Alister Hardy

Sir Alister Hardy was an unusual combination of nature mystic and rigorous scientist.

Biologist of the soul

Article and photo illustation by Geoff Olson

• A 33 year-old woman is in pain, struggling to give birth. The hospital staff hands her a mirror to watch the child’s emergence. “She looked so small, this perfectly formed being with tiny finger and toe nails and little eyelashes,” the woman recalled after the storm had passed and the baby lay next to her on a cot. “I could hardly believe that I was responsible for producing such a creature and that she was mine. It was the moments that followed I call my ‘religious experience’. I remember saying, ‘This is what is happening all over the world at this very moment.’ As I said this, I felt a tremendous sense of both wonder at the present moment and unity with humanity. I felt totally and deeply absorbed and immersed, just for a few moments, in a momentous event, a universal but unique experience, giving birth.”

Her identity, as an individual female in a particular hospital at a specific time, evaporated. “I was a woman in India, Africa or China or as a part of history. I had taken part in the universal cycle of birth and death and in the struggle for life. It was a totally self-forgetting experience, as I felt part of the immediate whole. I was caught in an intense timeless moment in which I lost my own sense of self identity.” (004664)*

A man on a train passing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa finds himself spontaneously “melting and slipping into the landscape, becoming one with the delight of it all. It was as if I had left my body in the train corridor, but the essence of myself, who I really was, had moved out and become one with everything I had seen, which did not exclude the train itself…” The entire countryside alters in his perception and “everything in it, without exception, simply glowed with numinous light; it seemed no longer to be lit by the sun but by its own internal radiance. Sunlight was not reflected from it, but I myself and everything else seemed to have become light which now interpenetrated and shone through our previously dense physical forms…

“I now saw my life had become a mystery to be expressed, rather than an intellectual/materialistic ‘cause and effect’ riddle to solve,” he wrote of his extraordinary experience, unmediated by drink or drugs. He knew that he could never tell his friends about  it, but could he give credence to this “extraordinary energy of love,” or would he continue life in his “normal pro-active manipulative way?” (100003)*

These two stories and thousands of other stories of spiritual experiences from religious and non-religious people across the world were elicited by a simple question from a remarkable man. More than 40-years-ago, retired marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy and a team of researchers at Oxford’s Manchester College posted notices in national newspapers, asking readers, “Have you ever experienced a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?” There are now over 6,000 accounts from newspaper readers, radio listeners and others who have learned of Hardy’s quest, archived at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.


Alister Hardy was born in 1896, the third son of a successful Nottingham architect. The lanky boy couldn’t participate in team sports because of an eye defect that left him bereft of binocular vision, so teachers sent him for long walks in the Northamptonshire countryside to improve both his fitness and his understanding of natural history.

“There was a little lane leading off the Northampton road to Park Wood as it was called and it was a haven for the different kinds of brown butterflies,” Hardy recalled in his unpublished autobiography. “I especially liked walking along the banks of various streams watching, as the summer developed, the sequence of wildflowers growing along their brims… I wandered along the banks at times almost with a feeling of ecstasy. 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 that was beyond and in way part of all things that thrilled me – the wild flowers and indeed the insects too… Just occasionally, when I was sure no one could see me, I became so 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. It was always by the running waterside that I did this, perhaps in front of a great foam of meadowsweet or purple loosestrife.”

In 1914, Hardy went up to Oxford University to study Forestry at Exeter College, but the outbreak of war interrupted his studies and after one term he joined the army and was posted to a regiment patrolling the Lincolnshire coast. At the age of 18, he made a promise to what he called God – an intimated divine force rather than an anthropomorphic figure in the sky – that if he survived the war, he would devote his life to seeking some form of reconciliation between evolutionary theory and human spirituality that would satisfy the academic world.

A committed Darwinist, Hardy was convinced that science and spirituality complemented rather than contradicted one another. Yet he was as quick to reject scholarly reductionism as religious dogmatism. In 1917 he wrote, “How soon, alas, does industrial materialism draw the blinds and shut out the light… The Church has failed – it appeals not to those who really make up the nation but to the superstitious, narrow-minded, the lovers of tradition and outward show… A few days ago I went with a kindred spirit to Durham Cathedral to hear ‘His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury’ preach – I was bitterly disappointed.”

After the war, on his return to Oxford, Hardy changed course and began to study zoology. After graduation, Hardy worked as a naturalist in a fisheries laboratory. From 1924 to1928 he was chief zoologist for the Discovery Oceanographic Expedition to the Antarctic. A succession of high-end academic postings followed, finishing with the Linacre Chair of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Oxford, where his enthusiastic students included a young Richard Dawkins. He was knighted for his services to the British fishing industry in 1957. Only upon retirement in 1961 did the esteemed marine biologist and author feel secure enough to openly pursue the vow he made as an 18-year-old boy.

‘All my life I have sampled the sea, building up an ecological picture of a hidden world, which I could not examine at first hand, even with an aqualung. In a way, I am casting my nets into a different kind of ocean,” he told The Observer in 1969.

