this debate, which has covered and will cover a wide range of issues, will help those who are wrestling with this very complex issue.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for sponsoring this debate and for her enthusiastic introduction to it. I have never had the privilege of going to South America as she and the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, have, but I share the more domestic excitement of a visit to Down House and the way in which it expresses the relationship between the personal and the scientific which one feels there. I am thinking particularly of Darwin's ability to think outside the conventional tramlines of his era. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred to open-mindedness. That is right, but it is so much more than that. This was an ability in Darwin to think outside the conventions of his time, to be open to new truth where he discovered it, and then not to be frightened of exploring it.
In that context, I will concentrate on two areas of danger. One is historical, although with contemporary implications that will echo something of what the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, has said. The other is more recent. That means we must have a reservation, not in our assessment of Darwin, but of the way in which his legacy has been used. I hope that the Government in general will encourage our heritage organisations, including English Heritage and the National Trust, to share that questioning of our heroes, which was so often a part of their own thinking as well as their intellectual qualities.
First, we need to acknowledge the association of natural selection with some of the darker philosophies of the last century. Evolution does not always lead to a sense of dependence on the natural order, but sometimes to an arrogant claim to be its pinnacle and to look for a way of improving that pinnacle still further. Evolution was often at the heart of Edwardian liberalism—the sense that western humanity was on the verge of conquering sickness and evil, and that the spread of civilisation around the world was the natural conclusion of natural selection. I would like to say that we know far better now: I am not always sure that we do.
These theories were drawn upon not only, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, by some of Hitler's theoreticians, but also by Marxists exploring the benefit and inevitability of the class war, and by imperialists. All of them were visionaries, but they were without the humility to recognise our dependence on others rather than our superiority to them. At its worse, such an interpretation of evolution could lead to Francis Galton's eugenics and the desire to breed better human beings in the way that we might want more productive beef cattle or cleverer sheepdogs. We still fail to recognise often our dependence on creation—I would say God's creation—and our responsibility for it, which is at the heart of the Genesis story and so challenges the often feeble environmentalism of our present culture, which is there in theory but put aside when something more urgent arises.
Secondly, I want to draw attention to the ways in which scientific evolutionary advance has sometimes tempted people to a view of humanity as free and individualistic, with choice as the ultimate prize to be seized. We ignore our dependency on one another. Malcolm Brown, a colleague of this Bench as director of mission and public affairs for the Church of England, spoke recently of his part in a seminar last November at the Natural History Museum's celebratory exhibition. The theme was science and faith. The response of the young, articulate audience was that science had destroyed faith. It interpreted faith as social authoritarianism, often violent, demonising of others and in denial about empirical knowledge.
Those of us who are Christians need to hear that travesty of faith, for we are sometimes responsible for its promulgation and its perpetuation, but all of us need to be careful. That version of Christianity flies in the face of the New Testament where Jesus uses and celebrates the scientific observation of his own day in order to demonstrate human dependence. We need to recognise ourselves as in Alasdair MacIntyre's phrase—dependent, rational animals. We are marked by relationship and not by autonomy. We are uniquely able to reason and to have an important commonality with the rest of sentient creation. We do not have a free choice which has somehow outgrown our dependence on one another.
The danger of a celebration of Darwinism is that evolution can become a new absolutism, which ignores Darwin's own caution and his own exploration, for example, of blind alleys and his own courtesy, to which the noble Baroness referred in her introduction. Evolution can be suborned to try to answer ethical questions and it can still give us a false sense of our own ability to solve the deep issues of the world without recognising our dependency on it—the world itself—and on one another. I hope that we shall use the excitement of Darwin's contribution to our understanding so as to focus on our relational world and our responsibility for the welfare of the whole creation and, specifically within it, all our fellow human beings.
My Lords, I sometimes think that those who draw up the list of speakers for debates such as this have a remarkable sense of humour. I find myself, as president of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, speaking between two Bishops and I cannot help feeling that that is, to some extent, intentional. This morning, a booklet arrived on my desk, entitled, Rescuing Darwin: God and Evolution in Britain Today. I only wish that I had had time to read it before standing up in your Lordships' House. I hope to do so later.
I want to look at the subject from a particular standpoint; namely, how Origin of Species was regarded by contemporary, educated society and how the theory was refined, even modified, under the influence of some of Darwin's critics. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, talked about the packed halls at lectures, which is certainly true. Among those critics was my great-grandfather, Professor Fleeming Jenkin FRS, the first professor of engineering in Edinburgh. I am encouraged to take this perhaps rather self-centred step by some of the recent scientific and broadcasting events as part of the celebrations, to which my noble friend's excellent debate draws attention. They have drawn attention to Jenkin's critique, which was published in 1867 in the North British Review and which, I have to say, the noble Lord, Lord May, has told me always figures in his lectures about Darwin.
