The difference between skepticism and denial; Darwin, Wilberforce, and the Discovery Institute

Book cover

Bishop Wilberforce, in 1860, was a skeptic, praised by Darwin for the skill of his questioning. Today’s creationists, not least the Discovery Institute, are denialists, endlessly asking the same questions as he did, although they have long since been answered.

Yes, Bishop Wilberforce really did ask T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” whether he would prefer an ape for his grandfather, and a woman for his grandmother, or a man for his grandfather, and an ape for his grandmother. And Huxley really did say that he would prefer this to descent from a man conspicuous for his talents and eloquence, but who misused his gifts to ridicule science and obscure the light of truth. This and more at the very first public debate regarding Darwin’s work on evolution, only months after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

I first wrote the above paragraph in 3 Quarks Daily in 2017, shortly after Richard England had published on the way that the events had been described in the Oxford Chronicle, the fullest contemporary account available of the encounter. That account refuted doubts that had been raised 1 by some historians, and which I had seen referred to by creationists, wishing to minimise the episode or even to regard it as legendary. These doubts were based largely on the absence of the episode from the account in the gentlemanly Athenaeum, but England convincingly showed that the Athenaeum had practised censorship.

I am writing about this again today in response to an article in the mendaciously mistitled Evolution News, mouthpiece of the neocreationist Discovery Institute, by Robert Shedinger, Professor of Religion at Luther College, Iowa. Shedinger has discovered a second career dissing Darwin. He is best known to readers here for his recent book, Darwin’s Bluff, where he argues that Darwin’s voluminous unpublished notes demonstrate his inability to support his views, and the article I am discussing is an extract from that book. We must therefore regard it, not as a mere passing comment, but as the author’s considered opinion.

Shedinger starts by telling us that the reality is more nuanced than the well-known account, by deliberately muddling it with the crude version in which “the serious scientist and man of reason who won the debate over the unreasoning bishop who was unable to accept evidence when it flew in the face of church doctrine.” He cites the Athenaeum, acknowledges England’s account (which he describes as “overlooked,” although the Royal Society tells us that the article has been downloaded more than 3000 times), and reminds us as England did that the Oxford Chronicle was a liberal publication that had criticised Wilberforce before. He then spends considerable time establishing that from a contemporary point of view, it was Hooker rather than Huxley who had been Darwin’s most prominent defender. Since I don’t think anyone would disagree, and nothing much hangs on it, why does he bother to do this? I suspect the influence of the Down With Huxley movement, which recently succeeded in removing his name from the Environmental Sciences Building in Western Washington University, and came perilously close to inflicting comparable damage on Imperial College, which of course Huxley had helped found.

Next, Shedinger regrets that because of this episode, Wilberforce is widely ridiculed, and his criticism of Darwin not taken seriously. To the extent that this actually happens, I agree. So would Darwin, who himself wrote of Wilberforce’s article in Quarterly Review (freely available here),

It is uncommonly clever. It picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties. It quizzes me quite splendidly by quoting the ‘Anti-Jacobin’ versus my Grandfather.2

Darwin even recommended Wilberforce’s article to his local vicar, who was a long-time friend.

However, Shedinger’s main motive is to repeat Wilberforce’s arguments and claim that they have not been answered. Since my quarrel is with him, and not with Wilberforce, I will simply take material from his article and comment on it:

Wilberforce is not averse to the doctrine of evolution by natural selection should the evidence weigh clearly in its favor. He even acknowledges not only that organisms vary, but also that natural selection has led to great diversity within specific types.

Here Wilberforce is putting forward the creationist doctrine that allows evolutionary change up to a point. He was probably influenced by Richard Owen’s theory of “body plans,” setting limits to such change. But it is not clear what those limits would be, or how they could be enforced.

Moreover, the struggle for life clearly exists, “and that it tends continually to lead the strong to exterminate the weak, we readily admit; and in this law we see a merciful provision against the deterioration, in a world apt to deteriorate, of the works of the Creator’s hands.” So natural selection for Wilberforce acts to maintain the fitness of species in their environment, thus preventing their deterioration.

Wilberforce recognises here what we might now call a negative or purifying role for natural selection, which he sees as acting against the general tendency to deteriorate (compare the present-day creationists’ invocation of entropy), but, like today’s Intelligent Design theorists, denies that it can play a more positive role.

Next Shedinger writes:

Darwin Fails

But Wilberforce notes that what Darwin needs to show is that there is active in nature a power capable of accumulating favorable variations through successive generations toward the production of entirely new species. And on this point, according to Wilberforce, Darwin fails.

[The bold headline is Shedinger’s.] Remember that in 1860, there was already extensive evidence for common ancestry, in the form of nested families, deep homologies (Darwin mentions the hand of a man, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise and the wing of the bat), to some extent the fossil record, limited as it was, and everything else that is mentioned in Origin. Nevertheless, Wilberforce is arguing that (to use modern terminology) Darwin has not shown that diversification beyond the species level can happen, even though Darwin’s book was one long argument to show that it had happened. To Darwin’s arguments we would now of course add an enormously richer fossil record, together with molecular phylogenies and their detailed similarity to phylogenies derived in other ways, along with additional overwhelming evidence.

