Excerpt taken from Chapter 4 – What the Bulldog Saw
Apes and Angels
The year was 1860. On a hot summer’s day in June, amidst riotous applause and—in a language of praise now lost to us—amongst a field of fluttering white handkerchiefs waving like battlement flags, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (1805–1873) sat down within Oxford’s new university museum looking satisfied with himself. Gazing aristocratically upon a room of intellectuals who would—surely—declare his cause victor before the night was over, he peered imperiously once more at the man he believed he had just made look the fool. That man was Thomas Huxley (1825–1895), or, as he was sometimes called for his ferocious defense of evolution, “Darwin’s Bulldog.” The insult that Wilberforce had just uttered before the breathless room was to ask Huxley: “tell me, was it through your grandfather, or your grandmother that you claim descent from a monkey?” By our standards, this is, perhaps, tame; in polite Victorian culture such a breach of etiquette showed how high the tensions were. As one account noted—“in [another] idiom lost to us”—a woman, at this remark, “showed her intellectual crisis by fainting.” Calls came now for Huxley’s rebuttal.
The clapping no doubt muffled it from reaching Wilberforce’s ears, but unperturbed, even delighted at the Bishop’s public impropriety, whispered to the man sitting next to him before he stood saying, “the Lord hath delivered him into my hands.” This was ironic, for Huxley—who would several years later coin the term “agnostic” for himself and others like him—was not sure he even believed in the Lord. But, as the story goes, there was truth in his saying nonetheless. Just one year before, Charles Darwin’s epoch–making The Origin of Species was published. Having spent from 1831–1836 traveling the globe on the HMS Beagle as a gentleman naturalist paying his own way to be part of the crew, the observations Darwin made of finches and other local flora and fauna on the Galapagos islands—as the story goes—revealed to Darwin an entirely new map of how life came to be. When he left England at the age of twenty–seven, Darwin was a firm believer in the fixity of species (that is, dogs stay dogs and birds stay birds, whatever differences might accrue among different dogs and different birds over time). By the time he returned, the notion of transmutation had slowly, reluctantly, taken its hold in Darwin’s head and his heart, though to say this out loud to his friend Joseph Hooker felt, he said, “like confessing a murder.”
Already tinged with the romantic air of a youth traveling the world to discover himself and follow his passion, the mythos of Darwin’s quest for origins was increased as he carried with him John Milton’s Paradise Lost describing an epic reimagining of the fall of Adam and Eve, and their temptation by Satan. With his discovery of evolution—or, more properly speaking, the principle of natural selection (since evolution had arrived in Darwin’s day through many contributors)—Darwin now peered behind the flaming swords between us and Eden, but saw that there was no Adam, and no Eve; Eden itself was not a garden but a “warm little pond,” as Darwin described it, brewing primordial life. Was there, perhaps, also no God? Darwin for most of his life considered himself a theist, and then an agnostic (borrowing his friend Huxley’s term). His loss of faith later in life came not from his theory—as many have misleadingly stated—but from the death of his father, and his beloved daughter, Annie. This was a loss from which his faith never recovered, not even on his deathbed as another myth has proposed. Nonetheless, many of the most vocal and influential promoters of his theory, scientists or otherwise, couched the theory in terms of a historical narrative, one where it brought about—inevitably, inexorably—the historical decline of religion. “Although atheism may have been logically tenable before Darwin,” writes Oxford biologist and provocateur Richard Dawkins, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” As an episode within this victory march of science, Huxley overcoming Wilberforce carries with it, in the opinion of many, the glorious banner of fate.
As Huxley stood, then, the uncomfortably packed space of (at least) seven hundred people fell silent, and the field of handkerchiefs respectfully unbloomed. The stage had been set for his theater, and in a voice both solemn and grave Huxley began down the path providence had apparently set for him. He retorted with all the gravity he could muster in the wake of Wilberforce’s unseemly question and answered that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; he would, however, be ashamed to be connected to a man who used his great gifts to slander and obscure those “wearing out their lives” in search of truth. This had done it; more riotous applause equal, if not greater, than that given to Wilberforce thundered from the seats. Handkerchiefs again sprouted in approval. Flags of a new war. The evening, it seemed, had slipped from Wilberforce’s fingers, as he “suffered a sudden and involuntary martyrdom.”
