This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.

Guest post by Jasmine Fox-Skelly, digital volunteer

Charles Darwin and John Milton were two pioneering thinkers of their time who had contrasting views of creation. John Milton wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost in 1667 in order to ‘justify the ways of God to man’. The poem depicts amongst many things the war in Heaven between God and the Angel Lucifer, the attempts by Satan to set up an army in Hell, his travels to Earth to tempt Adam and Eve and the consequent fall of Man. It also depicts the creation of life on Earth by God. Darwin on the other hand set out his theory of evolution of life through the means of natural selection in ‘The Origin of Species’ published in 1859. The work provided a great deal of evidence and observations that helped to explain the extraordinary variations found in creatures on Earth. He developed his theories further in the 1871 publication of ‘The Descent of Man”, where he argued that humans had evolved from a common ancestor of the ape.

In a talk given as part of the Royal Society’s One Culture festival, the Nobel Prize winning biologist and President of the Royal Society Sir Paul Nurse compared the two men’s visions. Describing himself as “a fan of both Milton and Darwin”, he demonstrated this by showing the audience his personal copy of a 1720s edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost which was published only 40 years after the original. He also had in his possession a 2nd edition of the ‘Origin of Species’ and ‘The Descent of Man.’

Sir Paul Nurse speaking at One Culture

In Paradise Lost, Milton begins his account of creation by describing God sending his son out into chaos in a chariot surrounded by angels. Filled with ‘Majestie Divine, Sapience and Love’, he sets about taming the ‘vast immeasurable abyss’ of chaos. Describing chaos as ‘Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wilde’, God addresses it directly with the words ‘Silence, ye troubl’d waves, and thou Deep, peace, Said then th’ Omnific Word, your discord end’. God as the son then begins to create the world infusing it with ‘vital vertue’ and ‘vital warmth’.

in his hand
He took
the golden Compasses, prepar’d
In Gods Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
One foot he center’d, and the other turn’d
Round through the vast profunditie obscure,
And said, thus farr extend, thus farr thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World.

Milton uses many words to emphasise the personal paternal nature of this act, which is borne of love, for example God has ‘Paternal Glorie’. The Earth itself is described in terms of being a mother, for example when describing the formation of land Milton writes ‘The Earth was form’d, but in the Womb as yet Of Waters, Embryon immature involv’d, Appeer’d not’.

When describing the creation of life on Earth by God, Milton again uses words that emphasize the Earth as a mother, obeying God and giving birth to all creatures on Earth:

God said,
Let th’ Earth bring forth
Foulliving in her kinde,
Cattel and Creeping things, and Beast of the Earth,
Each in their kinde. The Earth obey’d, and strait
Op’ning her fertile Woomb
teem’dat a Birth
Innumerous living Creatures,
Limb’d and full grown

Therefore Milton’s account of Creation depicts God taming the wild abyss and creating a World of beauty, infusing it with love and goodness and filling it with creatures. Once created, the Earth is a harmonious place: the elements and creatures work together and obey God. This contrasts deeply with Charles Darwin’s account of the “warring of the species” of plants and the struggle for existence among wildlife, resulting in the survival of the fittest and the elimination of the weakest.

Darwin came up with his groundbreaking theory of evolution after embarking on the famous Beagle voyage where he collected specimens of fauna and flora that he found throughout his travels. When he came back home he set about cataloguing and studying all the different forms he saw, and in the 1840s he gradually came up with his theory. He argued that species’ diversity came about due to evolution through natural selection. Animals evolve through natural selection because in nature more offspring are produced than can possibly survive, which means that animals are competing for finite resources. There are variations between individuals which mean that some animals are better adapted to their surroundings, have a higher probability of survival and thus are more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation. This will lead to a gradual process whereby a species will become more adapted to its environment.

