1991 Balzan Prize for Genetics and Evolution
Acceptance Speech – Bern, 15.11.1991
Mr. President of the Swiss Confederation,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
In making this award, the Balzan Foundation has done me a great honour. It has also honoured the subject, evolutionary biology, which I have studied for the past forty years. No other branch of study has so captured the imagination of the general public. Evolutionary theory tells us about our own origins. Since the beginnings of history, men and women have told themselves stories about the creation of the earth, of the animals and plants that inhabit it, and of human kind. Starting with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, these stories have increasingly been replaced by evolutionary biology and cosmology.
We are therefore faced by a major intellectual challenge. Before the birth of modern science, men saw themselves at the centre of the universe, physically and morally. Today, astronomers tell us that we live on a small planet at one corner of a vast galaxy of stars, itself only one galaxy out of many. Biologists see us as just one species, albeit a rather peculiar one, out of many millions, sharing our ancestry with all the others, and evolved by a process of natural selection that has little to recommend it to anyone who believes, as I do, in the command to love thy neighbour.
This challenge must be met, not only by philosophers, but by all of us. I am very aware of the threat to established beliefs and customs that my discipline presents. Most emphatically, I do not think that we should base our morality on a direct imitation of nature: if nature is red in tooth and claw, it does not follow that we should be. There are, however, a few lessons we might draw from our knowledge of biology. First, and most obvious, it should teach us to be modest. Second, we are part of nature. We have it in our power to destroy most of nature: let us hope that we have the wisdom not to do so. Third, and for me most important, to practise biology, or indeed any branch of science, we must learn to put the truth before our own desires. It is easy, but fatal, to believe that a thing is true because we want it to be true.
In my research, I have tried to fill in the picture of evolution that Darwin left us. I have tried to explain phenomena that, at first sight, are not what we would expect from the theory of natural selection: in particular, the phenomena of ageing, of cooperative behaviour, and of sexual reproduction. Perhaps more than most scientists, I owe what success I have had to my teachers, and in particular to J.B.S. Haldane. He is very much in my mind today.
In conclusion, let me repeat my thanks to the Balzan Foundation for the encouragement they have given to me, to my subject of evolutionary biology, and to the world of learning in general.