Thursday, January 15, 2009

Grandeur

He lies in a quiet side aisle of Westminster Abbey, beneath a dignified black stone inscribed with these words: "Charles Robert Darwin. Born 12 February 1809. Died 19 April 1882." On several occasions I have stood there, alone, thinking of the great man.

Poor Darwin. He would perhaps be abashed to find himself in Westminster Abbey at all, so reclusive and retiring was he in life. And his doubts about traditional theology provide another incongruity to his final repose in this most eminent symbol of Anglican orthodoxy.

But in a sense, he had carried on the work of the architects and master craftsmen who built the Abbey. They, too, lifted our eyes away from the cares and woes of day-to-day existence and focused our attention on the light and glory of the cosmos.

So here we are, approaching the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, the 150th anniversary of the publication of the great book. Origin of Species appeared on the scene like a bombshell. Perhaps never before or since has a dense scientific tome created a greater hubbub. Within days of publication everyone had an opinion, whether they had read the book or not.

It was not an easy read. But for those who plowed through it, and made the effort to understand, the effect was like a brilliant sunrise. Like soaring pillars and expanses of luminous glass.

No reader mattered more than the great scientific communicator Thomas Huxley. He found the book "humdrum and prosaic." But persevering, he entered a world "vast and mysterious." He was swept away by the all-encompassing beauty of Darwin's vision.

"There is a grandeur in this view of life," Darwin wrote of evolution, on the last page of Origin, and in knitting the history of our individual selves, our species, and all life on Earth, into the expanding space and time of the geologists and astronomers, he accomplished what the architects of Westminster Abbey sought in their own way to do with arches and spandrels and flying buttresses -- to focus our attention on a "vast and mysterious" unity that transcends the "humdrum and prosaic" of our individual daily lives.