One of the celebrated incidents of the science v religion myth is the debate of Thomas Huxley with Samuel Wilberforce at Oxford in 1860. It’s presented as the clash of enlightened science with biblical obsurantism. There was no contemporary record of the debate, though, and even the famous quip of Huxley about preferring to be descended from an ape than a bishop is likely to be, at best, exaggerated. But we do have access to Wilberforce’s review of Origin of Species in the Quarterly Review, which is quite an illuminating counterbalance to the myth. It shows, once more, how much one can learn by not taking received wisdom as fact.
It should be remembered in the first place that, although Samuel Wilberforce was a “society bishop”, he took a 1st in maths and a 2nd in classics from Oxford, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was no scientific ignoramus. Ecclesiastically he was a High Churchman. Regarding origins he was a supporter of the Gap Theory, as were many educated Christians since the development of geology more than half a century before.
His review is a serious one, employing lengthy quotes, and voicing unmitigated praise for the quality of Darwin’s scientific observations. For instance, he recounts at great length Darwin’s passage about slave-making ants. He accurately outlines the tenets of Darwin’s theory, and first focuses on natural selection. Quoting Darwin’s experiment showing the great depradation of wild plants in a patch of ground he studies, Wilberforce writes:
Now all this is excellent. The facts are all gathered from a true observation of nature, and from a patiently obtained comprehension of their undoubted and unquestionable relative significance. That such a struggle for life then actually exists, and that it tends continually to lead the strong to exterminate the weak, we readily admit; and in this law we see a merciful provision against the deterioration, in a world apt to deteriorate, of the works of the Creator’s hands. Thus it is that the bloody strifes of the males of all wild animals tend to maintain the vigour and full development of their race; because, through this machinery of appetite and passion, the most vigorous individuals become the progenitors of the next generation of the tribe. And this law, which thus maintains through the struggle of individuals the high type of the family, tends continually, through a similar struggle of species, to lead the stronger species to supplant the weaker.
He happily includes the vegetable realm in this principle of natural selection, concluding:
Thus far, then, the action of such a law as this is clear and indisputable.
But before accepting it as a cause of evolution, he points out that one has to demonstrate, not just assert, that the favourable variations on which it operates (a) do tend to continue to rise higher above the species’ existing “perfection” rather than reverting to a mean, and (b) that it is actually possible for such changes to accumulate indefinitely to transform species:
Failing the establishment of either of these last two propositions, Mr. Darwin’s whole theory falls to pieces.
The objections he then brings to the theory are not unfamiliar, even 153 years later. In summary:
(a) Darwin presents no evidence to counteract the universal observation that selective breeding has never gradually produced a new species, but that variations tend to revert to type even many generations later.
(b) Hybrid sterility also militates against such evidence being found.
(c) Artificial variations also tend to revert once selection ceases.
(d) Artifical breeding produces exaggerations suited to man’s requirements, never improvements for the organism – why should nature do better than man’s concerted efforts?
(e) There is an absence of gradualism in the fossil record, even in continuous deposits.
(f) There is an absence of the “swarms of living creatures” predicted by the theory in Precambrian strata.
(g) Darwin has an unfortunate tendency to argue that lack of proof against his theory is evidence for it, for example :”We must own that we are far too ignorant to argue that no transition of any kind is possible.”
(h) Related to that is his use of what we would now call “Just So Stories”. Writes Wilberforce: “What new words are these for a loyal disciple of the true Baconian philosophy ?—’ I can conceive ‘—’ It is not incredible ‘ —’ I do not doubt ‘—’ It is conceivable.'”
(i) Darwin’s is too ready to expand or contract the time available arbitrarily to suit his theory, and to attribute to time what lacks sufficient cause.
(j) He repetitively claims that “special creation” could not explain phenomena, without actually demonstrating that to be the case
Wilberforce than draws our attention to the fact that every objection he has made has been scientific. He disavows those who would argue against science on grounds of Scripture:
We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation. We think that all such objections savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-instructed faith:—
‘Let us for a moment,’ profoundly remarks Professor Sedgwick, ‘suppose that there are some religious difficulties in the conclusions of geology. How, then, are we to solve them? Not by making a world after a pattern of our own—not by shifting and shuffling the solid strata of the earth, and then dealing them out in such a way as to play the game of an ignorant or dishonest hypothesis—not by shutting our eyes to facts, or denying the evidence of our senses—but by patient investigation, carried on in the sincere love of truth, and by learning to reject every consequence not warranted by physical evidence’ [Wilberforce’s note: ‘A Discourse on the Studies of the University, p. 149].
He who is as sure as he is of his own existence that the God of Truth is at once the God of Nature and the God of Revelation, cannot believe it to be possible that His voice in either, rightly understood, can differ, or deceive His creatures. To oppose facts in the natural world because they seem to oppose Revelation, or to humour them so as to compel them to speak its voice, is, he knows, but another form of the ever-ready feebleminded dishonesty of lying for God, and trying by fraud or falsehood to do the work of the God of truth. It is with another and a nobler spirit that the true believer walks amongst the works of nature. The words graven on the everlasting rocks are the words of God, and they are graven by His hand. No more can they contradict His Word written in His book, than could the words of the old covenant graven by His hand on the stony tables contradict the writings of His hand in the volume of the new dispensation. There may be to man difficulty in reconciling all the utterances of the two voices. But what of that? He has learned already that here he knows only in part, and that the day of reconciling all apparent contradictions between what must agree is nigh at hand. He rests his mind in perfect quietness on this assurance, and rejoices in the gift of light without a misgiving as to what it may discover…
This passage is interesting in pre-empting the New Atheists in making the accusation of “lying for God”. It doesn’t pre-empt, but contradict, some of the more modern breed of theistic evolutionists, by insisting that true science and true Scripture interpretation will agree, rather than attributing to the Bible the errors of ancient science and a kenotic incarnational view of composition. But it does call for a healthy spirit of agnosticism when “God’s two books” cannot easily be reconciled.
Wilberforce nevertheless permits himself a little theological needling of Darwin:
Mr. Darwin writes as a Christian, and we doubt not that he is one. We do not for a moment believe him to be one of those who retain in some corner of their hearts a secret unbelief which they dare not vent; and we therefore pray him to consider well the grounds on which we brand his speculations with the charge of such a tendency.
He illustrates this by recourse to Darwin’s inclusion of mankind in the theory, and why that is theologically and metaphysically suspect. This might seem rather like dirty tricks – tainting a scientific theory by innuendo about its author’s religious commitments. But we now know that Wilberforce’s suspicions were absolutely well founded. Darwin was, indeed, a closet agnostic, but dared not admit it in public, and his theory from the start was contaminated by his metaphysical commitments, which have tainted evolutionary science down to our own time by denying any space for God’s activity within it.
All in all, it’s hard to conclude that Wilberforce’s critical review of the Origin of Species was anything other than scientifically and philosophically justified at the time. Darwin took it seriously enough to incorporate some of its critiques in his second edition, to greater or lesser effect. Soapy Sam seems to have had his finger on the pulse after all.