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The Caricature - Darwin v. Christianity

As with the Galileo Affair the tensions that intensified between scientists and theologians at this time have been much misunderstood. In the case of Darwin’s evolutionary scheme the caricature runs as follows:

  • that the Christian theologians of the time were all committed to a model in which God had designed every single creature exactly as that creature was known to the naturalists of the 1850s.

  • that Darwin’s book showed any belief in creation to be untenable, and

  • that the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, rendered himself ridiculous by opposing Darwinism at the British Association Meeting in 1860.

The story goes that Wilberforce, recognising that Darwin’s scheme implied that humans too had evolved, from other apes, questioned Darwin’s friend and champion T.H.Huxley as to whether he was descended from an ape on his father’s side or his mother’s. Huxley, supposedly, quipped back that:

If then...the question is put to me ‘would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence, and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion’ - I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.Quoted in Drees, 1996, 65

The evidence now suggests that the legend of these exchanges grew to its final form long after the event itself. Both John Brooke and Willem B Drees record a much more balanced view.Brooke, 1991, 40-42, Drees, 1996, 64-67

What the caricature ignores is that:

  1. Wilberforce was Vice-President of the Association that year, and made his critique of Darwinism as a scientist rather than a theologian.Brooke notes that between 1831-65 forty-one Anglican clergy held office in the B.A.; between 1866-1900 only three (Brooke, 1991, 50). So it is true that the 1860 Meeting came at a transitional time, but...He had reviewed The Origin of Species - adversely, but in a way which Darwin acknowledged as perceptive.Brooke, 1991, 42

  2. There were real scientific problems with Darwin’s evolutionary scheme, which were not lost on Bishop Wilberforce, a follower of Richard Owen’s theory of archetypal patterns in vertebrates (see important evolutionists before Darwin).

  3. Christian responses to Darwin varied greatly - some like Charles Kingsley were immediately affirmative (see early conflicts over Darwinism).

There were, then, just as in Galileo’s case, scientists and theologians on both sides of the question. Personalities, such as that of Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’), exacerbated conflict. And just as Galileo pressed the issue by asserting himself as a natural philosopher, claiming truth rather than mere effectiveness of calculation (see the career of Galileo Galilei) so the new breed of 19th-Century scientists used the Darwinian controversy to press their authority over their discipline in a way which took the clerical establishment by surprise. What needs to be stressed is the complexity of the interaction between science and religion, and the shallowness of the caricature. The disputes over Darwinism did much to fuel the ‘conflict’ or ‘warfare’ hypothesis. But see Darwin’s challenge to theological positions to understand the actual core of the argument.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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