The media is abuzz about a suggestion made by a Church of England spokesman that it should apologize for initially opposing Darwinian evolution back in Darwin’s day. An Associated Press article in the International Herald Tribune says that “[t]he church did not take an official stand against Darwin’s theories, but many senior Anglicans reacted with hostility to his ideas, arguing against them at public debates.” The example given is the account of Bishop Wilberforce: “At a University of Oxford debate in 1860, the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, famously asked scientist Thomas Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed to be descended from a monkey.” According to the legend, Huxley reportedly replied that he would “rather have an ape for an ancestor than a bishop.” This has led to claims that Huxley vanquished Wilberforce, who in legend is reported to have said, “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.” But how much truth is in this legend?
In an essay titled “Darwinism and Religion: A Revisionist View of the Wilberforce-Huxley Debate,” John Hedley Brooke, Professor of Science & Religion at Oxford University, argues, “One answer to the question why this celebrated exchange occurred at all is that it didn’t – or at least that the legend is deeply misleading.” According to Brooke this legend “probably was invented -at least in part.”
In fact, the more closely we look at the legend the more suspect it becomes. The idea that Huxley won a famous victory was not even countenanced in Leonard Huxley’s heroic Life. The result of the encounter, though a check to the anti-Darwinian sceptics, could not be represented as an “immediate and complete triumph for evolutionary doctrine”. This was precluded by the “character and temper of the audience, most of whom were less capable of being convinced by the arguments than shocked by the boldness of the retort.” One of Huxley’s most recent and empathetic biographers, Adrian Desmond, agrees that talk of a victor is ridiculous. The Athenaeum put it rather well: the Bishop and Huxley “have each found foemen worthy of their steel, and made their charges and countercharges very much to their own satisfaction and the delight of their respective friends.”
While this heated exchange where Huxley emerges victorious and embarrasses Wilberforce might have been an invention, Phillip Johnson’s commentary on this recent “apology” suggestion is not; Johnson recently wrote me an amusing e-mail observing that the Anglican church hardly stood in the way of Darwin:
I am waiting for the Archbishop of Canterbury to apologize to Richard Dawkins for not resigning his office immediately when Dawkins announced that Christianity is a delusion, and a harmful one at that. The Church of England must have dawdled for at least a month before surrendering to Darwin.
(Phillip Johnson, private correspondence, with permission)
Is a Church of England apology really necessary?