Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:57 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 3:57 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, it is customary from this Dispatch Box to thank the originator of the debate, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for producing an occasion that we will all recall with a great deal of pleasure, given the diversity of viewpoints that have been expressed and the celebration of such a significant man as Charles Darwin. I congratulate her through slightly gritted teeth. The House will appreciate that it is quite difficult to give a government view from the Dispatch Box on the nature of the perspectives that have been revealed in this debate. After all, this Government do not do God, but we do not do atheism or agnosticism either—no Government ever do. Governments seek to be representative of the breadth of opinion and viewpoints in our country. Inevitably, the collision over such fundamentals as have been raised in the debate makes the position of the government spokesman in response somewhat challenging.

So the House will forgive me if I elide some of those points and concentrate on some of the slightly more prosaic and a little less intellectual ones, while at the same time very much appreciating that we could not have had this debate today—certainly not in the House where the Bench of Bishops is well represented, or while we have such significant contributors as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, expressing a different viewpoint—without recognising that Darwin raised fundamental issues about beliefs in society, a debate that continues to the present day.

I can do nothing else but express thanks to the noble Lords, Lord Livsey and Lord Chorley, for mentioning Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy. He was the original headhunter, after all, who commissioned Darwin as the naturalist on the "Beagle". FitzRoy, of course, became the founder of meteorological science. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who cannot be here today—he is at a conference in California on climate change and expressed his regret—would never have forgiven me if I had not mentioned FitzRoy in the context of a debate on Charles Darwin. I am very grateful for the fact that I can mention not only the contribution made by Vice-Admiral FitzRoy but the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Livsey and Lord Chorley, for having mentioned him earlier. The debate is testimony to the fact that Charles Darwin is one of the most influential Britons of all time, and perhaps the most important natural historian of all. In celebrating his bicentenary this year, we will also be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, so this is a very important and felicitous year.

It is clear that Darwin saw that every living thing was related, that everything shares an ancestry, and that the vast diversity of life on earth results from processes that have been at work for millions of years and that are still at work today. Darwin's explanation of this great unfolding of life through time—the theory of evolution by natural selection—transformed our understanding of the living world, much as the other great scientists whom we salute, such as Galileo, Newton and Einstein, have revolutionised our understanding of the physical universe.

On natural selection and change, I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Haskel for indicating that social Darwinism can produce from Darwin's basic concepts a distorted perspective on social developments. One of the supreme ironies of those who took this position to the most absurd, pretentious and catastrophic consequences, namely Nazism, took a concept from the concept of change and yet boasted that they would create a 1,000-year Reich—a contradiction of the way in which Darwin expressed evolution. That merely indicates how dangerous it can be when fundamental scientific concepts, which must be understood and thought about carefully, are crudely distorted by those who propagandise on the basis of a limited understanding, or by those who have full understanding but who are prepared to distort.

I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for his perspective on this and for pointing out that there are other derivations of social Darwinism which are totally removed from social fascism. There is, for instance, liberal Darwinism. That goes to show how careful we have to be when we translate carefully worked out thoughts. It was pointed out that Darwin expressed positions into which he entered noted reservations. Of course we celebrate his definition of change—it is his theory that makes him the great scientist that he is and why we are celebrating him today in this debate—but he also entered caveats into his careful understanding of the debate that were contained within his theories. The problem that we have had with certain aspects of the social translation of these ideas is that it has been done crudely without such caveats and without understanding the subtleties and the reservations, and has turned the ideas into propaganda rather than any form of scientific theory.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for starting the process, which was followed fully by other noble Lords, of emphasising how important Darwin was as an exponent of scientific method and of careful analysis of what he was doing. The other great theme that came through the debate—a number of noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, took this up—was the need to be concerned about the extent to which our society is scientifically educated and the necessity to appreciate that, without a clear grounding in scientific method, our society will not be well educated. There is a great deal of work to be done. How important that work might be was alluded to by several noble Lords and reference was made to how much the fundamental concepts of Darwin have percolated society.

In a Theos report, as has been quoted today, the percentage of people in the United Kingdom who believe that Darwin's theory of evolution is so well established that it is beyond reasonable doubt is a minority—I repeat, a minority. This is 150 years after the promulgation of the thesis. If our scientific understanding is such that such a crucial concept still has not permeated among the vast majority of our people, we have reason to be concerned about aspects of science education. In a few moments, I want to emphasis that the Government are using this felicitous year to extend our concentration on the work that should be done in schools.

Darwin is a Briton and we claim great pride in his achievements, but we should not be under the illusion that this year of celebration is merely a UK phenomenon. Australia is holding a year-long evolution festival to celebrate Darwin's anniversaries. Vancouver in Canada has had a celebration. Milan celebrated Darwin Day in February to kick off a nationwide series of events dedicated to evolution and Philadelphia in the United States is celebrating a city-wide Year of Evolution.

In the UK, as has been reflected in the debate, a wide range of organisations across England, Wales and Scotland have collaborated under the brand name Darwin200 to produce a national programme of events to celebrate the legacy and enduring relevance of Charles Darwin's work. The partnership includes more than 120 organisations from across the arts, education, heritage, local government, libraries, media, museums, science and tourism sectors, including the Natural History Museum—as all of us would expect— VisitBritain, the BBC, the British Council, Research Councils UK, the University of Cambridge, the Royal Society and the Fitzwilliam Museum. They are all making their contribution to celebrating this year.

