Huxley-Wilberforce Debate

From Darwin's Life and Letters

The meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860 is famous for two pitched battles over the 'Origin of Species.' Both of them originated in unimportant papers. On Thursday, June 28, Dr. Daubeny of Oxford made a communication to Section D: "On the final causes of the sexuality of plants, with particular reference to Mr. Darwin's work on the 'Origin of Species.'" Mr. Huxley was called on by the President, but tried (according to the "Athenaeum" report) to avoid a discussion, on the ground "that a general audience, in which sentiment would unduly interfere with intellect, was not the public before which such a discussion should be carried on." However, the subject was not allowed to drop. Sir R. Owen (I quote from the "Athenaeum", July 7, 1860), who "wished to approach this subject in the spirit of the philosopher," expressed his "conviction that there were facts by which the public could come to some conclusion with regard to the probabilities of the truth of Mr. Darwin's theory." He went on to say that the brain of the gorilla "presented more differences, as compared with the brain of man, than it did when compared with the brains of the very lowest and most problematical of the Quadrumana." Mr. Huxley replied, and gave these assertions a "direct and unqualified contradiction," pledging himself to "justify that unusual procedure elsewhere" ('Man's Place in Nature,' by T.H. Huxley, 1863, page 114.), a pledge which he amply fulfilled. (See the 'Nat. Hist. Review,' 1861.) On Friday there was peace, but on Saturday 30th, the battle arose with redoubled fury over a paper by Dr. Draper of New York, on the 'Intellectual development of Europe considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin.' The following account is from an eye-witness of the scene.

"The excitement was tremendous. The Lecture-room, in which it had been arranged that the discussion should be held, proved far too small for the audience, and the meeting adjourned to the Library of the Museum, which was crammed to suffocation long before the champions entered the lists. The numbers were estimated at from 700 to 1000. Had it been term-time, or had the general public been admitted, it would have been impossible to have accommodated the rush to hear the oratory of the bold Bishop. Professor Henslow, the President of Section D, occupied the chair and wisely announced in limine that none who had not valid arguments to bring forward on one side or the other, would be allowed to address the meeting: a caution that proved necessary, for no fewer than four combatants had their utterances burked by him, because of their indulgence in vague declamation. "The Bishop was up to time, and spoke for full half-an-hour with inimitable spirit, emptiness and unfairness. It was evident from his handling of the subject that he had been 'crammed' up to the throat, and that he knew nothing at first hand; in fact, he used no argument not to be found in his 'Quarterly' article. He ridiculed Darwin badly, and Huxley savagely, but all in such dulcet tones, so persuasive a manner, and in such well-turned periods, that I who had been inclined to blame the President for allowing a discussion that could serve no scientific purpose now forgave him from the bottom of my heart. Unfortunately the Bishop, hurried along on the current of his own eloquence, so far forgot himself as to push his attempted advantage to the verge of personality in a telling passage in which he turned round and addressed Huxley: I forgot the precise words, and quote from Lyell. 'The Bishop asked whether Huxley was related by his grandfather's or grandmother's side to an ape.' (Lyell's 'Letters,' vol. ii. page 335.) Huxley replied to the scientific argument of his opponent with force and eloquence, and to the personal allusion with a self- restraint, that gave dignity to his crushing rejoinder." Many versions of Mr. Huxley's speech were current: the following report of his conclusion is from a letter addressed by the late John Richard Green, then an undergraduate, to a fellow-student, now Professor Boyd Dawkins. "I asserted, and I repeat, that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would be a MAN, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with an equivocal (Prof. V. Carus, who has a distinct recollection of the scene, does not remember the word equivocal. He believes too that Lyell's version of the "ape" sentence is slightly incorrect.) success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions, and skilled appeals to religious prejudice." The letter above quoted continues: "The excitement was now at its height; a lady fainted and had to be carried out, and it was some time before the discussion was resumed. Some voices called for Hooker, and his name having been handed up, the President invited him to give his view of the theory from the Botanical side. This he did, demonstrating that the Bishop, by his own showing, had never grasped the principles of the 'Origin' (With regard to the Bishop's 'Quarterly Review,' my father wrote: "These very clever men think they can write a review with a very slight knowledge of the book reviewed or subject in question."), and that he was absolutely ignorant of the elements of botanical science. The Bishop made no reply, and the meeting broke up. "There was a crowded conversazione in the evening at the rooms of the hospitable and genial Professor of Botany, Dr. Daubeny, where the almost sole topic was the battle of the 'Origin,' and I was much struck with the fair and unprejudiced way in which the black coats and white cravats of Oxford discussed the question, and the frankness with which they offered their congratulations to the winners in the combat.]