Far from an incidental skirmish, the encounter between Huxley and Wilberforce, ornamented now by the drama of memory, is one of many episodes of supposed conflict between faith and science held up like a Byzantine icon, a picture summarizing an episode of a larger narrative considered canonical. Only in this story the good news of the evangel is the light of science warring to overcome the ignorance of dogmatic superstition and theological repression. Huxley besting Wilberforce is as such represented not just as one man topping another. “In these scenarios, Huxley and Wilberforce are not so much personalities as the warring embodiments of rival moralities,” writes Sheridan Gilley. “Huxley, [is portrayed as] the archangel Michael of enlightenment knowledge, and the disinterested pursuit of truth; Wilberforce, [as] the dark defender of the failing forces of authority, bigotry, and superstition.” Set in a Victorian backdrop, “only the stock conventions of melodrama can do it justice” continues Gilley, “and so it lives on in the popular mind as the best known symbol of the nineteenth century conflict of science and religion.” Others have not failed to find similar ways to describe the event. As John Lienhard put it, it was “the first major battle in a long war [against Christian fundamentalists].” It is, as an image, one of the cornerstones of the historical idea of the “perennial warfare of science and Christianity.” Indeed, it is the rock upon which that peculiar church is built. Or at least, it is one of them. The historian Ian Hesketh thus concludes: “If it appears that there was a campaign to rid science of all theological remnants and to historicize the relationship between science and religion as a great battle, that is because there was in fact such a campaign.” And it paid off.
Repeated so often in stories about the inevitable flight of dogmatic religion before the march of science, a recent scholarly exposé of this somewhat mindless repetition in both popular and academic publications humorously refers to it as “1859 and All That.” In a particularly apt example the New Atheist Christopher Hitchens writes without any sense of irony or apparent awareness of the cliché he just wandered into that the Huxley–Wilberforce debate was the “tipping point” that turned the tides in the fight of evolution and Christianity. “In front of a large audience,” he says, “Huxley cleaned Wilberforce’s clock, ate his lunch, used him as a mop for the floor, and all that [emphasis added].” Hitchens is loath to leave this event without friends, and so in addition places it between the flat earth on the one side, and the Scopes Trial on the other, as links in the chain of religion’s humiliation at the hands of science. Aggregating these mythic episodes together, as we shall see, is a frequent literary strategy.
Despite the pomp and circumstance, however, the Oxford debate—like so many episodes in the supposed history of warfare between science and religion—is in fact a myth. “Myth,” as we are using it here does not indicate that the story is simply untrue. Rather by myth we mean “ideology in narrative form,” to borrow a phrase. Myth is an arrangement of facts just so—though the facts themselves will not often be left without smudge—so as to provide a lens to see the world. And it is these mythic histories, both perceived and imagined, that mark and inscribe day–to–day judgments about the general course of the relationship between Christianity and the sciences, and really the entire course of the fortunes and failures of Christianity in western history. The problem is that the conceptual heavy lifting these grand stories like the Huxley–Wilberforce debate often do, and the way they predispose us to be inclined toward certain types of judgments regarding science and religion, has seldom been recognized and—especially at a general level—have rarely been examined critically. Until recently, as we have already begun to see.
The memo that the war is not only over but perhaps never even began, however, has failed to be transmitted very far outside of a few select circles of academia, and the typical account of the rise of Darwinism still in essence follows the impression set by one of the main initiators of the warfare thesis whom we will meet in the next chapter, Andrew Dickson White. White wrote that “The Origin of Species came into the theological world like a plough into an ant–hill. Everywhere those rudely awakened from their old comfort and repose swarmed forth angry and confused.” No doubt Darwin’s work caused a great stir, and both infuriated and stimulated a good deal of people—not just the theologians. However, this account of White’s represents what has been termed a narrative of self–fashioning in which—not the victor, but those longing for victory—had begun to write the histories of their desired triumph in advance. In fact, as we shall see some in this chapter and later on, “the impact usually associated with Darwin, [Herbert] Spencer, [Alfred Russell] Wallace, Huxley, Essays and Reviews, and John Tyndall, was part of a larger movement embracing a number of naturalistic approaches to the earth, life, and man—in utilitarianism, in population theory, in geology, phrenology, psychology, and in theology itself.” That last one—theology—will no doubt startle some. But this is the paradox that lay at the heart of stories of the triumph of naturalism over theology: naturalism was achieved initially on theological premises, and then—quite literally as we will see in a moment—its theological aspects were written out of history as a pure triumph of naturalism over an inferior religious rival.
