Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:37 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Hooper Baroness Hooper Conservative 1:37 pm, 19th March 2009

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 24 November this year. These links provide a wonderful sense of continuity of history and enjoyment of our heritage.

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.