Despite this, I would say that Wilberforce is making an important point. Darwin is telling us that these changes have happened, yet he has no convincing mechanism as to what processes could have produced them. This is indeed an unsatisfactory situation, and would remain so for the next 40 years. (Although there is nothing unusual here. When Newton put forward his theory of gravity, the objection was raised that there was no mechanism by which one massive body would influence another, and this conundrum remained unsolved until Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. In Darwin’s own lifetime, acceptance of Avogadro’s famous hypothesis regarding molecules was delayed, on the grounds that it required neutral hydrogen atoms to be bonded together, and there was no process that could explain this, nor would there be until the advent of quantum mechanics. And as Huxley himself pointed out at the time, it was known that light propagated as a wave, showing the properties of diffraction and polarisation, although no one then knew what these waves consisted of. Wilberforce’s argument is powerful, but not necessarily lethal.)

His scientific critique continues. “We think it difficult to find a theory fuller of assumptions; and of assumptions not grounded upon alleged facts in nature, but which are absolutely opposed to all the facts we have been able to observe.” In addition, the variations produced in domestic animals by breeders are selected because of their utility to people, not for the good of the animal. So artificial selection is simply irrelevant to what happens in nature. If natural selection is continually producing innumerable variations, where, Wilberforce asks, is the evidence for this in the geological record?

So we have the claim that evolution, or at any rate evolution as profound as the species level, has not been observed. A much more reasonable claim in 1860 than it is today. We continue to hear it, in the face of counterexamples, although today’s young earth creationism allows, and indeed requires, speciation within a “kind.” Next Wilberforce criticises Darwin for using artificial selection as evidence for the possibility of natural selection. Here I think we can say in all fairness that Wilberforce had missed the point. Darwinian evolution is driven by fitness for the environment, and this is just as true in artificial as in natural selection. The only difference is that in the case of artificial selection, one major element of fitness is the ability to satisfy the breeder.

Then comes the argument from the inadequacy of the fossil record. I don’t know how adequate that argument was in 1860, but it was not long afterwards that Huxley was already able to infer, correctly, that birds were related to dinosaurs, while Archaeopteryx was first described in between editions of Origins. Today, the argument is endlessly repeated on creationist sites, but lacks all conviction.

Darwin recognized the seeming sudden appearance of complex animals during the Cambrian era — a feature of the geological record known today as the Cambrian explosion — and openly admitted that if a long line of diversification in Precambrian deposits failed to show up in the fossil record, his theory would be in ruins. Wilberforce took this concession and ran with it…

Another argument that had force at the time, and is reiterated by today’s creationists, despite having been totally refuted by discoveries in the interim. Precambrian fossils are rare, but this is hardly surprising, since unmetamorphosed Precambrian sediments are rare, and the Precambrian fauna was predominantly soft-bodied. Stephen Meyer, Shedinger’s colleague at the Discovery Institute, has made a career out of misrepresenting what we now know about the Cambrian explosion. Here Shedinger refers us to Meyer and other creationist sources, but also to the genuinely scientific study, The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity, Douglas H. Erwin and James W. Valentine (2013), as if in support of his thesis, although he must know that he is doing violence to their position.

Wilberforce took this concession and ran with it. “Now it is proved to demonstration by Sir Roderick Murchison, and admitted by all geologists, that we possess these earlier formations, stretching over vast extents, perfectly unaltered, and exhibiting no signs of life.”


Did the ensuing decades make a fool of Wilberforce? In fact, the findings of modern paleontology substantially agree with Wilberforce here. The wealth of Precambrian transitional fossils that Darwin hoped would be discovered and so rescue his theory have remained persistently absent, despite assiduous efforts to locate them, and despite the fossil record having shown itself quite capable of preserving other Precambrian fossils.

See the goalposts moving! In one sentence, Wilberforce is vindicated because of the total absence of a Precambrian fossil record. In the next, he is proven right because the fossil record does not have sufficient “wealth of transitional fossils” to “rescue his [Darwin’s] theory.”

Wilberforce further objected to Darwin’s handling of time, and accuses him of positing enormous stretches of time in places where his theory requires them, but then gathering up into a point the duration in which certain forms of life prevailed, thus obscuring the fact that, as the fossil record shows, many forms of life endured for many millions of years without undergoing substantial change.

Indeed, Darwin had only the crudest of comparative timescales, and could be accused of making the timescale fit his theory. But that issue is now of only historical interest. Wilberforce’s more serious argument continues to be used; how come, if on occasion evolution requires relatively rapid change over time, some species have persisted for millions of years more or less unchanged? The rebuttal is the simplest possible; why shouldn’t some species have stayed more or less the same, if they were well adapted to their habitat and their habitat was stable?

Similarly, Wilberforce also objected to Darwin’s employment of facts: “Together with this large licence of assumption we notice in this book several instances of receiving as facts whatever seems to bear out the theory upon the slightest evidence, and rejecting summarily others, merely because they are fatal to it. We grieve to charge upon Mr. Darwin this freedom in handling facts, but truth extorts it from us.”

