A “Debate” About Origins

© creativehearts | 123rf.com

Winston Churchill’s famous saying, “History is written by the victors,” is certainly true with regard to the so-called “Huxley-Wilberforce Debate.” It has been regularly portrayed as a classic example of the war between science and religion. According to the popular version of the meeting, Thomas Huxley, a young biologist and defender of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, responded to an insulting question by Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, in a way that exposed both the bishop’s ignorance of science and his ungentlemanly behavior. But, as Jonathan Smith said in his essay on the event, “There was no such thing as the Huxley-Wilberforce debate.”

The exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce took place on June 30, 1860 at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. According to the popular version of the meeting, as Wilberforce completed a 30-minute critique of Darwin and his recently published book, he turned and asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he descended from apes. Huxley is to have responded that he would rather have an ape as an ancestor than a bishop who distorted the truth. You can watch a four-minute excerpt from a PBS documentary, “Evolution” that portrays the Huxley-Wilberforce exchange. A two-hour section of that documentary titled “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” is available here.

But recent historical scholarship concluded that wasn’t really how it actually happened. In The Big Question, Alister McGrath said: “The popular image of Huxley’s triumphant defeat of a reactionary religious opponent of evolution is now generally seen as a myth created by the opponents of organized religion in the 1890s.”

This revisionist account of the meeting does not deny its historical factuality. The new research of the meeting calls into question overblown and inaccurate accounts of its significance and offers an informed reconstruction of the debate, which accounts better for the historical evidence at our disposal.

As McGrath related the events, the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting moved from city to city throughout Britain at the time in order to promote the pursuit of science. In 1860, the Association’s meeting was scheduled to meet in Oxford. Some of the meetings were open to the public, as it seems this one was. This also was the first meeting of the society since Darwin’s book, On the Origin of the Species, had been published the previous year. Darwin was not able to come because of heath reasons, so Huxley was invited in his place.

Wilberforce was not there as a representative of the Church of England. He was invited to speak at the meeting because he was a past vice president of the Association and because he was familiar with Darwin’s writings. He had just written a review of On the Origin of the Species that was to appear in The Quarterly Review soon after the June 30th meeting. McGrath commented:

 It is quite clear from Wilberforce’s careful and insightful published review of Darwin’s Origin of the Species that religious issues did not feature prominently in his mind; the issue was the scientific case for evolution, not its religious implications or complications. The fact that Wilberforce was Bishop of Oxford has clearly led many to conclude that religion was at the forefront of the debate and that Wilberforce opposed Darwin on religious grounds. The evidence dose not support this interpretation of events. . . . Darwin himself remarked, after reading Wilberforce’s review of his work, that it was “uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties.”

McGrath thought the real debate seems to have been between two visions of science and not between science and religion. One view was defined by “naturalist” assumptions, while the other was more open to theistic beliefs. Jonathan Smith also thought that Wilberforce’s case against Darwin was made primarily on scientific and philosophical grounds, not religious ones.

Verbatim quotes of Wilberforce’s question and Huxley’s reply are uncertain. The most detailed journalistic account of their exchange, in the Athenaeum, mentioned neither one. One of the few journalistic accounts ironically said the event was “a sign of toleration, not hostility between science and religion.” And some of those who were at the conference thought that Joseph Hooker (another friend and ally of Darwin’s) gave a more effective defense of evolution at the meeting than Huxley.

Having recently completed his soon-to-be published review of Darwin’s book, Wilberforce repeated many of the observations he made there in his remarks at the Association’s meeting. In his opening comments for the review, Wilberforce said the Origin of the Species was a most readable book, full of facts in natural history. He acknowledged that it had some clear import not only for scientists, “but to every one who is interested in the history of man and of the relations of nature around him to the history and plan of creation.” Towards the end of his review Wilberforce commented that his readers should have noticed that he had objected to Darwin’s views purely on scientific grounds.

We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation.

So where did the legendary account of Huxley vanquishing his arrogant, sneering, scientifically ignorant foe come from? Jonathan Smith said that account was formed by Darwinians and their allies in the 1880s and 1890s. Darwin’s son, Francis, and Huxley’s son, Leonard, gathered reports overwhelmingly from Darwin’s partisans. Most of them were recollections made twenty to forty years after the fact.

The story told by Francis Darwin and Leonard Huxley was, not surprisingly, the story the Darwinians had long told amongst themselves, in which they were the clear victors and natural science stood up to religious ignorance and obscurantism. Once ensconced in the three Life and Letters, this version became the established account, repeated and recycled, often with additional embellishments.

