Huxley v Wilberforce: The Legendary Encounter

4 May, 2010

If you are interested in the science – religion debate, it is likely that you know about the famous encounter between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (“Soapy Sam”) and Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) that occurred in Oxford’s Natural History Museum. 1 It was during this exchange, according to the legend, that Wilberforce was supposed to have made the famous quip as to whether Huxley thought he was descended from a monkey on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side. This apparently prompted the equally memorable riposte from Huxley, that he would rather have been descended from an ape than a bishop who obscured the truth – a response which apparently caused one lady in the audience to faint. 2

This celebrated clash is often portrayed as a pivotal moment in history, when science registered a telling victory over religion in the ongoing power-struggle that has been raging ever since the Enlightenment. At least this is what some commentators would like us to believe. As we approach the 150th anniversary of this encounter, it is perhaps useful to look at this contest again to try and establish what the events of 30 June 1860 really tell us about science and religion, and whether it really deserves the notoriety it has subsequently been given.

Perhaps the most startling fact is that there was actually no formal one-on-one debate between Huxley and Wilberforce. Instead, the exchange was more of an animated discussion that occurred in response to a scientific paper presented by Professor Draper on the intellectual development of Europe with reference to Darwin’s views. Although they were reported to have been the main contributors, a whole host of notable characters joined in, including Admiral Robert Fitzroy (who had accompanied Darwin on the Beagle), Dr Brodie, Dr Beale, John Lubbock and Dr Hooker. Wilberforce, however, had made it known that he was going to comment and this helped to attract a large enough crowd to require the event to be moved to the museum’s more spacious library. 3

The paper was given during the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting and it was one of numerous academic lectures that were presented over the course of two consecutive weeks. 4 Therefore, the reports at the time focused on some of the more interesting scientific discoveries that had been made, whilst Wilberforce and Huxley’s discussion received little attention apart from passing comments in a number of national newspapers.

In fact, there was no verbatim recording of the exchange, meaning that it is difficult to make any definitive pronouncement about what exactly was said, especially as some of the subsequent reports were made decades after the event.

What is notable about the debate is that there were eminent scientists on both sides of the argument. In fact, two days earlier Huxley had had a similar discussion with Professor Owen, 5 a leading biologist, which has largely been forgotten, partly because it was scientist versus scientist, but also because of Wilberforce’s eminence. It is important to realise that Darwin’s Origin of Species had been in print for less than a year and many scientists were reluctant to embrace it, because of a lack of supporting evidence. One eyewitness even suggested that Wilberforce may have asked Huxley how long it would take before he had proofs of his theory and his supposed reply was around twenty years. 6 Therefore, it is wholly incorrect to portray the Bishop of Oxford as someone who was deliberately ignoring the science. Although Huxley branded him an “unscientific authority,” 7 Wilberforce was very familiar with the debate and had only just submitted a lengthy scientific article on Darwin’s ideas to the Quarterly Review. In this, he argued, amongst other things, that no new species were known to have developed during humankind’s existence, that selective pressures, although having an effect, did not produce new species, and that the sterility of hybrids supported the notion of the fixity of species. Rather than being unfair observations, Darwin himself, who was too ill to attend the debate, described Wilberforce’s article as “uncommonly clever” and he subsequently used a number of these criticisms as a catalyst for further research.  2

By contrast, the monkey comment appears not to have been a central point in Wilberforce’s scientific address. Instead, J.R. Lucas argues it was likely to have been a joke – possibly one that back-fired for being overly personal – that was added at the end of his speech to emphasise that it was a good thing that it wasn’t backed up by evidence, because it was also degrading to humankind. As the Bishop of Oxford, he certainly had strong ethical concerns about how Darwin’s ideas might have been used by those wishing to undermine the Christian worldview. This is in keeping with one eyewitness who suggested that he questioned why anyone would be so jubilant that his great great grandfather was an ape or a gorilla. 8 Another account, however, suggests that he may have said that it was of little consequence to himself whether or not his own grandfather might be called a monkey or not. 9 Whichever is the case, according to the later legend, Huxley is supposed to have reacted to this by whispering “The Lord hath delivered him into my hands” before rising to deliver his famous rebuke. 3

Although this helped to propagate the impression of a Huxley victory, there are a number of sources that call into question this version of events. Writing to Darwin after the debate, Dr Hooker, for example, made no mention of the monkey retort and instead noted that although Huxley had “answered admirably” he “could not throw his voice over so large an assembly”. Therefore, instead of vanquishing Wilberforce – who incidentally was known to be a formidable orator – Huxley had “failed to allude to Sam’s weak points” and was unable to “put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience.”

