Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:59 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour 2:59 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, first, I congratulate my good friend the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on this very timely debate.

The two greatest alumni of my Cambridge college—Christ's College—which celebrated its 500th birthday four years ago, were Milton and Darwin. The quinquennial lecture was given by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate and one of the world's most distinguished biologists, in particular on ways in which cells divide, which affects everything from embryo genesis to cancer.

John Milton studied at Christ's from 1625 to 1629, and Charles Darwin from 1828 to 1831. The professor explored their contrasting views on how the living world, including humankind, came into being, focusing on Milton's rendering of the Genesis account of creation in his epic poem Paradise Lost, published in 1667 and Darwin's Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, published two centuries later in 1859 and 1871. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells reminded me for some reason of a Cambridge graffito which I rather liked; someone had written on a wall, "God is dead"—but, underneath it, someone else had written, "No, God isn't dead—he's alive and well but working on a less ambitious project".

Listening to Professor Nurse's lecture, I was struck by the similarity of the poetry of Darwinism and that of Paradise Lost. That magisterial work, published seven years after the restoration—a difficult time for Milton, as he had been one of Cromwell's Secretaries of State—redramatises the idea of Satan's rebellion against God and the fall of Adam and Eve, the Genesis account of creation, including the origin of life. He includes his own cosmology with a description of the structure of the universe. One of the points made by Nurse, which I shall put in my own terms, is that one can see that the poetry and aetiology of Darwin was rather similar, because Darwin could not throw much light on why the universe exists. "What sort of question is that? It is not a scientific one", I think he once remarked. He made a similar remark about the nature of infinity or going on for ever. He certainly did not believe in any sort of Armageddon, any more than did Milton—so that is a bit of a red herring.

Milton begins as follows—and I shall quote a few lines of Paradise Lost, which are:

"And God said, Let the waters generate

Reptile with spawn abundant, living soul

And let fowl fly above the Earth, with wings ...

Forthwith the sounds and seas, each creek and bay,

With fry innumerable swarm, and shoals

"Of fish that with their fins, and shining scales,

Glide under the green wave".

No sign of evolution there, so I shall go forward to Darwin and the survival of the fittest, natural selection and so on.

Darwin's friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the calculator, who argued that God was a divine programmer, pre-ordaining life by natural law rather than by ad hoc miracles, may have influenced his later view of natural selection, which could be viewed as one of God's natural laws. In other words, God set the rules of evolution and then took the rest of the day off. That is a key point in the comparison, because the same point arises with what we would now call the big bang. Incidentally, that now seems to be the view of the present Pope, who wants to bring reason into the centre of theology. He does not believe, and nor does Milton or Darwin, that the almighty could take a red London bus out of a London traffic jam on Oxford Street and suddenly turn it into an aeroplane—and nor does any of us in this Chamber. I think many of us would call ourselves tentative Christian Darwinians or tentative Darwinian Christians. It comes to more or less the same thing.

Incidentally, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds hinted at, the study of aetiology, the purposes and origins of the universe, is still the most fruitful way in which the Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—can talk among themselves and to other religions such as Hinduism, as well as to agnostics, as I suppose Darwin could be classified and did classify himself. Agnosticism is clearly not the same as atheism, but no atheists would disagree with the agnostic doctrine or assert that there is scientific evidence about why the universe exists. It is not the sort of question that could be determined by an atheist.

Darwin's central theory can be divided into two parts: first, that living things evolve over millions of years, and species gradually change with older ones dying out and new ones appearing. The fossil record has many examples of species that no longer exist. As a corollary of this, nature red in tooth and claw has unfortunate consequences for those who want to preserve all species. The history of the universe does not suggest that one can necessarily preserve all species; on the contrary, it is very clear that one cannot. It has never been so, and it is hard to think that it ever will be.

The second main principle, the refinement called natural selection—those selected being ones with greater survival value, summarised by the phrase "the survival of the fittest", coined by Herbert Spencer—sets out that because of the results of inheritance, any selected variant will propagate preferentially. Again, in parenthesis, if Darwin were alive today he would have to address the same arguments that the rest of us have about carbon dioxide and the unsustainable growth of human population. He would, one is sure, strongly urge the Vatican, for example, to have more respect for humanity and the planet at the same time, in my humble opinion, by changing its absurd policy on contraception. But that is another story.

As I understand it, with the science of DNA, minor mistakes in genetic copying generate variant progeny, which opens up natural selection. Nurse concludes that we now have to consider what science is and whether it can provide satisfactory explanations of all aspects of creation. Einstein did not think so, but the assumption that the rules of science are immutable in time and space is itself open to debate, as witness Einstein's astonishing leaps of imagination. So we continue to have difficulty as human beings in comprehending phenomena at the extremes of our experience, and science involves difficult and non-intuitive concepts such as quantum theory, relativity, infinity and eternity. It continues to be very difficult to think about how the universe came about; if it has existed for ever, we have to imagine infinite time, which is a difficult concept. But if it came from nothing, we have to imagine nothingness giving rise to something with or without an agent, which is also a difficult concept.

Both science and religion have not fared well in making great claims about origins, but Milton and Darwin overwhelmingly have in common the commitment to the pursuit of truth. This phrase of Milton's is very close to the scientific principle. I conclude, if I may be forgiven, with a few lines from Origin of Species. It says:

"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved".

Noble Lords will agree that this account of evolution from Darwin has some of the beauty of Milton's poetry in Paradise Lost.