The dissent of man: the how of science v the why of humanities

September 22, 1995

The two worlds of science and the humanities are still being pitted against each other. John Carey, Oxford's Merton professor of English literature, has no doubt which is winning.

For him, as he tells Lucy Hodges (left), it is scientists rather than the arts intelligentsia who are the new intellectuals. But Brian Ridley (below) dismisses the notion of the superiority of science, believing the two cultures to be complementary. And on the right Aisling Irwin reports on Stephen Jay Gould berating us for still clinging to the idea that evolution is progressive 150 years after Darwin expunged purpose and progress from nature We have such a fear we are just a tiny twig on this arborescent bush of life '.

A century and a half after On the Origin of Species was published, society has still not faced up to Charles Darwin's radical philosophy, according to Stephen Jay Gould. While Darwin expunged purpose and progress from nature, we still cling to the idea that evolution involves both of them, he told an audience at the Natural History Museum.

Gould, palaeontologist and revered writer on science, had flown in from New York to launch an appeal to restore Down House in Kent, home to Darwin and his ideas for 40 years. Speaking near the famous diplodocus skeleton in the museum's awesome central hall, he said: "Darwin's theory is philosophically so radical that all the psychological hopes and social conventions of our history cry out against it. We are not ready to smash the pedestal of human importance which is shattered by Darwin."

With characteristic energy and excitement, he described the way in which Darwin himself had recognised the true radicalism of his ideas. This was the reason that he delayed publishing his theory for 21 years, writing instead detailed books on taxonomy. "They are wonderful books," he said, "but when you are sitting on the greatest theory in the history of Western thought, to spend eight years on the taxonomy of barnacles - it's displacement activity."

One of the bitter truths about Darwinian theory is that it denies that there is progress in evolution. Darwin himself did not use the word "evolution" until the last edition of the On the Origin of Species because it carries this connotation of progress.

"Yet the only icon that popular culture knows of evolution is progressive," said Gould. That icon, he said, is the picture of a monkey marching forward to become homo sapiens. He displayed his collection of such icons, many from advertisements and cartoons: monkeys stride onwards to become white men clutching laptop computers, fish crawl onto land only to end up as fishermen.

"As humans we have such fear that we are just a tiny little twig on this arborescent bush of life. So if we can spin-doctor the whole evolutionary process to view it as inherently, predictably progressive, sensibly and necessarily leading to something . . . then all of the rest of history is an embodiment of what we were going to become."

Gould also said that we cannot swallow the idea that nature is purposeless. Darwin released us from the "argument from design" that God had created nature, admitting what naturalists had observed for a long time - that species are often marvellously fitted for the lives they lead. But he showed that the mechanism of "survival of the fittest" could explain these observations. This means that in fact "anything that we see as benevolent arises as a result of this causal process".

We similarly cannot grasp that Darwin's theory is relentlessly materialistic, reducing the dualism of mind and matter to matter only. One of the barriers to understanding Darwin, suggested Gould, is that when we visualise him developing his ideas, we see him on HMS Beagle, from which he made his observations. But his revolutionary ideas were conceived at Down House, where he paced around his gardens and sat in his big red "revolutionary armchair". "When he got to London (after his voyage) he was still a creationist," Gould said. "Down is not just an old man's pretty country home. It is the site of some of the most revolutionary thought in the history of our species. It is where Darwin discombobulated the world of thought."

Renovating the house, he hinted, would help us to renovate our attitude to the theory. "We have not made our peace with the radical character of Darwin's world. Most importantly, the humanists have not. So many non-scientists want answers to our moral questions to be found in science. They cannot be." Yet, he said, the humanists should delight in Darwin pouring cold water on the notion that moral answers can come from nature. "It validates their own professions. Darwin is the freeing of humanists. There is a reconciliation that we must find between the truth of Darwin's world and the never-ending search for ethics and values."

Renovating the house is the goal of the Natural History Museum's appeal, according to Sir David Attenborough, broadcaster and naturalist. "It was the 40 years in this one place that were the really significant years of Darwin's thinking," he said. "That place must surely be one of the most important places in the history of science."

As such, people visit it from all over the world, but "they find a house whose roof is leaking; they find that the only concession to visitors in terms of toilets is one outside lavatory; they find the laboratory in which he did his work with its roof fallen in. And all I can say is that all those people must be astounded that England is so careless of the house of one of its greatest men."

Anyone wishing to contribute to the appeal to restore Down House should send donations to Nancy Giles, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD.

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