1860 Oxford evolution debate

1860 Oxford evolution debate

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The 1860 Oxford evolution debate took place at the Oxford University Museum
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, sometimes known simply as the Oxford University Museum, is a museum displaying many of the University of Oxford's natural history specimens, located on Parks Road in Oxford, England. It also contains a lecture theatre which is used by the...

 on 30 June 1860, seven months after the publication of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...

's On the Origin of Species. Several prominent British scientists and philosophers participated, including Thomas Henry Huxley, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce
Samuel Wilberforce
Samuel Wilberforce was an English bishop in the Church of England, third son of William Wilberforce. Known as "Soapy Sam", Wilberforce was one of the greatest public speakers of his time and place...

, Benjamin Brodie, Joseph Dalton Hooker
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker OM, GCSI, CB, MD, FRS was one of the greatest British botanists and explorers of the 19th century. Hooker was a founder of geographical botany, and Charles Darwin's closest friend...

 and Robert FitzRoy
Robert FitzRoy
Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy RN achieved lasting fame as the captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin's famous voyage, and as a pioneering meteorologist who made accurate weather forecasting a reality...

. The debate is best remembered today for a heated exchange in which Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.

Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. One eyewitness suggests that Wilberforce's question to Huxley may have been "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?", whereas another suggests he may have said that "it was of little consequence to himself whether or not his grandfather might be called a monkey or not."

The encounter is often known as the Huxley–Wilberforce debate or the Wilberforce–Huxley debate, although this description is somewhat misleading. Rather than being a formal debate between the two, it was actually an animated discussion that occurred after the presentation of a paper by John William Draper
John William Draper
John William Draper was an American scientist, philosopher, physician, chemist, historian, and photographer. He is credited with producing the first clear photograph of a female face and the first detailed photograph of the Moon...

 of New York University
New York University
New York University is a private, nonsectarian research university based in New York City. NYU's main campus is situated in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan...

, on the intellectual development of Europe with relation to Darwin's theory (one of a number of scientific papers presented during the week as part of the British Association's annual meeting). However, although they were not the only participants in the discussion, they were reported to be the two dominant parties. No verbatim account of the debate exists, and there is considerable uncertainty regarding what Huxley and Wilberforce actually said.

Background



The idea of transmutation of species
Transmutation of species
Transmutation of species was a term used by Jean Baptiste Lamarck in 1809 for his theory that described the altering of one species into another, and the term is often used to describe 19th century evolutionary ideas that preceded Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection...

 was very controversial in the first half of the nineteenth century, seen as contrary to religious orthodoxy and a threat to the social order, but welcomed by Radicals
Radicalism (historical)
The term Radical was used during the late 18th century for proponents of the Radical Movement. It later became a general pejorative term for those favoring or seeking political reforms which include dramatic changes to the social order...

 seeking to widen democracy and overturn the aristocratic hierarchy. The anonymous publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation is a unique work of speculative natural history published anonymously in England in 1844. It brought together various ideas of stellar evolution with the progressive transmutation of species in an accessible narrative which tied together numerous...

in 1844 brought a storm of controversy, but attracted a wide readership and became a bestseller. At the British Association for the Advancement of Science
British Association for the Advancement of Science
frame|right|"The BA" logoThe British Association for the Advancement of Science or the British Science Association, formerly known as the BA, is a learned society with the object of promoting science, directing general attention to scientific matters, and facilitating interaction between...

 meeting at Oxford
Oxford
The city of Oxford is the county town of Oxfordshire, England. The city, made prominent by its medieval university, has a population of just under 165,000, with 153,900 living within the district boundary. It lies about 50 miles north-west of London. The rivers Cherwell and Thames run through...

 in May 1847, the Bishop of Oxford
Bishop of Oxford
The Bishop of Oxford is the diocesan bishop of the Church of England Diocese of Oxford in the Province of Canterbury; his seat is at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford...

 Samuel Wilberforce
Samuel Wilberforce
Samuel Wilberforce was an English bishop in the Church of England, third son of William Wilberforce. Known as "Soapy Sam", Wilberforce was one of the greatest public speakers of his time and place...

 used his Sunday sermon at St. Mary's Church on "the wrong way of doing science" to deliver a stinging attack obviously aimed at its author, Robert Chambers, in a church "crowded to suffocation" with geologists, astronomers and zoologists. The scientific establishment remained hostile to the ideas, but the book had converted a vast popular audience.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...