As Jessica Riskin puts it in her book length study on just such an issue: “In short, a contradiction sits at the heart,” of modern narratives of the rise of science as a triumph over theology and religion. “The central principle responsible for defining scientific explanations as distinct from religious and mystical ones was the prohibition on appeals to agency and will. This principle itself [historically] relied for its establishment upon a theological notion,” that is, God as the creator of the laws of nature. “To put it another way,” she says, “when the inventors of modern science banished mysterious agencies from nature to the province of a transcendent God, they predicated their rigorously naturalist approach on a supernatural power.” Ironically, in terms of the history of ideas, “a material world lacking agency assumed, indeed required, a supernatural [Designer] god.” What else, it was reasoned, could account for the regularity instead of chaos, the wondrous interconnection instead of meaninglessness? Who else but the grand Artisan could make such a machine? The choice between the mechanism of law or direct creation was not one between science and theology per se, but between two visions of science within differing theologies. No less a commentator than the great Benjamin Warfield—defender of the inerrancy of scripture and conservative Christianity at old Princeton University—argued that John Calvin himself had laid down a theological path to a “naturalistic explanation of nature,” and even more provocatively that though obviously Calvin was not privy to many subjects then under debate like the age of the earth, his theology could nonetheless be viewed as “a precursor of modern evolutionary theorists.”
James Moore, who set the precedent for attacking the warfare thesis as mentioned in the chapter intro above, can therefore record in his seminal study that orthodox Calvinism was, surprisingly enough, a historically important factor in priming positive reception of Darwin. One must always caution generalization, nonetheless he argues that in many areas in the nineteenth century Darwinism was “the legitimate offspring of an orthodox theology of nature.” Famously, the Marxist historian Joseph Needham even claimed that the lack of belief in a supernatural designer God and its entailments for a view of nature’s regularity and intelligibility was one of the main reasons scientific naturalism did not take hold in China and the East as it did in Europe. Today, of course, says Needham, laws no longer carry the connotations of a lawgiver or of a command to be followed. Rather, they are statistical regularities, descriptions rather than prescriptions. Nonetheless, he muses, whether the recognition of these statistical regularities and their theoretical formulation into law would have been reached “by any road [other] than that which Western science has traveled,” and which required a very particular theological view of the world.
The point of these observations for our purposes is not necessarily a recommendation of such theological positions, nor that the bewildering array of religious responses to Darwin were restricted to this happier strain. It is rather to say, once again, that history is far more complex and interesting than anything that can be reduced to the formula “science vs. religion.” Even if we limit ourselves to viewing, say, historical Calvinist responses to Darwinism—and so contain our inquiries to people who ostensible hold similar or even identical theologies—there are a variety of responses that seem to be conditioned by geographical and so local–contextual notions shaping the available rhetorical and conceptual space in which Darwinism entered. As the historian David Livingstone has investigated in detail, in Edinburgh there was an almost casual acceptance of evolution, while in Belfast Darwinism met with violent rebuffs. The variety merely increases as other Calvinist homesteads are surveyed. What this suggests is that what is typically narrated as the rise of naturalism and secularism against theology was actually quite often a debate amongst a constellation of positions internal to theology itself—in other words historians have recently begun to discover “how largely the crisis [of Darwinism] arose and was resolved within the framework of established religious beliefs.” These debates were also colored by local circumstances, and one or two points of a constellation of different positions that were either justified by or saturated with theological considerations—like a mechanical world—were often carried forward at a popular level of reception but eventually re–narrated as the triumph of a godless or disenchanted universe.
Whether or not our increasing awareness of theology’s role in these historical transitions and mutations means that theology shot itself in the foot, I will leave up to the reader. What is clear, however, is that theology and religion need to be reinserted into their proper places in these historical narratives to truly understand what was going on. As Charles Taylor writes of these events leading to the rise of naturalism and the idea that God now had no job, materialist and atheistic interpretations are, in fact, merely one way that the story could have gone. “That [methodological naturalism in Darwin and others] came to serve as grist to the mill of exclusive [atheist] humanism is clearly true. That establishing [methodological naturalism] was already a step in that direction [toward atheism] is profoundly false.” Indeed, says Taylor, “This move had a quite different [theological] meaning at the time, and in other circumstances might never have come to have the meaning that it bears for unbelievers today.” For in undoing special creation Darwin—especially early on in his notebooks, but even for some time after the Origin was published—noted that his theory evidenced the immediacy of God’s wisdom working in the world to produce and maintain the laws that led to such “endless forms most beautiful.” In this manner several scholars have even gone so far as to suggest (somewhat audaciously to our contemporary ears) that “the Origin of Species is the last great work of Victorian natural theology.”
Ironically, if the naturalism so often equated with the triumph of evolution was borrowed from theology, so too were many of the polemics against religion borrowed from amongst the religionists themselves. In this vein, many “historians popularized the warfare between Darwinism and dogma by drawing on the military metaphor [contemporary] to [19th century] culture, and by exploiting liberal and protestant hatred of a [then] conservative papacy.” James Ungureanu has recently demonstrated at length that many of the most vicious attacks that we now associate with atheists against religion were actually directly cribbed from Protestant critiques of Catholic “superstition” and “anti–scientific dogmatism.” The complexities of history do not allow us to describe this ongoing conflict in the simple terms of “science vs. religion”—even in seemingly clear–cut cases like the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, as we shall see. Indeed, as two historians commenting upon the evolution of the university in America write, “in retrospect, the latitude that colleges and universities gave natural and social scientists to pursue their investigations seems far more pronounced than theological opposition to such efforts.”
