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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Monday, August 23, 2004

The tale of the foolish and narrow-minded bishop...trouble is, it never happened

Sociologist Rodney Stark debunks one of the enduring myths of modern science:

[T]he Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, [...] is widely said to have made an ass of himself in a debate with Huxley during the 1860 meeting of the British Association at Oxford. The relevant account of this confrontation reported: "I was happy enough to be present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr. Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforce. The bishop arose and in a light scoffing tone, florid and fluent, he assured us that there was nothing in the idea of evolution. Then turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey? On this Mr. Huxley...arose...and spoke these tremendous words. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous."

This marvelous anecdote has appeared in every distinguished biography of Darwin and of Huxley, as well as in every popular history of the theory of evolution. In his celebrated Apes, Angels and Victorians, William Irvine used this tale to disparage the bishop's snobbery. In his prize-winning study, James Brix went much farther, describing Wilberforce as "naive and pompous," a man whose "faulty opinions" were those of a "fundamentalist creationist" and who provided Huxley with the opportunity to give evolution "its first major victory over dogmatism and duplicity." Every writer tells how the audience gave Huxley an ovation.

Trouble is, it never happened. The quotation above was the only such report of this story and it appeared in an article titled "A Grandmother's Tales" written by a non-scholar in a popular magazine 38 years after the alleged encounter. No other account of these meetings, and there were many written at the time, made any mention of remarks concerning Huxley's monkey ancestors, or claimed that he made a fool of the bishop. To the contrary, many thought the bishop had the better of it, and even many of the committed Darwinians thought it at most a draw.

Moreover, as all of the scholars present at Oxford knew, prior to the meeting, Bishop Wilberforce had penned a review of The Origin in which he fully acknowledged the principle of natural selection as the source of variations within species. He rejected Darwin's claims concerning the origin of species, however, and some of these criticisms were sufficiently compelling that Darwin immediately wrote his friend the botanist J. D. Hooker that the article "is uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties. It quizzes me quite splendidly." In a subsequent letter to geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin acknowledges that "the bishop makes a very telling case against me." Indeed, several of Wilberforce's comments caused Darwin to make modifications in a later revision of the book.

The tale of the foolish and narrow-minded bishop seems to have thrived as a revealing "truth" about the incompatibility of religion and science simply because many of its tellers wanted to believe that a bishop is wrong by nature. J. R. Lucas, who debunked the bishop myth, has suggested that the "most important reason why the legend grew" is, first, because academics generally "know nothing outside their own special subject" and therefore easily believe that outsiders are necessarily ignorant, and, second, because Huxley encouraged that conclusion. "The quarrel between religion and science was what Huxley wanted; and as Darwin's theory gained supporters, they took over his view of the incident."

Another myth waiting to be consigned to the dustbin of history, but like so many other modern myths, far too comforting to be easily relinquished by self-righteous modern secularists because it panders to the ego-inflating notion of their own innate superiority over the ignorant and superstitious masses who make up the bulk of the human race both past and present.

6:09:00 pm