Wilberforce is accusing Darwin of cherrypicking, and Shedinger is relaying the charge with apparent approval, but without showing us the evidence. On this occasion, I fear, the fault lies with Wilberforce. Consulting the actual text of Wilberforce’s review, I find that he gave no examples, but continued the above passage by saying,

That the loose statements and unfounded speculations of this book should come from the author of the monograms on Cirripedes, and the writer, in the natural history of the Voyage of the 'Beagle,' of the paper on the Coral Reefs, is indeed a sad warning how far the love of a theory may seduce even a first-rate naturalist from the very articles of his creed.

A strongly stated accusation of deplorable bias and lack of judgement. Without supporting evidence, however, this is just so much hot air. Also worth noting is the care with which Wilberforce acknowledges, repeatedly in his review, Darwin’s position as a man of science. The same cannot be said for today’s creationists, from Henry Morris on, who minimise his contributions and deny his merits.

Shedinger concludes:

The stereotype portraying Wilberforce as the pompous bishop rejecting Darwin on theological grounds is easily dispelled by the scientifically informed, scientifically focused, and comprehensive nature of his lengthy review. Hooker may have accused Wilberforce of not understanding Darwin’s theory, but Wilberforce’s review suggests he understood it only too well.

The takeaway message is clear. The overall thrust of Wilberforce’s arguments were sound, and Darwin fails.

I have tried throughout this account to refute Wilberforce’s arguments, or at least the crude version of them offered by Shedinger, though I expect that for most readers here such refutation was unnecessary. It is more interesting to see how many of these arguments are still used today. The list is impressive; I show them here, together with the date when I think they became untenable:

  • Variation is possible, but only within types. Dead on arrival. Standard creationist argument today, accompanied since the 1940s by an elaborate theory of types, within which variation is possible.
  • Selection works only to remove unfavourable variations. Dead on arrival.
  • Selection is necessary because of the general tendency of things to degrade. True, since so many mutations are harmful, to the point of being tautologous. The observations that things tend to degrade is echoed in the claim, made by RED Clark in 1948 and repeated by Henry Morris in The Genesis Flood, that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. We can regard this as dead on arrival, since it clearly does not apply to open systems far from equilibrium, or we can wait until the work of Prigogine from the 1950s onwards, showing that such systems actively generate novel structures.
  • Closely linked is the argument that there is no mechanism to explain advantageous novelty. Dead and buried by 1920, with the recognition of mutations and the development of population genetics.
  • Artificial selection is different from natural selection, and doesn’t count. Dead on arrival. To be fair, I have not come across present-day creationists using it.
  • Inadequacy of fossil record. This one will never die, since the creationists will always be able to point to gaps in the record, unaware of the fact that by complaining about gaps, they are effectively conceding the existence of the record. To my mind, two fossil discoveries more than any others refute this argument; Archaeopteryx described in 1861, and the Taung Child, described in 1925, now classified as a juvenile Australopithecine.
  • Absence of Precambrian fossils: the first Ediacaran fossils were reported in 1868, but discounted because of scepticism about the existence of a Precambrian biota, and their status was not recognised until 1955.3 Fossil stromatolites in the early Archean were recognised from around 1980. However, the alleged absence of Precambrian fossils is completely separate from the question of what has happened in the next half billion years or so.
  • Existence of groups of organisms essentially unaltered over millions of years (note that the Bishop had no difficulty accepting millions of years; the popularisation of Young Earth creationism is a much more recent development): I would describe this as dead on arrival, since the refutation is so obvious.
  • Defenders of evolution do so out of belief, despite the evidence. This argument presupposes that the evidence for evolution is so unconvincing that it is only accepted because of bias. Dead on arrival. Dead, decaying, and stinking of nasty personal attack.

To summarise, Shedinger’s article, and I must therefore presume the book from which it is a sample, is a stale and shoddy contribution to the voluminous anti-Darwin literature.

I had the pleasure of hearing Genie Scott’s talk in Glasgow some years ago, with the title “What would Darwin say to today’s Creationists?” Her answer was, “Haven’t you been paying attention during the last 156 years?” 156 should now be amended to 165, but apart from this, as Shedinger convincingly shows, her answer stands.

Wilberforce, faced with a new paradigm, was not convinced and mustered counterarguments, some of them at the time quite powerful. He was a skeptic. Whether he would have changed his mind over time, we will unfortunately never know, because of his death in a horseriding accident in 1873. What we do know is that within decades evolution, as opposed to separate creation, was the dominant paradigm even in ecclesiastical circles.

Today’s creationists, presented as they are with a science of evolution that has met every test that Wilberforce could suggest and many others that he could not even imagine, are not skeptics but denialists. There’s a difference.

1] J. R. Lucas, The Historical Journal , Volume 22 , Issue 2 , June 1979 , pp. 313 – 330, DOI:, and references therein; The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate: A Reconsideration, Sheridan Gilley, Studies in Church History, 17, 2016, pp. 325 – 340.

2] The reference is to a pamphlet attacking Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, who had put forward his own version of evolutionary theory.