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. 
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. 


  1. Oh I couldn't face watching any more of Cox's facetious programme.

    To get my childish prejudices out of the way first; his smug, soft, smirky face has always seemed to me to be deserving of a punching and the fact that you just know that the Beeb appointed him because he was a science Prof who had also been a Pop Star just annoys.

    As for his programme, it seemed to encapsulate all the fallacies of scientism. The whole premise was an atempt to convince you that there was nothing else to see, know, or ask questions about than what science could demonstrate. A sort of " this is the way it is, dumb peasants. Don't go poking about. No questions will be taken. Oh and doesn't that make it all beautiful?"

    'Why' has been expunged. Why there is something rather than nothing. Why the universe came into existence in the first place. Why life - and reproduceable life at that - first started. Why consciousness. Why intentionality............No, none of that is relevant

  2. Personally, Recusant, I'd prefer the Prof stick to the Science 101 lessons to the backdrop of pretty videos of exploding stars and Saharan wildlife. Quite ghastly is the prospect of Brian Cox (or indeed, anybody) ruminating on the mysteries of existence and consciousness on primetime BBC.

    In fact he's rather grown on me of late. I think it's because a lot of criticism has focussed on him being an ex-quasi-pop-star, as if he thinks he's too cool for school, but I just don't see it. If anything I think he comes across as a proper geek, an endearingly awkward screen presence, poorly attired, always at a loss what to do with his hands. Though I hope his recent foray into nature documentaries isn't a permanent move; he's no Attenborough.

  3. This seems to be a touchy point for some of the prosletyzing Darwinists. Dawkins, too, likes to go on about the beauty of evolution, which he typically pronounces in thunderous, axiomatic terms. I wonder whether he simmered through too many dinners at High Table as his learned Oxford colleagues teased him about the aesthetic vacuity of it all.

    The beauty they are talking about is the "Oh, Wow!" beauty one feels looking at a child's toy kaleidoscope or a friend's particularly good set of holiday snaps, but the instant one imagines there is anything deeper than one momentary and transitory visual delight among many, one steps into forbidden territory as the mind and soul are pulled inexorably to design and purpose and ultimate meanings. Beautiful arguably, but hardly sublime.

    They make me think of a director of an old Soviet museum of atheism trying to get his attendance figures up by emulating the "techniques" of Chartres.

  4. A great image Peter - and yes that's exactly what Cox and co are doing I think. And television is the perfect medium for it.
    I agree that Cox has a face made for slapping - and that he's much more geek than cool - but he has got a real gift for simplifying and explaining. That, in a way, is the trouble...

  5. Nige, protestations of how agreeable and easy and beautiful everything is seem to have overtaken popular atheism and rationalism today. They seem to be a kind of spiritual reward one earns by absorbing the catechism--somewhat like twenty virgins in paradise. Remember those early 20th century existentialists who went on about the tremendous heroic courage of the atheist facing the terrifying abyss of nothingness? Gone with Nature red in tooth and claw, I'm afraid. Now it's all about not sweating the small stuff, not asking too many hard questions and enjoying the view or the wine or one's sex life or whatever. Dawkin's bus slogan said it all. Probably no God, so relax and smell the flowers.

    Apparently this video is making the rounds of the bien pensants to widespread all-knowing applause. To save you time, it's about a London beautiful person who meets up at a dinner party for the right sort with a somewhat ditzy and flinty New Age lady from Oz who repeatedly and rudely interrupts the conversational flow by challenging his certitudes. He keeps swallowing his anger at this strawwoman's ramblings and finishes with a soliloquy on how pleasant a random and meaningless existence can be with all the good wine and good company there is out there. Who could ask for anything more?

    It's like a world of wannabe Wordsworths shouting down all the Coleridges.