Champion of curiosity

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 February, 2009, 12:00am

February 12 is a landmark date in the history of knowledge - the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important scientists to have ever lived, whose research and writings lay the foundations not only for so much scientific progress since then, but our very understanding of the origins of life.

That man was Charles Darwin, who was educated for a career in the church but whose curiosity as a geologist and naturalist led him to publish the theory of evolution by natural selection. That contradicted the view that had dominated until then - that everything was created by God.

Darwin was not alone at that time in asking and answering such fundamental questions. Alfred Wallace came to similar conclusions and their first pronouncements were made together, to the Linnean Society in 1858.

Darwin lived in an age of nascent secularism, alongside intellectuals such as Thomas Malthus, whose essay on the brutal implications of over-population provided him with key inspiration on the process of natural selection and atheist thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx.

However, it was Darwin's grand opus, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published 150 years ago this year, that provided the detailed evidence and mechanisms for evolution, and was the book that had the most immediate and lasting impact - and that sparked the most controversy.

The double anniversaries are an important opportunity to revisit Darwin's extraordinary life, work and legacy. One reason for this is that the debate that he sparked is far from over.

Darwin's evidence may seem irrefutable and has since been confirmed by successive scientific discoveries - consider modern knowledge of genetics and DNA, and the mutations of the bird flu virus as obvious examples.

But Darwin's explanations for the origins of life and connections between all species - including Homo sapiens - are not yet accepted by a large proportion people.

We only need consider last year's Gallup poll in the United States, which showed 44 per cent of Americans still believe that rather than evolving, God created humans in more or less their present form some 10,000 years ago.

In the Islamic world, Darwin's theory is dismissed as blasphemy.

So Darwin's anniversary is a chance to revisit that key question of whether our knowledge of the world as explained by great scientists such as Darwin is still compatible with the belief in God as the all-powerful, benevolent creator.

The British Council globally is among organisations responding to the significance of the anniversaries.

In Hong Kong, it is organising a series of educational activities through the year and a touring exhibition, currently at St John's Cathedral - its partner for this month's birthday celebrations.

Frank James, a prominent science historian from Britain, joins Sun Kwok, dean of science at University of Hong Kong, and Canon Ian Lam, the vicar of St Paul's and Dean of Ming Hua Theological College, for a debate on the implications of Darwin's work.

The day before, Professor James, an expert on 19th century scientific history, will give a lecture on the issue.

It is not inappropriate that some of these celebrations should be happening in a cathedral, given Darwin's own relationship with religion. Despite the infamous Oxford debate between the Darwinist Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, Darwin never sought direct conflict with the church.

There were also many within the church at the time who accepted that his theory and their own beliefs need not contradict each other.

When he died, his life was celebrated in a state funeral in Westminster Abbey - a mark of the public recognition of his towering significance.

But what did Darwin himself believe? He was too meticulous and humble a man to pronounce publicly on whether his theory meant there was still room for a god or a number of gods - many decades of research would be needed before he could do so, he wrote.

However, letters reveal a clear evolution in his beliefs as his scientific understanding of life developed. In one of the most notable, he described how contradictions and lack of factual evidence in various gospels meant that 'disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress'.

In another he wrote: 'The mystery of the beginning of all things is so insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.'

Darwin is also relevant not only for his science, but the lessons to be learned from his life. He was driven from a young age by an insatiable curiosity for the natural world around him and how things worked. He was an avid collector and delighted in home-made chemistry experiments - the latter dismissed by his headmaster as time-wasting over useless subjects.

Despite physical discomforts, extreme danger and terrible sea sickness, he extended this curiosity to everything he observed and collected during his five-year voyage aboard the Beagle, which he was invited to join during its mission to survey the South American coastline and Pacific islands.

On his return he spent more than 20 years gathering further evidence for his emerging understanding of life (albeit waylaid for eight of those by his work on barnacles), observing thousands of specimens from giant mammalian fossils to tiny flatworms and unravelling the mechanisms for their survival. He laboured on despite suffering chronic illness.

The depth of his curiosity, his meticulous and often inventive approach to scientific investigation, his bravery in pursuing evidence and reason, literary skills that bring science close to poetry, and his warm humility make him a beacon for us today.

Darwin was an enlightened man with liberal views and a strong sense of justice. He abhorred slavery. However, it cannot be overlooked that he was also a man of his Victorian times and his descriptions of the civilised and savage - or barbarian - would be politically incorrect today.

Implications of the survival of the fittest theory for human society remain controversial, even if they may be helpful in understanding many a basic instinct.

At the very least, Darwin the man reminds us how important it is that we defend conditions in which children can grow up to be curious, and eager to ask and answer awkward questions.

This is important in Hong Kong, where there has not been a long tradition of encouraging such precocious questioning in our classrooms, and children's exposure to Bible study is more prevalent than to evolutionary theory.

Darwin's 200th thus heralds a year when we can champion curiosity and rational thought about our origins and intricate relationship with our environment - and not fear where the conclusions may take us.

Whatever we conclude, we, like Charles Darwin, can retain a sense of wonder for the beauty and complexity of this world and the power of the vast and minute natural processes that shape it.

Katherine Forestier is director of education, science and society at the British Council Hong Kong. The British Council's Darwin NOW exhibition runs at the Li Hall, St John's Cathedral, until February 20.