I start by hoping that, a few weeks ago, other noble Lords watched, as I did, a remarkable BBC Four television programme called "What Darwin Didn't Know" by Professor Armand Leroi, professor of evolutionary development biology at Imperial College. It has been repeated and I have no doubt that it will be repeated again, as it deserves to be. The things that Darwin didn't know included, among other things, the age of the earth. Could the slow process of evolution possibly have happened in the short time then believed to be the age of the earth? No one knew anything about nuclear power and could not explain therefore the heat of the sun. They did not know even the basic laws of inheritance: they knew nothing about chromosomes, genes and so on. There was much else besides. Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord May, tried to explain to me how the Darwinian view of inheritance works and he left me behind at the first equation.
Professor Jenkin was among a number of critics who pointed to the holes in Darwin's original theory—holes which he and they were unable to explain. Thus, Jenkin had drawn attention to one of Darwin's major problems; that is, how to establish geological time. He had to prove that the earth was sufficiently old to accommodate the slow process of evolution. But it did not stop there. Darwin's efforts to ascertain a framework within which evolution could be fitted opened a much wider debate, which was to expose—if I may put it this way—a chasm between methods and understanding in natural sciences, compared with those in mathematics and physics, which had hitherto been the basis of that research. That is an example of how the criticisms helped to develop the theory.
On the mechanisms of evolution, my great-grandfather argued that single variations could not survive being blended back into a general population which lacked that distinguished feature. Thus if you had one white father and perhaps a series of black wives, all living in a black tribe, the whites would not survive more than a generation or two. Of course we now know that that is entirely wrong. But it is interesting that Darwin took these criticisms extremely seriously. He said:
"Fleeming Jenkins"— he, too, got my name wrong and put an "s" on the end—
"has given me much trouble, but has been of more real use to me than any other essay or review".
After that he wrote:
"Fleming Jenkyn's arguments have convinced me".
Darwin was convinced enough to make significant revisions to the fifth edition of the Origin of Species.
Darwin was persuaded to turn his attention to geological time and, in due course, helped William Thomson—later Lord Kelvin, a Member of this House—PG Tait and others to establish that the universe was much older than had been believed at the time, so answering the arguments that it could not have happened. It was left to Mendel to discover the basic laws of inheritance and to subsequent generations of scientists to discover how they worked.
From this, I draw three observations. First, in our Science and Society report, which I chaired about nine years ago, we argued that people need to understand better the scientific method: a theory is just that; an explanation of the evidence, which can be modified and displaced if further evidence emerges which casts doubt on the original theory. Darwin's critics and Darwin himself, and the open-minded exchange of views which followed the publication of the Origin of Species, to which reference has been made by a number of speakers in the debate, are excellent examples of this. In the course of time, a theory becomes so well supported, as the theory of evolution now is, by all the evidence that it becomes incontrovertible. But it remains a theory, and the public need to understand that better.
Secondly, my great-grandfather has been accused by some people of being among the religious dogmatists who challenged Darwin because it contradicted the biblical revelations—the right reverend Prelate has already referred to this—but they cannot have read the correspondence between my great-grandfather and Charles Darwin. That correspondence is in the Cambridge University library and I have told my granddaughter, who is now reading biology at Cambridge, that she has got to read it. Any polemicist must lack all credibility unless he or she can demonstrate some knowledge of what the target of his attack has actually said. I have made this extremely clear to the producers of a programme by Professor Richard Dawkins, which has yet to appear. My great-grandfather's criticisms were wholly scientific.
I return, thirdly, to my opening words in which I referred to the booklet Rescuing Darwin: God and Evolution in Britain Today. We have been accustomed to humanists, secularists and atheists arguing with increasing vehemence that Darwin's theory of evolution has destroyed any basis for a belief in God. This is what has given rise to the belief in creationism and intelligent design as attempts to reconcile faith with what is now widely accepted as the science. It is important to recognise that although, quite rightly, as my noble friend Lady Hooper said, Darwin described himself as an agnostic, he also said:
"It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist ... I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God".
My noble friend described him, quite properly, as an agnostic. Today, there are many distinguished scientists who entirely accept as sound science the theory of evolution and who are also active believers in God.
Let me end with a word about my great-grandfather. He summed this up extremely well in his life. He said:
"I cannot conceive that any single proposition whatever in religion is true in the scientific sense; and yet all the while I think the religious view of the world is the most true view".
I subscribe to that view four generations later.
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, "OK. 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 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 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.
