Sunday, 26 February 2012

"The War of Science and Religion," 2012 vs 1860

Last Thursday’s debate[1] in Oxford between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Professor Richard Dawkins has inevitably drawn comparisons with the 1860 debate between the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley. Boxing metaphors were used in both cases to draw attention to the clash between religious and scientific values: the botanist, Joseph Hooker, claimed, in 1860, to have “...smacked [Wilberforce] amid rounds of applause...hit him in the wind at the first shot in ten...,” whilst Sean Coughlan, reporting for the BBC (, describes last week’s debate as beginning “...with the air of an upmarket version of boxing in the Royal Albert Hall.” Coughlan concluded that “ real knockout punches were delivered” in the most recent debate, a judgement echoed by The Guardian’s Andrew Brown (

The Wilberforce-Huxley encounter has become one of the most picked-over quarrels in the history of science: I made my own contribution to the discussion in my biography of Sir John Lubbock[2], who spoke on the evolutionist side. There never was a “debate,” however, between Wilberforce and Huxley in the sense that there was a debate last week between Williams and Dawkins. The man easily forgotten in the context of the 1860 deliberations is John William Draper, of New York University: it was his paper on “The Darwin Hypothesis” that people came to listen to in 1860, the comments by Wilberforce, Huxley and Hooker being incidental to this (Huxley had not even intended to be present).

The audience at last week’s debate politely acceded to the request from the chairman (the philosopher, Sir Anthony Kenny) not to applaud until the very end. The 1860 audience could hardly have been more different. The various contemporary accounts may not agree on much, but they do concur around the fact that some audience members cheered loudly for Wilberforce, and others for Huxley and Hooker. It is suggested that some students in the audience were chanting “Monkey! Monkey!” at one point in the proceedings; that a woman fainted and had to be carried out; and that Darwin’s one-time Captain (by this time, Admiral), Robert Fitzroy, wielded “an immense bible” in anger. At some point the Bishop, attempting, one suspects, to inject some humour into the stifling atmosphere of a hot and crowded room, turned to Huxley and asked whether it was on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side that he wished to claim descent from an ape. Huxley retorted that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a man such as the Bishop and, at that point, the history and the mythology of the event become difficult to disentangle.

Nobody suggested in 1860, as Sean Coughlan maintained of last week’s debate, that supporters of God and atheism left “with honours even and without tempers being frayed,” but the outcomes of the two discussions may not have been so very different. Coughlan’s anonymous professional antecedent, writing in The Athenaeum, concluded that the protagonists on each side “...made their charges and countercharges very much to their own satisfaction and the delight of their respective friends.”  

So what, if anything, has changed. Well, for one thing, the only joke that Archbishop Williams made was at his own expense (concerning his lack of familiarity with razors), and at no time did he, or anyone else, deny the non-human origins of our species. Audiences and protagonists alike seem to have become more polite. It seems as natural, in our 21st Century world, for bishops to respect the point of view of atheists, as it does for Christians, Jews and Muslims to respect one another. That, in itself, is surely no bad thing, but it can lend a certain sterility to debates such as this. Last Thursday’s debate may well have been more edifying, but one has to suspect that the debate of 1860 may well have been more fun.

[1] A recording of the debate can be viewed at
[2] M. Patton 2007, Science, Politics and Business in the Work of Sir John Lubbock: A Man of Universal Mind. Ashgate.