For 175 years, the British Science Association has played a crucial role in transmitting the excitement of scientific discovery to a wider public, and in providing an interface for consultation and debate. Engagement with the public can, however, carry unpredictable risks.
This has certainly been the case when scientists have touched on the question of religion. ‘God knows what the public will think’, wrote Charles Darwin as he steeled himself for publication. A few months after his Origin of Species appeared, he was confiding to Joseph Hooker that he was glad he was not in Oxford, ‘for I should have been overwhelmed, with my stomach in its present condition.’
Darwin’s reference was to that legendary 1860 meeting of the then British Association when his ‘bulldog’, Thomas Henry Huxley, bit the bishop. ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce had allegedly taunted Huxley with the question whether he would prefer to think of himself having an ape for an ancestor on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side. He soon had his comeuppance. Huxley immediately replied that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. One nil to Huxley - who in most accounts of the legend is the decisive victor for science over religion. It’s a great story; but, put like that, it is a myth – and in two different senses.
Two kinds of myth
Retrospectively, it certainly became a foundation myth for professional scientists, symbolising the emancipation of serious science from clerical interference. But it is also a myth in the commoner sense because Huxley did not score a victory. Nor did his son Leonard, who edited the Life and Letters of his father, claim that he had. A contemporary account in the Athenaeum probably came closest to the truth: the two men had ‘each found foemen worthy of their steel, and made their charges and countercharges very much to their own satisfaction and the delight of their respective friends.’
Nevertheless, at stake in this famous altercation were matters of etiquette and cultural authority, issues too about the autonomy of the sciences and about the wisdom of speaking out in public without regard to the risks. Though transformed, they are issues that have not gone away.
Behaviour and outcomes
Public perceptions, of course, vary widely. Some judged Wilberforce guilty of an ungentlemanly jibe; others considered Huxley the more discourteous. What is undeniable is that behaviour, and not merely substance, can influence outcomes. At least one convert to Darwin’s theory, Henry Baker Tristram, was deconverted as he witnessed the Darwinian offensive. Wilberforce represented a culture in which science had been integrated with religious values through its disclosure of an order in nature indicative of a Creator. Huxley, in contrast, wished to promote the cultural authority of a younger generation of scientists for whom the sciences would enjoy independence and autonomy. Inventor of the word ‘agnosticism’, he contrasted his position with the arrogance of those claiming privileged knowledge of the deity.
Huxley’s battle for the cultural authority of the scientist was largely won in the nineteenth century, but it has its modern equivalents. We are now confronted by a deeply polarised and dispiriting contest between the extremes of religious fundamentalism and ultra-Darwinian atheism. Huxley said of Darwin’s theory that it had no more implications for theism than the first book of Euclid. He even countenanced a ‘higher teleology’ in the evolutionary process. Outspoken voices today insist that theistic references are not merely redundant but positively disallowed by the theory in its neo-Darwinian form.
Agnosticism, not atheism
It is a cliché that Darwin has been appropriated to justify every idea under the sun. Those who claim him for the ‘new atheism’ sometimes suggest that, if only there had been no impediments to his speaking out, he would have been delighted to join them. There is no denying the impediments: the risk of being associated with ungentlemanly radicals, the risk of social injury to one’s family, the constraining influence of a pious wife. When both Hooker and Huxley sought to ingratiate themselves with Darwin, each claiming the lion’s share of credit for bashing the bishop, Darwin was certainly grateful for their courage. But late in life he would say that he could not remember ever having published a word directly against religion.
His reticence cannot be explained away as a simple matter of expediency. For Darwin there was a fundamental difference between atheism and agnosticism. He genuinely believed there were questions in metaphysics (how, for example, to reconcile free will and determinism) and in theology (whether this ‘wonderful universe’ could be ascribed to chance) that were insoluble for minds that were limited products of evolution. Limitations called for humility, not the arrogance of those convinced they were right. Converting Darwin’s ‘naturalism’ into atheism also fails because of a definition Darwin gave of ‘nature’ that lingered in his mind even during his most agnostic phases: ‘By nature, I mean the laws ordained by God to govern the universe.’ This helps to explain why he could say in a letter of 1879 that it would be ‘absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist.’
Additionally, there was a quite different reason why Darwin refrained from speaking out against religion. He believed it would do no good. He may have had a point. This is a calculation all have to make when engaging the public on controversial matters, where to speak out may risk unintended, even adverse consequences.
Politics, religion and engagement
From its inception, the British Association tried to exclude politics and religion from its engagement with the public. But religious sensibilities were aroused again in 1874, when the Association met in Belfast. There the Presidential Address of John Tyndall caused a furore. Tyndall risked an outspoken attack on the Catholic Church for its neglect of the sciences, enlisting and extending Darwin’s theory to support his philosophical monism. But the effect of his address was to increase resistance to the theory in Ireland, particularly alienating Presbyterians in Belfast. Heavily publicised events of this kind, as with the Scopes trial in America, can materially transform public perceptions, not always for the better.
There are still risks for speakers at British Science Association meetings. The pressure to attract media coverage by providing a titillating preview positively invites claims for novelty that, if mishandled by the press, favour the sensational over the circumspect. To claim that one’s science has ‘major implications’ for religion has long been a ploy for making it seem more portentous. And it is not only those with religious sensibilities who may be reactive. It was after his address at last year’s meeting of the Association that Professor Michael Reiss had his contract terminated as Director of Education at the Royal Society. His message had been that if students in a science class raised questions concerning the bearing of evolution on beliefs brought from their religious tradition, this could afford an opportunity not to silence them but to explain what makes the evolutionary account scientific. Some woeful press coverage traduced his message and it was not long before those arrogating to themselves the policing of boundaries between science and religion were insinuating that, as an ordained clergyman, he could not be trusted to place them correctly.
For most of us the old squabbles over creation and evolution are passé. But issues potentially more explosive lie just around the corner. What role is public wisdom to play when neuroscientists tell us that our individual capacities, including the potential for wisdom itself, correlate with wiring in our brains over which we have no control? The old conundrum over free will and determinism that so puzzled Darwin is set to reappear with a vengeance if humans can excuse all their deficiencies and misdeeds by blaming them on their brains.