Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:08 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds Bishop 2:08 pm, 19th March 2009

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.