The biologist talks about God, Darwin and the end of evolution with John Cornwellby John Cornwell / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
When Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859 it didn’t take long for sensible theologians, like Cardinal John Henry Newman, to accept evolution as part of God’s providence. But to this day Christianity remains split between creationist “neats,” who read Genesis literally, and non-literalist “scruffies,” who see Genesis as a myth or a poem.
There is fundamentalism on both sides of the divide. While creationists read the Bible as a cosmological textbook, writers like Richard Dawkins treat evolution as a theory of everything—which is why we have clashed in public. I have always, however, been a keen admirer of the Darwinist professor Steve Jones, who is an eminent biologist and a gifted writer. Jones is professor of genetics and head of the biology department at University College, London. We met recently at his office in the Galton Laboratory behind Euston station to talk Darwinism.
Jones went to grammar school on the Wirral but left at 16 to become an apprentice fitter at the Unilever detergent factory before, via night school, heading to Edinburgh University to read zoology. He is the only biologist to have had the chutzpah to “update” Darwin. He did it in his book Almost Like a Whale, and to celebrate the Darwin bicentenary he has brought out a new book, Darwin’s Island, which examines Darwin’s less-known researches into British flora and fauna.
Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion: “The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.” Jones, with a more literary background and sensibility, knows better than to contrast scientific fact with unscientific fiction as the ultimate test of truth and untruth (no truthtelling in Shakespeare, or Dostoyevsky?). Yet he is recently on record as insisting, provocatively, that human evolution “has come to an end.” It seemed to me an odd thing to say when there’s such a spate of speculation on the future of human development thanks to advances in biotechnology.
So we have agreed to focus on what evolution tells us about the human future: from technical questions about genetics to historical and cultural views of human progress or retreat.
“There are 200m creationists in the US,” Jones begins, “and I don’t care if they burn my books, so long as they pay for them. Pecunia non olet! It means money doesn’t stink,” he explains.…