“Alister Hardy has a legacy and it precedes his work in the study of religion… as just a darn good scientist,” notes Dr. Greg Barker, former director of the Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales. “He developed this solid, methodological approach to things, but he had this intuition that the most important dimension to life was the spiritual dimension. Being a scientist he really wanted to apply a scientific rigour to this… and he had an intuition that there is a lot going on in religious experience that had nothing to do with the church or institutions.

“Of course he waited until he retired; he didn’t want to be seen as a cuckoo by his colleagues because, really, a reductionist Darwinism held force in his day and age. And so if you said there is any other dimension other than a purely biological dimension, you were really dismissed as being a theist or something like that, and he wasn’t a theist… and yet he really believed that there was another dimension than purely biological… but it was rooted in our biology,” Barker told Common Ground.

Hardy argued that spirituality offered an adaptive benefit for the human species, a different approach than the one taken later by his most famous student, Richard Dawkins. A staunch atheist, Dawkins argues in his book The God Delusion that, at this stage of cultural evolution, religious experiences and beliefs are maladaptive mass delusions. Was the former student rebelling against his prof’s post-retirement paradigm? “Dawkins has never commented on this aspect of Alister Hardy‘s work. I’m not sure if he even knows about it or if he’s holding his tongue about it. Because Hardy was a well-loved teacher and leader in biological sciences at Oxford,” Barker offers.

As the American philosopher Daniel Dennett noted in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, “Hardy could hardly have been a more secure member of the scientific establishment.” A philosopher friend recalled how a fellow once asked him how many things were named after him. “There was a boat in Hong Kong, an octopus, a squid, an island in the Antarctic and – Hardy would add, lowering his voice in a tone of comic embarrassment – two worms.” There is also SAHFOS, the Sir Alister Hardy Society for Ocean Science, which continues to monitor near surface plankton across the North Atlantic on a monthly basis using the “continuous plankton recorder,” a revolutionary device that Hardy invented nearly 80 years ago. The recorder is critical for assessing the biological health of the oceans and identifying the feeding grounds of whales.

In 1969, the retired professor and Gifford lecturer leveraged his reputation and renown to petition Manchester College at Oxford University for funds and research space to launch his “Religious Experience Research Unit.” The college half-heartedly offered Hardy a closed candy shop on the grounds and the rooms above it. It was an inauspicious start to a project that has waxed and waned over the years and continues to this day.

In 1969, the RERU posted the Hardy question – “Have you ever experienced a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?” – in a number of religious publications, including The Catholic Herald, The Church Times, and The Methodist Recorder. Only 250 replies came through, mostly from elderly women. The aging plankton expert never feared he was chasing phantoms, but now he was concerned he was tracking a phenomenon that was on the wane in a skeptical, secular age.

The research team had much greater success when Hardy used his connections to the mainstream press to post the question in The Times, The Guardian, The Observer and the Daily Mail. Thousands of responses followed from religious, agnostic and even atheistic readers. Ironically, one of the first findings by Hardy and his team was that churchgoers were less likely than the general population to have spiritual experiences and those that did were likely to be educated, well-balanced, positive people. Surveys since then indicate that although church attendance has been waning over the past 30 years, spiritual experiences are on the rise, particularly among the young.

Since the period of the Enlightenment, philosophers and social scientists have studied religions as a “natural and almost universal human error,” noted David Hay, Hardy’s close colleague at the RERU, in a 1991 lecture. In contrast, Hardy was convinced, on the basis of his own experience, that human beings have the innate potential to attain some awareness of a transcendent reality. The awareness is rewarding within itself, but it offers a “strengthening of a sense of relationship with the rest of reality,” according to Hay, along with the “spiritual capital” of greater compassion for others.

Unfortunately, Hardy’s choice to use the words “religious” and “spiritual” interchangeably has hampered the understanding of his work and the subsequent research to the present day. “Alister persisted to the end in labelling such experience ‘religious,’ but his own claims for universality make this seem not quite right. People who reject religion are not thereby denied a universal part of human biology, therefore it is less confusing to refer to such experience as ‘spiritual’ with ‘religious’ experience as a sub-set within that category,” observed David Hay in his magisterial 2011 biography, God’s Biologist: A Life of Alister Hardy.

“Like the people who write to me, I, too, have the sense of being in touch with something bigger than myself,” the professor recounted in a BBC interview in his seventies. “My own religious experiences have been Wordsworthian in feel – the feeling of exaltation at seeing sunlight through young lime trees, for example. I am frankly religious. Of course I don’t think of God as “an old gentleman” out there. I do go to church services but they are not necessary to my religion.”

Hardy’s I-Thou relationship with the natural world and his passionate interest in the objective study of marginalized human experiences seemed aligned much less with fanaticism than with enthusiasm – a word that literally means “a God within.”

Since the marine biologist’s death in 1985, the Alister Hardy Trust continues his legacy. Its objective is “to make a disciplined and as far as possible scientific investigation into the nature, function and frequency of reports of transcendent or religious experience and spirituality in the human species; to investigate their importance in what it means to be human and to disseminate its findings.” The Trust supports two separate bodies: the Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the Alister Hardy Society for the Study of Spiritual Experience, which publishes a bi-annual journal, De Numine.

More on the extraordinary stories from the RERC archives and what they might tell us about ourselves, next month.

*Accounts from the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre archive.


Hardy photo by permission of the Alister Hardy Trust.

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