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.