Think you want some evolution?

Charles and William DarwinA denominational mea culpa to a dead scientist and the controversial resignation of a live one have occasioned both indignation and mirth among the British press.

Over the past few weeks the Church of England and Britain’s prestigious scientific academy, the Royal Society, have both taken their lumps as they stepped into the turbulent waters where science meets religion.

Do they deserve what they got? You be the judge.

Last week an article by the Rev. Dr. Martin Brown on the Church of England’s official website apologized to the late Charles Darwin for having “misunderstood” his theory of evolution, evoking barely disguised incredulity in Daily Mail reporter Jonathan Petre.

Here’s the lede:

The Church of England will tomorrow officially apologize to Charles Darwin for misunderstanding his theory of evolution.

In a bizarre step, the Church will address its contrition directly to the Victorian scientist himself, even though he died 126 years ago. But the move was greeted with derision last night, with Darwin’s great-great-grandson dismissing it as “pointless” and other critics branding it “ludicrous.”

The sources he quotes (with the exception of the kicker quote at the end from one of Darwin’s more charitable descendants), generally give the apology a firm thumbs-down. They range from one of Darwin’s great-great grandsons to the British President of the National Secular Association.

If there are theologians and clergy defending the denomination’s attempt to make reparations, they don’t appear in Petre’s article.

That being said, there is a deliciously guilty pleasure in reading quotes like this:

Former Conservative Minister Ann Widdecombe, who left the Church of England to become a Roman Catholic, said: “It’s absolutely ludicrous. Why don’t we have the Italians apologising for Pontius Pilate?”

“We’ve already apologised for slavery and for the Crusades. When is it all going to stop? It’s insane and makes the Church of England look ridiculous.”

The Telegraph played the story relatively straight.

In a related, and probably more significant story, biologist and Church of England clergyman Michael Reiss resigned from his post as director of education at the Royal Society after making comments in a speech that were interpreted as support for teaching creationism in schools.

British papers have copious coverage of Reiss’s speech and the resulting donnybrook.

This story crossed the Atlantic, where it hit the Washington Times.

Unlike some of the British media outlets, reporter Al Webb goes to the trouble of defining creationism, a service to readers.

But his opening paragraph makes a few assumptions:

One of the worlds leading biologists, who is also an ordained Anglican priest, has sparked uproar in both religious and scientific circles by campaigning to teach creationism, along with evolution and the “Big Bang” theory in science classrooms.

Where is the evidence that Reiss “one of the world’s leading biologists?” The suggestion that Reiss was “campaigning” to teach creationism is hyperbolic, at the least. Nor does Webb point out, as the British papers do, that his fellow scientists were by no means united in condemning Reiss-or in applauding his resignation.

Members of the British commentariat also championed Reiss. Columnists in some British papers seemed to take the stance that Reiss’s comments were misinterpreted, and his resignation undeserved.

Kudos to the Times Online for its more balanced approach to the news that the Catholic Church is going to hold a conference about evolution in March 2009, 150 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared. Reporter Sara Delaney takes a straightforward approach to the story, offering both context and explanation for the Catholic Church’s historical and contemporary position on this controversial topic.

In the fifth paragraph she quotes a Catholic Church official, who distinguishes the Vatican’s position from that of the Church of England with delicate but deadly diplomacy.

Mgr Ravasi termed the Anglican apology for having condemned Darwin both “curious and significant”. He said that it showed “a mentality different than ours”. An open dialogue between faith and science especially in the light of new developments should be encouraged, “without forcing an accord that doesn’t exist,” Mgr Ravasi added. Other organisers cited Pope Pius XII who said in 1950 that the Church did not prohibit the study of evolution, and Pope John Paul II who said in 1995 that Darwinism was no longer considered “a mere hypothesis”.

On the topic of the church’s response to evolution, Delaney plays it straight, while Petre goes for the obvious potshots. Shedding light instead of heat, her article is much more illuminating

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  • Dan

    According to the quote in the grey box, he is one “of the worlds leading biologists.” Maybe he’s a leading biologist not in this world but one of the other worlds.

  • AJ

    One thing I can say as a Roman Catholic, I am glad all this evolution stuff was never really our fight and that our Popes and magesterium left creation to whom it belongs, God.

  • Caelius Spinator

    I’m surprised to see no one asking Alister McGrath about this apology. He’d be the first person I’d call for comment.

  • Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

    That conference next year will be interesting, AJ. I’m glad that the current Pope is such a smart man-hopefully he’ll continue to move the dialogue forward in a constructive way.

  • Brian Walden

    Hmm… Petre’s article (as well as others) quotes Brown as saying: “The Church made that mistake with Galileo’s astronomy and has since realised its error. Some Church people did it again in the 1860s with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.”

    But the C of E website says: “The church made that mistake with Galileo’s astronomy, and has since realised its error. Some church people did it again in the 1860s with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.”

    To me there’s a big difference between Church and church. Did the the papers get it wrong? Did Brown originally publish it with an uppercase ‘C’ and change it later? When Brown uses the lowercase church does he mean some local church instead of the Church of England? Does Brown think that the Church of England is a part of the Catholic Church (upper- or lowercase ‘C’ it seems he was saying that the same Church who tussled with Galileo tussled with Darwin)? Am I looking way too much into a single letter?

  • Christopher Johnson

    The only story here is the disturbingly compulsion Anglican seem to have for apologizing for things.

  • tmatt


    What you are seeing is different types of journalism style in different publications. We are having the same discussion right now over on MZ’s post about the Episcopal splits in California….

  • Rev. Michael Church

    Love your headline. Trivial, I realize, but I just wanted to say thanks.

  • Jerry

    Elizabeth, this was a great first posting. I can see why you were chosen to join the august group of bloggers here!

  • astorian

    I must have missed the reason for an apology.

    Was Charles Darwin executed for his teachings? Imprisoned? Tortured? Was he ever even mildly inconvenienced by any church? I could have sworn he lived to his seventies, died one of the most revered and honored men in England, and was buried in Westminster Abbey after receiving a state funeral.

    We should ALL be so horribly treated!

  • Dave

    Astorian, here is the apology in its entirety. It’s not long:

    Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well.

    Compared to the fates suffered by early modern heretics, Darwin indeed suffered mildly, but suffer he did and his reputation still does. To the extent that the CoE bears responsibility, it owes an apology — a mild one, which this is.