Oxford University held its first debate on the subject of evolution in 1860, just months after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Then, the Bishop of Winchester, Samuel Wilberforce, famously enquired of the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley whether it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that he traced his descent from a monkey.
Yesterday, the university hosted what seemed tantalisingly like a similar clash of great minds, between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, inset right, and Professor Richard Dawkins, inset left, – like Huxley, a bulldog on behalf of Darwin. But anyone hoping for a dust-up would have been disappointed. The cleric even confessed his belief in evolution and agreed with Dawkins that humans shared non-human ancestors.
The gentility of Dawkins and Williams's confrontation was in sharp contrast to its febrile context. Rather than arguing, they seemed intent on finding areas of agreement. Did the Archbishop agree that there was probably no "first man"; that human evolution was gradual and that – in Dawkins' formulation – no pair of Homo erectus parents gazed down proudly at their Homo sapiens newborn? He did. "The Pope thinks that," Dawkins claimed. "I'll ask him sometime," Williams replied.
Could Dawkins disprove the existence of God? He could not, he confessed, describing himself not as an atheist, but as an agnostic – to gasps from Twitter, where the unlikely #dawkinsarchbishop hashtag was trending. On his own atheism scale of one-to-seven, the Professor suggested, "the probability of any supernatural creator existing is very, very low, so let's say I'm a 6.9".
They did, finally, come to verbal blows – or gentle nudges, at least – over the origins of the universe. "The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were not inspired to do 21st century physics. They were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know," Williams argued. "In the first book of the Bible is the basic information – the universe depends on God, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe and humanity has made rather a mess of it."
"I am baffled," responded Dawkins, "by the way sophisticated theologians who know Adam and Eve never existed still keep talking about it." God, he said, "cluttered up" his scientific worldview. "I don't see clutter coming into it," Williams replied. "I'm not thinking of God as an extra who has to be shoehorned into it."
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