CHARLES DARWIN TO J.D. HOOKER. Sudbrook Park, Monday night [July 2nd, 1860].

My dear Hooker, I have just received your letter. I have been very poorly, with almost continuous bad headache for forty-eight hours, and I was low enough, and thinking what a useless burthen I was to myself and all others, when your letter came, and it has so cheered me; your kindness and affection brought tears into my eyes. Talk of fame, honour, pleasure, wealth, all are dirt compared with affection; and this is a doctrine with which, I know, from your letter, that you will agree with from the bottom of your heart...How I should have liked to have wandered about Oxford with you, if I had been well enough; and how still more I should have liked to have heard you triumphing over the Bishop. I am astonished at your success and audacity. It is something unintelligible to me how any one can argue in public like orators do. I had no idea you had this power. I have read lately so many hostile views, that I was beginning to think that perhaps I was wholly in the wrong, and that -- was right when he said the whole subject would be forgotten in ten years; but now that I hear that you and Huxley will fight publicly (which I am sure I never could do), I fully believe that our cause will, in the long-run, prevail. I am glad I was not in Oxford, for I should have been overwhelmed, with my [health] in its present state.

CHARLES DARWIN TO T.H. HUXLEY. Sudbrook Park, Richmond, July 3rd [1860]

. ...I had a letter from Oxford, written by Hooker late on Sunday night, giving me some account of the awful battles which have raged about species at Oxford. He tells me you fought nobly with Owen (but I have heard no particulars), and that you answered the B. of O. capitally. I often think that my friends (and you far beyond others) have good cause to hate me, for having stirred up so much mud, and led them into so much odious trouble. If I had been a friend of myself, I should have hated me. (How to make that sentence good English, I know not.) But remember, if I had not stirred up the mud, some one else certainly soon would. I honour your pluck; I would as soon have died as tried to answer the Bishop in such an assembly... [On July 20th, my father wrote to Mr. Huxley: "From all that I hear from several quarters, it seems that Oxford did the subject great good. It is of enormous importance, the showing the world that a few first-rate men are not afraid of expressing their opinion."]


. ...I have just read the 'Quarterly.' ('Quarterly Review,' July 1860. The article in question was by Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and was afterwards published in his "Essays Contributed to the 'Quarterly Review,' 1874." The passage from the 'Anti-Jacobin' gives the history of the evolution of space from the "primaeval point or punctum saliens of the universe," which is conceived to have moved "forward in a right line ad infinitum, till it grew tired; after which the right line, which it had generated, would begin to put itself in motion in a lateral direction, describing an area of infinite extent. This area, as soon as it became conscious of its own existence, would begin to ascend or descend according as its specific gravity would determine it, forming an immense solid space filled with vacuum, and capable of containing the present universe." The following (page 263) may serve as an example of the passages in which the reviewer refers to Sir Charles Lyell:--"That Mr. Darwin should have wandered from this broad highway of nature's works into the jungle of fanciful assumption is no small evil. We trust that he is mistaken in believing that he may count Sir C. Lyell as one of his converts. We know, indeed, that the strength of the temptations which he can bring to bear upon his geological brother...Yet no man has been more distinct and more logical in the denial of the transmutation of species than Sir C. Lyell, and that not in the infancy of his scientific life, but in its full vigour and maturity." The Bishop goes on to appeal to Lyell, in order that with his help "this flimsy speculation may be as completely put down as was what in spite of all denials we must venture to call its twin though less instructed brother, the 'Vestiges of Creation.'" With reference to this article, Mr. Brodie Innes, my father's old friend and neighbour, writes:--"Most men would have been annoyed by an article written with the Bishop's accustomed vigour, a mixture of argument and ridicule. Mr. Darwin was writing on some parish matter, and put a postscript--'If you have not seen the last 'Quarterly,' do get it; the Bishop of Oxford has made such capital fun of me and my grandfather.' By a curious coincidence, when I received the letter, I was staying in the same house with the Bishop, and showed it to him. He said, 'I am very glad he takes it in that way, he is such a capital fellow.'") It is uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties. It quizzes me quite splendidly by quoting the 'Anti-Jacobin' versus my Grandfather. You are not alluded to, nor, strange to say, Huxley; and I can plainly see, here and there, --'s hand. The concluding pages will make Lyell shake in his shoes. By Jove, if he sticks to us, he will be a real hero. Good-night. Your well- quizzed, but not sorrowful, and affectionate friend. C.D. I can see there has been some queer tampering with the Review, for a page has been cut out and reprinted. [Writing on July 22 to Dr. Asa Gray my father thus refers to Lyell's position:-- "Considering his age, his former views and position in society, I think his conduct has been heroic on this subject."]

