Galileo is my real hero, so I would put him in gold position. There’s a beauty about the solution he arrived at to explain the way the universe ticks. Unlike Darwin, Galileo was going for the really big picture, trying to understand the nature of the universe rather than something specific concerning biological evolution on Earth. I like the purity and simplicity of Galileo’s ideas. He was one of the first to show how, using the equations of maths, you can make predictions. Galileo has a lovely quote: “The universe cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written.
It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word. ” He really appeals to me because he is looking for a mathematical explanation for the way the universe works. A third figure I’d like to nominate is Bernhard Riemann , who published a paper on prime numbers 150 years ago next year, in the same year that Darwin published On the Origin of Species . The primes are the building blocks of arithmetic, so his paper is a bit like ” On the Origin of Mathematics “.
I’d like to put him in the running – he was a giant as well. Marcus du Sautoy is Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford Matthew Chapman Difficult choice. To prove that we orbit the sun, when the reverse so clearly appears to be true and the distances are so vast, is really an incredible achievement. That men and monkeys are related seems minor in comparison, easily surmised by watching the way George W Bush holds his arms when he walks, and rapidly confirmed by a quick look in the mirror.
On the other hand, that our planet is not the centre of the universe seems somehow academic (do most Americans even know this? ), while taking such a whack at man that his grandma ends up swinging in the branches of a tree scratching her armpits – well, that’s personal. Maybe the final arbiter should be those guardians of man’s centrality, religions . Galileo was so controversial it took 350 years for the Catholic Church to officially concede , in 1992, that he and Copernicus were right.
Darwin’s theories, on the other hand, were grudgingly but officially accepted by elements of most religions within a few decades, which seems to make him less controversial. But – and I think this is the clincher – you won’t find many modern believers insisting that the sun rises and falls around a static Earth, whereas, from Palinville to Pakistan, evolution remains a matter of passionate debate. Sorry, Galileo, but when it comes to man humiliating himself? Another smackdown for the D-man! Matthew Chapman is one of Darwin’s great-great-grandsons
A C Grayling Although I agree with David Hume that Galileo was a “great genius, one of the sublimest that ever existed”, I have to nominate Darwin as the one of these two who has changed human self-perception more. It was not Galileo but Copernicus who took man out of the centre of the universe, which gave a blow to human self-importance. By contrast, Darwin’s work initiated an even more fundamental reassessment of humankind, as a biological entity continuous with the rest of nature, and fully and wholly at home in it.
It is the implications of this that constitute a complete revolution in human self-understanding – one that is yet incomplete, because the pre-Copernican and pre-Darwinian wishful thinking persists. A C Grayling is a professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London Steven Dick Good question. I would argue that Galileo did more to knock us off our pedestal because the telescope opened the entire universe, whereas Darwinian evolution by natural selection has occurred only on Earth (so far as we know), though it would be applicable to life in the universe (we think! . So Darwinian evolution on Earth may be just a subset of what awaits us in the almost infinite universe – which Galileo opened our eyes to. In short, cosmic evolution trumps terrestrial evolution, especially if there are intelligent ETs. Steven Dick is chief historian at NASA History Division , Washington DC Matt Ridley No contest: Darwin, because the degree to which he knocked man off his pedestal is still sinking in year after year. Twelve years ago, even most scientists thought there were special human genes for making the special human brain.
Now we know that we have half as many genes as a rice plant, and that the reason our brains are bigger than a mouse’s is because we evolved to switch on a bunch of brain-growing genes for a bit longer. The deep, deep commonality of life, written in the genes, is quite astonishing, even to those who expected to be astonished. Compared with that, who cares which ball of rock goes round which? Matt Ridley is a writer on evolutionary biology Daniel Dennett I think it’s a draw. Darwin showed irrefutably that we are animals, occupying our tiny limb on the tree of life and needing no divine spark to account for our many adaptations.
Galileo began the process that has now showed us that we inhabit a tiny speck, orbiting a tiny speck all but lost among billions of other specks, in a galaxy that is just one of billions of galaxies. Between the two of them, they give us the best of reasons for reconsidering the source of the meanings of our lives. We ourselves, using the gifts evolution has blindly granted us, have created and endorsed the meanings we take so seriously. And why not take them seriously? We are the reason-representers, the reason-improvers, the only truly intelligent designers we know in the universe.
There is no God-given guarantee that we’ve got it right, but we have no higher authority to trust than our own most considered reflections. Daniel Dennett is co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, Boston Steven Pinker I’d say Darwin. The dogma that equates the figurative centrality of humans in the moral order with the literal centrality of humans in the physical universe is probably a quirk of medieval church doctrine, not a basic property of human naive belief.