Although at first sight Milton’s religious, and Darwin’s scientific account of creation are quite different, as Sir Paul Nurse pointed out in his talk, scientific ideas are explored in Paradise Lost. Milton travelled to Florence in 1638 where he met the astronomer Galileo who was under virtual house arrest at the time. Indeed Galileo is the only contemporary person who is featured in Paradise Lost as Milton discusses a telescope looking at the Moon. The poem also discusses cosmology as Satan travels the Universe on his way to Earth. Milton makes reference to a scientific phenomenon that had recently been observed by Galileo through his telescope: Sun spots. Satan is described as a ‘spot’ when he visits the sun, bringing imperfections which are then observed by scientists. He also makes references to the spinning of the Earth and the seasons, saying that before the fall of man the world was perfect, spinning vertically on its axis, but when Satan came to Earth and tempted man, it caused an event so cataclysmic that the Earth tilted, thus giving us seasons. Sir Paul also pointed out that Milton comments on the debate of the time: Whether the Earth or the Sun is the centre of the solar system. When the Angel Raphael comes to the Garden of Eden, Adam asks him why the stars revolve around the Earth and why the Earth is stationary. Raphael is obtuse in his answer and although saying things to confirm Adam’s view, also says:

Not that I so affirm, though so it seem
To thee who hast thy dwelling here on Earth.
God to remove his wayes from human sense,
Plac’d Heav’n from Earth so farr, that earthly sight,
If it presume, might erre in things too high,
And no advantage gaine. What if the Sun
Be Center to the World, and other Starrs
By his attractive vertue and thir own
Incited, dance about him various rounds?

Therefore Milton slips seamlessly between the traditional religious views of the time and the modern 17th century thinking on science. In the final parts of his talk Sir Paul Nurse used this comparison to think more generally about the differences between the scientific and religious world view. Milton incorporated a variety of knowledge and ideas from 3000 years into his epic poem, but despite knowing references to science, he said that ultimately creation depends on an authority. Darwin’s account of creation depends on laws and observation, his method differs as it is scientific, but what is science? Sir Paul remarked that he was ‘still not sure, which is embarrassing to admit for the president of the Royal Society!’ Science involves a respect for reliable experiments based on testable ideas which are consistent across domains of enquiry and which lead to collective views of understanding. Scientific knowledge therefore is tentative, and these collective views of understanding are known to change from time to time.

Karl Poppersaid that science is the gathering of observations which leads to hypotheses that are capable of being tested. The very process of science is steeped in scepticism, as scientists are continually trying to destroy theories. This is quite different to religious views where challenge is not often encouraged. Science avoids un-testable theories, unlike religion which takes matters on faith. However this is somewhat of a fallacy, as science itself depends upon assumptions that come close to matters of faith. One assumption is that there is a physical world in which to understand, and that what we see relates to that physical world. We take as faith the idea that there is an external world to understand. Another assumption science makes is that you are able to make generalisations about the nature of things from your observations. For example we assume that the sun will rise in the morning because we have seen it do so a thousand times. We put this on faith, because otherwise there is no way of ever knowing anything.

Therefore religion and science do not occupy completely different realms of experience: the boundaries of religion and science have changed over time. There was a time that explanations of volcanic eruptions were always in terms of Gods, but throughout medieval times this happened less and less and scientific explanations took precedence. In Newton’s day people started to argue that God set up scientific laws to rule the universe, and Newton in fact wrote far more about religion and magic than he did science, as in those times these concepts were all mixed together.

This blurring and mixing of religion, the arts and science is behind the philosophy of the ‘One Culture’ festival. Sir Paul Nurse believes that the arts, and in particular the creative act can have a great role to play in science. He noted that the leap between scientific observation and a theory that makes sense of it has a relation to the creative act in the arts. Although in the arts there is a need to explore ambiguity, whilst in science there is a tendency to stick to a particular thought or a way of thinking. Therefore the closing message of the talk was that science has a lot to learn from the arts, and scientists should try to embrace ambiguity and encourage a tolerance of new possibilities.

Sir Paul Nurse speaking with audience members after his talk

After the talk I caught up with Sir Paul – download the podcast of our conversation to hear more.

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