Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:15 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative 2:15 pm, 19th March 2009

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.