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 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 goldfishes 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 Usher, a renowned authority, established with great thoroughness that our world was created by God on the evening of
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, 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.
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.
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, 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.
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 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, 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.
One of the most intellectually thrilling experiences that I have had for many years was an evening last autumn at the University of London where young comedians, mostly scientists, offered deadly and arresting critiques of modern events and mores. I felt that I had glimpsed a better, more rational future. But, in truth, the rationalist movement as yet lacks its own powerful institutions to promulgate the voice of reason. When they do exist, and one day they will, Charles Robert Darwin should be their patron.
My Lords, first, I congratulate my good friend the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on this very timely debate.
The two greatest alumni of my Cambridge college—Christ's College—which celebrated its 500th birthday four years ago, were Milton and Darwin. The quinquennial lecture was given by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate and one of the world's most distinguished biologists, in particular on ways in which cells divide, which affects everything from embryo genesis to cancer.
John Milton studied at Christ's from 1625 to 1629, and Charles Darwin from 1828 to 1831. The professor explored their contrasting views on how the living world, including humankind, came into being, focusing on Milton's rendering of the Genesis account of creation in his epic poem Paradise Lost, published in 1667 and Darwin's Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, published two centuries later in 1859 and 1871. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells reminded me for some reason of a Cambridge graffito which I rather liked; someone had written on a wall, "God is dead"—but, underneath it, someone else had written, "No, God isn't dead—he's alive and well but working on a less ambitious project".
Listening to Professor Nurse's lecture, I was struck by the similarity of the poetry of Darwinism and that of Paradise Lost. That magisterial work, published seven years after the restoration—a difficult time for Milton, as he had been one of Cromwell's Secretaries of State—redramatises the idea of Satan's rebellion against God and the fall of Adam and Eve, the Genesis account of creation, including the origin of life. He includes his own cosmology with a description of the structure of the universe. One of the points made by Nurse, which I shall put in my own terms, is that one can see that the poetry and aetiology of Darwin was rather similar, because Darwin could not throw much light on why the universe exists. "What sort of question is that? It is not a scientific one", I think he once remarked. He made a similar remark about the nature of infinity or going on for ever. He certainly did not believe in any sort of Armageddon, any more than did Milton—so that is a bit of a red herring.
Milton begins as follows—and I shall quote a few lines of Paradise Lost, which are:
"And God said, Let the waters generate
Reptile with spawn abundant, living soul
And let fowl fly above the Earth, with wings ...
Forthwith the sounds and seas, each creek and bay,
With fry innumerable swarm, and shoals
"Of fish that with their fins, and shining scales,
Glide under the green wave".
No sign of evolution there, so I shall go forward to Darwin and the survival of the fittest, natural selection and so on.
Darwin's friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the calculator, who argued that God was a divine programmer, pre-ordaining life by natural law rather than by ad hoc miracles, may have influenced his later view of natural selection, which could be viewed as one of God's natural laws. In other words, God set the rules of evolution and then took the rest of the day off. That is a key point in the comparison, because the same point arises with what we would now call the big bang. Incidentally, that now seems to be the view of the present Pope, who wants to bring reason into the centre of theology. He does not believe, and nor does Milton or Darwin, that the almighty could take a red London bus out of a London traffic jam on Oxford Street and suddenly turn it into an aeroplane—and nor does any of us in this Chamber. I think many of us would call ourselves tentative Christian Darwinians or tentative Darwinian Christians. It comes to more or less the same thing.
Incidentally, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds hinted at, the study of aetiology, the purposes and origins of the universe, is still the most fruitful way in which the Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—can talk among themselves and to other religions such as Hinduism, as well as to agnostics, as I suppose Darwin could be classified and did classify himself. Agnosticism is clearly not the same as atheism, but no atheists would disagree with the agnostic doctrine or assert that there is scientific evidence about why the universe exists. It is not the sort of question that could be determined by an atheist.
Darwin's central theory can be divided into two parts: first, that living things evolve over millions of years, and species gradually change with older ones dying out and new ones appearing. The fossil record has many examples of species that no longer exist. As a corollary of this, nature red in tooth and claw has unfortunate consequences for those who want to preserve all species. The history of the universe does not suggest that one can necessarily preserve all species; on the contrary, it is very clear that one cannot. It has never been so, and it is hard to think that it ever will be.
The second main principle, the refinement called natural selection—those selected being ones with greater survival value, summarised by the phrase "the survival of the fittest", coined by Herbert Spencer—sets out that because of the results of inheritance, any selected variant will propagate preferentially. Again, in parenthesis, if Darwin were alive today he would have to address the same arguments that the rest of us have about carbon dioxide and the unsustainable growth of human population. He would, one is sure, strongly urge the Vatican, for example, to have more respect for humanity and the planet at the same time, in my humble opinion, by changing its absurd policy on contraception. But that is another story.
