A group of Christ Church Central members viewed, reviewed and discussed the BBC television series Wonders of Life. These were our thoughts:
“What is life? … If we are to state that science can explain everything about us, then it’s incumbent on science to answer the question ‘What is it that animates living things? What is the difference between a piece of rock carved into a gravestone, and me?”
So begins the recent BBC TV series Wonders of Life, fronted by “rockstar physicist” Professor Brian Cox – with the lofty aim of providing the answers to such big questions. The series is a literally wonder-full showcase of some of the more bizarre and spectacular organisms that inhabit our planet, as Cox tours the globe, skilled camera crew in tow, to demonstrate how the rich variety of lifeforms can all be explained via the fundamental laws of physics. In many ways, this is the BBC natural history department at its best.
Cox himself is in the process of supplanting Sir David Attenborough as the face of such documentaries. He combines a gift for clear explanations of complex ideas with a boyish enthusiasm and sense of genuine wonder at the things he is showing you. When he extracts some of his own DNA essentially by spitting in a test-tube (at the second attempt – he missed the tube with his first…), he makes cutting edge science accessible and entertaining. “Life” remains the star of the show, but Cox is certainly part of its appeal.
What makes the series particularly interesting, however, is its conscious engagement with the philosophical and spiritual side of the questions it seeks to answer. While some scientific programmes avoid making such connections, this is not Cox’s approach. Not that he is embarking on some sort of Richard Dawkins-style crusade against religious belief – Cox is much gentler, less dogmatic, and consequently much more likely to persuade. This is not science going on the offensive against religion – if anything, science is on the defensive, against accusations that it robs the universe of wonder.
And if that is the accusation, then Cox’s defence is an absolute knockout. Time and again he shows that scientific answers to questions of “How?” can certainly leave you gasping “Wow!” As he says in the series’ first episode, creatures “operate according to the laws of physics, and I think they’re no less magical for that.”
However, the programme’s blind spot is the flawed leap of logic it then makes to assert that the scientific explanation is the only explanation – that because we can explain certain processes by the laws of physics, there is nothing but the laws of physics, and consequently “There’s no mysticism required.” This is to misunderstand the relationship between the scientific and religious explanations of physical processes. When the Psalmist writes “[It is the LORD] who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:7), it is not a denial of the hydrological cycle, of electrical charges or atmospheric pressure systems. It is simply a statement that there is a “Who” behind the “How.” Indeed, the consistent response of the Biblical writers to the wonders of life is to reason from the “Wow!” to the “Who” – and so to an enlarged “Wow!”
The Christian faith provides a way of looking at the world that allows for the jaw-to-the-floor wonder that scientific discoveries (and television programmes!) can produce. When science explains another piece of the jigsaw, the Christian response is not “Oh dear – my God is obviously a bit smaller than I thought…” but rather “Hallelujah! My God is even bigger and better than I thought!” The scientific and religious explanations are complementary, not contradictory – science explains the process, and faith gives the process a purpose.
Of course, the attractiveness of a theory in no way constitutes proof of a theory – most wonder does not necessarily equal most truth – but the science-including Christian worldview is surely more attractive than the God-excluding scientific worldview. Brian Cox is right: “It’s hard to accept that when you die you will just stop existing, and that you are your life; the essence of you is really just something that emerges from an inanimate bag of stuff.” It’s hard to accept that “the universe is dying.”
Christianity reckons with the real observations that lie behind those statements – creation is in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21 – probably not a direct reference to the second law of thermodynamics!), but it asserts that it will one day be “set free.” There is hope – because, in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there is evidence of a new kind of life – an everlasting life. And that is truly wonderful.