Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:35 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Chorley Lord Chorley Crossbench 2:35 pm, 19th March 2009

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 23 October 4004 BC. We now find that rather funny, but the fact is that it was serious, authoritative and a generally accepted date. A hundred years later its acceptance was beginning to get a bit wobbly. My main point is that it was the development of geology, the understanding of stratigraphy, the tracing of fossil developments through the analysis of strata and the sciences of palaeontology and taxonomy that created the space in time, the thousands of millions of years, for species development to take place. In Darwin's time, the two key people—two great geologists—were Hutton and Lyell; their dates were approximately 1800 and 1830. It is nice to have the kinsman of Sir Charles Lyell speaking here later this afternoon. What other Parliament can say that? It seems a great pity that we do not have a Darwin in the House, but there we are. There are plenty of them still around and they would be a great addition.

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.