Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute Dr Denis Alexander began his Gifford lecture series at St Andrews University Monday night, speaking to a packed lecture theatre on the introductory topic ‘Genes, History and Ideology’. During the week, Dr Alexander has addressed different aspects of the topic, with the final lecture coming on Friday night. The overall theme is ‘Genes, Determinism and God’.
On Monday, an audience of around 170 attended the first lecture of the series, when Dr Alexander gave a broad historical sweep of the different approaches to the question of ‘nature and nurture’. Painting a background picture that went from ancient Mesopotamia to Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Francis Galton, via Plato, Augustine, Descartes and John Locke, Dr Alexander then spent time looking at the swings and trends of the debate through the twentieth century. Describing a shift in those shaping the debate, from philosophers and politicians to biologists, medics and anthropologists, Dr Alexander highlighted some of the major themes of previous decades like behaviourism, cultural anthropology, neo-Darwinian synthesis, eugenics, sociobiology, and behavioural genetics.
Dr Alexander was keen to stress how dichotomous ways of thinking have had an unhelpful influence on the discussion, which has often been reduced to an adversarial ‘genes vs. environment’ or ‘nature vs. nurture’ approach (with one of the factors being treatment of the issue in the media and popular culture). Dr Alexander aims with these lectures to change the goal posts, and to show how contemporary biology provides a framework or matrix that does greater justice to the complexity of human identity and personhood. “The contemporary biological picture”, comments Dr Alexander “is a gift to natural theology”. The Gifford Lectures were established to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, and have been delivered annually since 1888 at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St. Andrews. (More photos from the event are available on Flickr here)
UPDATED 22/1/13 Video recordings of the lectures are now online.