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Out with the old...


Lord May of Oxford uses his Presidential Address to bring up the R Word.... Sarah Day reports

Geoscientist Online, 7 September 2009

Change, we are told, is inevitable. Few disciplines aspire to embrace change as fully as science; which holds as one of its most fundamental principles the ability to adapt and rethink in the face of new evidence. It is what, in theory at least, separates science from doctrine, myth and stagnation.

It shouldn’t be sad news, then, that the British Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1831, has undergone a rebranding. Now known as the British Science Association (we don’t say BSA, apparently), it has put aside its historical roots, a move thoroughly in the spirit of the organisation. The BA was always about looking forward. It was not the stuffy ‘gentleman’s club’ that characterised the origins of most scientific societies. It deliberately held meetings throughout the UK to reach as diverse an audience as possible, and to combat the elitism of the Royal Society at that time – pointedly stating in an early manifesto that it aimed for ‘a removal of those disadvantages which impede its [science’s] progress’.

Rebranding goes with the turf, then. But I still can’t help being a little bit sad that the BA is no more. Thankfully, though the name has gone, the British Science Association has not forgotten its history. Today, its President, Lord May of Oxford, will give the first Presidential Address of the new era, which, fittingly, takes place in Darwin’s anniversary year. As his was a theory that was all about change and adaptation, this seems rather apt.

Darwin and the BA have had a close relationship from the very start – he was 22 when it was founded, and just a few months away from setting off on the Beagle. There was, of course, the famous debate between Huxley and Wilberforce at the 1860 meeting over evolutionary theory, and in his Presidential Address of 1874, the physicist John Tyndall praised Darwin’s name no less than 19 times during a speech arguing for the demarcation of science and religion.

For Lord May, as well as for Darwin, Huxley and Tyndall, what is exciting about science is the unanswered questions, the problems which may never be fully solved, but which lead to important research and theories. He points to the mysteries which evolutionary theory brought with it – the age of the Earth, the mechanism of inheritance, the problem of altruism. Of these, the last has yet to be solved, and may never be fully understood. But it is at the centre of the challenges we face for the future. In a system as violent and self-serving as natural selection, how have the traits of cooperation and selfless behaviour survived?

BSA As Lord May points out, ‘this is very far from being an abstract, academic problem for evolutionary biologists’. With unprecedented population growth, limited resources and a changing climate, our altruistic instincts are facing their biggest ever challenge. Cooperation on a global scale is required. Lord May’s own opinions on the subject may surprise some – that what keeps us cooperating is conscience, ‘the inner voice which warns us that somebody might be looking’. And how helpful it is, he notes, if the “punisher” of departures from societal “norms” is an abstract but all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural entity.

As far as harking back to the old days of the scientific establishment goes, this might be one step too far. But his words are not intended to propose religion as a solution for all our woes. Like Tyndall, he recognises that while religion has the power to control, it does not, unlike science, have the power to adapt. The strong ties between the religious right and climate change denialism, for example, suggest that this is not the way out of all our problems. ‘Under stress’, he notes, ‘we simplify. We reduce complex doctrines to simple mantras, and end up with fundamentalism’.

Tyndall’s own solution, outlined so controversially in his Presidential Address, is a separation of science and religion, insisting that the latter should not ‘intrude on the region of knowledge, over which it holds no command’. Lord May does not go so far as to propose an answer, which is also in keeping. We like to think that science is all about the answers. This is often the message at meetings of the British Science Association. The festival never fails to generate headlines of finality – discoveries, breakthroughs, successes. These are the stories with which many scientists and popularisers of science hope the public will be enthused. But often, as Darwin found, it is the questions that arise which are the most exciting part. As Tyndall put it, ‘the phenomena of matter and force lie within our intellectual range…But behind, and above, and around all, the real mystery of the universe lies unsolved, and, as far as we are concerned, is incapable of solution’.

It is a fundamental truth which is as much a foundation of science as any rigours of method. It is what keeps scientists going, and keeps the rest of us guessing. More importantly, it is often the point at which science meets the ‘real world’ – out of the controlled conditions of the lab when things become unpredictable, questions which really will impact on our futures are asked. In bringing to life a debate which has been central to the British Association’s, or the British Science Association’s, agenda for as long as it has existed, Lord May has demonstrated that the fundamental problems we grapple with outlive the short term headlines. He also shows that it is possible to hold onto what the BA has always been about.

The name may have changed, but the spirit remains the same.