Thomas Henry Huxley: a better bulldog

An agnostic ex-vicar says Richard Dawkins could learn a thing or two from a humbler 'Darwinian bulldog' of the 1860s.

Mark Vernon

Topics Politics

Richard Dawkins has published a rant against religion. He could learn much from an earlier Darwinian bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley.

In 1869, Thomas Henry Huxley coined a new term. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species 10 years earlier, this brilliant Victorian anatomist and zoologist became one of its staunchest defenders. He approved of his sobriquet, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. It earned him one of the most famous putdowns in the skirmishes following the publication of the groundbreaking book. In 1860, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, son of the anti-slavery campaigner, had enquired of Huxley whether he was ‘related to an ape on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side?’ Huxley’s reply was equally withering. He said he would rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man who substituted ridicule for science.

Today’s Darwinian bulldog is Richard Dawkins. The parallels between him and Huxley are striking. But although both are passionate advocates of evolution, and have made distinctive contributions to the theory, Dawkin’s new book, The God Delusion, shows Huxley to be different in one key respect. In a word: God. For while Huxley, too, hoped that science would scotch the mysteries and authority that he believed Christianity perpetuated to the detriment of human progress, he knew that science itself was not the final answer. The term he coined in 1869 is one now frequently forgotten in the tussle between science and religion. It is the word agnosticism.

His neologism was meant as a rebuke to all ‘gnostics’ who dogmatically present their beliefs as truth. He wrote: ‘In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.’ This is important because it expresses an intellectual humility. With respect to science, it acknowledges that when it comes to the big questions in life, what science has established ‘amounts at present to very little’ – Huxley’s words – compared with the wisdom of, say, history and literature. With respect to religion, it acknowledges the ethical idealism of the life of faith: Huxley was theologian enough to realise that the question of God was one on which he had to remain a committed agnostic.

Dawkins is not an agnostic. In the new book he is a proselytising atheist. And he tries to claim Huxley for his own, saying he would have become an atheist in time. This does Huxley a grave disservice. He was a man who went to no lesser length than inventing a word to capture his position. And though the word agnostic has come commonly to mean something of a shrug of the shoulders today, it was not at all meant by him in that way; rather, it was a rebuke.

Three accusations are often made against Dawkins – that he is an atheistic fundamentalist, a scientific absolutist, and intolerant. They are serious accusations that he vehemently denies. Can his predecessor, the Victorian bulldog, help us decide?

The charge of fundamentalism is that he substitutes the religious fundamentalist’s convictions with atheistic equivalents. For example, the religious fundamentalist says that indisputably there is a God. Dawkins believes that it is beyond dispute that there is not a God. Or whereas the fundamentalist turns to the presumed inerrant truths of a holy book to find meaning, Dawkins turns to a secular ‘book of life’ – decoded DNA – to find indisputable purpose, namely that we are here to propagate genes.

In The God Delusion he claims not to be a fundamentalist atheist, arguing that he would change his opinions given proof, something the true fundamentalist would not do. But the proof is already available: God’s existence or non-existence is not demonstrable; God just ain’t that kind of thing. Any number of rigorous scientists – and sophisticated theologians – could tell him that. Indeed, buried in the middle of the book is an important admission: ‘God almost certainty does not exist.’ Note the ‘almost’. In other words, agnosticism is the scientific position to hold. If he were not a fundamentalist, he would not be an atheist, let alone one so powerfully evangelical. He would be an eloquent agnostic.

The charge of scientific absolutism follows on from this. In short, he is drawn to the belief that science will ultimately answer all questions worth asking. He puts it this way: ‘I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better we may eventually discover that there are no limits.’ It is the ‘even better’ that reveals the absolutism. It marks the point at which Dawkins’ advocacy becomes not only intellectually faulty, but dangerous – on two counts. It undermines wonder at creation. And, as wonder weakens, it creates a vacuum that is filled by hubris.

Again, Dawkins claims that he can be filled with as much wonder as anyone, when listening to Schubert or seeing a sunset. But while his wonder may leave him open-mouthed, what it does not do is evoke a sense of the limits of science. Rather, he thinks that the reason human beings find sounds and sunsets so moving lies within the domain of evolutionary theory; they must have some adaptive advantage. As he has written elsewhere: ‘As scientists, and biological scientists, it’s up to us to explain [feelings of awe], and I expect that one day we shall.’

Darwin adopted the word agnostic to describe himself: although he lost faith in formal religious structures, he remained conscious of forces beyond human knowledge. And that other giant of modern science, Albert Einstein, thought similarly. Science convinced him that behind the laws of the universe is manifest ‘spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble’. Dawkins’ scientific absolutism is dangerous because it undermines such a sense of piety towards the world. He toys with a fantasy of unlimited understanding that in the wrong context or the wrong hands can easily become a fantasy of complete control.

One is forced to conclude that the primary driver behind Dawkins’ book is not a concern for truth, as he declares, but a passionate intolerance of the religious worldview. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, his new venture launched this autumn, compounds the sense that he has been overcome by a zealotry at odds with the Enlightenment values to which Huxley and others, before and since, aspired.

For example, the Foundation will campaign against the teaching of creationism – which is fair enough, except that it is the moral vacuity of Darwinian absolutism that the families who want their children to learn of creationism fear, as much as evolution itself: militant atheism only compounds that fear and will strengthen the creationists’ case, not undermine it.

Alternatively, the Foundation wants to raise consciousness of the ‘immorality’ of ‘branding’ young children with the religion of their parents – except that this aim smacks of the same social engineering that would insert the clumsy hand of government between parents and their children. It says a lot about the illiberality behind Dawkin’s proselytising brand of atheism.

Dawkins accuses believers of having minds ‘hijacked by religion’. Replace the word religion with science, and he could be writing about himself. Intolerance leads him to fundamentalist rhetoric. He is entitled to his opinion. But it is time to claim the debate back from the extremists – scientific or religious. What would be progressive would be a revival of the humanly richer, intellectually humbler and socially tolerant terrain of the committed agnostic.

Mark Vernon is author of Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life, published by Palgrave Macmillan. AMAZON. Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics


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