All of the preceding is to say that motivations, allegiances, and the very categories used like “science” and “religion” are not stable across time and cannot be forced to stand still for the sake of drawing a neat and tidy picture. In the Victorian conflicts rather than science vs. religion, Darwinism rather “intruded on a complex debate within Christendom itself between liberal and conservative theologies” as well as a debate—as often among Christians as against them—regarding professional power being located amidst the Anglican clergy or the emerging class of professional scientists. Moreover, Darwinism itself was hardly a homogenous theory or the property of some homogenous group we can label “scientists.” Darwinism arrived in the midst of methodological and theoretical debates “raging among geologists, naturalists, biologists, paleontologists, morphologists, biblical scholars, various religious sects, politicians, clergymen, historians, industrialists, merchants, aristocrats, socialists, and Chartists.” Instead of an argument against religion from a group termed “scientists” many of these arguments occurred across a myriad of disciplines, and were part of the struggle to form a coherent notion of what an identity as “scientist” (among whom were innumerable theologians) even meant. In other words, neither “science” nor “evolution” arrived as a stranger outside and alien to Christianity, nor something native and internal to science, but was born within and continuously folded into the ongoing internal reflections and self–criticism of Christianity and, slightly different, Christendom. And all of this amidst broader flurries of various disagreements amidst a rapidly changing society.
Unfortunately, though these assertions of complexity are in some sense representative of an emerging consensus of historians working in the field of the history of science and religion over the last half century, these revisions have been slow to trickle down into the public imagination at large. What is being claimed by historians, in brief, is that the primary conflict turned—not on science vs. religion—but upon an explicit act of the writing and rewriting of identity. The “warfare of science and religion” needs to be relocated not as a natural event between two defined entities, but at the origins of historical writing whose early methods deemed this, for innumerable reasons, the best way to tell the story. This brings us right back to Wilberforce and Huxley as our present example to help all of this seem much less abstract and theoretical. To be sure, the confrontation between the two men did occur in June of 1860 at Oxford, during the annual British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) meeting. And, as Brooke puts it, “whatever construction we place on the event there was clearly a commotion of a kind.” But of what sort, exactly?
Praise for Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes
“Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes offers a comprehensive and compelling demolition of the tired myth of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Peterson not only exposes the historical bankruptcy of this familiar story, but also shows how it became a foundational narrative for Western modernity and why it persists. Beautifully written and impeccably researched, this book deserves a wide readership.”
—Peter Harrison, Author of The Territories of Science and Religion
“Derrick Peterson combines painstakingly detailed historical research with a delightful writing style to tell the story of a famous war that never actually happened. Through primary source after primary source Peterson uncovers the neglected truth that the supposedly eternal conflict between religion and science is a myth, not only in the technical sense of a symbolic story that people tell to express their worldview, but also in the popular sense. Despite being something that everyone knows, it never happened. Perhaps because the story of something that didn’t happen is hard to tell compellingly, this truth that is known to many historians, scientists, and theologians is little known to the wider public, and is even unfamiliar to some who ought to know the truth. Peterson shows himself a gifted storyteller as well as scholar, combining true accounts of famous events (which prove no less interesting than the legends that have grown up around them and in some cases have replaced them) with the story of how those events were overlaid and refashioned into the myth so many treat as common knowledge today: the untrue history of the war between religion and science. In an era full of so much untruth, Peterson’s book is a breath of fresh air.”
—James F. McGrath, Butler University
“‘What if everything you ever believed about the obvious conflict between science and Christianity was wrong?’ This is how Peterson’s book could have begun. By the end of the book one is treated to an exceptional, lively, humorous, informative, and compelling account of how the fictitious idea that there ever was an all-out war between science and Christianity became fact, largely by means of the fun game many of us played in our youth known variously as whisper down the lane, broken telephone, grapevine, or gossip. This work on the historiography of science and Christianity is must-reading for high schoolers and college students, along with their parents and professors, and will, if heeded, change the way future generations will see the world. It is not easy to debunk a history that never happened, but Peterson has done precisely that, and achieved it admirably. The history of science is littered with stellar figures of immense importance, erudite thinking, and deeply Christian convictions. A new generation of Christians needs to be reacquainted with these scientific saints and Peterson’s work is a sure guide to this task.”
—Myk Habets, Laidlaw College, Australia
About the Author
Derrick Peterson is an adjunct professor at Multnomah University and Seminary, a PhD candidate in history, and a freelance writer and editor.