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Huxley, Wilberforce and the Oxford Museum

Keith Thomson

After the "debate" at the Oxford University Museum, 140 years ago this June 30, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley became part of science's mythology. Bishop Wilberforce is supposed to have asked Huxley sarcastically whether "it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey." Huxley supposedly whispered an aside to Sir Benjamin Brodie, "the Lord hath delivered him unto my hand," and then responded, "If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." Or words to that effect.

Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry HuxleyClick to Enlarge Image

Unfortunately there is no verbatim account, although summary reports were published in journals such as The Guardian, The Athenaeum and Jackson's Oxford Journal. Four contemporary letters written within months give us clues: Joseph Hooker to Darwin on July 2, John Richard Green to Sir William Boyd Dawkins on July 3, Balfour Stewart to David Forbes on July 4 and Huxley to Henry Dyster on September 9, 1860. How pivotal that session of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was in terms of shifting the weight of popular and scientific opinion to an evolutionary viewpoint is as unclear as what was actually said. Also uncertain is the damage that it did to the clerical cause against Darwinism. But the stakes were high for both sides—at Oxford most of all.

For most of the first half of the 19th century, science at Oxford was in a parlous state, despite the presence of the Reverend Professor William Buckland, the distinguished geologist, and other luminaries, such as Charles Daubeny. In the 1840s, a group of dons began lobbying the university for the establishment of a new Honours School of Natural Sciences and a new building to house Oxford's scientific collections, based on those of the Tradescants, father and son, and vigorously enlarged over the years.

Sadly, Dean Buckland refused to support something so "alien from what is thought to be the proper business of the University as natural history in any of its branches." On his elevation to Dean of Westminster, the young Dr. Henry Acland (Dr. Lee's Reader in Anatomy at Christ Church) took up the cause and persuaded the University Convocation, in 1849, to approve an outline plan for a new museum to house all of science at Oxford, from medicine to chemistry. (Except botany; by this time Daubeny had pre-emptively created a laboratory for himself at the University Botanic Garden.) That the funds for the project came from the surplus in the University Press's Bible account was only appropriate for a building dedicated to science as a glorification of God's works.

The winning design for the new museum was for a Rhenish-Gothic building by the Dublin architects of Dean and Woodward, incorporating all the contemporary ideas of John Ruskin. A modern secular Gothic building was almost inevitable given the growing influence of Ruskin as an artist and critic. Ruskin had been a fellow student with Acland at Christ Church and had studied with Buckland. The result, combining elements of a Venetian palace and the Cloth Hall at Ypres, is now considered to be one of the jewels of English architecture. Ruskin believed that "the museum of this University was founded to bring the light and beauty and life of the works of God to their eyes...."

Smashing the Heterodoxy

The British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting of 1860 marked the public inauguration of Oxford's new cathedral of science. That Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection... had been published only seven months before gave a particular emphasis to the deliberations, whereas the presence of the Bishop of Oxford as an Honorary Vice President of the meeting provided an additional frisson. Wilberforce was already an implacable foe of evolutionary ideas, whether expounded by Robert Chambers or Charles Darwin, and had as his scientific second none other than Richard Owen, the great anatomist and palaeontologist, another determined enemy of "development" theory. With a "versatile facility and persuasive expediency" Soapy Sam Wilberforce could be relied on to gather a crowd and indeed to "smash" this new and dangerous heterodoxy.

The events of June 30 really began Thursday, June 28, when Professor Daubeny read a paper: "On the final causes of the sexuality in plants, with particular reference to Mr. Darwin's work...." With Huxley in the audience, Owen countered with the exaggerated claim that the brain of a gorilla was more different from that of a human than from that of the lowest primate. As Huxley was known for using the similarity of ape and human brains as evidence of evolution, this was a blatant challenge. Huxley, having previously stated that he "did not think that a general audience, in which sentiment would unduly interfere with intellect, was a fit place for such a discussion," got up and contradicted Owen flatly but politely. With that, one senses the knives were well and truly out. By Friday evening, Huxley, exhausted by all the argument, intended to decamp. But Robert Chambers begged him not to desert the battle when he was needed most. Perhaps mindful of the way that Wilberforce had attacked Chambers for his Vestiges of Creation (1844) at the 1847 meeting, Huxley agreed to stay on.

