Why is the Huxley-Wilberforce ‘debate’ so well known?

Sunday 19th September, 6-8pm

Venue: MB550, Aston University            Booking

This year is the 150th anniversary of the discussion of Darwin’s evolutionary theory between Wilberforce and T.H. Huxley held at our Festival in 1860. Since the late 19th century unhistorical accounts of this event have figured prominently in the polemics surrounding the relationship of science and religion. Explore how these myths were born and are perpetuated today.

Wilberforce and Huxley

Wilberforce and Huxley cartoons from Vanity Fair

Professor Frank James, Royal Institution – Why is the Huxley-Wilberforce ‘debate’ so well known?

There is an argument which suggests that credit for the historically striking, and yet to be fully explained, phenomenon of the almost complete collapse of Christianity in Western Europe over the last century is claimed by scientists and that most theologians are more than content for the blame to lie there rather than with themselves. Unable to appreciate when they are on the winning side, some scientists recently have deliberately reopened the conflict in the course of which they have misused history and handed themselves an undeserved victory. This talk will look at the role of the Huxley-Wilberforce and other myths and consider more likely sources for the decline of Christianity.

Professor Michael Reiss, Institute of Education – The Huxley-Wilberforce ‘debate’: the legacy for schools

School science lessons make little use of the history of science and when they do, with rare exceptions, they make use of it poorly. This talk examines whether or not school science lessons should take account of issues to do religion and if so, how. I argue that there are stronger arguments in favour of school science lessons addressing religion than many science teachers suppose.

Frank James is Professor of the History of Science at the Royal Institution. His main research concentrates on the physical sciences in the nineteenth century and how they relate to other areas of society and culture, for example art, business, media, the military, technology and religion where he has published a detailed study of the Huxley-Wilberforce event. His Michael Faraday: A Very Short Introduction will be published by OUP in November. He has been President of both the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology and the British Society for the History of Science.

Michael Reiss is co-editor of Teaching About Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism.

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5 Comments »

  1. […] Switek’s post from 2008, Did Huxley really mop the floor with Wilberforce?, and look over Why is the Huxley-Wilberforce ‘debate’ so well known? Here’s a picture of the plinth posted on Flickr by […]

  2. I am glad to see here about a legend that should have gone to the dustbin of History of Science many many years ago.

  3. JFDerry said

    This Huxley v Wilberforce legend persists despite the clear documentary evidence that the actual antagonists were otherwise:

    Here follows an extract from

    Darwin in Scotland: Edinburgh, Evolution and Enlightenment
    by J.F. Derry
    Paperback: 192 pages
    Publisher: Whittles Publishing
    ISBN-10: 1904445578
    http://tinyurl.com/DarwinScot

    Subsequent to this espousal of the ideas within the Origin of Species years before it was even published, Hooker was ever compelled to defend his friend’s work. Indeed, years later, at probably the most famed confrontation between Darwin’s critics and his supporters, Bishop Samuel ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce (1805–1873) traded insults with Huxley at the Oxford University Museum, on 30 June 1860, the day after Owen and Huxley had duelled once again over human origins. Legend has it that, towards the end of a lengthy speech, Wilberforce, who had been primed by Owen, asked Huxley whether it was on his grandmother or grandfather’s side that he claimed to be descended from a monkey. Huxley famously quipped that he would rather be descended from a monkey than associated with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. In the ensuing chaos, Robert FitzRoy, now an Admiral, holding aloft a Bible, ‘implored the audience to believe God rather than man’. Writing to Darwin only a couple of days later, Hooker is clear that it was he who rescued his old friend from Wilberforce’s tirade:

    “The meeting was so large that they had adjourned to the Library which was
    crammed with between 700 & 1000 people, for all the world was there to
    hear Sam Oxon. Well Sam Oxon got up & spouted for half an hour with
    inimitable spirit uglyness & emptyness & unfairness […] he ridiculed you
    badly & Huxley savagely. Huxley answered admirably & turned the tables, 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. The battle waxed hot. Lady Brewster
    fainted, the excitement increased as others spoke – my blood boiled, I felt
    myself a dastard; now I saw my advantage. I swore to myself I would smite
    that Amalekite Sam hip & thigh if my heart jumped out of my mouth […] so
    there I was cocked up with Sam at my right elbow, & there & then I smashed
    him amid rounds of aplause. I hit him in the wind at the first shot in 10 words
    taken from his own ugly mouth & then proceeded to demonstrate in as few
    more 1 that he could never have read your book & 2 that he was absolutely
    ignorant of the rudiments of Bot. Science […] Sam was shut up – had not
    one word to say in reply & the meeting was dissolved forthwith leaving
    you master of the field after 4 hours battle. Huxley who had borne all the
    previous brunt of the battle & who never before (thank God) praised me to
    my face, told me it was splendid, & that he did not know before what stuff
    I was made of. I have been congratulated & thanked by the blackest coats
    & whitest stocks in Oxford (for they hate their Bishop quite […]) & plenty of
    ladies too have flattered me […]”

  4. David Tyler said

    It is worth noting that a definitive analysis of this iconic debate is to be found here:
    The Wilberforce-Huxley Debate: Why Did It Happen?
    John Hedley Brooke
    Science & Christian Belief, 2001, 13(2), 127-141.

    Excerpt: One of the most distinguished of the Darwinians was Joseph Hooker, Assistant Director of Kew gardens. But to read his account of the proceedings is to meet the view that Huxley had caused hardly a stir. He had not even had the strength of voice for his stinging reply to carry. According to Hooker the person who really won the day for the Darwinians was… Hooker! In fact, the more closely we look at the legend the more suspect it becomes. The idea that Huxley won a famous victory was not even countenanced in Leonard Huxley’s heroic Life. The result of the encounter, though a check to the anti-Darwinian sceptics, could not be represented as an “immediate and complete triumph for evolutionary doctrine”.

    • JFDerry said

      thank you for adding this reference to the list, however I would question how definitive it really is if it does not include the documentary evidence as to be found in Darwin in Scotland. Is Hooker’s role limited to that single mention or is he given more space elsewhere?

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