Monday, May 09, 2005

The Beautiful Godlessness of Darwin

It is often complained that the stark precision of science destroys the beauty and poetry of the world. To those of us who spend our lives immersed in science, this is usually at odds with our view of the discipline. However, it is probably true that we fail to capture our own feelings regarding the beauty of science in our writings about it.

What we need are more examples like the following, in which Ian McEwan, in his latest novel Saturday, describes the beauty to be found in evolution, without the need for a deity
"Kindly, driven, infirm Charles in all his humility, bringing on the earthworms and planetary cycles to assist him with a farewell bow. To soften the message, he also summoned up the Creator, but his heart wasn't in it and he ditched Him in later editions. Those five hundred pages deserved only one conclusion: endless and beautiful forms of life, such as you see in a common hedgerow, including exalted beings like ourselves, arose from physical laws, from war of nature, famine and death. This is the grandeur. And a bracing kind of consolation in the brief privilege of consciousness."
Ian McEwan, "Saturday", Doubleday, 2005.
I think this is the picture we need people to see, alongside our formulae, graphs and tight, unambiguous prose. Science as an awesome and humbling description of our world, grounded in reason, and all the more beautiful for it. I've mentioned before that fine science writers are our allies in the fight for reason in the face of nonsense. Clearly, some novelists are also on our side.
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