For the love of wisdom of natural things

Photo by John Bryant
Galapagos tortoise, © John Bryant

One of the people who set Charles Darwin along the road to evolutionary theory was not a scientist, but the Governor of the Galapagos Islands, Nicholas Lawson. When Darwin and the Beagle crew landed on Charles Island, Lawson invited him to dinner. As they talked, Lawson mentioned that the giant tortoises for which the Galapagos chain was named varied noticeably between islands. In fact, said Lawson, if any tortoise was brought to him, he could identify which island it came from.

It turns out that the tortoise-naming party trick was not exclusively Lawson’s. Whether he was just repeating what the locals said, or had actually studied the tortoises personally, the fact remains that the person who set Darwin on the course of studying variation among species on the Galapagos islands was not a scientist.

John Bryant, the author of last week’s guest post, told this story during his lecture at this year’s Faraday Summer course, and I enjoyed it because it brings science down to earth. It’s about being observant and curious, and being in the right place at the right time. When we have time on our hands, like the Governor stranded on a small island chain, we can look around ourselves and notice things.

In his book Faith and Wisdom in Science, Tom McLeish told another story that demonstrates how science can become more approachable. Some time ago he was invited to speak at the Dewsbury Women’s Institute, so he spoke about his research on polymers, hoping that the women of this Yorkshire mill town would connect with his desire to develop new fibres.

One person in particular, a woman called Betty who had worked in a mill since the age of 15, listened as if her life depended on it, and peppered him with questions afterwards. She had always been interested in how things work, but until that day had not found anyone to answer her questions. Whenever she had asked about the processes they were using in the mill she was just told to get on with her job.

From the outside, science can seem a closed specialty, hemmed in by intimidating jargon. When McLeish described science as ‘the love of wisdom of natural things’, however, he realised he was opening a door. He was moved to see that Betty was not the only person who shed a tear when her questions were finally taken seriously, confirming that her enquiring mind was indeed probing in the right direction – only 50 years too late.

Hearing about people like Betty or Nicholas Lawson reminds me that science is a very human activity. McLeish is convinced that there is a future in ‘science therapy’. At the end of his book he asked the question, “If a reintroduction to the activity of representing both inner and outer worlds in paint, music and drama can help to heal minds, what hope might there be for a participation in a gentle and contemplative science in restoring a broken or misunderstood relationship with the physical world?” I hope that some of the articles on this blog might serve a similar purpose, helping Christians in particular to reconnect with science and celebrate what they find.

Sources on Darwin’s study of the Galapagos tortoises Diary entry, 24th-25th September 1835 Zoology notes, 1835 Published Beagle Voyage journal

6 thoughts on “For the love of wisdom of natural things

  1. Graham Coyle September 4, 2014 / 2:43 pm

    Thank you, I really enjoyed this one in particular Ruth, it must be because I put myself firmly in the ‘gradually reconnecting’ bracket.


  2. Lonnie E. Schubert September 5, 2014 / 1:11 pm

    Reblogged this on gottadobetterthanthis and commented:
    Yes, science is for everyone. Ask, and be honest about the answer. Always focus on the fact that it is better to be corrected than remain wrong.


  3. John Mulholland September 5, 2014 / 3:31 pm

    Excellent report – I am so tired of the constant drumbeat in some “christian” circles about evolution, as if that is the only important topic.

    Wrong!! If the ordinary questions of everyday people about all the interesting realities of our world are not recognized and taken seriously, like the people described in this paper, then Christians will rightfully not be taken seriously.

    Let us pray for many more like you, Ruth, and Tom McLeish. I know there are many more, so maybe in the future you could list the names of people whom we should be finding. Thanks for what I hope will become a long series over the years on “science therapy.”


    • Ruth Bancewicz September 5, 2014 / 3:56 pm

      Thank you John! If you look back over the last 3 years posts you will find much that comes under the heading of ‘science therapy’. I’m afraid this blog site will have to do in place of the list you mention, but I hope it’s useful!


  4. Richard Hosking September 8, 2014 / 8:35 am

    Hi Ruth, Great stuff!

    Leopold Auenbrugger (1722-1809) invented the important medical technique of ‘percussion’ – tapping on the chest and abdomen to determine organ location, size and composition. This 18th-century non-invasive ‘imaging’ procedure is still very much in use today. Leopold may have been inspired by watching his dad – who was an innkeeper – check how full a wine cask was by listening to the changes in resonance when striking it at different levels.

    Science definitely becomes more approachable when viewed as a very human activity. An interesting ‘Point of View’ last week by Lisa Jardine, also highlighted the importance of creative imagination in reconstructing the human drama behind major scientific discoveries.* Lisa’s dad was Jacob Bronowski and her mum had met the physicist Niels Bohr and his wife Magrethe. Her mum was deeply moved by Michael Frayn’s stage play Copenhagen – which imaginatively recreates Bohr and Heisenberg’s meeting about atomic physics in WWII. Then in her eighties, she said it was ‘like being there all over again.’

    (E.g. see Stanford Medicine’s Percussion of the Chest video on Youtube)


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