June 30th, 1860 – The Oxford Evolution Debate!

Today-In-History

The 1860 Oxford evolution debate took place at the Oxford University Museum in Oxford, England, on June 30th, 1860, seven months after the publication of Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species. Several prominent British scientists and philosophers participated, including Thomas Henry Huxley, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, Benjamin Brodie, Joseph Dalton Hooker and Robert FitzRoy. 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–Wilberforce debate

Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley faced off against each other on Darwin’s findings.

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 enamored 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 of New York University, 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). Although Huxley and Wilberforce 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.


 

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