On Saturday morning the great and near-great of British science assembled in the reading room of the museum library. Although scheduled to chair the session, Owen did not attend but asked the Reverend Robert Stevens Henslow (Darwin's old mentor from Cambridge) to take his place, perhaps shrewdly hoping to make the expected defeat of Darwin the more complete. The eye of this particular hurricane, Darwin himself, was typically absent. His intestines shredded by the pressures of public notoriety and private uncertainty, he was busy taking a cure at Dr. Lane's Hydropathic Clinic.

The centerpiece of Saturday's session was Dr. John W. Draper of New York University, who read a long, boring paper entitled "On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law." Draper is always discounted in view of the fireworks that followed, but his paper shows how quickly a Darwinian metaphor of adaptation and environment had entered what we would call social and political science. After Draper, Henslow called on the Rev. Richard Cresswell, Sir Benjamin Brodie (President of the Royal Society) and a Mr. Dingle who was shouted down by the students. After this he allowed the floor only to those with arguments not "for mere declamation."

Now Wilberforce, with assumed reluctance, accepted the invitation to speak. Wilberforce used the same arguments as were set in his anonymous review of The Origin for July's The Quarterly Review. His rhetoric, now strictly logical, now witheringly dismissive, always flamboyant, carried the audience along—a majority was with him anyway, the ladies in the window waving their white handkerchiefs, the students in the rear cheering and jeering, the clerics smugly applauding. At the end of this all-out attack Wilberforce added the one rhetorical flourish that has gone down in history. But what was it?

Myths and Legends

Green's letter differs from the authorized version: "Up rose Wilberforce and proceeded to act as the Smasher. The white chokers (clergymen) who were present cheered lustily ... as Samuel rattled on—'He had been told that Professor Huxley had said that he didn't see that it mattered much to a man whether his grandfather were an ape or no! Let the learned Professor speak for himself' and the like." The Athenaeum stated, "The Bishop of Oxford came out strongly against a theory which holds it possible that man may be descended from an ape. But others—conspicuous among these, Prof. Huxley—have expressed their willingness to accept, for themselves, as well as for their friends and enemies, all actual truths, even the last humiliating truth of a pedigree not registered in the Herald's College." These accounts have a greater ring of authenticity than the mythical account, created 30 years later. Significantly, both imply that the ape-grandfather metaphor had originally been Huxley's own coinage—if not in Thursday's discussion, then on some earlier occasion. This is confirmed by Balfour Stewart, "The Bishop said he had been informed that Prof. Huxley had said that he didn't care whether his grandfather was an ape...."

There is no mention here of grandmothers. To have mentioned Huxley's grandmother (if in fact he did) would, of course, have been an even cruder insult. Wilberforce sat down to tumultuous applause. When Huxley rose to reply, the room fell to silence. First he skillfully defended the structure of Darwin's argument. Then he produced his famous riposte, beginning, as he reported to Dyster, "I had listened with great attention to the Lord Bishop's speech but had been unable to discover either a new fact or a new argument in it—except indeed the question raised as to my personal predilection in the matter of ancestry—That it would not have occurred to me to bring forward such a topic as that for discussion myself, but that I was quite ready to meet the Right Revd Prelate even on that ground—If then, said I, the question is put ... would I rather have a miserable ape ...."etc.

Green's account agrees, "Huxley—young, cool, quiet, sarcastic, scientific in fact and in treatment gave his Lordship such a smashing....This was the exordium 'I asserted, and I repeat, that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for a grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with an equivocal success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he had 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.'" (Huxley later disclaimed the word "equivocal.")

Although the effect was as sensational as before—Lady Brewster even fainting—Huxley was no great orator. Many never heard the end of Huxley's famous remark. For Joseph Hooker (Darwin's long friend and botanical mentor), at least, it was not the coup de grace. He wrote to Darwin, rather uncharitably, "Well, Sam Oxon got up and spouted for half an hour with inimitable spirit, ugliness and emptiness and unfairness ... Huxley answered admirably and turned the tables, but he could not throw his voice over so large an assembly nor command the audience ... he did not allude to Sam's weak points nor put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience."

