The Myth

The following passage summarises the popular view of one of the most famous (or infamous) incidents in the hagiography of evolution — the exchange between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley in Oxford on 30 June 1860:

For half an hour the Bishop spoke savagely ridiculing Darwin and Huxley, and then he turned to Huxley, who sat with him on the platform. In tones icy with sarcasm he put his famous question: was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from an ape?. . . .At the Bishop's question, Huxley had clapped the knee of the surprised scientist beside him and whispered: "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands". . . .[Huxley} tore into the arguments Wilberforce had used. . . .Working himself up to his climax, he shouted that he would feel no shame in having an ape as an ancestor, but he would be ashamed of a brilliant man who plunged into scientific questions of which he knew nothing. In effect, Huxley said he would prefer an ape to the Bishop as an ancestor, and the crowd had no doubt of his meaning.

The room dissolved into an uproar. Men jumped to their feet, shouting at this direct insult to the clergy. Lady Brewster fainted. Admiral Fitzroy, the former Captain of the Beagle, waved a bible aloft, shouting over the tumult that it, rather than the viper he had harboured in his ship, was the true and unimpeachable authority. . . . . .

The issue had been joined. From that hour on, the quarrel over the elemental issue that the world believed was involved, science versus religion, was to rage unabated." [Ruth Moore, Charles Darwin (1957)]

Like all myths there are some facts in this story, but the truth is rather different.

The Context

The meeting held at Oxford on Saturday 30 June 1860 was at the end of a week of lectures and discussions held by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). The BAAS meetings were designed to bring to the attention of the wider public the latest discoveries and theories of scientists and were always very well attended by audiences from diverse backgrounds. The BAAS had been founded in 1831 as an anti-radical organisation to present a conservative Anglican science to the public in order to counter the influence of radicals who were trying to use it to support their campaigns for social, political and economic reform. In particular the political radicals were using evolution as a weapon to attack aristocratic and Church of England powers and privileges.

The "evolution debate" had started in England in the late eighteenth century with the publication of Erasmus Darwin's poetry and his medical treatise Zoonomia. These ideas were suppressed in the first decades of the nineteenth century because Britain was fighting a series of wars against Napoleon: evolution was believed to be a major threat to social and economic stability by those who formed the government and ruling elite. In 1816 following the final defeat of Napoleon, French anatomical and evolutionary ideas had been imported to the medical schools in Edinburgh and later London. Radicals in both cities used these ideas to justify their case for reform of parliament and the learned societies which controlled access to positions of power in Britain. Their reformist campaign was popular among artisans and the rising middle class who were disenfranchised at the time.

In 1831 the so-called "reform crisis" was reaching a climax so a group of gentleman scholars and Oxford dons founded the BAAS in order to promote "God's order and rule" in the natural sciences, and to guarantee "the continuous acceptance of the leadership claims of traditional rulers." Baas promulgated the myth of the unbiased observer, the "scientist" as William Whewell called him, who would study neutral nature in search of evidence which would then be passed to the rest of society. Any political message or motive would be excluded from his work. The BAAS was to hold annual meetings in different provincial towns and cities in Britain so that the latest discoveries could be passed to the wider public by these "neutral" researchers. The meetings were immediately popular and very well attended. It was at one of these meetings held in Oxford in 1847 that Bishop Wilberforce had preached a sermon against the radical evolutionary ideas presented in Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, an immediate and highly controversial best seller, that brought the fact of evolution to the attention of very many readers. By showing that life and mankind are integral parts of an evolving universe, the anonymous author had made the idea of evolution respectable and boosted its support among moderate reformers. Those in authority thought that Wilberforce had effectively and decisively refuted the arguments presented in Vestiges and discredited the evidence provided it.

