Friday, May 18, 2012

Charles Darwin and the modesty of science

I've my regular (now fortnightly) ABC column up today, 'Darwin's modest discovery of evolution'.

Science is often charged with arrogance. I'm pointing out the exemplary modesty of Darwin's work. A sample:
Curiosity drove Darwin, but it did not blind or hurry him. Note his cautious excitement, as he writes to a colleague, in 1844, that he is "almost convinced" that the species change – they are not the eternal, perfect works of god. "It is like confessing a murder," he adds.  
In an age often driven to celebrate or lament scientific power, this is a valuable reminder of the best scientific motives. Darwin was driven not by greed, egomania or devilish mockery, but by inquisitiveness, doubt and courage – each balancing the other. The first virtue drew him in, fascinated by barnacles, and other perplexing problems. The other virtues stopped him from solving these problems too soon, or denying the solutions he discovered.

In this, Darwin was not a super-genius, blessed with perfect logic and an easy mastery of all sciences. He was a well-educated English gentleman, raised in a wealthy, free-thinking family, who combined ardour with persistence and scepticism. In so doing, he never let enthusiasm become zealotry, or speculation become doctrine.
(Illustration: Darwin as a young man, by George Richardson)

No comments: