Darwin, Humanism and Science

On Saturday I had the good fortune to be able to attend a conference entitled "Darwin, Humanism and Science", held at London's Conway Hall. For those not able to attend here is a short roundup of what happened:

Richard Dawkins starts us off

The conference kicked off with a quick introduction from BHA President Polly Toynbee, after which Professor Dawkins took to the stage. His lecture revolved around the concluding paragraph of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which can be read online for free here (the relevant passage starts "Thus, from the war of nature ..."). Dawkins analysed each segment of the text in turn, giving us his insights into its meaning and slipping in some fascinating information about our modern-day understanding of evolution, such as how we know that all species in the world today must be descended from a single progenitor.

The professor left some time for questions at the end of his lecture. He had commented on the lamentable state of the public's understanding of science, proffering the alarming statistic that some 18% of the British population believes that the Earth orbits the Sun once a month (presumably we go around faster in February), which lead me to ask him what we can do to combat this. His answer was to "get out more".

Referring to the role scientists have to play in the public's awareness and understanding of science, rather than (I hope) to my social life, he made the point that scientists and educators must make greater efforts to reach out to the public and disseminate not only the knowledge that modern science has obtained, but the joy that this knowledge can bring. It was a point that was returned to time and again throughout the day.

Insidious Creationism in Education

Following Professor Dawkins were two quick talks about the teaching of evolution in schools - first from a European perspective from Professor Charles Susanne, and then from a British one from James Williams. Though both highlighted the growing influence Creationist organisations are having on educational materials, Mr Williams' speech was for me the more alarming:

Quickly firing through a series of ridiculous materials showing how children and dinosaurs once lived and played together, and even an endearing image of Jesus cuddling a small Velociraptor, Williams showed how creationist books, comics and literature represent an "intellectual abuse of children". Entitled "Insidious Creationism", his talk opened our eyes to the battle being waged over children's education, in this country and around the world. I for one am very pleased that we have people like Williams fighting in our corner, and for his troubles he was presented with the rather dubious prize of an Atlas of Creation.

Human understanding of Evolution

After lunch we were treated to talks from Johan De Smedt and Dr Michael Schmidt-Salomon. Johan's talk revolved around the three themes of essentialism, teleology and the design stance. Tackling these in turn he described the biases inherent within us that give these ideas more prominence in our mental model of the world than they deserve, especially when we are young.

Dr Schmidt-Salomon rebutted the idea that evolution can be objected to on moral grounds. Though it may seem obvious that a moral objection to a natural phenomenon does not make it any less real, he reminds us that there are those who disagree. His most impressive moment though was in revealing his efforts to turn Ascension Day into Evolution Day, aided by a spectacularly bizarre music video featuring Charles Darwin as an unlikely rock star:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbIa9fZuTFA&hl=en&fs=1&]


Hinduism and The Two Cultures

For me an unexpected highlight of the day came in the form of Babu Gogineni's description of the devastating effect that some interpretations of Hinduism are having on science in India. He described how many Hindus believe that modern science backs up Hinduism's central tenets, and can therefore turn their backs on further progress made by the scientific community. It was a startling and eye-opening description, and one could feel his frustration at how quackery and superstition are considered more important (or at least more profitable) than science and understanding in India today.

The conference was rounded off by what seemed a short talk from Professor A C Grayling. This was the first time I had heard Grayling speak, and the calm lucidity with which he spoke made his 45 minutes seem more like 5. Speaking on the 'two cultures' - that of science and that of the humanities - he referred to a lecture given by C P Snow some 50 years ago decrying the divergence of these two cultures, and the widening communication gap between them. Snow's original point was that this divergence was getting in the way of solving the world's problems - 50 years later Grayling points out that we still have some way to go in closing that gap.

The 'Special' Dinner

In the evening a special dinner was laid on for the speakers and delegates attending the conference (today was just one day in a week of Humanism conferences). For some reason they let some of the unwashed masses in too, and so it was that I sat down with a delightful group of fellow conference-goers to enjoy a good meal punctuated by good conversation.

After we had eaten Professor Grayling presented Professor Dawkins with an award in recognition of his efforts in spreading rationality and clear thinking around the world, and in return Dawkins read out a modern day episode of Jeeves and Wooster, albeit with a rather Atheistic stance. I'm not sure whether or not he penned the parable himself but it was extremely well written and its British humour well received.

All too soon the coffee came round and it was time to leave. Overall the day was very well run and extremely enjoyable. A wise gentleman on my table was moved to remark that "it was the best 8 quid I've ever spent". Amen.

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