Wednesday, August 27, 2008


In the July 29 issue of Christian Century, Carol Zaleski of Smith College, under the title "Eminent Victorians" (borrowed from Lytton Strachey) turns from the tiresome recent attacks on religion by modern atheists to the vigorous and spirited discussions of the Victorian period, exemplified by the mathematician W.K.Clifford (1845-1879), the clergyman and geologist/naturalist William Buckland (1784-1856), Buckland's student Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873, well trained in mathematics), and the biologist T.H.Huxley (1825-1895).

The famous debate about evolution between the latter two took place at the meeting of the Oxford Meeting of the British Association on Saturday, June 30, 1860. Zaleski quotes Wilberforce's peroration to an unqualified critique of evolution addressed to Huxley as "Is it on your grandfather's or your grandmother's side that you claim descent from an ape?" This version of the question does not quite agree with the phrasing which is given in T.H. Huxley's "Life and Letters" (by Huxley's son Leonard Huxley) and the "Life and Letters" of Charles Darwin by his son Francis Darwin, but the main point is clear and well supported by contemporary witnesses.

Zaleski's version of Huxley's response tells what he denied saying but not what he did say. She writes "Huxley denies having replied that he would rather be an ape than a bishop", which appears to come from Huxley's letter of Sept. 9, 1860, written to correct widely disseminated inaccurate versions of his response. An example is that of the "Guardian" newspaper as cited in Adrian Desmond's biography of T.H.Huxley (1994, p.680), about the sad day "when Professors lose their tempers and solemnly avow they would rather be descended from apes than Bishops".

The version of Huxley's response which was considered most accurate by T.H. Huxley and his son Leonard is found in a contemporary letter by the student John Richard Green, who was present at the debate:
"I asserted - and I repeat – that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling it would rather be a man – a man of restless and versatile intellect – who, not content with an equivocal success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice."

A reporter from MacMillan's Magazine who was also present and reported on the meeting wrote to Leonard Huxley that "I cannot quite accept Mr. J.R. Green's sentences as your father's, though I didn't doubt that they convey the sense." The word "equivocal" is certainly not authentic. The reporter for Macmillan's Magazine summarized Huxley's response as "He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth." A third account by the Oxford chemist A.G.Vernon-Harcourt, quoted by Leonard Huxley, confirms this general content, as does that by W.H.Freemantle published in his biography of Darwin. T.H.Huxley wrote to Francis Darwin on June 27, 1891 that "I should say that Freemantle's account is substantially correct, but that Green has the substance of my speech more accurately."

What was the point here? One point was the correctness of Darwin's version of evolutionary doctrine, which was well supported although it conflicted with the contemporary interpretation of Genesis. Another was Huxley's anger at the scientific amateurism exemplified by Wilberforce, an able man of conservative views and administrative talent who in fact did have great ability and educational advantages. One of the life-objectives of T.H.Huxley, who was largely self-educated, was to make science a possible profession in England at a time when learned and scientific activity was on the whole an amateur enterprise. On this occasion, the issue of professionalism was probably much more significant than any conflict of religion with science; such a conflict is not even alluded to in Huxley's response. On the other hand, Huxley was opposed to the Victorian church as an institution, as Desmond (1994) makes clear.

Another reason that we should not picture this debate as essentially a conflict between science and religion is that by no means all Victorian churchmen refused to accept evolution. As an outstanding case, F.J.A.Hort (1828-1892), the greatest British scholar of the text of the Greek New Testament, was also well trained scientifically; he took a First Class in the Natural Science final honors examination at Cambridge University in 1851, and later served as one of the examiners. Hort was an immediate admirer of the "Origin of Species", about which he wrote to his collaborator Westcott in early 1860 that "In spite of difficulties, I am inclined to think it unanswerable." Hort's modern biographer Graham Patrick (1988) provides a valuable discussion of how in his posthumous book "The Way the Truth the Life" (1893) Hort treats of the relations of science and religion, partly in the text and partly in appended notes. Hort writes "It is not too much to say that the Gospel itself can never be fully known till nature as well as man is fully known; and that the manifestation of nature as well as man in Christ is part of His manifestation of God." (p.83 in my 1894 copy). Some aspects of Hort's religious views I cannot share, but for many years I have had profound respect for him as someone who combined deep scholarly and scientific awareness.

Carol Zaleski is certainly right that the Victorians raised vigorous and interesting arguments

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

I love Carol Zaleski. She always studies the most interesting aspects of religion.