I am always suspicious when scientists use the word 'beautiful'. I can accept that, for those with the mental equipment to appreciate such things, certain equations and formulas might seem beautiful. But the Darwinian vision of nature? Surely that's a stretch. Yes, Darwin himself used the word, but he was entitled to - then his vision was new, and strands of an earlier, more consoling, romantic world view still clung to it. By now, those who claim to accept natural selection as a full and sufficient account of how the natural world works should have internalised Darwinism and all its grim, far from 'beautiful' implications. But, as John Gray pointed out in Straw Dogs, almost nobody - including, or especially, its most ardent advocates - has truly come to terms with the Darwinian vision of a world in which everything, including ourselves and everything we think and do, is the product of blind and meaningless forces, and we are no more than just another species that has come and will go in due course. Talk of 'beauty' (or any other values) in such a context is little more than whistling Dixie, is it not? Yes, nature can indeed be made to look beautiful - as it was in Cox's programme, which came across at times like a pop video for a new single called Nature, or indeed Endless Forms Most Beautiful - but it is also brutal and ugly, as many a wildlife documentary shows (not to mention the ultra-bloody outtakes), and, to a true Darwinian, none of these adjectives should be applicable to nature. It just is.
Monday, 11 February 2013
Floppy-fringed physicist Professor Brian Cox is a man of many gifts - not least the rare ability to talk through a permanent broad grin (I wonder if he's ever tried ventriloquism?). Last night he was telling us again about The Wonders of Life. This is a series in which he explains how the whole of life was produced and is maintained by the operation of certain basic physical laws - a physicist's-eye view of nature, if you like. Last night's episode took its title from Darwin - Endless Forms Most Beautiful - and it seemed that every time Cox opened his mouth (or rather grinned) out would come the word 'beautiful'. Here was a man on a mission to show us how 'beautiful' is the operation of the laws of physics in a Darwinian world.