God’s Biologist: A Life of Alister Hardy by David Hay
Reviewed by Gerard J. Hughes SJ
This book might almost have been entitled, From Plankton to Prayer. Bizarre, to be sure; but one does not often come across someone who is an expert in the biology of oceans and the relationship between plankton and the movements of fish, and who also has a deep interest in the relationship between the theory of evolution and research into religious experience.
Such a man was Alister Hardy. He did oceanographical research on board little fishing boats from Hull, as well as on the Royal Research Ship, Discovery deep in the Antarctic. He held professorships in Biology in Hull, Aberdeen and Oxford. Yet the more complex depths of his character came from an important experience he had as a schoolboy at Oundle, which he describes as follows:
There is no doubt that as a boy I was becoming what might be described as a nature mystic. Somehow, I felt the presence of something which was beyond and yet in a way part of all the things that thrilled me…..Just occasionally, when I was sure that no one could see me, I became overcome with the glory of the natural scene, that for a moment or two I fell on my knees in prayer – not prayer asking for anything, but thanking God, who felt very real to me, for the glories of his Kingdom and for allowing me to feel them.
That this was not a passing phase can be seen from something he wrote about the end of his first term at Oxford in 1914, just before he joined the Army:
During the term, I had become more and more convinced of the importance of bringing about a reconciliation between evolution theory and the spiritual awareness of man, At the end of the term I made a most solemn vow; it wasn’t actually in the form of a prayer, but I vowed to what I called God that if I should survive the war, I would devote my life to attempting to bring about such a reconciliation that would satisfy the intellectual world.
Hardy’s effort to live out that vow is, in David Hay’s view, the key to his whole life. To many of his contemporaries, though not to his wife, this might have been less than obvious for most of the forty years after the First World War, during which his career progressed from Hull to Oxford.
Hay, however, mentions papers, now preserved in the archives of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which include brief notes to himself as well as sketchy projects for possible books. From these papers, in Hay’s view, we can see that Hardy’s vow was still very much alive.
The project surfaced explicitly, once in his inaugural lecture in Aberdeen in 1942, but in its full form in 1962 when, to many people’s surprise, Hardy was chosen to give the highly prestigious Gifford Lectures. The appointment required the lecturer to:
…treat their subject as a strictly natural science, the greatest of all possible sciences, indeed, in one sense the only science, that of Infinite Being without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special, exceptional, or so called miraculous revelation. I wish it considered just as astronomy or chemistry is.
The emphasis on scientific method, and the distancing from any particular religion suited Hardy well; he claimed that he was an Anglican in his heart, but a Unitarian in his head…
Full review: Thinking Faith, the on line journal of the British Jesuits
Alister Hardy in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alister_Hardy
Alister Hardy Society: http://alisterhardysociety.weebly.com/ahs-london-group.html
Alister Hardy’s association: http://www.cra.org.au/pages/00000241.cgi
A little about the biographer: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/divinity/staff/details.php?id=j.d.hay
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