Saturday, 31 July 2010

150 years ago: Wilberforce and Huxley debate evolution

In the summer of 1860, Thomas Huxley, who was known as Darwin’s Bulldog, and Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, debated evolution. Darwinists remember details of the debate that probably never happened. Image of Huxley, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

Darwinists are fond of myths. They have made them of Galilei, the 1925 monkey trial at Dayton, and of a very famous early debate on evolution.

In a meeting of the British Association in Oxford on June 30, 1860, Thomas Huxley and bishop Samuel Wilberforce debated Darwinian evolution.

Many people assume that instead of using rational arguments, Wilberforce asked Huxley, ” Is it on your grandfather's or grandmother's side that you claim descent from the apes?”

Never afraid of a good fight, Huxley retorted, ” I would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop.”

However, while evolutionists like Darwin’s friend Sir Joseph Hooker would have liked to believe that this is what happened, it is a myth that is not supported by the evidence.

Samuel Wilberforce, who was the son of the Christian politician and anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce (1759-1833), knew more about Charles Darwin’s theory than skeptics assume. Five weeks before the debate the bishop had written a review of The Origin of Species in the Quarterly Review.

In July 1860, Darwin himself wrote to Hooker about Wilberforce’s criticism: ”I have just read the "Quarterly". It is uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties.”

Huxley had some strange ideas. He for instance thought that the Salvation Army was a dangerous sect. This is not a myth but is well-documented by the letters Huxley wrote to The Times.

In the debate Wilberforce, who was a fellow of the Royal Society, brought up the central ideas of his article, showing that the evidence did not support Darwin’s theory.

But in a crowded and noisy room it was probably easy for Darwinists to hear what they wanted to, including details that were never put to words.


Huxley, Thomas H. 1893 (2006). Evolution and Ethics And Other Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Lucas, John. 1979. Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter.