Saturday, February 24, 2007

Darwin, Evolution and the Churches

Lecture 4 in ALL series – Science, Religion & Literature in 19th Century

It might be best to begin by saying something about the plural in the title of this lecture. This will involve briefly covering some of the ground with which I began our introductory lecture.
The religious scene in mid nineteenth century Britain is complex and often confusing. The Church of England was “by law established”, and its polity was very much intertwined with the state. Parliament was (and still is) the final council of the C of E., the existence of which goes back to Parliamentary Acts, supplemented by orders in Council by the Monarch (as in the issuing of the Prayer Book of 1559). It was the achievement of Elizabeth I to give some sort of settlement to this new national church, which had definitively separated from the jurisdiction of the Pope, and yet retained many “catholic” elements: Episcopacy, a fixed Liturgy, the so-called ecumenical creeds and a spirituality closer to the Fathers than to the European reformers. At the same time, there were many influences from the Continental reformation: married clergy (thought Elizabeth herself disapproved), vernacular services, a rejection of many ”popish” doctrines, particularly prayers for the dead and the whole structure of Purgatory.
The Elizabethan Settlement held, but only just. There were enough dissatisfied reformers who wanted to go much further both in doctrine and practice. They triumphed briefly during the Commonwealth with Cromwell as Lord Protector (1649-1660). James II took things in the other direction and tried to restore the authority of Rome, precipitating the Glorious Revolution of 1688. For almost two centuries a relative balance obtained. The Test and Corporation Acts excluded Dissenters from public life and the number of RCs dwindled. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, reform was becoming urgent. In 1828 the Test Act was repealed and 1832 the first Parliamentary reform act was passed. The removal of the Test Act allowed dissenters to stand for Parliament and a significant number were returned in the election after 1832.

The Free Church Groups

The Baptists were the biggest group outside the C of E, followed by Congregationalists; Methodists did not officially break from the established church until Wesley’s death, and did not begin to grow until well into mid century, but together those outside the church began campaigns to remove remaining impediments: marriage to be allowed in ‘chapels”; new civic burial grounds; the removal of church rates, which took until 1868, and finally, education. Measure after measure to admit nonconformists (as they were now being called) to the Universities met prolonged opposition. When finally a law was passed inb1854, Dean Burgon, a dinosaur if ever there was one, wrote: “Oxford, I fear, has seen her best days…She can never more be…the great nursery of the Church. She will become a cage of wild beasts at last….and the Church (and Oxford itself) will rue the day when its liberties and its birthright were lost by a licentious vote of a no longer Christian House of Commons.” (Quoted in Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution, p. 139).
Although the cries of pain and rage over new knowledge came from all Christians at first, the strongest opposition came from nonconformity and the Evangelical group within the C of E. It was because, on the whole, they had not begun to come to terms with a revised reading of the scriptures. Whereas, increasingly by the mid century, liberal clergy and Dons would say that you did not have to believe that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and survived, or that the world was actually created in six days, lay people, especially dissenting lay people held fast to an inerrant bible.

The Origin of the Species

Into this mix came Darwin’s Origin of the Species. As we have seen, this was by no means the first airing of such views. Nor was it the cause of the first waves of doubt in the century, which had come from Geology and the critical study of the Bible. It was, however, the event that became the symbol of what seemed to the faithful the accelerating erosion of the faith. Its thesis was elegant and accounted for observations that had been accumulating since the time of Lamarck. Darwin had in 1844 produced a long and carefully argued statement of the evidence and the theory which “included nearly every detail of the final theory” (Asa Briggs, p.481), but he hesitated to publish and was only persuaded to do so when he learned that, quite independently, A.R. Wallace had reached virtually identical conclusions. So he produced the book, frequently characterized as “one of the most important books of the nineteenth century”. Its opening was in itself enough to add new shocks to storms rolling over the religious and social scene. “The view which most naturalists until recently entertained, and which I formerly entertained - that each species has been independently created - is erroneous”. The first part of the book draws conclusions from the facts of selective breeding: the work of horse breeders and pigeon fanciers. He then detailed a mass “of detailed and carefully checked information.” (Briggs, p. 482). Not only were the species not fixed, but the changes could be accounted for by the ‘relentless struggle for existence’, so a selecting process, the famous ‘natural selection’, determined the emergence of new forms ‘under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life’.

