The date is June 30, 1860. The place is the Oxford University Museum. Inside, hundreds of onlookers gather around a heated debate. The topic? Evolution versus creationism.
The Huxley-Wilberforce debate – also known as the “1860 Oxford evolution debate” – was a series of lectures about the scientific evidence for evolution and whether it could coexist with a literal interpretation of the Bible.
The debate was dominated by its two individuals: Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Huxley, nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog,” was a biologist and an avid defender of Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species. Wilberforce, also called “Soapy Sam” for his “greasy” demeanor, was the Bishop of Oxford and a proponent of biblical literalism.
The discussion is remembered both as the first public rebuff to creationism and second for a particularly memorable moment in which Huxley criticized Wilberforce by choosing to be an ape’s descendant over that of an intellectually dishonest man.
Darwin himself was too sick to attend. In his absence, the fierce debate raged on.
According to science author Bill Bryson, “more than a thousand people crowded into the chamber.” (Vivian Green puts it at “just” 700.) In this literally and rhetorically packed room, it’s unfortunate that no exact transcript of this now-famous debate exists. Eyewitnesses and the debaters themselves reported on what happened on that July morning, with agreement on the broad strokes of the arguments.
On that July morning, evolution itself was new—a nascent science, with theoretical and evidentiary holes yet to fill. Gilley and Loades note criticism from Wilberforce (who said Darwin’s Origin of Species was “the most unphilosophical work he [had] ever read”), from Darwin’s geology professor Adam Sedgwick (who harshly criticized Darwin in an article for The Spectator), and from Superintendent of the Natural History Department of the British Museum Richard Owen (who bitterly attacked the Origin of the Species for the Edinburgh Review).
It is in this context that Wilberforce’s defeat – and he was defeated – became so important. Science itself had not come around to evolution. The work of Huxley, Hooker, and others would transform evolution from the scientific underdog to the very foundations of biology.
Wilberforce began the debate with a strong defense of creationism. Evolution was then an emerging science, and Wilberforce exploited its weaknesses — though just twenty years later, evolution would become an unshakeable rock of modern biology. According to eyewitnesses, Wilberforce –“now strictly logical, now witheringly dismissive, always flamboyant” opened with a strong criticism of evolution that lasted half an hour. He criticized its evidence, its assumptions, and its moral implications. He also ended with a sarcastic jab, asking Huxley if he considered himself descended from an ape through his grandmother or grandfather.
According to Green, Huxley, then an undergraduate, retorted: “[A] man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would be a MAN, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with an success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions, and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.” In short, Huxley preferred the disgrace of an ape to the ignorance of his opponent.
This was apparently quite the retort. Isabel Sidgwick, writing in Macmillan’s Magazine thirty-eight years later, recalls that “no one doubted [Huxley’s] meaning, and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to be carried out; I, for one, jumped out of my seat.” Joseph Hooker’s contemporary letter to Darwin notes that “[t]he battle waxed hot. Lady Brewster fainted”.
We cannot know the exact words of Huxley or Wilberforce, as many purported versions of both speeches exist. However, based on eyewitness testimony, it is almost undisputed that Wilberforce raised this point, and Huxley forcefully put it down. This rebuttal – or at least its fundamental idea – became famous and is now a useful tool for teaching evolution. For what does it matter if we descend from apes? Are we not still human?
Sitting in the crowd was Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle on which Darwin first imagined evolution. Vivian Green reports that FitzRoy became so angered by Huxley that he stood tall, raised a massive Bible above his head, and “implored the audience to believe God rather than man”. However, there’s little evidence to believe FitzRoy did anything noteworthy during the debate, as contemporary accounts fail to mention this boisterous action.
If you believe the debaters, they each did.
Apparently, 1860’s Oxford was quite unable to make up its mind.
Despite making quite a stir with his response to Wilberforce’s ape comment, the rest of Huxley’s speech was reportedly unmemorable. Huxley was a poor speaker and could not engage the crowd. In a letter to his friend Darwin, Joseph Hooker wrote that:
Well, Sam Oxon got up and spouted for half an hour with inimitable spirit, ugliness and emptiness and unfairness[.] [….] Huxley answered admirably & turned the tables,9 but he could not throw his voice over so large an assembly, nor command the audience; & he did not allude to Sam’s weak points nor put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience.
Despite his shortcomings, scholars and eyewitnesses agree that Huxley won on substance, if not presentation. However, many scholars are of the mind that Joseph Hooker, who spoke on botany (his field of expertise) and how botany could be best explained through evolution, finally put the factual criticisms of evolution to rest. And perhaps more importantly, he spoke loudly and with clarity – unlike Huxley. Wilberforce, no botanist and not formally trained in science, could not respond.
The debate itself was not widely publicized. Summaries of the debate were published only in The Athenaeum, The Manchester Guardian, and Jackson’s Oxford Journal. No transcript of the debate ever existed. It is unlikely that many members of the general public were aware of its importance at the time.
However, there is little doubt about how Darwin viewed the situation. In a letter to Joseph Hooker, he wrote:
I had no idea you had this power. I have read lately so many hostile views, that I was beginning to think that perhaps I was wholly in the wrong, and that — was right when he said the whole subject would be forgotten in ten years; but now that I hear that you and Huxley will fight publicly (which I am sure I never could do), I fully believe that our cause will, in the long-run, prevail. I am glad I was not in Oxford, for I should have been overwhelmed, with my [health] in its present state.
Darwin turned out to be right. Despite this lack of initial publicity, the debate has grown to near-mythic status as the first face-off between biblical literalism and the growing science of evolution. As Ian Hesketh writes in Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate:
The Oxford debate did ‘reverberate’ throughout England and other countries, but not because Huxley put ecclesiastical authority in its place. In fact, it was a rather narrow debate among a few scholars that evolved into a theatrical narrative told in letters and in conversations, in books and in periodical articles, until it came to symbolize a shifting reality wherein evolution was becoming scientific orthodoxy, largely replacing theories that promoted species as individual divine creations.
In particular, Huxley’s response to the Bishop – that he would rather be related to an ape than someone who uses their intellect to attack science – is widely repeated. Despite uncertainty over precise wording, Huxley’s message is clear: intellectual honesty beats pride, every time.
Huxley’s rebuttal, now more than 150 years old, rings true across the ages. Whether we are ape or we are human, science only works when we don’t let our personal beliefs get in the way.
For those who wish to visit, Oxford University Museum of Natural History (the site of the debate) has recently created an exhibit on “Sensing Evolution”. A perfect legacy for the work of Darwin and Huxley.