Instead, Hooker claimed that it was actually he, rather than Huxley, who had made the most successful response to the Bishop – a version of events that is supported by a number of other sources. 3

The newspapers suggest that both sides received warm applause and Huxley’s own comments, made shortly after the event, suggest that neither could claim outright victory:

The importance of the Oxford meeting 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, all the wider, indeed, for the startling nature of their defence.  3

According to Lucas, this statement provides the key to understanding why this event gained such notoriety. He argues the “quarrel between religion and science came about not because of what Wilberforce said, but because it was what Huxley wanted.” In other words, the event subsequently underwent “substantial retrospective re-interpretation and indeed distortion,” 2 because it served a distinct purpose for those who wanted to attack the authority of the church. The University, for example, had only recently started accepting undergraduates from outside the Church of England (1854) and there were many individuals intent on trying to challenge and reduce further the power of Anglican Orthodoxy (this included not only agnostics such as Huxley, but also liberal Anglicans and nonconformists). 2 Lucas explains that “in the later years of the century scientists were increasingly jealous of their autonomy, and would see in Huxley’s retort a claim they were increasingly anxious to assert.” This explains why 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 [Huxley].” 2 Therefore, the subsequent reporting tells us very little “about what actually happened in Oxford on 30 June 1860, … but about currents of thought in the latter part of the last century it tells us a lot.”  3

One must therefore conclude that it is both simplistic and misleading to portray the Huxley – Wilberforce debate as being part of an on-going war between science and religion. As John Hedley Brooke explains:

… in many of the disputes that have been conventionally analysed in terms of some notional relation between science and religion, the underlying issues were principally about neither science nor religion, nor the relationship between them, but were matters of social, ethical or political concern in which the authority of either science, religion or both was invoked (often on both sides) to defend a view held on other grounds … 2

This is a crucial point to make, as it highlights the importance of being alert to any attempt to twist and use the past to serve a particular agenda. As David Clifford says, “Pro-Darwinian (and often atheistic) historians of science might not sympathize much with Bishop Wilberforce, but few of them will tolerate bad history as a means of gaining a political advantage.” 2

Unfortunately, we may never know exactly what was said that evening 150 years ago, but we can at least say, with certainty, that it really does deserve its reputation as a truly legendary encounter.

  1. This article is based on a number of sources including a lecture by John Hedley Brooke (see footnote 2), an article by J. R. Lucas (see footnote 3) and various newspaper articles (footnotes 4–9). The first two can be found easily online and they provide a comprehensive overview of what we know about the exchange. Much of the popular legend can be traced to the account of Mrs Isabella Sidgwick, which was written over forty years after the event (Macmillan’s Magazine, LXXVIII, no. 468, Oct. 1898, A Grandmother’s Tales, pp. 433–4).
  2. Lecture by John Hedley Brooke at Emmanuel College (26 February 2001) on Darwinism and Religion: A Revisionist View of the Wilberforce-Huxley Debate.
  3. J. R. Lucas, Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter.
  4. Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 30 June 1860, p. 4. The Association was founded in 1832 largely through the work of Revd William Vernon Harcourt and by 1860 it included many clergymen in its ranks (including Presidents of two of its seven sections).
  5. Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 4 August 1894. The paper recalled details of the previous Oxford Meeting.
  6. Glasgow Herald, 4 July 1860. The writer of the letter is identified as “a well-known townsman” with the initials J.S.
  7. Birmingham Daily Post, 2 July 1860.
  8. The Morning Chronicle, 9 July 1860. The writer of the letter calls himself Harpocrates
  9. Glasgow Herald, 4 July 1860.


Author Biography:


Simon Wenham

Simon Wenham works primarily as a Research Coordinator for John Lennox. He also oversees the Zacharias Trust’s Pulse magazine and is currently studying part-time for a history DPhil at the University of Oxford.


Read more posts by Author: Simon Wenham

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