The meeting did not end here; next Henslow recognized Admiral FitzRoy who "regretted the publication of Mr. Darwin's book, and denied Prof. Huxley's statement, that it was a logical arrangement of facts." Professor Beale "pointed out some of the difficulties with which the Darwinian theory had to deal," and Mr. Lubbock "expressed his willingness to accept the Darwinian hypothesis in the absence of any better." (All quotes from The Athenaeum of July 14th.)

All this time, Hooker had been growing quietly more furious. "Now I saw my advantage; I swore to myself that I would smite that Amalekite, Sam, hip and thigh ... and I handed my name up to the President as ready to throw down the gauntlet ... then I smashed him amid rounds of applause. I hit him in the wind at the first shot in ten words taken from his own ugly mouth ... I ... then proceeded to demonstrate in as few more: (1) that he could never have read your book, and (2) that he was absolutely ignorant of the rudiments of Bot. Science. I said a few more on the subject of my own experience and conversion and wound up with a very few observations on the relative positions of the old and new hypotheses ... Sam was shut up—had not one word to say in reply, and the meeting was dissolved forthwith."

One is struck by the crudity and venom of Hooker's language, and he does not miss a chance for a jab at Huxley. "Huxley, who had borne all the previous brunt of the battle, and who never before (thank God) praised me to my face, told me it was splendid and that he did not know before what stuff I was made of." Nor does Hooker mention the ape-grandfather exchange which was, after all, the point where Huxley had his success. One detects a certain rivalry as to which disciple Darwin should love best.

All sides claimed to have won the day—Wilberforce (to Sir Charles Anderson, July 3, 1860): "On Saturday Professor Henslow ... called on me by name to address the Section on Darwin's theory. So I could not escape and had quite a long fight with Huxley. I think I thoroughly beat him." Huxley: "[I was] the most popular man in Oxford for a full four & twenty hours afterwards." Hooker: "I have been congratulated and thanked by the blackest coats and whitest stocks in Oxford." But certainly the Bishop thought his prime opponent had been Huxley, not Hooker. In any case, Huxley left the meeting with new respect for the power of oratory and later perfected the art and used it well on Darwin's behalf.

Huxley's Biblical reference is a bit suspect, however, as is Hooker's. It is not just that Huxley only remembered his glee that "the Lord hath delivered him unto my hand" some 30 years after the event (he did not mention it in his letter to Dyster). Rather, there is an odd coincidence in the ways Huxley and Hooker got their Biblical references wrong. Hooker claimed to have smitten "the Amalekite, Sam, hip and thigh," but Biblical smiting by hip and thigh was performed by Samson on the Philistines (Judges 15:8), not the Amalekites. On the other hand, when in Judges 7:15 Gideon is told "the Lord hath delivered unto your hand the host of Midian," that "host" is the Amalekites and the Midianites. Soapy Sam would not have got it wrong, of course. But could Huxley's 1891 remembrance of the debate have been colored by a later reading of Hooker's letter to Darwin?

With these Biblical allusions, the irony of the Oxford Museum having been built with Bible funds was complete. Ruskin, who died exactly 100 years ago, became a very unhappy man. He rejected the building that more than any other encapsulated his own theories. Modern science, particularly evolution and vivisection, disgusted him, as did reductionism, Descartes, Protestantism and railways. The building that had been built to glorify God's works became for him a display of: "... the Devil's working ... through disease, and his triumph over [the works of God] in death."

The doorway to the Oxford University Museum is still carved with Adam and Eve ("pretty Eve," Ruskin once wrote, "always such a good bas relief, but then there is never anybody to match"), from whom an entwined tree of life leads to a central angel. On close inspection the angel turns out to hold the Book of All Nature in one hand, and in the other three living cells, emblematic of the new science of which natural selection became a major theory, with the Oxford Debate one of its better media successes.

© Keith Thomson



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