As I understand it, with the science of DNA, minor mistakes in genetic copying generate variant progeny, which opens up natural selection. Nurse concludes that we now have to consider what science is and whether it can provide satisfactory explanations of all aspects of creation. Einstein did not think so, but the assumption that the rules of science are immutable in time and space is itself open to debate, as witness Einstein's astonishing leaps of imagination. So we continue to have difficulty as human beings in comprehending phenomena at the extremes of our experience, and science involves difficult and non-intuitive concepts such as quantum theory, relativity, infinity and eternity. It continues to be very difficult to think about how the universe came about; if it has existed for ever, we have to imagine infinite time, which is a difficult concept. But if it came from nothing, we have to imagine nothingness giving rise to something with or without an agent, which is also a difficult concept.
Both science and religion have not fared well in making great claims about origins, but Milton and Darwin overwhelmingly have in common the commitment to the pursuit of truth. This phrase of Milton's is very close to the scientific principle. I conclude, if I may be forgiven, with a few lines from Origin of Species. It says:
"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved".
Noble Lords will agree that this account of evolution from Darwin has some of the beauty of Milton's poetry in Paradise Lost.
My Lords, like other noble Lords I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for this very timely debate. No one can read the Origin of Specieswithout being struck first and foremost by the massive integrity and honesty of Darwin. He always admits where he does not think that the evidence is yet totally compelling, particularly the finding of fossils of intermediates. He says that he wants to face the strongest case against his own theory. He is no polemicist simply trying to win an argument for its own sake. He is always modest and courteous. But he had this deep and justified conviction that the evidence that he had accumulated over the years provided a basis for a theory of a vast explanatory power. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, was quite right to emphasise that it was a theory. It has been modified since then and no doubt it will be modified in the future. Nevertheless, it is a theory of vast explanatory power that has shaped the outlook on life of everyone here in the Chamber this afternoon.
Darwin was not alone in believing in evolution or natural selection but, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, explained so well and so rightly, what he brought to it in a way that no one else did was his painstaking, persevering observation—not just in the Galapagos, as we know, but mainly in this country. There was year after year of very careful and accurate observation that provided a sound scientific basis for his theory. Above all, I want to celebrate Darwin as a wonderful model of good scientific method. I have been privileged in recent years to work with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. As a result, I have worked with some of the leading life scientists in the country. I have come to have huge respect for people working on the cutting edge of science who show the same truthful, honest, persevering approach to the work as Darwin.
Einstein once referred to the miracle—his word—that the universe was intelligible. To inject a theological note into the debate at this stage, this intelligibility of the universe, which is not invented by us but it is discovered and explored by us, has its basis in the fact that there is an ultimate intelligibility behind it—what the great religions of the world call the divine wisdom, the divine word or divine rationality in and through all things. It is that approach reflected in trying to grasp the truth of things that I want to celebrate in Darwin and elsewhere. Another aspect of his integrity is that he never claimed more for science than science could yield. As has already been quoted, only three years before his death he said that it was quite absurd that you could not be what he termed an ardent theist and at the same time be an evolutionist. It is true that he gradually lost his faith: it was gradually undermined by his experience of suffering in life, particularly the death of his most beloved daughter. He probably did die an agnostic.
Historians of science note how very quickly the theory of evolution was accepted by the Christian public in Britain in the 19th century. At the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford in 1860, the preacher was Frederick Temple, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He said that God created over a long period of time through secondary processes and through natural causes. Darwin himself was buried in Westminster Abbey to the great pleasure of the Church. Among the committee raising money for his monument were the two archbishops and the Bishop of London.
The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, quoted that famous story about the debate between Wilberforce and a previous Bishop of Oxford. I have to say with some sadness that that story was put out by Huxley some 40 years after the event and that actually nobody quite heard what went on. A great deal of research has gone into that meeting and what has been discovered reveals something rather different from that wonderful story. It is a pity that some of the best stories are not true, but we are in the business of truth this afternoon so I have to say that.
I had the pleasure on the actual anniversary of Darwin's birth to debate with the latter-day Huxley in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and a very good occasion it was. I had to say to him then, as I have had to say to him so many times before, "My dear Richard, there are so many good arguments against religion. Don't keep dragging science into it", but some people seem to remain unconvinced. Richard Dawkins and I have worked together, as we all need to do in order to get proper science taught in schools, particularly in the area of creation. It is worrying how many people in our society are still sceptical about the theory of evolution. Theos, which recently conducted a survey on this, found that 25 per cent of the population actively disbelieve the theory of evolution and a further 25 per cent are sceptical of it. There is clearly a massive amount of educational work to be done. Some of this hostility to the theory of evolution comes from people who read their Scriptures in a rather literal way, whether they are Muslims or Christians or perhaps even Jews. This has to be faced in a patient and persevering way, trying to put forward the best scientific evidence.
