Click here to find out more
 




Click here to find out more







Share the article on this page with a friend.
Click here.
Meridian Magazine : : Home

 

Fact, Fable, and Darwin, Part 2
By Rodney Stark

Read Part One Here

Editor’s Note:  This is an article from American Enterprise Online, a publication of The American Enterprise Institute.  For other excellent articles, visit their website.

When The Origin of Species was published it aroused immense interest, but initially it did not provoke antagonism on religious grounds. Although many criticized Darwin's lack of evidence, none raised religious objections. Instead, the initial response from theologians was favorable. The distinguished Harvard botanist Asa Gray hailed Darwin for having solved the most difficult problem confronting the Design argument – the many imperfections and failures revealed in the fossil record.

Acknowledging that Darwin himself "rejects the idea of design," Gray congratulated him for "bringing out the neatest illustrations of it." Gray interpreted Darwin's work as showing that God has created a few original forms and then let evolution proceed within the framework of divine laws.

When religious antagonism finally came, it was in response to aggressive claims, like Huxley's, that Newton and Darwin together had evicted God from the cosmos. For the heirs of the Enlightenment, evolution seemed finally to supply the weapon needed to destroy religion. As Richard Dawkins confided, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

Atheism was central to the agenda of the Darwinians. Darwin himself once wrote that he could not understand how anyone could even wish that Christianity were true, noting that the doctrine of damnation was itself damnable. Huxley expressed his hostility toward religion often and clearly, writing in 1859: "My screed was meant as a protest against Theology & Parsondom ... both of which are in my mind the natural & irreconcilable enemies of Science. Few see it, but I believe we are on the Eve of a new Reformation and if I have a wish to live 30 years, it is to see the foot of Science on the necks of her Enemies."

According to Oxford historian J. R. Lucas, Huxley was "remarkably resistant to the idea that there were clergymen who accepted evolution, even when actually faced with them." Quite simply, there could be no compromises with faith.

Writing at the same time as Huxley, the leading Darwinian in Germany, Ernst Haeckel, drew this picture:

On one side spiritual freedom and truth, reason and culture, evolution and progress stand under the bright banner of science; on the other side, under the black flag of hierarchy, stand spiritual slavery and falsehood, irrationality and barbarism, superstition and retrogression.... Evolution is the heavy artillery in the struggle for truth. Whole ranks of...sophistries fall together under the chain shot of this ... artillery, and the proud and mighty structure of the Roman hierarchy, that powerful stronghold of infallible dogmatism, falls like a house of cards.

These were not the natterings of radical circles and peripheral publications. The author of the huge review of The Origin in the Times of London was none other than Thomas Huxley. He built his lectures on evolution into a popular touring stage show wherein he challenged various potential religious opponents by name. Is it surprising that religious people, scientists as well as clerics, began to respond in the face of unrelenting challenges like these issued in the name of evolution? It was not as if they merely were asked to accept that life had evolved; many theologians had long taken that for granted. What the Darwinians demanded was that religionists agree to the untrue and unscientific claim that Darwin had proved that God played no role in the process.

Among those drawn to respond was the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, who is widely said to have made an ass of himself in a debate with Huxley during the 1860 meeting of the British Association at Oxford. The relevant account of this confrontation reported: "I was happy enough to be present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr. Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforce. The bishop arose and in a light scoffing tone, florid and fluent, he assured us that there was nothing in the idea of evolution. Then turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey? On this Mr. Huxley ... arose ... and spoke these tremendous words. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous."

This marvelous anecdote has appeared in every distinguished biography of Darwin and of Huxley, as well as in every popular history of the theory of evolution. In his celebrated Apes, Angels and Victorians, William Irvine used this tale to disparage the bishop's snobbery. In his prize-winning study, James Brix went much farther, describing Wilberforce as "naive and pompous," a man whose "faulty opinions" were those of a "fundamentalist creationist" and who provided Huxley with the opportunity to give evolution "its first major victory over dogmatism and duplicity." Every writer tells how the audience gave Huxley an ovation.

Trouble is, it never happened. The quotation above was the only such report of this story and it appeared in an article titled "A Grandmother's Tales" that was written by a non-scholar in a popular magazine 38 years after the alleged encounter. No other account of these meetings – and there were many written at the time – made any mention of remarks concerning Huxley's monkey ancestors, or claimed that he made a fool of the bishop. To the contrary, many thought the bishop had the better of it, and even many of the committed Darwinians thought it at most a draw.

Moreover, as all of the scholars present at Oxford knew, prior to the meeting, Bishop Wilberforce had penned a review of The Origin in which he fully acknowledged the principle of natural selection as the source of variations within species. He rejected Darwin's claims concerning the origin of species, however, and some of these criticisms were sufficiently compelling that Darwin immediately wrote his friend the botanist J. D. Hooker that the article "is uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties. It quizzes me quite splendidly." In a subsequent letter to geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin acknowledges that "the bishop makes a very telling case against me." Indeed, several of Wilberforce's comments caused Darwin to make modifications in a later revision of the book.

The tale of the foolish and narrow-minded bishop seems to have thrived as a revealing "truth" about the incompatibility of religion and science simply because many of its tellers wanted to believe that a bishop is wrong by nature. J. R. Lucas, who debunked the bishop myth, has suggested that the "most important reason why the legend grew" is, first, because academics generally "know nothing outside their own special subject" and therefore easily believe that outsiders are necessarily ignorant, and, second, because Huxley encouraged that conclusion. "The quarrel between religion and science was what Huxley wanted; and as Darwin's theory gained supporters, they took over his view of the incident."

Since then the Darwinian Crusade has tried to focus all attention on the most unqualified and most vulnerable opponents, and when no easy targets present themselves it has invented them. Huxley "made straw men of the 'creationists,'" as his biographer Desmond admitted. Even today it is a rare textbook or any popular treatment of evolution and religion that does not reduce "creationism" to the simplest caricatures.

This tradition remains so potent that whenever it is asked that evolution be presented as "only a theory," the requester is ridiculed as a buffoon. Even when the great philosopher of science Karl Popper suggested that the standard version of evolution even falls short of being a scientific theory, being instead an untestable tautology, he was subjected to public condemnations and much personal abuse.

Popper's tribulations illustrate an important basis for the victory of Darwinism: A successful appeal for a united front on the part of scientists to oppose religious opposition has had the consequence of silencing dissent within the scientific community. The eminent observer Everett Olson notes that there is "a generally silent group" of biological scientists "who tend to disagree with much of the current thought" about evolution, but who remain silent for fear of censure.

I believe that one day there will be a plausible theory of the origin of species. But, if and when that occurs, there will be nothing in any such theory that makes it impossible to propose that the principles involved were not part of God's great design any more than such a theory will demonstrate the existence of God. But, while we wait, why not lift the requirement that high school texts enshrine Darwin's failed attempt as an eternal truth?

Click here to sign up for Meridian's FREE email updates.


© 2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.

About the Author:


Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark was professor of sociology at the University of Washington for many years and is now university professor of the social sciences at Baylor University. He is author of For the Glory of God (Princeton University Press) and other acclaimed books on science and religion.

Related Articles:

Ideas and Society Archive

What do you think?
Format for Print
Click Here

 

Share the article on this page with a friend.
Click here.