Summary of the case for Bishop Wilberforce at a Conversazione held at the British Academy on November 6th, 2003

According to the legend, Bishop Wilberforce (``Soapy Sam'') turned to Thomas Huxley, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford on Saturday, June 30th, 1860, and asked him ``Is it on your grandfather's or your grandmother's side that you claim descent from a monkey''; whereupon Huxley delivered a devastating rebuke, thereby establishing the primacy of scientific truth over ecclesiastical obscurantism. In point of fact, the legend is historically untrue in almost every detail: on the day, Wilberforce had the better of it, Darwin himself acknowledging that Wilberforce had made a telling case against him, and set to work to meet some of his criticisms.

Things are different today. Darwinism has won. However reasonable his criticisms were when he made them, Wilberforce has been shown to be wrong. Is there anything more to be said? I think there is. It is not that bad to be wrong. Einstein was wrong in his claim that God does not play dice, but we don't despise him for it. On the contrary, it was largely thanks to his extraordinarily subtle attempts to circumvent Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle that we have now come to realise that quantum mechanics is inherently probabilistic, and that no hidden variable theory, of the sort that Einstein postulated is in fact possible. Just the same is true of Darwinism. It is only thanks to the criticisms that Wilberforce and others put forward against the theory Darwin himself put forward that it was developed into its coherent and consistent modern descendant. We too easily forget that the theory of evolution has itself evolved, and that contemporary Darwinism, which dates from the 1940s, not only owes much to Darwin but quite a bit also to his critics. Serious thinkers cannot always be right: better to be bravely wrong than safely silent.

Huxley's intemperate enthusiasm was an embarrassment to Darwin, who wrote urging him to moderate his polemics. Huxley succeeded in attracting wide publicity for Darwin's thought, but at the cost of arousing needless antagonisms, and distorting the whole tenor of subsequent discussion. His set-to marks the beginning of the rift between the Two Cultures, with the withdrawal of professional scientists into an intellectual ghetto, and the banishment of science from the mainstream of national life. Biology has suffered from not being able to engage with the humanities. One example is racism. Wilberforce was a leading anti-racist, and one of his worries about Darwinism was that it could be used to justify the enslavement of negroes. Modern opinion is anti-racist too, so much so that for many racial research is a No-GO area. If a scientist were to maintain as a scientific truth that black men were on average less intelligent than white men, he would be excoriated. Wilberforce was quite prepared to allow science unfettered freedom to research, and to accepts its findings, just because he did not think that science was the sole truth; if facts emerged which proved that men were descended from some primordial fungus, he could agree, but go on to enter a further `but', and adduce further considerations that marked humanity off from the rest of creation. He could allow that Evolution could be true, or that there are significant differences between the races, and still maintain that we are not just animals, and that all men, whatever the colour of their skin, are children of God. But a science that claims both to be autonomous and to give us the complete truth cannot do this. Faced with this dilemma, some people will accept the science and deny the moral status of mankind: others, however, will sense the immoral implications of Darwinism, and on that account reject it out of hand. Huxley thought he was fighting for science, but by being so confrontational, he stimulated an anti-science counter-attack. He did not realise it, but Huxley helped to create creationism.

The particular issue on which Huxley intervened against Wilberforce was gradualism. If man evolved gradually from a primate, where should we draw the line? It is an issue that is with us still. In a television sketch by Rowan Atkinson a woman goes with her tiresome nine-year-old son to her doctor, and asks for a termination, and when she is asked the date of conception, she starts to convert the son's nine years into months. The joke exploits the incompatibility in modern thinking which holds that it is wrong to kill people but right to abort embryos. When does a foetus acquire the status of a human being that must not be killed?

Darwin was uncomfortable with the implicit materialism of his theory, and its seeming endorsement of unbridled competition. The modern theory of evolution is different, but still seems antagonistic to human values. Two points in particular are still not properly understood. We too readily assume that the environment is something fixed and definite, and do not realise that what constitutes the environment is different for different species, and depends on what the species does and is capable of doing. When great tits learnt to peck their way through the caps of milk bottles and drink the creamy tops, their environment changed. What had hitherto been an entirely insignificant feature became relevant, and there started to be evolutionary pressure in favour of better beaks and an ability to spot milk bottle on doorsteps. It is always the case that only some features are relevant to an organism, but what those features are depends on the species and can itself evolve.

The second point is that organisms are able to maintain themselves in the face of alterations in their environment by having some feedback mechanism, whereby they adjust to offset alterations in their environment. If one morsel of food is not available, another is taken: if one mate is not won, another is wooed. Feedback mechanisms secure some measure of independence from the environment. But that independence is only secured at the cost of greater sensitivity. My body temperature remains constant, but only because I sweat and shiver, and take off a garment if I feel my surroundings are too hot, or take cover if they re too cold. The pressure to adapt in the face of the environment is a pressure to become more independent of it, and thus to become a more and more separate, but at the same time more sensitive, entity. It is a pressure towards self-hood, and carries with it the logic of self-hood, the need for cooperation with other selves, and ultimately self-awareness and the quest of the questioning intellect to understand itself and the world in which it finds itself. The evolutionary pressures that made us also make us aspire further. Man is, indeed, a has-been ape, but also a would-be angel.