Between Shoreham and Downe: Seeking the Key to Natural Beauty
Abstract of the lecture
A lifelong inclination to science comes to me both via nature and via nurture from my parents. I grew up near London but my parents were returned New Zealanders, my father an engineer and my mother a doctor. They believed in a pioneer-like independence for their large family, an ethos that was quite unusual in the London-commuter middle-class milieu where we lived. They applied their ideas both in the rules they mad for their children and in their insistent non-reliance on outside services, and purchases. My childhood home was a house on the edge of country, with a large garden and access to woods and fields. It was conductive to what may have been innate interests in natural patterns and in living things. I mention my introverted, weakly social, and object-oriented nature as a child and argue that this was an important in making me become a scientist. I claim also that appreciation of beauty, which in the best case should be natural beauty, is always important in determining the line and depth of a scientist's work.
From my father I learned tool use, how to design and build things, and an introduction to some intriguing but unrigorous ideas of mathematics. Following his spatial, mathematical, and can-do-somehow talents was to be of great value to me in the development of the theoretical side of my later work. Where my father built physical models to illustrate his engineering ideas, I later built theoretical ones. My models, like his, are often makeshift and amateur D also like his, they work and they produce results that could not otherwise be known.
From my mother I leaned natural history, biology, and aesthetic appreciation. Specially from her I had an Extremely early introduction to the theory of evolution by natural selection, and from the moment I grasped the idea, evolution became an ever more consuming interest.
I describe how I came to know of two eminent neighbors of the Victorian era who had lived within a few miles of my childhood home. One was Charles Darwin himself and the other an artist, Samuel Palmer. The latter, I found, had painted visionary, utopian versions of the landscapes that I knew well. I link these admired forbears to two sides of my interests and personality. Darwin's influence is paramount for any evolutionist and in my case I feel that I carried on almost from where he left off on the subject of social evolution. This work concerns the patterns and limitations that apply to social life in the living world generally. Palmer on the other hand represents my interest in what humans specially can expect achieve, their religious aspiration, and their ideal state of being. But for me all answers still must be based on models that, like my father's, really work. This was a challenge that I believe Palmer never met, and this failure led to his disillusion and a decline in the conviction of his art. He ended a much more ordinary artist than he began. Seen in the context of current sentiments, the challenge is indeed harsh, but it is not obvious that a switch cannot be made into a different ethos, to another set of sentiments that may entail in the long run greater human happiness and security.