Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Henry Huxley’

Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’: Darwinism Not Necessarily Atheistic

May 3, 2013

Many of today’s most vociferous supporters of Darwin’s theory of Evolution by Natural Selection are atheists. Loudly denouncing religion, they frequently base their opposition to it on evolutionary theory. Daniel C. Dennett has claimed that evolution is a ‘universal acid’ that corrodes religious belief. The most famous of these atheist polemicists is Richard Dawkins, who is one of the foremost of Darwin’s modern defenders and supporters. Yet in their claims that evolutionary theory is opposed to religion, they go much further than Darwin’s greatest defender in his own lifetime, Thomas Henry Huxley. Called ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ because of his staunch support and defence of Darwin and his theory, it was Huxley who coined the term ‘agnosticism’. Although very firmly anti-clerical, Huxley denied that evolutionary theory was either anti- or pro-religion. In his article ‘On the Reception of the Origin of Species‘ in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an Autobiographical Chapter, edited by Francis Darwin, published in 1887, Huxley declared:

‘Having got rid of the belief in chance and the disbelief in design, as in no sense appurtenances of Evolution, the third libel upon that doctrine, that it is anti-theistic, might perhaps be left to shift for itself. But the persistence with which many people refuse to draw the plainest consequences from the propositions they profess to accept, renders it advisable to remark that the doctrine of Evolution is neither Antitheistic nor Theistic. It simply has no more to do with Theism than the first book of Euclid has. It quite certain that a normal fresh-laid egg contains neither cock nor hen; and it is also as certain as any proposition in physics or morals, that if such an egg is kept under proper conditions for three weeks, a cock or hen chicken will be found in it. It is also quite certain that if the shell were transparent we should be able to watch the formation of the young fowl, day by day, by a process of evolution, from a microscopic cellular germ to its full size and complication of structure. Therefore Evolution, in the strictest sense, is actually going on in this and analogous millions and millions of instances, wherever living creatures exist. Therefore, to borrow an argument from Butler, as that which now happens must be consistent with the attributes of the Deity, if such a Being exists, Evolution must be consistent with those attributes. And if so, the evolution of the universe, which is neither more nor less explicable than that of a chicken, must also be consistent with them. The doctrine of Evolution, therefore, does not even co9me into contact with Theism, considered as a philosophical doctrine. That with which it does collide, and with which it is absolutely inconsistent, is the conception of creation, which theological speculators have beased upon the history narrated in the opening of the Book of Genesis’. (p. 203).

Huxley continued, ‘There is a great deal of talk and not a little lamentation about the so-called religious difficulties which physical science has created. In theological science, as a matter of fact, it has created none. Not a solitary problem presents itself to the philosophical Theist, at the present day, which has not existed from the time that philosophers began to think out the logical grounds and the logical consequences of Theism. All the real or imaginary perplexities which flow from the conception of the universe as a determinate mechanism, are equally involved in the assumption of an Eternal, Omnipotent and Omniscient Deity. The theological equivalent of the scientific conception of order is Providence; and the doctrine of determinism follows as surely from the attributes of foreknowledge assumed by the theologian, as from the universality of natural causation assumed by the man of science …In respect of the great problems of Philosophy, the post-Darwinian generation is in one sense exactly where the prae-Darwinian generations were.’ (pp. 203-4).

Now I’m not saying that Huxley is necessarily right, or that his argument for claiming that Darwinian evolution does not affect theism is sound. Certainly the type of evolution by which a chicken develops inside an egg is different from the type of evolution by which species develop. My point is merely that one of Darwin’s greatest and most respect supporters firmly denied that there was an relationship between evolutionary theory and the existence of God. It’s an attitude that is far less militant and antagonistic towards religion than those of his modern supporters, and suggests a bit of scepticism towards their attitudes is warranted.

Source:

‘Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) ‘On the Reception of the Origin of Species’ (London, 1887)’, in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief 1600-1900: A Selection of Primary Sources (Dorchester: John Wright & Sons Ltd./ The Open University 1973).

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