Monday, May 18, 2009

Inspirations from the Armada

Darwin’s Armada” (by Iain McCalman) is one of the most inspirational books I have ever had the privilege to read. It is a compilation of 4 “partial” biographies ; 4 snapshots into the lives of brilliant scientists: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russell Wallace. Hot on the heels of this book, I read “The Lunar Men” (by Jenny Uglow) which was also in the same stream, exhilarating, inspirational and fascinating. This tale depicting the lives of the great thinkers in the early 1800s – Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood, James Watt, Joseph Priestley. Beautifully written, conveying a sense of allowing the reader to ‘peer over the shoulder’ of these great men, whilst they experienced their ‘Eureka’ moments.

What struck me as poignant in this day and age, where humans stand at the proverbial cliff edge, only a few footsteps from the perilous drop to annihilation, it could be said that a universal ignorance is the precipitating factor in this situation. If more people were aware of the issues at stake, maybe we would not be standing at this edge.

200-300 years ago, in Darwin’s day, much of science was still at an embryonic point in development. Today, in stark contrast, we have pushed frontiers in all areas of science. With the world wide web, knowledge is literally at our fingertips. Yet, look at your everyday human being in “civilized” society. The vast majority, know nothing about the wonders of the world we live in, and are interested in even less (if that is possible). I have often heard the excuse that ‘not everyone has the privilege of a high education” – true, but everyone in the Western world has access to an education, even if it is confined to primary school (elementary). The sad thing, is that this is often not enough to instill a curiosity about science (which in my book is synonymous with ‘knowledge’).

Yet, look at these human beings that lived hundreds of years ago – before there was knowledge (much). They were interested in things around them, the group led by Erasmus Darwin were polymaths - into everything from chemistry to pottery to botany and zoology, astronomy and physics. Today the drive to specialize seems to largely have abolished this sort of questioning mind. How often do you stumble across someone who knows (or is even interested) in anything outside of their field?

You could be forgiven for thinking that 200 years after the pioneers of evolution first pushed the boundaries of free thought, allowing the first set of shackles to come off the Christian psychological prisons of “anti-thought”, science and logic would have triumphed. Yet, still today we are finding ourselves facing the same arguments that Darwin did (both Darwins). How old is the earth? I hail from Australia – one of the countries endowed with so much evidence for an ancient earth.

In January, 1879, Thomas Huxley proclaimed to his friends "If I have a wish to live 30 years, it is that I see the foot of science on the necks of her enemies?". 200 years later, and Huxley would still be waiting.

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