's On the Origin of Species was published on 24 November 1859 to wide debate and controversy. The influential biologist Richard Owen
Richard Owen
Sir Richard Owen, FRS KCB was an English biologist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist.Owen is probably best remembered today for coining the word Dinosauria and for his outspoken opposition to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection...

 wrote an extremely hostile anonymous review of the book in the Edinburgh Review
Edinburgh Review
The Edinburgh Review, founded in 1802, was one of the most influential British magazines of the 19th century. It ceased publication in 1929. The magazine took its Latin motto judex damnatur ubi nocens absolvitur from Publilius Syrus.In 1984, the Scottish cultural magazine New Edinburgh Review,...

, and also coached Wilberforce, who wrote an anonymous 17,000-word review in the Quarterly Review
Quarterly Review
The Quarterly Review was a literary and political periodical founded in March 1809 by the well known London publishing house John Murray. It ceased publication in 1967.-Early years:...

.

Thomas Huxley, who was one of the small group with whom Darwin had shared his theory before publication, emerged as the main champion of evolution. He wrote a favourable review of the Origin in The Times
The Times
The Times is a British daily national newspaper, first published in London in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register . The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary since 1981 of News International...

in December 1859, along with several other articles and a lecture at the Royal Institution
Royal Institution
The Royal Institution of Great Britain is an organization devoted to scientific education and research, based in London.-Overview:...

 in February 1860.

The reaction of orthodox churchmen was hostile, but their attention was diverted in February 1860 by a much greater furore over the publication of Essays and Reviews
Essays and Reviews
Essays and Reviews, published in March 1860, is a broad-church volume of seven essays on Christianity. The topics covered the biblical research of the German critics, the evidence for Christianity, religious thought in England, and the cosmology of Genesis....

by seven liberal theologians
Liberal Christianity
Liberal Christianity, sometimes called liberal theology, is an umbrella term covering diverse, philosophically and biblically informed religious movements and ideas within Christianity from the late 18th century and onward...

. Amongst them, the Reverend Baden Powell
Baden Powell (mathematician)
Baden Powell, MA, FRS, FRGS was an English mathematician and Church of England priest. He was also prominent as a liberal theologian who put forward advanced ideas about evolution. He held the Savilian Chair of Geometry at the University of Oxford from 1827 to 1860...

 had already praised evolutionary ideas, and in his essay he commended "Mr. Darwin's masterly volume" for substantiating "the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature".

The controversy was at the centre of attention when the British Association for the Advancement of Science
British Association for the Advancement of Science
frame|right|"The BA" logoThe British Association for the Advancement of Science or the British Science Association, formerly known as the BA, is a learned society with the object of promoting science, directing general attention to scientific matters, and facilitating interaction between...

 (often referred to then simply as "the BA") convened their annual meeting at the new Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, sometimes known simply as the Oxford University Museum, is a museum displaying many of the University of Oxford's natural history specimens, located on Parks Road in Oxford, England. It also contains a lecture theatre which is used by the...

 in June 1860. On Thursday 28 June, Charles Daubeny
Charles Daubeny
Charles Giles Bridle Daubeny was an English chemist, botanist and geologist.Daubeny was born at Stratton near Cirencester in Gloucestershire, the son of the Rev. James Daubeny. He studied at Magdalen College, Oxford under Dr. John Kidd...

 read a paper "On the final causes of the sexuality in plants, with particular reference to Mr. Darwin's work...." Owen and Huxley were both in attendance, and a debate erupted over Darwin's theory. Owen spoke of facts which would enable the public to "come to some conclusions ... of the truth of Mr. Darwin's theory", and repeated an anatomical argument which he had first presented in 1857, that "the brain of the gorilla was more different from that of man than from that of the lowest primate particularly because only man had a posterior lobe, a posterior horn, and a hippocampus minor." Huxley was convinced this was incorrect, and had researched its errors. For the first time he spoke publicly on this point, and "denied altogether that the difference between the brain of the gorilla and man was so great" in a "direct and unqualified contradiction" of Owen, citing previous studies as well as promising to provide detailed support for his position.

Wilberforce agreed to address the meeting on Saturday morning, and there was expectation that he would repeat his success at scourging evolutionary ideas as at the 1847 meeting. Huxley was initially reluctant to engage Wilberforce in a public debate about evolution, but Robert Chambers persuaded him not to desert the cause. The Reverend Baden Powell would have been on the platform, but he had died of a heart attack on 11 June.

Debate


Word spread that Bishop Wilberforce, known as "Soapy Sam" (from a comment by Benjamin Disraeli that the Bishop's manner was "unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous"), would speak against Darwin's theory at the meeting on Saturday 30 June 1860. Wilberforce was one of the greatest public speakers of his day and, according to Bryson, "more than a thousand people crowded into the chamber; hundreds more were turned away." Darwin himself was too sick to attend.


The discussion was chaired by John Stevens Henslow
John Stevens Henslow
John Stevens Henslow was an English clergyman, botanist and geologist. He is best remembered as friend and mentor to his pupil Charles Darwin.- Early life :...