Reactions - Scientists

It is important to recall that the cries of horror came from scientists as well as theologians. Darwin’s geology professor, Adam Sedgwick, was appalled; he wrote that “there is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as physical and that a man who denied this (as he assumed Darwin was doing), was ‘deep in the mire of fallacy’” (Briggs, p. 483). Sir Richard Owen was the most prestigious, but not the only scientist to take a stand against Darwin’s theory. Perhaps, more significant is that the popular view that all scientists in the nineteenth century were agnostic or even atheist just cannot be sustained. Chadwick points out that scientists were highly educated people, “and if they were told that science ‘disproved religion’ they knew that it did not. Most of them jettisoned belief in the historical information of Genesis before they knew about evolution.” (Chadwick, II p.6). Of course, it was precisely in being able to jettison the older reading of the bible that differentiated most scientists from the defenders of dogmatic theological positions. This is a phenomenon that can be studied at first hand in our contemporary culture!
Huxley is reported to have said several years after the original uproar that, without any doubt, if a general council of scientists (to transfer ecclesiastical terminology) had been held in 1860, “Darwin’s views would have been condemned by an overwhelming majority.” As it was, Asa Briggs points out it was not the church scientific, but the Church Militant which was first off the mark.

Reactions - The Religious Establishment

Among the leaders of the religious establishment, the alarm was palpable. Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford became the spokesman for the opposition, and began the attack with an article in the Quarterly Review. He maintained “that Darwin was guilty of ‘a tendency to limit God’s glory in creation’; that ‘the principle of natural selection is absolutely incompatible with the word of God’; that it ‘contradicts the revealed relations of creation to its Creator’; that it is a ‘dishonouring view of nature’, and so on” (Vidler, op.cit. p. 117). Basil Willey reminds us that Bishop Wilberforce was not an eccentric, clinging to traditional positions long gone. Rather, he was a typical exponent of the ‘broad principles on which the Protestantism of Englishmen rests’. Wilberforce had become the leading champion of moderate but rigid High Churchmanship against the dangerous forces of liberalism. (Willey, More Nineteenth Studies, p.167). I suppose that everyone knows the story of the clash between Huxley, Darwin’s great champion, and Bishop Wilberforce at a meeting of the British Association in 1860; it is, however, too good not to tell yet once again. The several reports of the meeting do not all agree in detail, and tend to paint Wilberforce as an ignoramus, but this was not universal as Darwin himself admitted:
“Darwin himself thought Wilberforce's criticisms fair or at least faceable. `I have just read the "Quarterly" ' he wrote to Hooker in July, 1860. `It is uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties... A letter to Lyell on 11 August is significant:'... This morning I recommenced work and am at dogs; ... By the way, the Bishop makes a very telling case against me, by accumulating several instances where I speak doubtfully; but this is very unfair, as in such cases as this of the dog, the evidence is and must be very doubtful.' Darwin's first work, on recovering his health, was in the areas picked out as weak spots of his theory by Wilberforce.34 At the same time he is beginning to be more critical of Wilberforce's criticisms, as being unreasonably stringent in view of the inevitably doubtful nature of the evidence. Huxley had made this point at the outset. “ (Web Article: The Encounter R.J. Lucas).
Two points need to be made: firstly, Darwin is talking about the review article here, and it is more than likely that the Bishop’s language was less measured in a debate; and, secondly, once Darwin’s theory was in the public realm, it gave new direction to researches (you don’t see what you are not looking for), and many gaps soon began to be filled. It has taken a century for genetics to give us the final clincher.

The Wilberforce-Huxley Encounter

Still, all this being allowed, it remains true that the main issue was the strongly held view that the Bible gives us accurate factual knowledge and with that firmly held position, a theory of evolution however water-tight would have been (and still is) attacked. So to return to the British Association meeting, the most likely account goes like this: Wilberforce appears to have said to Huxley, “If anyone were wiling to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be equally willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother?”. This reflects a very sentimental Victorian attitude to women. Huxley is said to have muttered to his neighbor quoting the O.T., “The Lord hath delivered him into my hands", and the report of his answer was: “If …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 of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.” Whereupon there was inextinguishable laughter among the people.” (Quoted in Chadwick, II p.11).

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