CHARLES DARWIN TO ASA GRAY. [Hartfield, Sussex] July 22nd [1860].

My dear Gray, Owing to absence from home at water-cure and then having to move my sick girl to whence I am now writing, I have only lately read the discussion in Proc. American Acad. (April 10, 1860. Dr. Gray criticised in detail "several of the positions taken at the preceding meeting by Mr. [J.A.] Lowell, Prof. Bowen and Prof. Agassiz." It was reprinted in the "Athenaeum", August 4, 1860.), and now I cannot resist expressing my sincere admiration of your most clear powers of reasoning. As Hooker lately said in a note to me, you are more than ANY ONE else the thorough master of the subject. I declare that you know my book as well as I do myself; and bring to the question new lines of illustration and argument in a manner which excites my astonishment and almost my envy! I admire these discussions, I think, almost more than your article in Silliman's Journal. Every single word seems weighed carefully, and tells like a 32-pound shot. It makes me much wish (but I know that you have not time) that you could write more in detail, and give, for instance, the facts on the variability of the American wild fruits. The "Athenaeum" has the largest circulation, and I have sent my copy to the editor with a request that he would republish the first discussion; I much fear he will not, as he reviewed the subject in so hostile a spirit...I shall be curious [to see] and will order the August number, as soon as I know that it contains your review of Reviews. My conclusion is that you have made a mistake in being a botanist, you ought to have been a lawyer. ...Henslow (Professor Henslow was mentioned in the December number of 'Macmillan's Magazine' as being an adherent of Evolution. In consequence of this he published, in the February number of the following year, a letter defining his position. This he did by means of an extract from a letter addressed to him by the Rev. L. Jenyns (Blomefield) which "very nearly," as he says, expressed his views. Mr. Blomefield wrote, "I was not aware that you had become a convert to his (Darwin's) theory, and can hardly suppose you have accepted it as a whole, though, like myself, you may go to the length of imagining that many of the smaller groups, both of animals and plants, may at some remote period have had a common parentage. I do not with some say that the whole of his theory cannot be true--but that it is very far from proved; and I doubt its ever being possible to prove it.") and Daubeny are shaken. I hear from Hooker that he hears from Hochstetter that my views are making very considerable progress in Germany, and the good workers are discussing the question. Bronn at the end of his translation has a chapter of criticism, but it is such difficult German that I have not yet read it. Hopkins's review in 'Fraser' is thought the best which has appeared against us. I believe that Hopkins is so much opposed because his course of study has never led him to reflect much on such subjects as geographical distribution, classification, homologies, etc., so that he does not feel it a relief to have some kind of explanation.

CHARLES DARWIN TO C. LYELL. Hartfield [Sussex], July 30th [1860].

...I had lots of pleasant letters about the British Association, and our side seems to have got on very well. There has been as much discussion on the other side of the Atlantic as on this. No one I think understands the whole case better than Asa Gray, and he has been fighting nobly. He is a capital reasoner. I have sent one of his printed discussions to our "Athenaeum", and the editor says he will print it. The 'Quarterly' has been out some time. It contains no malice, which is wonderful...It makes me say many things which I do not say. At the end it quotes all your conclusions against Lamarck, and makes a solemn appeal to you to keep firm in the true faith. I fancy it will make you quake a little. -- has ingeniously primed the Bishop (with Murchison) against you as head of the uniformitarians. The only other review worth mentioning, which I can think of, is in the third No. of the 'London Review,' by some geologist, and favorable for a wonder. It is very ably done, and I should like much to know who is the author. I shall be very curious to hear on your return whether Bronn's German translation of the 'Origin' has drawn any attention to the subject. Huxley is eager about a 'Natural History Review,' which he and others are going to edit, and he has got so many first-rate assistants, that I really believe he will make it a first-rate production. I have been doing nothing, except a little botanical work as amusement. I shall hereafter be very anxious to hear how your tour has answered. I expect your book on the geological history of Man will, with a vengeance, be a bomb-shell. I hope it will not be very long delayed. Our kindest remembrances to Lady Lyell. This is not worth sending, but I have nothing better to say. Yours affectionately, C. DARWIN.