Of course, if some of the fair number of young people who take this point of view raise questions in class, those questions must be addressed. When Professor Bob Reese, who was the education officer for the Royal Society, said that of course evolution must be taught in schools, but if pupils raise a question from a creationist point of view it must be answered, he spoke for every single teacher in the country. I leave it at that.
The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, drew attention to the fact that you cannot derive an ethical viewpoint from your scientific work, which was echoed by others; the basis of your ethics must be derived from elsewhere. However, it is interesting that we are in a different position on ethics from Darwin and his contemporaries in one respect. We now know that co-operation plays a significant role in the evolution of species. Nature is not just red in tooth and claw but also involves co-operating within a particular organism and between organisms. Sometimes reciprocal altruism, as with bees and flowers, is part of the process of evolution. Even apart from that, however, we need to derive the basis of our ethical, as well as religious, view from elsewhere.
Finally, I celebrate Darwin as a wonderful model of good scientific method. Like other noble Lords, I hope that we will continue to produce scientists with the same characteristics that he showed, and that science with those characteristics will be taught to the children in our schools.
My Lords, I rise with humility this afternoon to thank my noble friend Lady Hooper. I shall concentrate my remarks, which I hope will be brief and to the point, on the tremendous relationship between my ancestor, my great-great-great-uncle, Charles Lyell, and Darwin. They had their first meeting fairly early on, and certainly much was discussed in 1836. My first meeting with my noble friend Lady Hooper was October 1985, under a wonderful blue banner with the motto, "Nil satis nisi optimum"; I can explain the precise details and relevance of that to the noble Lord the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard later.
I declare my interest as the great-great-great-nephew of Sir Charles, which was mentioned so kindly by my noble friend Lady Hooper and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. Sir Charles went on to become the first professor of geology at King's College, London—not, I humbly suggest to the right reverend Prelates, without some opposition from the ecclesiastical establishment. Never mind, he was a tough Angus lad, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, can attest, and stuck to his ground.
Declaring my interests as a non-geologist and a non-scientist, I convey my humble thanks to Professor Leonard Wilson, Professor Gordon Craig and Dr Nowell Donovan, all of whom have kept my brief thoughts and remarks on the relevant path.
On October 2 1836, the "Beagle"—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey—dropped anchor at Falmouth. In four days, Darwin had reached Shrewsbury. On
From my studies of Charles Darwin's tour down the coast of South America, he had paid particular attention to the coast of Chile and had noticed the elevations, the structure and strata of the rocks and landscape there. He understood that the entire landmass of Chile and South America had risen something in the region of what we call "two feet"—I am not too sure what that is in metres; I do not know if my noble friend Lord Lamont will advise me. This was thanks to two massive earthquakes, one in 1822 and another in 1835. The noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, who is not in his place, has advised me that the hamlet of Concepción was virtually eliminated by the colossal earthquake of 1835. Charles Darwin visited the site within a month of the earthquake occurring and noticed the elevation of the strata. He pointed out to my ancestor, Charles Lyell, the recently uplifted sea bottom and shell beds on the Atlantic coast. On the cliffs of Argentina, which stretch some 400 to 500 miles, Darwin noticed deposits that were of enormous interest to him and Charles Lyell. I understand that Lyell and Darwin admired each other enormously. Indeed, Charles Lyell pointed out that he was immensely grateful for Darwin's confirmation of his theories on the uplift of land masses, of those below the sea, and on subsidence. Darwin expressed enormous gratitude to Charles Lyell for the principles of geology set out in the second or third edition of his work—certainly, he was reading the first edition as he undertook his tour—which helped him to interpret the geological aspect of his studies in South America.
Both Lyell and Darwin had a great deal to say about coral reefs in the Pacific. I do not have a science O-level but I have attempted to dabble in my distinguished ancestor's records and in some of his letters. Therefore, I shall spare your Lordships my thoughts on the structure of coral and how it might affect the subsidence and elevation of the Pacific sea bed. Perhaps I, my noble friend Lady Hooper and other noble Lords might wish to undertake exploratory voyages to study that phenomenon. Some noble Lords might still be speaking when we got back; one would not know. I shall leave the study of Pacific corals to the specialists and to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who will speak next.
