Dinosaurs, evolution and religion lecture
Beneath the skeleton of a fossilised Diplodocus from the Natural History Museum, Dr Nick Spencer gave a fascinating lecture in Norwich Cathedral about dinosaurs, evolution and religion.
Report by Patrick Richmond and Nick Brewin
Beneath the skeleton of a fossilised Diplodocus from the Natural History Museum, Dr Nick Spencer gave a fascinating lecture in Norwich Cathedral about dinosaurs, evolution and religion. In recent history, many strands of scientific and religious thinking have helped us to reconsider the place of our own species in the natural world, but there has been much confusion and controversy along the way.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, several people suggested that fossil bones were proof of Noah’s Flood – until others pointed out that a lot of these creatures were fish! Since then, the existence of dinosaurs and the geological idea of “deep time” has sometimes troubled people of faith. It is amazing to think that our planet is several billion years old and that dinosaurs walked the Earth about 150 million years ago, but the Church has offered several ways of interpreting Genesis that are compatible with this. More disturbing is the idea that humans descended from other primates, as implied by Darwin’s theory “On the Origin of Species”.
Dr Spencer reviewed the circumstances surrounding the legendary ‘monkey’ debate at Oxford University in 1860. This involved Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. The exchange about Darwin’s theory of evolution has become woven into a myth about continuous warfare between science and religion.
Historians have rejected this myth of continual conflict. Dr Spencer noted that what we now call “science” was previously called “natural philosophy”. Its practitioners, such as Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and even Darwin, did not consider that their discoveries were incompatible with belief in God. According to Dr Spencer’s analysis, when understanding the “legendary” clashes between the Church and Science, we need to be aware of wider cultural issues as well as personal differences between the protagonists.
Supporting Bishop Wilberforce was Sir Richard Owen, a leading biologist and expert on fossils. It was Owen who coined the term “Dinosaur” and campaigned for the establishment of the Natural History Museum. Although he accepted the general idea of evolution, he was deeply critical of some details of Darwin’s theory and supplied Wilberforce with scientific ideas that were opposed to it. Significantly, Huxley had personal differences with Owen as well as scientific ones. Many clergy had previously done pioneering scientific study in their spare time, particularly in the field of geology, but Huxley stood for a new class of professional scientists who wanted to pursue science independently of the Church.
For Dr Spencer, the cultural importance of the Oxford debate arose from two crucial questions and viewpoints, “what is a human being?” and “who gets to say?” The traditional answer was that humans are made in God’s image, and the Church teaches this. On the other hand, a strictly scientific answer would be that humans are just apes. This line of thinking provides a depersonalised, objectifying, reductionistic view of humans. There is an obvious danger that it can lead towards racism and other forms of ethnic discrimination. This was illustrated by the case of Ota Benga, a Congo Pygmy who in 1906 was exhibited in the monkey house of New York Zoo. When black clergy protested, Dr Hornady, zoologist and director of the Zoo was unapologetic.
Dr Spencer argued that theological views emphasising that we are persons, not mere objects of scientific study, are important and defensible. A separation of scientific facts from human values neglects the role of our human judgement in the development of our science. The Bible does not teach that the world has no value apart from humans, and the extinction of dinosaurs reminds us we should not shy away from recognising our human calling to care for creation, especially as we face the climate crisis.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos, a London-based think tank for the study of the interactions between religion and society. He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times. The Cathedral lecture was organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk (SFN), a Norwich-based group that provides a forum to explore contemporary scientific issues from a Christian perspective. A video recording is available on the SFN Facebook page. The Cathedral also has the talk on YouTube.
The dinosaur exhibition in the Cathedral continues until the end of October. Also, during October, St Peter Mancroft Church (SPM) will host Gaia, an artwork representing the Earth as a spectacular six-metre globe. The intention is to illustrate the frailty of our planet home because human activity has affected the stability of global temperatures, food security, biodiversity and much more. These issues will be the subject of various evening lectures and events, several of them organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk. For further information, visit the SPM or SFN websites or contact SFN Secretary, Dr Nick Brewin (07901 884114); firstname.lastname@example.org .