For a good story to be passed on from father to son, from teacher to pupil, from book to reader, it isn’t always necessary for it to be true, it’s sometimes enough simply for it to be a good story that some people would like to be true.
The Natural History Museum (NHM) presents scant regard for historical accuracy in its account of Samuel Wilberforce and his famous debate with T.H. Huxley in Oxford on June 30th 1860.
Problem no. 1: prejudice and bias. The writer of the NHM article is very keen to keep telling us that Wilberforce was nicknamed ‘Soapy Sam’ by his critics.
His legendary slipperiness in arguments inspired his critics to nickname him ‘soapy Sam’.
No less than four times is Wilberforce’s ruputed ‘slipperiness’ mentioned. I thought there were rules about prejudice and bias, but not, it seems, at the NHM.
Problem no. 2: gross over-generalisation. The NHM article states that in reaction to the publication of Darwin’s book on The Origin of Species
the Church was outraged. Darwin’s book implied that humans were not created by God, but had evolved from other animals.
The Church as a whole was not outraged by Darwin’s theory. Darwin’s work found both welcome and criticism in the religious community, just as it did in the scientific community. On the day after the Wilberforce-Huxley debate, the official sermon for the meeting of the British Association was preached by Frederick Temple (later to become Archbishop of Canterbury). Temple (along with Charles Kingsley, Henry Drummond, B.B. Warfield and many others) saw no conflict between the theory of evolution and the teaching of Scripture.
Problem no. 3: historical inaccuracy. The NHM article says of the debate on 30th June 1860:-
Everyone expected a lively debate, but none realised quite how dramatic it would be…Wilberforce took the podium first. Having eloquently presented his case he attempted to undermine Darwin’s supporters with a provocative question: was Thomas Huxley descended from an ape on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side of the family? Huxley, another formidable public speaker, responded sharply that he was not ashamed of his ancestry, but that ‘he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth’. Huxley’s suggestion that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a bishop caused an uproar.
All of this ‘confirmed’ by eyewitness testimony:-
‘No one doubted [Huxley’s] meaning, and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to be carried out; I, for one, jumped out of my seat.’ – Isabel Sidgwick, who was present at the meeting.
What the NHM fails to point out is that this recollection of the meeting is taken from an article in October 1898 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine. That’s nearly 40 years after the event it purports to describe. On the basis of such flimsy evidence, the NHM grandly asserts:-
The historic encounter between Wilberforce and Huxley marks a turning point in the history of science.
Well, not quite. In order to be historic, an encounter has to be historical, and there is too much that is unhistorical in the received account. It is true that as a story this encounter has had a huge and lasting impact, but its content is largely mythological.
So, for some demythologisation.
Myth no. 1: Wilberforce based his arguments on rhetoric, rather than on reason. It is true that Wilberforce rejected Darwin’s theory. But his response was no ignorant rant. We know this because of a long review he wrote of Darwin’s book which was published in the Quarterly Review at about the time of the Oxford debate. The review is no ignorant rant, but pays close attention to the text of Darwin’s book and, indeed, includes copious quotations from it. Wilberforce’s objections were almost wholly scientific. He had a first-class degree in mathematics, was conversant with current science, and was in fact vice-president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Darwin himself said of Wilberforce’s review that it was
uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties.
Myth no. 2: Wilberforce was out-manouvered by Huxley in debate. As mentioned, the folk account of the debate describes the atmosphere as electric, with Wilberforce attempting to score points by ridiculing his opponent, but Huxley having the presence of mind to return the jibe with interest (in effect: ‘I would rather be descended from a humble ape than from a prejudiced bishop’). In fact, the debate took place on a hot summer’s day. It followed a lecture by an American Professor, during which the crowd of 700 grew restive. It may well be that Wilberforce made some aside to which Huxley took exception, but nothing of this kind was noted in the newspaper accounts of the event. Two months later Huxley wrote what he thought he had said:-
If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.
‘If…the question is put to me?’ But was it? It would seem not.
One of Darwin’s friends wrote to his a few days after the event saying that Huxley ‘could not throw his voice over so large an essembly, nor command the audience’. The Athenaeum (7th July 1860) reported that the debaters
have each found foemen worthy of their steel, and made their charges and countercharges very much to their own satisfaction and the delight of their respective friends.
Myth no 3: the debate was a turning-point in the relations between science and religion. The folk version of the debate has become an icon of the ‘warfare’ between science and faith. But, at the time, it represented just one aspect of the relationship. As noted, other religious leaders welcomed evolutionary theory, while others (including the great Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon) were suspicious, but open-minded.
The work of unravelling fact from fiction has been carried out by J.R. Lucas in his article ‘Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter’, originally published in The Historical Journal, 22, 2 (1979), pp. 313-330, and reproduced here.