Alister McGrath pointed to a particular recollection by Mrs. Isabella Sidgewick that appeared in the October 1898 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine, in an article entitled “A Grandmother’s tales.” He said her account was idiosyncratic and inconsistent with most of the accounts in circulation or published closer to the time of the meeting of the Association. Another article by J. R. Lucas, “Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter,” made the same point. Lucas also gave the following quote of Mrs. Sidgewick’s recollection from the article:

I was happy enough to be present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr. Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforce. There were so many of us that were eager to hear that we had to adjourn to the great library of the Museum. I can still hear the American accents of Dr Draper’s opening address, when he asked `Air we a fortuitous concourse of atoms?’ and his discourse I seem to remember [was] somewhat dry. Then the Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? On this Mr. Huxley slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure stern and pale, very quiet and very grave, he stood before us, and spoke those tremendous words – words which no one seems sure of now, nor I think, could remember just after they were spoken, for their meaning took away our breath, though it left us in no doubt as to what it was. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to be carried out: I, for one, jumped out of my seat; and when in the evening we met at Dr Daubeney’s, every one was eager to congratulate the hero of the day. I remember that some naive person wished it could come over again; and Mr. Huxley, with the look on his face of the victor who feels the cost of victory, put us aside saying, `Once in a life-time is enough, if not too much.’

Jonathan Smith described how the context of the conference contributed to the exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce. The meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science had already met for two days. In the discussion following a previous presentation, Huxley had affirmed the substantial and significant similarities between humans and apes. Human dignity and privilege were not imperiled by such a connection. Even clergy “had nothing to fear … should it be shown that apes were their ancestors.”

The talk given by John William Draper drew a large crowd because of a rumor that Wilberforce would use the occasion to critique Darwin’s theory. The organizers of the conference had to move it to a larger room because of the size of the audience. Huxley was going to skip the presentation, but was persuaded to attend by Robert Chambers, who said by leaving he would be deserting the evolutionary cause. Draper’s address was followed by a number of comments. Wilberforce’s comments reflected those he made in his article for the Quarterly Review. He said Darwin’s theory was speculative rather than a valid induction from established facts. It also lacked an observational or experimental basis.

In his closing remarks, Wilberforce, who was well known for both his humor and rhetorical skills, played off of Huxley’s remarks two days before, where he had said human privilege and moral responsibility would not be endangered by sharing a genealogy with apes. Wilberforce turned to Huxley and asked him where apes were located in the Huxley family tree. The exact wording is uncertain, but it seems Wilberforce asked Huxley “whether he would prefer a monkey for his grandfather or his grandmother?” This corresponded to what Huxley said in a letter two months after the event, where he said the question was concerning “my personal predilections in the matter of ancestry.”

Huxley stood and said he had heard nothing new in what Wilberforce said, except for the question about his ancestry. Although it was a topic he would not have introduced, he would reply. Smith said Huxley’s report of what he said two months later in a letter was probably fairly accurate:

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessing great means & influence & yet who employs those faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”

Although Huxley’s rejoinder drew cheers and laughter, it certainly didn’t silence the critics or settle the issue. “Significantly, both at the time and many years later, Huxley took pains to deny the widely circulated claim that he had said he would rather be an ape than a bishop or had in any way insulted Wilberforce in his reply.” Several others spoke afterward, a number of who rejected evolution. Joseph Hooker spoke last and it was he who gave the most extensive defense of Darwin’s theory, and the most direct critique of what Wilberforce had said. Opinions at the time as to who “won” the debate were divided. Some thought Huxley had, others thought it was Wilberforce; still others thought it was a draw.

Wilberforce told a correspondent that he had “thoroughly beat” Huxley. Huxley and Hooker were confident the supporters of Darwin had prevailed. Darwin himself thought the exchange was momentous; that it marked a turning point for Darwinism within the scientific community and for its struggle for independence from religious authority.

Smith said it was not surprising that a generation later, when Francis Darwin and Leonard Huxley, drew on the correspondence of their fathers and the recollections of their fathers’ friends and allies, the story of the events on June 30, 1860 were told in that way. Even Leonard Huxley admitted the encounter could not be described as “an immediate and complete triumph for evolutionary doctrine.” However, its importance lay “in the open resistance that was made to authority, at a moment when even a drawn battle was hardly less effectual than acknowledged victory. Instead of being crushed under ridicule, the new theories secured a hearing.”

So the “debate” between Huxley and Wilberforce did not happen the way it is widely presented and understood today. The “received” account was codified when Darwinian thought was in its ascendency some twenty to forty years later. J. R. Lucas astutely observed, “The quarrel between religion and science came about not because of what Wilberforce said, but because it was what Huxley wanted; and as Darwin’s theory gained supporters, they took over his view of the incident.”

Alister McGrath pointed to another facet of the 1860 Oxford conference of the Association that was often overlooked. “On Sunday July 1, the day after the confrontation between Wilberforce and Huxley, the conference delegates heard a sermon preached on the theme of ‘The Present Relations of Science to Religion.’” Its significance lies in highlighting the harmony possible between the scientific investigation of nature within general revelation and the special revelation of God in Scripture. The minister who gave that sermon, Fredrick Temple, would go on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He asked if science and the Bible were foes. And if not foes, were they so distinct as to have no point of contact?  “Not so.” The harmony between them would not be found in the “petty details of fact,” but rather in the “deep identity of tone, character, and spirit which pervade both” the book of Nature and the book of Revelation. “The more the Bible is studied, and the more nature is studied, the deeper will be found the harmony between them in character, the more assured the certainty that whomever inspired the one also made the other.”

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.