In the 1850s the fact that evolutionary processes are an integral part of the material universe continued to gain support. Vestiges, Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos, and the writings of Herbert Spencer contributed greatly to this trend. The expanding middle class formed a ready audience for these views, while at the same time a new generation of liberal minded clergy had entered the Anglican church. In 1860 a group of them published Essays and Reviews which openly challenged the Genesis myth and biblical literalism: this volume alone "inflamed more passions in a year than Charles Darwin managed in a lifetime." Darwin's Origin of Species was published two months before Essays and Reviews and was engulfed by the intellectual storm which followed. Origin of Species managed to convert a previously skeptical T. H. Huxley and a handful of influential men of science to the cause of evolution, if not to the radical politics with which some still associated it. Wilberforce had written a scathing review of Origin for an article published in The Quarterly Review in July 1860, in which he demolished Darwin's pretensions to Baconian science and pointed to many other critical weaknesses in his argument. It was probably the text of this article that Wilberforce used as the basis for his speech against Darwin and natural selection as a process causing evolution at the Oxford meeting.

The Oxford Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, June 1860

The meeting of the BAAS was held in the week of 25 -30 June in Oxford where bishop Wilberforce held the honorary post of vice president because it was in his see. On Thursday 28 June C. Daubeney had given a lecture on "On the final causes of the sexuality in plants, with particular reference to Mr. Darwin's work ..." Robert Owen and Huxley were in the audience where a heated debate erupted over Darwin's theory of natural selection. Owen referred to a lecture that he had given in 1857 in which he had argued that the anatomical differences between the brains of gorillas and man were significantly greater than those between gorillas and lower primates. According to Owen these facts would enable the public to "come to some conclusions ... of the truth of Mr. Darwin's theory". Huxley strongly disagreed with Owen and referred to some research of his own on the brains of chimpanzees and gorillas that he claimed directly contradicted Owen's conclusions. This head-on intellectual brawl left both men emotionally and physically exhausted, and neither planned to attend the Saturday 30 June meeting when Darwin's ideas would again be the subject for the main speaker. In fact Owen did not attend, but Huxley was persuaded to do so in the morning by Chambers, the then still-anonymous author of Vestiges and a strong supporter of evolution.

On Saturday afternoon the American scientist J. W. Draper spoke for an hour on the "Intellectual development of Europe considered with reference to the views of Mr Darwin." The meeting was held in the Zoological Museum in which over 70 — some reported over 100 — people were packed. The atmosphere was extremely hot and stuffy. Several accounts of the meeting written at different times by various witnesses exist: it is upon these that historians have tried to reconstruct the course of events. None of them agree on the details. According to "Harpocrates," who wrote the The Morning Chronicle on 9 July, Wilberforce may have asked: "Whether, in the vast shaky state of the law of development, as laid down by Darwin, any one can be so enamoured of this so-called law, or hypothesis, as to go into jubilation for his great great grandfather having been an ape or a gorilla?" Another correspondent to The Glasgow Herald of 4 July who wrote under the pseudonym "a well-known townsman" called "J.S." thought that Wilberforce had remarked that 'it was of little consequence to himself whether or not his grandfather might be called a monkey or not.' " The ornithologist A. Newton was also present. In a letter to his brother he wrote:

"In the Nat. Hist. Section we had another hot Darwinian debate ... After [lengthy preliminaries] Huxley was called upon by Henslow to state his views at greater length, and this brought up the Bp. of Oxford ... Referring to what Huxley had said two days before, about after all its not signifying to him whether he was descended from a Gorilla or not, the Bp. chafed him and asked whether he had a preference for the descent being on the father's side or the mother's side? This gave Huxley the opportunity of saying that he would sooner claim kindred with an Ape than with a man like the Bp. who made so ill a use of his wonderful speaking powers to try and burke, by a display of authority, a free discussion on what was, or was not, a matter of truth, and reminded him that on questions of physical science 'authority' had always been bowled out by investigation, as witness astronomy and geology. A lot of people afterwards spoke ... the feeling of the meeting was very much against the Bp."

