Sunday 30 June 2013

The Certainty of Myth

Today, the last day of June, is the anniversary of the 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate.  Everbode kno the story of
  • how Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce (Grrrr, hisssss, he's beHIND you) tried to diss Darwin's Origin of Species which had been published the previous year
  • how he made some heavily ironic remarks about the antecedents of Darwin and his supporters
  • how Thomas Henry "Darwin's Bulldog" Huxley (Huzzah huzzah!) rose to his feet muttering "The Lord hath delivered him into my hands" and trounced the worthy-but-wrong Bishop by turning his ironies into a potent rhetorical counter-strike.
except that there was no record kept of the "debate" not least because it wasn't a formal item on the agenda of the 1860 British Association meeting in Oxford.  It was rather part of an animated discussion after a long (and boring) formal paper presented by NYU's Prof. John W. Draper "On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law."  So there was no written speech, no stenographer, just a bunch of more or less contradictory notes, letters and long-time-after reminiscences. This gallimaufry of sources have been clagged together to become a watershed in the Intellectual Development of Europe where unthinking Judeo-Christian certainties began to lose ground to scientific rationalism. (Huzzah!).

Not many scientists of my acquaintance have, like me, won a Junior Scripture Prize at school and so they're possibly unable to recognise Huxley's sotto voce quip "The Lord hath delivered him into my hands" as straight from the bible 1 Samuel Ch 23 v 7.  Indeed Huxley, the first agnostic (he coined the term in 1869) and key Darwinist, was very keen to get youngsters to read the bible in school and elsewhere as a guide to their moral compass. On the other hand, the Bishop was a vice-president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and a Fellow of the Royal Society - the key accolade for British Scientists - for his contributions to the science of ornithology.  We was also, like his father, a vehement anti-slavery abolitionist.  So it is hard for me to see the "debate" in black and white, bible vs science, god vs rationalism terms.  And there is at least one contemporary reference to the fact that after their set-to, all the participants went off to dinner together like the gentlemen they were.  Revisionist, less dramatic and more even-handed analysis of the day may be found here and here.

And I bet that, by the time Huxley died in 1895, several people had consolidated the myth into actual memory to believe that they had been witnesses to the altercation.  The human mind can do that.  At least some of the 10,000 extra people, who claimed to have been in the GPO when Padraig Pearse read the 1916 proclamation outside, sincerely came to believe that they had been there.  The rest were blaggers, gassers and chancers, of course.

I find the going out to dinner after an afternoon of vigorous rhetorical exercise very civilised.  Too many of today's atheist fringe of science seem to feel that those of the opposite set of beliefs are not only wrong, but deluded and/or utterly reprehensible.  I hope that the agnostics of science can continue to hold the middle ground.  There is a war going on, particularly in the USA, for hearts and minds on a scripture vs evolution axis.  If we the scientists are to take up cudgels with they the biblical fundamentalists, rejecting the bible unread as antient middle eastern nonsense is not going to fill our magazines. The King James Version is only 789.7 kilowords long, you could knock it off over the summer if you sat down to it.

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