Darwin and Natural Selection: a reminiscence

A new member, Donald Howells, has sent this article for the newsletter. He is not able to get to meetings but would be happy to welcome a small group to his home for discussions. The Chairman has his details if you would like to do that.

My family background was C. OF E., cultured without being inquisitive, artistic in a staid sort of way. My Mother had been a Sunday school teacher in her youth. I was sent to a Church elementary school. Among the important influences of my childhood were several visits to the Zoo and the Museums at South Kensington.

I remember walking round the Natural History Museum looking at the skeletons and the re-constructions of giant reptiles and the early extinct mammals and brooding over what I saw. I was generally accompanied by one of my aunts on these expeditions and I imagine we conversed as we went round. The brontosaurus, we agreed, was big but not perhaps as big as the whale we had just seen. The mastodon and the woolly mammoth were very like the elephants we had seen in the Zoo.

I did not share my brooding with my Aunt, not because I thought it would shock her, but because my conclusions were so vague and tentative that I hesitated to put them into words. Quite clearly, there was a process of evolutionary development with successions of animal types evolving, competing and replacing one another. The labels on the exhibits and the rock specimens I had been looking at in the Geological Museum next door all talked of periods of millions of years. But my school Bible said 4004 B.C. against the first chapter of Genesis, and told of God making the Heaven and the Earth in six days. (If we had asked our teacher, she would, no doubt, have backtracked and said that ‘days’ meant periods of time, not necessarily of 24 hours.)

Both these sets of beliefs were being offered to me simultaneously by the adult world, and at the public expense. It seemed I had to make a choice, an uncomfortable choice because it involved a rejection of a considerable slice of home as well as school teaching. I had to make a choice between the manifest discoveries of science and what I suspected was a lot of old mythology. I do not think nowadays that I would use phrases like ‘a lot of old mythology’ except when wanting to get rid of some particularly persistent evangelist. I might describe the Judeo-Christian meme complex as a historically generated social artefact, or some such jargon. (Great stuff –Jargon!)

Auntie, too, was uncomfortable, but for quite different reasons. No doubt, she bore her sufferings stoically for a period and then said, “You don’t want to go any further do you? My feet are killing me on these stone floors.” (This, just as I was about to suggest that we should go back and do the Science Museum again!) Auntie led me back to the Refreshment Room (then situated under the main staircase), where she revived herself with tea and me with lemonade.

Evolution? Someone had told me that Charles Darwin had said we were descended from monkeys. I decided to read him.
My family visiting took me on journeys across London on the Underground between the Wars, every Underground station seemed to have quite a good bookstall. One could buy nice case-bound volumes of the Thinkers Library at 1/- each and Everyman’s Library at nearly the same price. I purchased Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in the Thinkers Library. Later I purchased Man’s Place in Nature by T. H. Huxley in Everyman. My parents felt it was safe for children to travel on the Tube. It was safe then.

I leave you with the picture of a bygone self, dressed in a school cap and crested blazer, the colours of his new Secondary school, travelling clickety-clack on the Piccadilly or Northern lines across London. The boy on the train was going to visit his maternal grandparents or an aunt and uncle. He was immersed in reading The Origin of Species or some such book. (Unlike modern boys, I was proud of my school uniform, and wore it for weekend family visits.)

What was important was that a little earlier my view of human life, if I thought about it at all, was of a play commencing in 4004 BCE and concluding in the near future with the Last Judgement. The play was enacted on quite a narrow stage, with God and His angels floating around somewhere near the proscenium arch and the Devil and hell-fire in the orchestra pit.

Suddenly, this frame was swept away. Human beings were still in the centre of the stage, but the scope of the play was extended both in space (I had started buying books on astronomy and cosmology as well) and in time. Behind us were unnumbered billions of years first of astronomical and then of step-by-step biological evolution, and, more important still, instead of the imminent finale of the Last Judgement, there stretched unnumbered billions of years ahead. In this future time the heirs of all the ages would take control of their destiny, and step into possession of their heritage. I tried to envisage what that might be. I read and approved the sentiments in Tennyson’s poem ‘Locksley Hall.’

I had been, not so much converted, as liberated.

[Now, I would add the proviso, unless the present or next generation of humans irreparably destroys that natural heritage by nuclear war, over-population, global warming, radioactive or other pollution, resource destruction or some other unsustainable activities].’

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