, Darwin's former mentor from Cambridge. It has been suggested that Owen arranged for Henslow to chair the discussion "hoping to make the expected defeat of Darwin the more complete". The main focus of the meeting was supposed to be a lecture by New York University
New York University
New York University is a private, nonsectarian research university based in New York City. NYU's main campus is situated in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan...

's John William Draper
John William Draper
John William Draper was an American scientist, philosopher, physician, chemist, historian, and photographer. He is credited with producing the first clear photograph of a female face and the first detailed photograph of the Moon...

, "On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law". By all accounts, Draper's presentation was long and boring. After Draper had finished, Henslow called on several other speakers, including Benjamin Brodie, the President of the Royal Society
President of the Royal Society
The president of the Royal Society is the elected director of the Royal Society of London. After informal meetings at Gresham College, the Royal Society was founded officially on 15 July 1662 for the encouragement of ‘philosophical studies’, by a royal charter which nominated William Brouncker as...

, before it was Wilberforce's turn.

In a letter to his brother Edward, Alfred Newton wrote:
According to Lucas, "Wilberforce, contrary to the central tenet of the legend, did not prejudge the issue", but he is in a minority on this, as Jenson makes clear. Wilberforce criticised Darwin's theory on ostensibly scientific grounds, arguing that it was not supported by the facts, and he noted that the greatest names in science were opposed to the theory. Nonetheless, Wilberforce's speech is generally only remembered today for his inquiry as to whether it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that Huxley considered himself descended from a monkey.

According to a letter written 30 years later to Francis Darwin
Francis Darwin
Sir Francis "Frank" Darwin, FRS , a son of the British naturalist and scientist Charles Darwin, followed his father into botany.-Biography:Francis Darwin was born in Down House, Downe, Kent in 1848...

, when Huxley heard this he whispered to Brodie, "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands". This quotation first appears more than thirty years later, and is almost certainly a later insertion to the story. Huxley's own contemporary account, in a letter to Henry Dyster on September 9, 1860, makes no mention of this remark. Huxley rose to defend Darwin's theory, finishing his speech with the now-legendary assertion that 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. Again, later retellings indicate that this had a tremendous effect on the audience, and Lady Brewster is said to have fainted.

More reliable accounts indicate that although Huxley did respond with the "monkey" retort, the remainder of his speech was unremarkable. Balfour Stewart
Balfour Stewart
Balfour Stewart was a Scottish physicist. His studies in the field of radiant heat led to him receiving the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society in 1868. In 1859 he was appointed director of Kew Observatory...

, a prominent scientist and director of the Kew Observatory, wrote afterward that, "I think the Bishop had the best of it." Joseph Dalton Hooker
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker OM, GCSI, CB, MD, FRS was one of the greatest British botanists and explorers of the 19th century. Hooker was a founder of geographical botany, and Charles Darwin's closest friend...

, Darwin's friend and botanical mentor, noted in a letter to Darwin that Huxley had been largely inaudible in the hall:
It is likely that the main point is accurate, that Huxley was not effective in speaking to the large audience. He was not yet an accomplished speaker and wrote afterward that he had been inspired as to the value of oration by what he witnessed in that meeting.

Next, Henslow called upon Admiral Robert FitzRoy
Robert FitzRoy
Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy RN achieved lasting fame as the captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin's famous voyage, and as a pioneering meteorologist who made accurate weather forecasting a reality...

, who had been Darwin's captain and companion on the voyage of the Beagle
Second voyage of HMS Beagle
The second voyage of HMS Beagle, from 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836, was the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle, under captain Robert FitzRoy who had taken over command of the ship on its first voyage after her previous captain committed suicide...

 twenty-five years earlier. FitzRoy denounced Darwin's book and, "lifting an immense Bible first with both hands and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man".

The last speaker of the day was Hooker. According to his own account, it was he and not Huxley who delivered the most effective reply to Wilberforce's arguments: "Sam was shut up—had not one word to say in reply, and the meeting was dissolved forthwith" Ruse claims that "everybody enjoyed himself immensely and all went cheerfully off to dinner together afterwards".

It is said that during the debate, two Cambridge dons happened to be standing near Wilberforce, one of whom was Henry Fawcett
Henry Fawcett
Henry Fawcett PC was a blind British academic, statesman and economist.-Background and education:Fawcett was born in Salisbury, and educated at King's College School and the University of Cambridge: entering Peterhouse in 1852, he migrated to Trinity Hall the following year, and became a fellow...

, the recently blinded economist. Fawcett was asked whether he thought the bishop had actually read the Origin of Species. "Oh no, I would swear he has never read a word of it", Fawcett reportedly replied loudly. Wilberforce swung round to him scowling, ready to recriminate, but stepped back and bit his tongue on noting that the protagonist was the blind economist. (See p. 126 of Janet Browne (2003) Charles Darwin: The Power of Place.)

