The above image is of a sculpture called Quantum Leap which sits on the banks of the River Severn in my home town of Shrewsbury, UK. It was installed in 2009 to mark the bi-centenuary of Charles Darwin who was born here and educated at Shrewsbury School. It represents the great move – or leap – forward that Darwin’s work made in our understanding of ourselves and the natural world.
Below is my own photograph taken yesterday in which the sculpture appears to be diving into the swirling flood waters of the swollen river following weeks of rain-fuelled storms. I took the picture from the terrace cafe which hugs the side of the Theatre Severn on the opposite bank – what you cannot see are the flood barriers erected some weeks ago to assist the exhausted river to keep within it’s banks and heave it’s watery burden downstream.
It was with a wry smile that on the first bright sunny day for weeks I attended the annual Darwin Lecture at the theatre given by Joe Cain, Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London. His subject was ‘The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 – Reality or Fiction’. John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution in an American secondary school in Tennessee and it marked a pivotal moment in the conflict between religion and science. However, the main point of the trial was to test the law and in so doing, raise the profile of the creation-evolution controversy. “It was” Cain said “essentially a story of denial which became a story about people” – the charismatic heads of both legal teams, politicians and even celebrities jumped on the band-wagon. The event was exploited by these people who used it to build interest in and also to create agitation about the issue, to suit and further their own individual aims. In so doing positions became deeply entrenched as each person added a layer to the argument creating an ever greater divide and making agreement appear impossible. The scientists were asking the fundamentalists to have faith not in God’s creation but in scientific fact. It was indeed a quantum leap and it didn’t happen overnight.
The debate around climate change seems to be playing out in a similar way, although there has yet to be the circus of a high profile trial! The ‘layers’ are piling up – the politicians are certainly in the main arena (if only they’d been in it some ten or twenty years ago) vying to highlight differences between their own stance and that of their counterparts. Celebrities falling over themselves to identify with one camp or another, scientists divided by those who believe we are causing global warming and those who think it’s a natural occurrence. In the 1920’s skepticism was understandable as science and technology was generally associated with bad things such as the new weaponry used in the Great War. Today, despite our familiarity with and dependence on science and despite the growing volume of evidence pointing directly to climatic change, still we demand some final piece of irrefutable evidence.
What will convince us to take action, what are we waiting for? To arrive at some nebulous horizon of climatic horrors, at which point we will blame scientists for not providing a solution? It is unlikely there will be one great catastrophic event that announces the arrival of climate change – it is already here, revealing itself incrementally, in fits and starts but with increasing persistence. Professor Cain concluded his lecture with a reminder that even today there are countries which deny Darwin’s theories and in which evolution is not widely taught. Pakistan is one such country – it’s also a land which in recent years has suffered serious flooding far greater than anything we have yet to experience.
There seems no reason for us to deny climate change other than a perception that to acknowledge it will involve the end of life as we know it. Just as with the creation-evolution wrangle, believing in one does not mean you have to totally reject the other. You can practice a religious faith and ascribe to evolutionary theory. The two are not incompatible. Evolution has shown that nature never stands still, it adapts to it’s surroundings to ensure survival. Now it’s our turn, we don’t have to renounce modern life in it’s entirety but we do need to adapt to our changing environment just as our ancestors did. We have the intelligence and the science and the advantage of global communication. Is it such a quantum leap to find the wisdom to apply these in unison?