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Dawkins takes on the ex-bishop

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Battle of the Oxford heavyweights over evolution turns into a bit of a love-up. Adam Rutherford keeps score

It's not often you see two heavyweights limbering up for a prize fight among the dinosaurs of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Even rarer when the warm-up is set to the strains of Haydn.

Last night Richard Dawkins and Lord Harries of Pentregarth (formerly Bishop of Oxford) did just that. They revisited the great evolution debate between Thomas Huxley (who was representing a poorly Darwin) and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in the same location in 1860. Both claimed victory, though the consensus is that Huxley won on points.

Huxley was known as Darwin's Bulldog, due, I presume, to his pugnacious defence of Darwin, rather than his pug-like appearance. Wilberforce fiercely opposed the science of evolution, and in the debate slung mud, asking if Huxley's ape ancestors were on his mother or father's side. Huxley cut back saying that he'd rather claim kindred with an ape than with a man who made such poor use of his intellect.

There was no such vitriol last night. Dawkins is more like Darwin's border collie: patient, intelligent and forcefully industrious. The discussion centred not on Darwin or evolution, but on unanswerable questions of religion. That was disappointing because what is really important about Darwin is that he gave us a watertight theory of evolution, and that idea is what we should celebrate. It took a member of the audience to remind the panel of that. Dawkins is now better known for being an atheist than for his outstanding record as an evolutionary biologist and a science communicator.

Dawkins refuses to engage with the creationists who cause those of a more rational disposition such ire. He's wisely following the maxim that suggests you should never argue with an idiot: the best possible outcome is that you win an argument with an idiot. Instead, in the debate, he conversed jovially with someone who agrees with him on every point about evolution. The referee, Jeremy Paxman, tried to inject some controversy into proceedings but soon gave up as the atmosphere remained congenial.

Harries is about as liberal as ex-bishops get, and an epochal distance from the biblical literalists with whom he shares a deity. And this was highlighted as a problem. Harries' views are aligned with Dawkins about the truth of evolution, but out of touch with a large proportion of his flock. It is not clear how Harries or the church plans to deal with that.

Before the big fight, Harries had tried to up the stakes with a little trash talking in the press, but it wasn't convincing. In fact, together they sound like two old pals having a warm ding-dong over a pint. As a result, it was a thoroughly pleasant evening of gentle sparring. Although science didn't feature much, the tone was much more in line with Darwin's humble disposition, and a far cry from the irritable mudslinging that so often characterises the clash of evolution and religion. For the record, Dawkins won. On points.



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