As I say, Darwin expressed enormous gratitude to Sir Charles Lyell. I conclude my O-level remarks on science, let alone on the records of Charles Darwin, by citing a wonderful letter written by his wife, Emma Wedgwood. They held their first dinner party on
I am immensely grateful to Charles Lyell's guru, Professor Leonard Wilson, for pointing out that Darwin's friendship with Lyell was not greatly encouraged after the former's marriage. In Charles Darwin's biography, edited by his granddaughter, Darwin is quoted as saying,
"I saw more of Lyell than of any other man both before and after my marriage".
Therefore, it seems that bridges could be built. It is an enormous privilege for me to mention my great-great-great uncle's name in your Lordships' House today. Above all, I am immensely grateful to my noble friend Lady Hooper for giving us the opportunity to celebrate the bicentenary of a particularly distinguished man, who was linked to my great-great-great uncle.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for introducing this debate and for giving us the chance to celebrate the memory of Charles Darwin. I declare an interest; my wife is a Darwin scholar much involved in the publications and conferences going on this year, including at Christ's College, Cambridge. More personally, the Royal Irish Academy this year held an important meeting to celebrate Darwin. That is important because, while the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, is right to say that religion in England adapted quickly to Darwin's work, that was not quite so true in Ireland. In the 19th century, probably of all the cities, the one that took the most violent attitude towards Darwin's work was probably Dublin. It is remarkable to see the way in which it was uncontroversially celebrated this year in the Royal Irish Academy.
Darwinism is now a crucial part of modern biological science. It has stood the test of time; like all good scientific theories, it has survived a serious interrogation of its basic ideas and emerged stronger for it. We should remember the time at the turn of the last century when the theory of natural selection looked weak, and even some of those who were sympathetic to it had their serious doubts, because of a feeling that the modern science of genetics and Darwin's theory were irreconcilable. This proved to be a short period. By the 1920s, the theory of natural selection was relatively well integrated into the new genetic theory.
Much of the 19th and early 20th century speculation about human nature and society that drew on Darwin's name, often without close attention to the specifics of his theory, is now dead. But on the other hand, it is certainly true that we have seen a revival of social Darwinism. In the past 20 to 30 years, there has been a remarkable rebirth of attempts—not all successful—to incorporate Darwin's insights into the human sciences. So the very least that can be said today is that some of the problems, dilemmas and questions which Darwinism prompted in the Victorian mind have now returned.
At this point, it is useful to draw attention to the role played by the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection—Alfred Russel Wallace, whose generosity the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, has already referred to. It was Wallace's paper sent to Darwin on the species question in 1858 from the Malay Archipelago which so resembled Darwin's own work on the question and caused him great unease. It prompted Darwin's 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 Darwin's 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 Darwin's 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 Darwin—whose theories were by 1844 pretty well worked out, though revealed only to a limited circle—is 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 Huxley's 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 Darwin's remark in a letter to Galton in 1870, if we listen to it carefully—remember what noble Lords have said about how observant Darwin was—cuts 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,
"excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work".
Of all Darwin's many quiet wisdoms, that is one that we should respect, especially when the discussion of eugenics is under focus.
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.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for introducing a rich and fascinating debate. I have learnt much from it. The title it was given was,
"to call attention to the celebrations of the bicentenary of Charles Darwin".
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 day's visit, or some of the smaller exhibitions at local galleries and museums, it seems that everyone is trying to come in on the celebrations—and 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 broadcasting at its best, one should see some of the programmes that have been or are about to be shown on the BBC. We benefit in this modern age because, if you cannot get to an exhibition or if you miss the BBC programme, you can go to a website where you can see much of the exhibition and commentary on it, and if, for that matter, you miss a programme, the BBC iPlayer enables you to see it. We benefit enormously, there is so much there to be seen and rightly we should call attention to these celebrations.
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 school—23,000 of them—is 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 process—to 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 contemporaries, and to some extent the predecessors, of Darwin—people such as Joseph Banks and Herschel. I thought that The Age of Wonder was a very good name for that.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, mentioned the importance of scientific method which came down to us from Darwin—of 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.
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 Darwin's 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 Guy's 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:
"I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me".
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 three of his sons were knighted for important contributions to science: George in astronomy, Francis in botany and Horace in civil engineering. His grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, the polymath physician, poet, philosopher and inventor, and, as has already been mentioned, his cousin was Sir Francis Galton, who was the founder of the science of eugenics. The Darwin and Wedgwood genes were clearly of high quality, and their descendents have continued to show great distinction.
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 husband's 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.
In spite of Emma's devotion and care for him, he considered women inferior, and that view extended to ethnic minorities, although he supported the abolition of slavery. Darwin was,
"immersed in a competitive Whig culture, and enshrining its values in his science, he had no time for socialism".
