Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Creation history or creation of a history?

It is popular folklore that 150 years ago in Oxford there was a watershed event in the history of the relationship between science and Christianity: the Wilberforce-Huxley debate about Darwin's recently published On the Origin of Species.
At the Polkinghorne 80th birthday conference this week in Oxford we were given copies of two recent articles by the Oxford historian Allan Chapman from the Oxford Magazine, "Monkeying about with History: Remembering the `Great Debate'  of 1860?" and "Aping our Ancestors: how the `Great Debate' of 1860 was invented". [Unfortunately, I cannot find copies online].

The first article notes that there are no surviving records of the actual content of the debate and reviews documents from the period that show that it actually generated little discussion at the time. Hence, it is not clear that it really was a watershed event.
The second article reviews the historical background of the emerging struggle between the "Grand Amateurs" of British science who were often clergyman and privately funded [e.g. Wilberforce and Darwin] how the debate and the new generation of "professional" scientists [embodied by Huxley] who aspired to work in secular institutions and receive government funding for their research. Decades later, for the purposes of the political agenda of the latter camp [embodied in the X-Club founded by Huxley] a mythical version of the debate where science triumphed over religion seemed to have served a useful polemical purpose.

In 2001 John Hedley Brooke, previously Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion, at Oxford gave a nice lecture on the same topic at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

History always seems to be more complicated than we would like to think.

No comments:

Post a Comment