Notably, all three major participants felt they had had the best of the debate. Wilberforce wrote that, "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." Huxley claimed "[I was] the most popular man in Oxford for a full four & twenty hours afterwards." Hooker wrote that "I have been congratulated and thanked by the blackest coats and whitest stocks in Oxford." Wilberforce and Darwin remained on good terms after the debate.

Legacy



Summary reports of the debate were published in The Manchester Guardian, The Athenaeum and Jackson's Oxford Journal. Both sides immediately claimed victory, but the majority opinion has always been that the debate represented a major victory for the Darwinians.

Though the debate is frequently depicted as a clash between religion and science, the British Association at the time had a number of clergymen occupying high positions (including Presidents of two of its seven sections) In his speech to open the annual event, the President of the Association (Lord Wrottesley) concluded his talk by saying "Let us ever apply ourselves to the task, feeling assured that the more we thus exercise, and by exercising improve our intellectual faculties, the more worthy shall we be, the better shall we be fitted to come nearer to our God." Therefore, a case could be made for saying that for the many clerics in the audience, the underlying conflict was between traditional Anglicanism (Wilberforce) and liberal Anglicanism (Essays and Reviews
Essays and Reviews
Essays and Reviews, published in March 1860, is a broad-church volume of seven essays on Christianity. The topics covered the biblical research of the German critics, the evidence for Christianity, religious thought in England, and the cosmology of Genesis....

). On the other hand, Oxford academic Dr Diane Purkiss says 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".

Many of the opponents of Darwin's theory were respected men of science: Owen was one of the most influential British biologists of his generation; Adam Sedgwick
Adam Sedgwick
Adam Sedgwick was one of the founders of modern geology. He proposed the Devonian period of the geological timescale...

 was a leading geologist; Wilberforce was a Fellow of the Royal Society (though at that time about half of the Fellows were well-placed amateurs). While Darwin himself was a gentleman scholar of independent financial means, key disciples like Huxley and Hooker were professionals, and they concentrated on the advance of scientific knowledge, and were determined not to be baulked by religious authority. Their kind of science was to grow and flourish, and ultimately to become autonomous from religious tradition.

The debate has been called "one of the great stories of the history of science
History of science
The history of science is the study of the historical development of human understandings of the natural world and the domains of the social sciences....

" and it is often regarded as a key moment in the acceptance of evolution. However, at the time it received only a few passing references in newspapers and Brooke argues that "the event almost completely disappeared from public awareness until it was resurrected in the 1890s as an appropriate tribute to a recently deceased hero of scientific education". Note also that the contemporary accounts of the participants were largely replaced by a somewhat embellished version (see the much later insertion of Huxley's remark to Brodie, for example). The great popularity of the anecdote in the 20th century was largely due to shifting attitudes towards evolution and anachronistic re-interpretation of the actual events.

The debate marked the beginning of a bitter three year long dispute between Owen and Huxley over human origins, satirised by Charles Kingsley
Charles Kingsley
Charles Kingsley was an English priest of the Church of England, university professor, historian and novelist, particularly associated with the West Country and northeast Hampshire.-Life and character:...

 as the "Great Hippocampus Question
Great Hippocampus Question
The Great Hippocampus Question was a 19th century scientific controversy about the anatomy of apes and human uniqueness. The dispute between Thomas Henry Huxley and Richard Owen became central to the scientific debate on human evolution that followed Charles Darwin's publication of On the Origin of...

", which concluded with the defeat of Owen and
his backers. The debate was the inspiration for, and is referenced in, the play Darwin in Malibu
Darwin in Malibu
Darwin in Malibu is a play by British playwright and director, Crispin Whittell.Darwin in Malibu imagines a meeting between Charles Darwin , Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce on the deck of a beach house overlooking the Pacific over a hundred years after their deaths.It...

 by Crispin Whittell
Crispin Whittell
Crispin Whittell is a British director and playwright.He spent much of his early life in Africa. He was a member of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, and studied English at Cambridge University.-Career:...

. A commemorative plinth
Plinth
In architecture, a plinth is the base or platform upon which a column, pedestal, statue, monument or structure rests. Gottfried Semper's The Four Elements of Architecture posited that the plinth, the hearth, the roof, and the wall make up all of architectural theory. The plinth usually rests...

 marks the 150th anniversary of the event.

See also

  • Creation-evolution controversy
    Creation-evolution controversy
    The creation–evolution controversy is a recurring cultural, political, and theological dispute about the origins of the Earth, humanity, life, and the universe....

  • William Henry Flower
  • Thomas Henry Huxley
  • Alfred Newton