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2020 Rutherford Medal acceptance speech

Acceptance speech from Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd FRSNZ, the first humanities scholar to receive the Rutherford Medal.

I am thrilled that from this year the humanities have been included within the scope of the Rutherford Medal, so that all forms of research—other than the creative arts, which appeal directly to the public—can come under the bright Rutherford spotlight. 

Actually, I think that the sciences are humanities (no other species on earth engages in science, and no science happens without language, culture, and traditions, including traditions of challenging traditions) and the humanities are sciences (attempts at deeper explanation, challenging received knowledge, and testing hypotheses against evidence should drive the humanities too). 

As a humanist, you can choose to explore what humans have done wrong, and continue to do wrong, and there’s no shortage of examples; but I prefer to show how some humans have extended the possibilities for us all, in art or in thought. If we aren’t inspired by what humans at their best can do, we might despair of what humans at their worst can do.

I especially like to work on people who cross the boundaries of the arts, the humanities and the sciences: Vladimir Nabokov was a world-class writer and a word-class scientist (lepidopterist), Karl Popper a world-class philosopher, who worked and argued with scientists like Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Medawar, Lorenz, Monod, and many more, and composed music that has been recorded and praised by, for instance, world-leading organist, New Zealander Dame Gillian Weir.

Nabokov and Popper were contemporaries, both living through most of the twentieth century and both uprooted by war and revolution. In many ways, nevertheless, they were antithetical, but what for me links them is their love of freedom and their delight in the endless adventure of discovery.

Let me offer two quotes apiece from Nabokov and from Popper. I hope you find them as inspiring as I do.

At the end of the first chapter of his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Nabokov recalls sitting at lunch in his family estate and looking outside to see his father being thrown up in the air by a group of peasants, in the time-honoured Russian way of expressing thanks, in gratitude for something else he had done for them. Readers at this point may not know that Nabokov is also looking ahead both to his father’s being assassinated by Russian right-wingers, to his funeral, and to his own hope of something beyond:

Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin. 

In the last chapter of Speak, Memory Nabokov thinks of his love for his wife and son:

When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.

Popper was asked in his late eighties what place he thought freedom had in human life.

My idea of freedom is that thought is essentially creative and contributes to the creation of a future in every single person’s life.

In his Realism and the Aim of Science, he writes in a way that uplifts both science and art:

Science is not only, like art and literature, an adventure of the human spirit, but it is among the creative arts perhaps the most human: full of human failings and shortsightedness, it shows those flashes of insight which open our eyes to the wonders of the world and of the human spirit. But this is not all. Science is the direct result of that most human of all human endeavours—to liberate ourselves.

And, if you’re still reading, may I close with a passage from the end of my On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, on art, science, and human purpose, in the light of evolution:

If art is “unnatural” variation, science is “unnatural” selection. Art appeals to our species preferences and our intuitions, often as they have been modified by local culture. Science rejects our species preferences and our intuitions, even as modified by local culture. It tests ideas not against human preferences but against a resistant world, and its methods of testing, by logic, observation, and experiment, encourage us to reject even ideas that seem self-evident and apparently repeatedly confirmed by tradition. . . .

When science offered a detailed explanation of natural design without the need for a designer—the theory of evolution by natural selection— that, more than any other single idea, stripped us of a world made comfortable by a sense of purpose apparently underwritten by beings greater than us.

Nevertheless if we develop Darwin’s insight, we can see the emergence of purpose, as of life itself, by small degrees, not from above, but by small increments, from below. The first purpose was the organization of matter in ways complex enough to sustain and replicate itself—the establishment, in other words, of life, or, in still other terms, of problems and solutions. With life emerged the first purpose, the first problem, to preserve at least the improbable complexity already arrived at, and to find new ways of resisting damage and loss. As life proliferated, variety offered new hedges against loss in the face of unpredictable circumstances, and even new ways of evolving variety, like sex. Still richer purposes emerged with emotions, intelligence, and cooperation, and most recently with creativity itself, pursued naturally, and unnaturally, through human invention, in art, and pursued unnaturally, through challenging what we have inherited, in science.

Art at its best offers us the durability that became life’s first purpose, the variety that became its second, the appeal to the intelligence and the social emotions that took so much longer to evolve, and the creativity that keeps adding new possibilities, including religion and science. We do not know a purpose guaranteed from outside life, but we can add enormously to the creativity of life. We do not know what other purposes life may eventually generate, but creativity offers us our best chance of reaching them.


Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd FRSNZ, November 2020