On 2 July Hooker, who also spoke in the debate, sent his version of events in a letter to Darwin:

"Well Sam Oxen got up and spouted for half an hour with inimitable spirit, ugliness and emptiness and unfairness. . . . Huxley answered admirably and turned the tables, but he could not throw his voiceover so large an assembly, nor command the audience; and he did not allude to Sam's weak points nor put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience.

My blood boiled, I felt myself a dastard; now I swore to myself that I would smite that Amalekite, Sam, hip and thigh. . . .There and then I smashed him amid rounds of applause. I hit him in the wind and then proceeded to demonstrate in a few words: (1) that he could never have read your book, and (2) that he was absolutely ignorant of the rudiments of Botanical Science. I said a few more on the subject of my own experience and conversion. . . .Sam was shut up — had not one word to say in reply, and the meeting was dissolved forthwith" [Hooker's italics]. Hooker's account is supported by a long report in the July 14 Athenaeum that stated that Wilberforce had spoken for half an hour in which he presented a summary of his critique which was later published in the Quarterly Review . The journalist allotted a short paragraph to Huxley but made no mention of apes, only that he had spoken briefly and did not refute in detail any of the bishop's arguments. Instead he asserted that evolution was not a matter of speculation but a theory supported by a large amount of evidence even if the processes which caused it were largely unknown and could not be observed.

Huxley recalled this on 9 September in a letter to his friend Dyson: "If then, said I, the question is put to me that I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule to a grave scientific discussion - I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." The Athenaeum's reporter was impressed by Hooker's riposte to Wilberforce: " In the first place, his Lordship, in his eloquent address, had as it appeared to him (Hooker), completely misunderstood Mr. Darwin's hypothesis: his Lordship intimated that this maintained the doctrine of the transmutation of existing species one into another, and had confounded this with that of the successive development of species by variation and natural selection. The first of these doctrines was so wholly opposed to the facts, reasonings and results of Mr. Darwin's work, that he could not conceive how any one who had read it could make such a mistake - the whole book, indeed, being a protest against that doctrine."

Wilberforce wrote after the event: "On Saturday Professor Henslow ... called on me by name to address the Section on Darwin's theory. So I could not escape and had quite a long fight with Huxley. I think I thoroughly beat him." B. Stewart, director of the Kew Observatory, wrote afterward that, "I think the Bishop had the best of it".

It is clear that comments about apes and ancestry were made by Wilberforce to Huxley, and that the latter made a reply. It is possible that Wilberforce was trying to make a joke at Huxley's expense by alluding to the debate of two days before. Wilberforce had a reputation for being a funny and interesting speaker, (which was probably why the room was so full), but that the joke failed, as Canon Farrar recalled nearly 40 years later:

"His [Wilberforce's] words. . . did not appear vulgar, nor insolent nor personal, but flippant. He had been talking of the perpetuity of species in birds: and then denying a fortiori the derivation of the species Man from Ape, he rhetorically invoked the help of feeling: and said (I swear to the sense of the form of the sentence, if not to the words) "If anyone were to be willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother." It was (you see)the arousing of antipathy about degrading women to the Quadrumana (four-footed apes). It was not to the point, but it was the purpose. It did not sound insolent, but unscientific and unworthy of the zoological argument which he had been sustaining. It was a bathos. Your father's reply. . . .showed that there was a vulgarity as well as a folly in the Bishop's words; and the impression distinctly was, that the Bishop's party had left the room, felt abashed; and recognized that the Bishop had forgotten how to behave like a gentleman.

The victory of your father, was not the ironical dexterity shown by him, but the fact that he had got a victory in respect of manners and good breeding. You must remember that the whole audience was made up of gentlefolk, who were not prepared to endorse anything vulgar.

The speech which really left its mark scientifically on the meeting, was the short one of Hooker. . . . I should say that to fair minds, the intellectual impression left by the discussion was that the Bishop had stated some facts about the perpetuity of species, but that no one had really contributed any valuable point to the opposite except Hooker. . . . but that your father had scored a victory over Bishop Wilberforce in the question of good manners."

