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 (pictured at left) 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.
The organized movement to establish an annual International Darwin Day Celebration began with three Darwin enthusiasts: Dr. Robert Stephens, who motivated the Humanist Community in Silicon Valley to initiate an annual Darwin Day Celebration in 1995; Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, who similarly organized annual Darwin Day events at the University of Tennessee beginning in 1997; and Amanda Chesworth, who joined Stephens to officially incorporate the Darwin Day Program in New Mexico in 2000.
The Darwin Day Program was reincorporated two years later in California as the Darwin Day Celebration, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational corporation promoting public education about science—and encouraging the celebration of science and humanity throughout the global community. The Darwin Day Celebration also established an Advisory Board of prominent scientists to provide assistance on questions of scientific importance.
The original website for Darwin Day was created in 2003 and can be accessed here.
In anticipation of Darwin’s bicentennial birthday on Feb.12th, 2009, the Darwin Day Celebration paired with the American Humanist Association to support the growth of Darwin Day activities. The American Humanist Association became the lead agency charged with amplifying the International Darwin Day Foundation’s call for celebration, activism, and international cooperation for the advancement of science, education, and human well-being. In 2022, responsibility for maintaining the Darwin Day website was transferred to the National Center for Science Education. NCSE’s deputy director Glenn Branch discussed the transfer in “The Next Evolution of the Darwin Day Website.”