None of that work gets done without financial support or funding. The Darwin200 secretariat's work to ensure that this year is marked appropriately has received financial support from the Natural History Museum, the British Council, the Wellcome Trust, and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Reference was made to the position of Wales. The noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Chorley, mentioned Alfred Russell Wallace, the Welshman who was key to the development of evolutionary theory. It was a letter from Wallace, as was indicated in contributions, who independently arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection, which finally prompted Darwin to share his work with the world. I cannot think of anything more significant than that. We should therefore appreciate that in Wales, too, there is considerable celebration of this anniversary. I had not known that. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for bringing to the House's attention the fact that there is a celebration in the Irish Republic, too, against a background where 150 or so years ago it would not have been anticipated as a likely development.

I am grateful also to the noble Lord, Lord McColl, who provided the House with an intense insight into Darwin's life. I am pleased that he mentioned Shrewsbury because, after all, that was Darwin's birthplace and where he was brought up, and the small, modest but exceedingly attractive museum in the town bears testimony to this. Shrewsbury, therefore, also has pride of place in this celebration.

There are of course places even more famous than Shrewsbury. I anticipated, but was grateful for, the contributions of both the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery. They emphasised the significance of the Galapagos and the work that has to be done there. I am pleased to bring to the House's attention the fact that, as part of this celebratory year, the Gulbenkian Foundation is funding a three-year residency programme which will enable up to 12 leading artists to spend time in the Galapagos archipelago. They will be able to engage with the Galapagos in their own way and to reflect on its unique nature, historic value and current importance, as well as on the human conservation challenges it faces.

There is no contradiction between the theory of evolution through natural selection and being concerned about conservation. There will not be much of a theory of natural selection unless we succeed in conserving the planet, which is certainly a major objective. That is also true of the mockingbird, to which the noble Baroness referred, and other species which are under threat. As human beings we should care about those species because, after all, Darwin was a celebrant of biodiversity and it would be very strange indeed if we took joy in the reduction of that diversity. I do not think there is anything about Charles Darwin and this anniversary that should detract us from our concerns about conservation.

Reference was made to the threats to certain species about which we ought to take a particular interest. We all know about the threat to the humble bee at the present time from disease, and we also know the potential catastrophic effect that could have on food production unless we are successful in protecting the species.

Government support for Darwin200 is provided by the DIUS and the programmes receive ministerial support from DCMS, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A cross-ministerial government group has been working to make this year as successful as possible.

Although I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lea for bringing Milton into the debate—he is certainly a different figure from Darwin, although educated at the same college—not much reference was made to the extent to which Darwin has inspired many plays, books and films which celebrate his life, and many debates about the issues he raised. This is one of the features to be celebrated at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which will explore the influence of Darwin's ideas and discoveries on the work of visual artists such Landseer, Turner, Degas, Monet and Cézanne. So there is a breadth to the celebrations this year beyond the science, although the science is of the greatest importance.

I want to mention the point that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, graphically expressed, that the Great Plant Hunt gives us an opportunity to get young children, at primary school level as well as secondary, interested in the issues that Darwin identified, to go on nature walks in their school grounds, to explore habitats, to collect seeds, to grow plants and to explore the concept of the chest, which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, identified. That is a most exciting project. There are 25,000 of these chests; the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, referred to that, and expressed his gratitude to the Post Office. We are similarly grateful. This is all part of the necessary public engagement with science. When we come to judge the effectiveness of this year of celebration, it will come down to the question of the extent to which we have enhanced scientific interest and education in our society and the true legacy of Darwin.

I want to mention an additional point from the Dispatch Box: the important aspect of government policy. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, in his description of Darwin's life, described all that I need to do with regard to the significance of Down House in Bromley and its surrounding landscape. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport submitted a bid last month to UNESCO to confer world heritage status on Down House. The house is an outstanding aspect of Darwin's life and, when we are successful with this bid, as we hope to be, it will have the enhanced guarantee of the nomenclature of the world heritage position. We look forward to that.

This has been an absorbing debate. I have not done justice to the debate between the right reverend Prelates, the noble Lord, Lord Birt, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, who engaged with the fundamental issue of the debate that took off in the 19th century on the nature of religion and the origins of the universe. I indicated, as did the noble and right reverend Lord in his contribution, that there is still an extraordinary degree of ignorance about the evolution of the species and in understanding the fundamental concept of Darwin. That part of the debate will continue in our society, but on an increasingly sophisticated level. We heard today the extent to which that debate can be engaged with to the advantage of us all, without the insults and the acrimony that distinguished it 150 years ago and which scarcely added to the enlightenment of the nation.

That, though, is a debate on which the Government probably ought to observe a dutiful silence; we all have our viewpoints, but hearing the Government's view on the matter would not aid the position. I simply reflect that in this debate, despite the diverse opinions that have been expressed and the wide range of issues that have been raised, there has been one unifying factor: the debate celebrates the contribution of one of the greatest of all Britons and one of our greatest scientists. I thank the noble Baroness for giving us all a chance to participate today.