Dawkins, Kenny and Williams at Oxford

You will, no doubt be aware that in 1860, the year of the publication of Darwin’s, On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a debate on the subject of evolution took place at the University of Oxford. A number of leading scientists and philosophers participated. During that debate, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce is famously said to have asked notable biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he had descended from a monkey.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, this prestigious university held a similar debate between the most vociferous atheist of our time, Richard Dawkins, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Rowan Williams, both of whom were, at some time, tutors and scholars at Oxford. The debate was chaired by the eminent philosopher, Sir Anthony Kenny.

A highlight of the debate, for me, was when Richard Dawkins, having introduced supporting evidence for the idea of determinism was gently put in his place by Sir Anthony Kenny, who not only chaired the discussion, but also made significant contributions throughout. Richard did not quite have the strength of character to admit his error, preferring to resort instead to the comment that perhaps the university should have invited a philosopher in his place.

A second highlight, for me, was when Sir Anthony Kenny asked Richard why he found it acceptable to contemplate the idea of the multiverse and yet found it unacceptable to contemplate spiritual matters; an excellent question when you consider that we can have no possible contact with either realm of existence, should they be a part of the wider reality within which we exist.

Dawkins is, as you would expect, strongest when he is in his comfort zone speaking about genetics and the process of natural selection for which he is most famous. It was a delight to hear that the archbishop is a bit of a fan of Richard Dawkins’ writing too – another highlight for me. In response to the question about why bad things happen, Richard was in his element. His strongest point is that the world is exactly as you would expect it to be if evolution (not God) was in control. He was weakest, in my view, when speaking of the anthropic principle.

To some extent thinking on his feet about the origins of language, Richard seemed forced to concede that it must have happened suddenly and not gradually, but he was keen to point out that this may have been a unique event. This surprised me a little because he is sure to know of the work of Stephen Jay Gould, a leading evolutionist who is in favour of what he calls the punctuated equilibrium interpretation of the fossil record – a theory he developed whilst studying The Burgess Shale. Essentially, Gould says there were many such ‘step’ events in the history of evolution.

In response to the ‘why bad stuff happens’ question, the archbishop turns out to be a theistic evolutionist i.e. he believe that evolution is God’s creative process. It was really refreshing to hear a Christian speaking eloquently about this and other important subjects that have engaged so much of humankind’s collective thinking. All in all, the full debate is well worth watching. If you have about an hour and a half to spare, you can watch it here.

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