While I am on the subject of Whigs, he became friends with his neighbours Sir John Lubbock and his son, also called Sir John, who was the grandfather of our own Lord Avebury.
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.
Charles Darwin rarely ventured out in public, but he was visited by a philosopher from Harvard called John Fiske, who went to see him in Down House. He described him as,
"the dearest sweetest old grandpa that ever was".
Prime Minister Gladstone visited Charles at Down House for several hours. When he left, Charles said:
"What an honour that such a great man should come to visit me!".
Charles Darwin was one of our greatest scientists, a charming, courteous and honest gentleman.
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 either—no 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 today—certainly 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 viewpoint—without 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 today—he is at a conference in California on climate change and expressed his regret—would 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 one of the most influential Britons of all time, and perhaps the most important natural historian of all. In celebrating his bicentenary this year, we will also be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, so this is a very important and felicitous year.
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. Darwin's explanation of this great unfolding of life through time—the theory of evolution by natural selection—transformed 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 Darwin's 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 Reich—a 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 change—it is his theory that makes him the great scientist that he is and why we are celebrating him today in this debate—but 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.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for starting the process, which was followed fully by other noble Lords, of emphasising how important Darwin was as an exponent of scientific method and of careful analysis of what he was doing. The other great theme that came through the debate—a number of noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, took this up—was the need to be concerned about the extent to which our society is scientifically educated and the necessity to appreciate that, without a clear grounding in scientific method, our society will not be well educated. There is a great deal of work to be done. How important that work might be was alluded to by several noble Lords and reference was made to how much the fundamental concepts of Darwin have percolated society.
In a Theos report, as has been quoted today, the percentage of people in the United Kingdom who believe that Darwin's theory of evolution is so well established that it is beyond reasonable doubt is a minority—I repeat, a minority. This is 150 years after the promulgation of the thesis. If our scientific understanding is such that such a crucial concept still has not permeated among the vast majority of our people, we have reason to be concerned about aspects of science education. In a few moments, I want to emphasis that the Government are using this felicitous year to extend our concentration on the work that should be done in schools.
Darwin is a Briton and we claim great pride in his achievements, but we should not be under the illusion that this year of celebration is merely a UK phenomenon. Australia is holding a year-long evolution festival to celebrate Darwin's anniversaries. Vancouver in Canada has had a celebration. Milan celebrated Darwin Day in February to kick off a nationwide series of events dedicated to evolution and Philadelphia in the United States is celebrating a city-wide Year of Evolution.
In the UK, as has been reflected in the debate, a wide range of organisations across England, Wales and Scotland have collaborated under the brand name Darwin200 to produce a national programme of events to celebrate the legacy and enduring relevance of Charles Darwin's work. The partnership includes more than 120 organisations from across the arts, education, heritage, local government, libraries, media, museums, science and tourism sectors, including the Natural History Museum—as all of us would expect— VisitBritain, the BBC, the British Council, Research Councils UK, the University of Cambridge, the Royal Society and the Fitzwilliam Museum. They are all making their contribution to celebrating this year.
None of that work gets done without financial support or funding. The Darwin200 secretariat's work to ensure that this year is marked appropriately has received financial support from the Natural History Museum, the British Council, the Wellcome Trust, and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Reference was made to the position of Wales. The noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Chorley, mentioned Alfred Russell Wallace, the Welshman who was key to the development of evolutionary theory. It was a letter from Wallace, as was indicated in contributions, who independently arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection, which finally prompted Darwin to share his work with the world. I cannot think of anything more significant than that. We should therefore appreciate that in Wales, too, there is considerable celebration of this anniversary. I had not known that. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for bringing to the House's attention the fact that there is a celebration in the Irish Republic, too, against a background where 150 or so years ago it would not have been anticipated as a likely development.
I am grateful also to the noble Lord, Lord McColl, who provided the House with an intense insight into Darwin's life. I am pleased that he mentioned Shrewsbury because, after all, that was Darwin's birthplace and where he was brought up, and the small, modest but exceedingly attractive museum in the town bears testimony to this. Shrewsbury, therefore, also has pride of place in this celebration.
There are of course places even more famous than Shrewsbury. I anticipated, but was grateful for, the contributions of both the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery. They emphasised the significance of the Galapagos and the work that has to be done there. I am pleased to bring to the House's attention the fact that, as part of this celebratory year, the Gulbenkian Foundation is funding a three-year residency programme which will enable up to 12 leading artists to spend time in the Galapagos archipelago. They will be able to engage with the Galapagos in their own way and to reflect on its unique nature, historic value and current importance, as well as on the human conservation challenges it faces.