Canon Farrar was probably as near to being neutral as any of the witnesses could be. He was a friend of Huxley and invited him to speak to fellow clerics about Darwin's ideas on evolution. He had no personal stake in the issue and was trying to be fair to both sides so his opinion must be considered before any judgement and conclusions are made.

The Legacy

Popular accounts of the debate as quoted from R. Moore are hagiography rather than history and can be discounted. Oxford academic Dr Diane Purkiss' comment that the debate "was really the first time Christianity had ever been asked to square off against science in a public forum in the whole of its history" is also questionable, based on the evidence presented here. With hindsight it is clear that by 1860 the arguments for evolution which had been made over the previous 80 years had been accepted by a large number of people. In particular the arguments and evidence presented by Chambers, Spencer, A von Humboldt, and many others was widely known and respected, and helped to inform many people's views on the subject. Owen had replaced the old Natural Theology interpretations of anatomy with a more materialistic approach, without conceding that evolution had occurred, but this did not prevent others from doing so, and many did. A new generation of students who had been taught Owen's anatomy were unencumbered by the preconceptions of Natural Theology because they were aware of the wider literature and could consider the possibilities of evolution in a new light. Those who continued to reject evolution included a large number of men of science in addition to members of the clergy — who were often but not always one and the same — many of whom belonged to an older generation. Huxley and Hooker were two non-clerical scientists who had been convinced by Darwin, Lyell, who was not at the meeting, was another. These were men of enormous or potential influence: it was they rather than the general public who were prime targets for Darwin's book. So much attention has been devoted to the views of this small group and their changes of opinion that the bigger picture has been ignored.

A case could be made for saying that for the many clerics in the audience, the underlying conflict was between traditional Anglicanism as represented by Wilberforce and liberal (or Broadchurch) Anglicanism as represented by the authors of Essays and Reviews. Wilberforce was trying to defend Creation and a more literal interpretation of the Bible whereas Hooker was challenging this view. In the first half of the nineteenth century German theological scholars had shown that the Bible was a product of men, not the divine word of God: it was this that Essays and Reviews emphasised. For some younger clerics Wilberforce represented a view of the natural world that was being replaced and if Christianity was to remain relevant it had to change.

The same was true of the scientific argument. The acceptance of evolution as a fact had spread among the scientific and lay communities largely through popular writing: it was generally members of an older generation who continued to oppose it. Huxley represented a new young cohort, and it was he who ensured that it became central to biology courses, even though he never accepted or taught that natural selection was the cause of change. By the end of the nineteenth century there were few natural scientists who did not accept evolution as a fact, with only a small number who thought that natural selection was at all significant. The debate in June 1860 had no significant impact on the longer term trends in intellectual thought, either in science or theology. There is little evidence to suggest that this was a clash between science and religion: too many of the participants were both Christians and scientists for this to have been the case, Huxley being an exception. So why has this debate achieved such fame or notoriety? The answer may lie in the books of Draper and White who in the later nineteenth century wrote of a "war between science and religion." This version of events was revived in the middle years of the twentieth century especially at the centenary of the publication of Origin of Species. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a huge amount of historical scholarship devoted to Darwin and his ideas, so much so that many lost sight of the earlier history of the evolution debate in Britain. In these circumstances it was very easy for the Oxford meeting to be given an importance that it does not merit. It has taken much research by historians to bring our attention back to the more complex series of events that preceded the conversion of a few prominent individuals in1859 and 1860.


Darwin Correspondence Project: Letter 2852 - Hooker J. D. to Darwin C. R. 2 July 1860. The Darwin Project. Web. 1 January 2017.

Glasgow Herald 4 July 1860 Google/newspapers. Web. 1 January 2017

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Jackson's Oxford Journal, 23 and 30 June 1860.

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Last modified 30 July 2022 (thanks to David Kinsella for noticing a typo on this page)