Milton versus Darwin

I have just recently listened to the 2006 Rutherford Memorial Lecture delivered by cell biologist and Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse. In it he compared and contrasted two world views: that of John Milton in “Paradise Lost” (which really represents the Genesis story as told in the Bible) and Charles Darwin’s as outlined in “On the Origin of Species“.

It was an interesting device pitting poet against biologist, but was not just used for effect: it underlined a deeper point that he wished to make. If I understand that point correctly, Nurse was saying that neither the Arts nor the Sciences can provide a completely satisfactory world view by themselves; that faith or a lack of it can only get you so far.

As a biologist himself – and I can only imagine that given the accolades he has received for his science that he must be a much better biologist than he is a poet – Nurse is intimately acquainted with the Darwinian explanation for the world and seems to accept it wholeheartedly. As far as it goes. And that’s the point he was making: the Darwinian view can explain the evolution of the world as we know it; it can explain the appearance of life on Earth. It runs into a blank wall, however – in fact, he seemed to be saying it was completely useless – when it comes to explaining the origins of the Universe itself.

Of course, the veiled implication in what he was saying is that as long as we don’t know the answer to that, then a religious viewpoint has as much validity as a scientific one. Or does it? I am reminded of what is probably Mark Knopfler’s greatest line when he was penning tunes for Dire Straits: “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong.” Now that’s poetry.
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