There is no contradiction between the theory of evolution through natural selection and being concerned about conservation. There will not be much of a theory of natural selection unless we succeed in conserving the planet, which is certainly a major objective. That is also true of the mockingbird, to which the noble Baroness referred, and other species which are under threat. As human beings we should care about those species because, after all, Darwin was a celebrant of biodiversity and it would be very strange indeed if we took joy in the reduction of that diversity. I do not think there is anything about Charles Darwin and this anniversary that should detract us from our concerns about conservation.
Reference was made to the threats to certain species about which we ought to take a particular interest. We all know about the threat to the humble bee at the present time from disease, and we also know the potential catastrophic effect that could have on food production unless we are successful in protecting the species.
Government support for Darwin200 is provided by the DIUS and the programmes receive ministerial support from DCMS, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A cross-ministerial government group has been working to make this year as successful as possible.
Although I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lea for bringing Milton into the debate—he is certainly a different figure from Darwin, although educated at the same college—not much reference was made to the extent to which Darwin has inspired many plays, books and films which celebrate his life, and many debates about the issues he raised. This is one of the features to be celebrated at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which will explore the influence of Darwin's ideas and discoveries on the work of visual artists such Landseer, Turner, Degas, Monet and Cézanne. So there is a breadth to the celebrations this year beyond the science, although the science is of the greatest importance.
I want to mention the point that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, graphically expressed, that the Great Plant Hunt gives us an opportunity to get young children, at primary school level as well as secondary, interested in the issues that Darwin identified, to go on nature walks in their school grounds, to explore habitats, to collect seeds, to grow plants and to explore the concept of the chest, which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, identified. That is a most exciting project. There are 25,000 of these chests; the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, referred to that, and expressed his gratitude to the Post Office. We are similarly grateful. This is all part of the necessary public engagement with science. When we come to judge the effectiveness of this year of celebration, it will come down to the question of the extent to which we have enhanced scientific interest and education in our society and the true legacy of Darwin.
I want to mention an additional point from the Dispatch Box: the important aspect of government policy. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, in his description of Darwin's life, described all that I need to do with regard to the significance of Down House in Bromley and its surrounding landscape. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport submitted a bid last month to UNESCO to confer world heritage status on Down House. The house is an outstanding aspect of Darwin's life and, when we are successful with this bid, as we hope to be, it will have the enhanced guarantee of the nomenclature of the world heritage position. We look forward to that.
This has been an absorbing debate. I have not done justice to the debate between the right reverend Prelates, the noble Lord, Lord Birt, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, who engaged with the fundamental issue of the debate that took off in the 19th century on the nature of religion and the origins of the universe. I indicated, as did the noble and right reverend Lord in his contribution, that there is still an extraordinary degree of ignorance about the evolution of the species and in understanding the fundamental concept of Darwin. That part of the debate will continue in our society, but on an increasingly sophisticated level. We heard today the extent to which that debate can be engaged with to the advantage of us all, without the insults and the acrimony that distinguished it 150 years ago and which scarcely added to the enlightenment of the nation.
That, though, is a debate on which the Government probably ought to observe a dutiful silence; we all have our viewpoints, but hearing the Government's view on the matter would not aid the position. I simply reflect that in this debate, despite the diverse opinions that have been expressed and the wide range of issues that have been raised, there has been one unifying factor: the debate celebrates the contribution of one of the greatest of all Britons and one of our greatest scientists. I thank the noble Baroness for giving us all a chance to participate today.
My Lords, I feel totally justified in having brought this Motion before your Lordships. It has been a serious, well informed and inspiring debate, and as I anticipated, I, for one, have learnt a great deal. I found it fascinating, in listening to every word from every speaker, is that there has been a refreshing lack of repetition. Each intervention has introduced a new theme or a different approach without much, or any, orchestration from me. I am glad to learn that we may have an ongoing debate on the role of science in the coming year when we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society.
I am most grateful to all the noble Lords who have contributed so thoughtfully and informatively. I think it will make today's Hansard a really good read. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lea, has been reassured that the work of the Galapagos Conservation Trust is not to contradict Darwin's conclusions about the survival of the fittest, but to ensure that we humans do not upset the balance of nature and the process of natural evolution.
I have been greatly encouraged to hear what is being done for the future in terms of science education and especially about the Kew treasure chest, the Great Plant Hunt and the Beagle project. The Minister had a difficult task expressing a governmental rather than a personal viewpoint. However, the great list of activities that he referred to will enable anyone with the time and interest to pursue further the information gathering that has gone on this afternoon.
Once again, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the celebrations of the bicentenary of the great Charles Darwin. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.