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The High Priests of Evolution

The 19th Century High Priest of evolution was Thomas Huxley. He recognised the power struggle in Victorian England and the role played by the aristocracy and the established Church. He realised that "atheism" was too radical a word (because atheists were associated in the public mind with socialists thirsting for revolutionary reform) so he coined another to describe his own belief in "science" as the route to truth. That word was "agnosticism", and he made it very clear that science has no place for God. He seized on Darwinism as a scientific justification for rejecting design in nature and for explaining the fossil record (his own specialism). "Teleology", he wrote, "received its death blow at Mr. Darwin's hands" (Huxley, 1904, pp.178-179).

Huxley championed Darwinism in public forums, so much so that he became known as "Darwin's Bulldog". He is best remembered for a public debate with Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, where he is generally thought to have trounced his opponent (but see Brooke, 2001). He actively promoted a "science vs religion" agenda and found ways of capturing the imagination of younger men. Allies were sought out to promote this agenda, and a dining club was founded in 1864, continuing until 1892. The conversation over the meal was about "science" (in the "agnostic" sense of the word), and the achievement of scientific hegemony. This influential group was referred to as the X-Club and it is largely to them that the conflict metaphor (to describe the relationship between science and faith) became dominant (Russell, 1989).

Huxley had no qualms about using Christian language to promote this agenda. Scientific sermons were preached; hymns to nature were composed; Christianity was presented as superstition and the protector of ignorance. Wilcox (1994) wrote:

"The Naturalists succeeded. The "Young Guard" used the trappings of religion to sacralize their "science." Three centuries of cooperation between science and religion were forgotten and their history was rewritten as "warfare." Hymns to nature were sung at popular lectures before the giving of "lay sermons" by a member of Galton's "Scientific Priesthood." Museums were built to resemble cathedrals, and following frantic string-pulling by Lubbock (a member of the "X" Club) Charles Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey. The new church was established (Moore, 1982)."

In 1895, Pall Mall magazine could declare that victory for Darwinism (and Huxley) was won: "The Origin of Species ... which [was] anathema to the generation passing away [is now] blessed by bishops and quoted by rural deans". (Quoted by Tudge, 1997 ). Desmond (1994) was later to describe Huxley as "Evolution's High Priest". (For more on Huxley, see Nelson (1996)

Over a century later, we have a new "High Priest" of evolution. Richard Dawkins is named thus in a report for National Geographic Magazine by James Owen (2004). Like Huxley, he wages a war against all religions, describing them as superstition and havens for the ignorant. Like Huxley, he sees Darwinism as scientific justification for atheism (we have no political overtones for that term today, so it can be freely used) and he continues to affirm that: "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist" (Dawkins, 1986, p.6). Dawkins was quoted in the Guardian (2nd June 1999) as saying, "I'm like a pit bull terrier being released into the ring, as a spectator sport, to attack religious people . . . I've done it once or twice." This has led to him being identified as "Darwin's pit bull", taking over from Huxley who was known as "Darwin's bulldog". The philosopher Peter Williams appears to think " Darwin's Rottweiler " is apt (also in Philosophy Now , 2004).

Dawkins freely uses Christian terminology, notably in his book titles: " The Blind Watchmaker ", " River out of Eden ", " A Devil's Chaplain " and " The Ancestor's Tale ". In " Unweaving the Rainbow ", he argues for a sense of mystery and beauty in science, recognising the problem that once people move away from Christian theism, purpose and meaning in life have no objective reality. Further comment on this topic is here . Owen draws attention to this liberal use of religious terminology when he writes:

"In telling the story of evolution, it might seem odd that Dawkins, a self-proclaimed atheist, should cast himself as a pilgrim. Then again, he has been called the high priest of evolution, with Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species as his bible."

Another remarkable quality of Dawkins is that he sees no inconsistence in being a Darwinian in his thinking about origins and yet being opposed to the application of Darwinian principles to human society.

Of course, we humans have disrupted our own natural evolution: Medicinal drugs, education, and rule of law have largely eliminated the survival-of-the-fittest process. Yet this doesn't trouble Dawkins.

"Most of us have had our lives saved my medical science, probably more than once, and I am all for it," he said in the interview. "As an academic scientist I am a passionate Darwinian, in the sense that I believe Darwinian natural selection is the explanation for all life. But as a citizen I am an anti-Darwinian! I do not want to see the ruthless callousness of natural selection taking its toll of human life and happiness." (Owen, 2004)

This existential escape from the real world has been the subject of comment elsewhere, notably by Phillip Johnson in his essay "The Robot Rebellion of Richard Dawkins.

In the past, Dawkins has been vehement in his views about advocates of creationism. In this interview, he appears to be more accommodating:

Dawkins admits to feeling frustrated that so many Americans appear to reject Darwin's theory of evolution in favor of the creationist concept that God created humans in their present form. He said,

"I know perfectly well that these people are not stupid but ignorant. Ignorance is no crime and it is easily cured by education. What annoys me is the religious groups who actively work to prevent scientific education. And it doesn't just annoy me. It annoys respectable theologians who worry that creationism besmirches the reputation of true religion." (Owen, 2004)

However, the problem here is that most of the educational reforms being sought are not to introduce the teaching of creation and nor are they are not seeking to prevent scientific education. Those seeking reforms are arguing for more education - an education that gives students the resources to evaluate theories presented to them. For more on this, see here.

Whilst the "High Priest" terminology communicates much about the roles people may play, it is worth pointing out that biblically based Christians do not have any human priests, for our only High Priest is Jesus Christ. It is a fundamental principle in Protestantism that the human priesthood has been abolished, to be replaced with the priesthood of all believers. It is true that many seek structures that allow hierarchical control of groups of people - but these structures are not in the New Testament and they are not part of biblical Christianity. Priests mediate between persons and God, and there is only one who has authority to mediate: Jesus Christ. In the world of science, the last thing we want are priests or high priests: the essence of science is empiricism and the testing of hypotheses. What we need is leaders, teachers and guides who will help us in the process of evaluation of different hypotheses and theories - and this is exactly what the advocates of educational reform are seeking. We do not need people to ram evolution down our throats and insist that dissent is a sign of ignorance.

David J. Tyler
November 2004


Brooke, J.H. (2001) The Wilberforce-Huxley Debate: Why Did It Happen? Science & Christian Belief , 13 (2), 127-141.

Dawkins, R. 1986, The Blind Watchmaker , W. W. Norton, New York.

Desmond, A., 1997, Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest , Addison Wesley.

Huxley T.H., 1904, Lectures and Essays , Macmillan: New York.

Nelson, P.A., 1996, Review of Huxley: The Devil's Disciple. The Bulldog's Life: Part I . Origins & Design , 17:1.

Owen, J., 2004, Evolution's "High Priest" Returns With New "Tale" . National Geographic News , November 15, 2004

Russell, C.A. 1989, The conflict metaphor and its social origins, Science & Christian Belief , 1 (1), 3-26.

Tudge, C., 1997, Huxley: Evolution's High Priest. - book reviews , New Statesman , April 11, 1997

Wilcox, D.L. 1994, Response to Leslie K. Johnson. Evolution as History and the History of Evolution , In: Buell, J and Hearn, V. (eds), Darwinism: Science or Philosophy , Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Richardson, TX., Chapter 9a.

Williams, P., 2004, Darwin's Rottweiler & the Public Understanding of Science, Philosophy Now , Issue 44, Jan/Feb. Text at:

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