Author Copy with Ian Hesketh

Reflections on the Origin’s Anniversary and the Perpetuation of an Eternal Myth

This past November, the 24th to be exact, marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Academics celebrated this milestone with conferences held in major and lesser cities around the world but the general public had their fun too as specials on television and the radio sought to remind viewers and listeners of the vast importance of the Origin and the man who spent so many years researching, writing, and agonizing over what he called the “mystery of mysteries,” the origin of species and their histories.

We were lucky enough in Canada to be treated to two well-produced programmes on the CBC, a three-part series on Darwin’s life and work leading up to the publication and reception of the Origin televised on David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, and a four-part series that took the story of Darwinian evolution up to the present, narrated by Seth Feldman for the radio programme Ideas.

Much of the same ground was covered in Darwin’s life such as the Beagle voyage, the death of Darwin’s daughter Annie, Darwin’s friendship with like-minded naturalists such as Huxley, Lyell, and Hooker, his long delay in publishing, the famous letter from Wallace that spurred Darwin to publish, and so on. The two also followed a similarly mixed format of one part narration, one part scholarly commentary, and another of dramatization. And two of the premier scholars on Darwin’s life appeared regularly in both: Janet Browne and James Moore.

In a general way, the two programmes could not have been more similar; they were, after all, telling the same story and, in some cases, relying on the same authorities to do so. When it came to interpreting the key episodes in Darwin’s life, however, the two programmes diverged significantly. This was particularly evident in representations of Christianity and its relationship to evolutionary theory in general and Darwin’s religious views in particular.

More often than not, when it came to issues of religious controversy, The Nature of Things turned not to specialist James Moore, but to non-historian and religion-bater Richard Dawkins as if his authority on current evolutionary theory somehow extends back to the cultural history of the Victorian period, and especially to popular historian Iain McCalman. The story suffers accordingly.

The Nature of Things presented Darwin as a virtual atheist by the time the Origin appeared and his evolutionary theory as entirely devoid of religious connotations. The reception of the Origin became the story of black-and-white hats, the black worn by Anglican defenders of the theory of special creation, the white worn by evolutionary supporters who refused to cower to religious authority.

Ideas, on the other hand, when it came to religious issues, relied quite heavily on James Moore, whose published work has done much to undermine the supposed warfare between evolution and Christianity, and on York University’s Bernard Lightman, who has written extensively on Christian popularizers of science, on scientific naturalism, and on the origins of agnosticism. The story is therefore much more nuanced under their telling.

Darwin’s road to agnosticism is presented as a much more bumpy one, highlighted by his own claim that he was a theist when the Origin was published, and this claim is further contextualised by considering the religious rhetoric of the Origin where the image of the Creator as first mover and therefore creator of evolution is shown to be a logical necessity of Darwin’s theory. It would be difficult, in other words, to come away from the Ideas programme thinking that Darwinian evolution was developed by an atheist and that evolution was a necessarily secular theory, and yet such would be the precise conclusion one reached after watching The Nature of Things.

These two general interpretations were also reflected in the representation of particular events, most notably the famous Oxford debate of 1860, one of the first public debates about Darwin’s Origin. Received wisdom tells us that Darwin’s supporters-led by Thomas “Darwin’s Bulldog” Huxley-thoroughly defeated and humiliated their Christian opponents, none more so than the Bishop of Oxford, “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, who had attempted to use religious doctrine to falsify evolution.

This set-piece of Victorian melodrama was reproduced accordingly in The Nature of Things. In introducing the debate, Suzuki argued, with more than a touch of hyperbole, that “Oxford is about to witness a battle which will determine the country’s future.” Wilberforce, it is said, “is a man who regards evolution as nothing but religious heresy.” As if to prove Suzuki’s narration, Wilberforce exclaims that there is “a distinct line between humanity and animals” and then asks Mr. Huxley to “inform the gallery” if he is “related to an ape on your mother’s side or your grandmother’s side, or both.” Huxley responds that this is a “matter which Mr. Darwin does not raise in his book” but that if he must make a choice “I should be proud to acknowledge the ape over one … who plunges into scientific questions with which he has no acquaintance.” Wilberforce slams his hands against the podium as the crowd begins to cheer Huxley on. Hooker jumps up to exclaim that he doubts Wilberforce had even read the book. McCalman provides the authorial voice to the account presented, that the debate was “seen in retrospect as a triumph” for the Darwinians. “Newspapers record this in mythic terms.”

But the historical evidence does not support such a one-dimensional interpretation. When one compares the reminiscences of Darwin’s supporters with that of Wilberforce’s, as well as with the ample newspaper reports, the picture of the debate that emerges is very different. Not only did Wilberforce think that he thoroughly won the debate, the newspaper reports are even more contradictory and much less “mythical” than McCalman would like us to believe. The Press (7 July 1860), for instance, reported that the Oxford debate was not indicative of some grand battle between science and religion but rather of “wise and wide toleration,—as if truth and not any narrow party-victory were the earnest search of all.” The Press remarked that if anything the debate showed that Oxford University was willing to “open its arms in friendly embrace to the younger sons of science” and thereby indicated “how well it is possible for the Christian, the classic, and the scientific to co-operate in the one grand end,—the advancement of man and the glory of God.”

This is not to suggest that the Oxford debate must only be understood under the terms of cooperation highlighted by The Press, but its reportage surely casts doubt on the black-and-white picture presented by The Nature of Things. The Ideas broadcast, on the other hand, did a much better job representing the debate by simply highlighting the nature of the conflicting evidence.

Instead of simply reproducing a dramatized version of events, Ideas explicitly presented the debate as it was represented by one of the participants who was clearly sympathetic to Huxley’s version of events. Feldman follows this obviously biased portrayal with the statement that “scholars of Victorian science today are not so convinced that Huxley emerged victorious.” Enter Bernard Lightman who argues that it is difficult to determine the victor, and what is more “we probably overemphasise the symbolism of that particular event. I think what happened was that shortly after it took place it took on almost mythical status and then there were several books written [many] years later and so it sounded so much like say the Galileo episode where you get conflict between science and religion that it becomes this symbol but historians now think that we exaggerate it too much, that it casts the defenders and attackers of evolution in too black-and-white a picture.” In other words the historical representation of the event was later politicized to uphold an image of good and noble science in an all-out war against an evil and irrational religion. This is an image that is still presented in the popular media most notably by New Athiests such as Christopher Hitchens (see his article in Slate, 23 Aug. 2005). Sadly, The Nature of Things is just a recent example of the kind of binary myth-making that Lightman and other scholars of Victorian science critique.

It is time that we stop immediately thinking of conflict when we consider the relationship between science and religion because more often than not the evidence does not support it. Darwin himself thought that there was no real conflict and so did many Anglican clergymen. This was a part of the story of evolution that is often ignored in popular portrayals but Feldman and Ideas must be congratulated for making it a central aspect of their telling and for exposing the seemingly eternal myth of conflict, battle, and war between science and religion that was so central to the very different story offered by The Nature of Things.

Ian Hesketh, PhD, is a research associate in the Department of History at Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario. His book, Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity and the Oxford Debate, was published by the University of Toronto Press in October 2009.