Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Intelligent or Otherwise

Dr Warren on the changes in societal attitudes toward the natural sciences between 'BD' and 'AD' (Before and After Darwin).

From Essays in Idleness

It has been Science Week up here in the High Doganate (which quickly becomes “HD” in my correspondence with neo-conic sections of the American intelligentsia). My love of nature and biology as a child has not yet been killed off, and I enjoy frequent relapses into the starry-eyed condition I recall, when it seemed that each new animal or niche came as a revelation of Beauty and Design — words I have capitalized to increase the irritation. Being a science child made me the more an artsy child, and vice versa. And a polemicist: for how could men in their extraordinary surroundings expend their mature years in pursuit of glibness, and the task of explaining the inexplicable away?

Something like this growth experience happened across Western society, as we read through the histories of the empirical sciences. We find record of the recurring avalanche or landslide of natural discoveries; with behind or following each, a world stripped bare. Without fail, old areas of wonder and inspiration became new areas of aesthetic and spiritual famine. The process keeps repeating itself.

In Canada, for instance, one might almost date social conditions “BD,” and “AD,” for before and after Darwin. Before, natural history had been immensely popular among all classes privileged with free time, and immense collections were gathered of fossils, shells, leaves and flowers, butterflies and insects and every work of that Lord who was taken as their artist. Clubs were formed in every village, with hiking expeditions led by clergymen and others who took nature as a second sacred book, complementary to, and illustrative of, the Bible.

After Darwin, life came indoors. Natural history was largely spurned, or rather turned over to the specialists and lab-men of the science faculties. Society was turned towards popular entertainments, beginning around the family piano, then degenerating with the advances of technology. The child would have to discover nature for himself — but would soon be taught that it was boring. “Natural selection” and the “survival of the fittest” could reduce each remarkable creature from a design to the same old industrial process. That cows came from milk, or rather milk from cows, was someone else’s concern to the urban child, who had seen the one but not the other.

We need teachers and precursors, as I have argued passim, and I had the extraordinary good fortune to have as my guide in biology the Mr Henry I mentioned in a previous Idlepost (here). Indeed, these days, we need courageous as well as brilliant teachers, as Mr Henry showed, in later unemployment. Though neither noticeably Christian nor religious otherwise (except in his devotion to his subject), he embodied that pre-Darwinian enthusiasm, plus all that could be added through high-powered microscopes. He was also a very precise and honest draughtsman of all that he could see, down to slightly below the cellular level. Were he still alive he would be exploring the incredible cosmos we now find inside each cell — design within design within design.

Mr Henry was not a Darwinist, nor neo-Darwinist, nor anything but a seeker for truth. He had already been driven twelve thousand miles away by the academic establishment in his native land (USA), for though polite and modest, he did not conceal his non-evolutionary views. He had himself been awakened by the works of D’Arcy Thompson, the ingenious Scottish mathematician, classicist, and investigator of “intelligent design,” who had held Darwinism in contempt until the generation before.

I am myself still under Mr Henry’s influence, no more a subscriber to “intelligent design theory” than to the “random design theory” enforced in our academies and our courts. The origin of our species will remain scientifically unknowable. That there was and is and will be Design, no intelligent observer can doubt, but the identity of the Agent (outside the universe we’re within) belongs to Faith. Apart from revelation, He can be known to the living only as He was in those days “BD,” and back to Aristotle, as the final, Final Cause.

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