It is thus easier to overturn, I think, than the idea that complex design requires an animate designer, which is a deep part of the way we make sense of the world. Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University Lawrence Krauss I know it will sound biased because I am a physicist and not a biologist, but I think the prize has to go to Galileo. This is not to minimise Darwin’s work, which was more significant and overarching than anything that, say, Einstein, did, in terms of completely changing the landscape of an entire field of human inquiry.
Having said this, the fact that we share our planet with the rest of the animal kingdom was clear before Darwin, and the fact that we share many things with other species was also clear. Darwin may have toppled us from a divine throne on top of the food chain, but it could have been obvious to anyone who looked around that humans were animals after all. While Darwin brilliantly removed the discontinuity between humans and other animals, and also profoundly demonstrated how unorchestrated laws of nature could produce the diversity of life we observe, Galileo effectively removed us from the centre of the universe.
How much more greater a fall could we have? Not only that, but the realisation was far from obvious, and in fact completely non-intuitive. Ultimately it required a telescope that could see the moons of Jupiter before it became clear that not all heavenly objects orbit the Earth. Moreover, he created the basis for scepticism about “divinely revealed” knowledge, replacing it with the realisation that, when it comes to the natural world, empirical knowledge beats any sort of claimed divine revelation. Go Galileo!
Lawrence Krauss is foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University, Tempe Paul Davies Undoubtedly Darwin. Why? Both scientists made disruptive discoveries, but cosmology is far more remote – literally so – than biology. So the Earth goes around the sun, right. How does that affect the price of beer? The church didn’t like it, but ordinary people were unfazed. Nobody got depressed , nobody rioted . Darwin, however, struck at the root of what it means to be human, and that matters to people.
It still does, so much so that a large fraction of the American population is in a state of denial about evolution, preferring to tell lies for God rather than embrace the truth. The truth is actually rather inspiring and wonderful: human nature is a product of nature – we are children of the universe. That is something to be celebrated, not feared. Paul Davies is director of Beyond : Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and co-director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University, Tempe
Frarns de Waal What was worse for the crown of creation: to hear that he didn’t own the castle on the hill, or that he was born to a pauper family? Galileo was concerned with location, Darwin with connection. The latter was the more disturbing message, which is why most people accept only half of it. They agree with the first half, which is that our species is a product of evolution. But there remains immense resistance to the second half, which is that we are continuous with other animals not only in body but also in mind.
Frans de Waal is director of the Living Links Center and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia Michael Ruse Galileo or Darwin? I puzzled over this one until I realised that, as far as I was concerned, I was facing a case of what we philosophers call the fallacy of the complex question. For instance: “Have you stopped beating your wife? ” If you answer “Yes”, why did you start in the first place? If “No”, shouldn’t you stop right now? The fallacy is that answering the question forces on you the assumption that you were beating your wife in the first place.
Likewise with Galileo or Darwin, and who was more responsible for knocking humans off their pedestal. I don’t think either did. In fact, I would say that both Galileo and Darwin were responsible for showing just how remarkable humans truly are, in that they can work out their place in both space and time. I feel more elevated knowing that we humans can solve such difficult questions. Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Henry Huxley used to say that there was nothing degrading in knowing that we are modified monkeys, rather than modified dirt .
But what monkeys! What modification! Michael Ruse is Lucyle T Werkmeister Professor and programme director for the history and philosophy of science at Florida State University, Tallahassee Steve Jones “Darwinian man, though well-behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved. ” Thus W S Gilbert in 1884 in Princess Ida , one of the operettas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan. It’s the tale of how “a lady fair, of lineage high, was loved by an ape, in the days gone by,” and is a jibe at the then rather new idea that humans and primates were close relatives.
That idea caused an uproar . Benjamin Disraeli famously asked: “Is man an ape or an angel? My lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories. ” Being knocked off an angelic pinnacle by a hairy ape was not a pleasant experience for the Victorians. Now, or so it seems, biology has ground our face further into the evolutionary dirt, with the roughly 95% of our DNA sequence we share with our chimpanzee cousins (not to speak of the rather apocryphal 50% we have in common with bananas).
My view is quite different. In spite of the amazing physical similarity between ourselves and other primates, everything that makes us human is unique. Apes ape; they do not teach, for although the young can pick up tricks from their parents, the adults make no effort to help them. No ape eye has ever lit up with curiosity, and no primate brain is concerned with history or with the future, beyond where the next meal (or sex act) is coming from.
Most of all, no ape can talk and pass on its heritage through mouth and ears, rather than through the genital organs. What Darwin did, then, was to put us on a far higher pinnacle than we ever thought – to make us far more human than we thought we were. Galileo, on the other hand, just explained why the sun comes up every morning. He wins on the pinnacle-knocking . Steve Jones is Professor of Genetics and head of genetics, evolution and environment at University College London