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Huxley, Wilberforce and the Oxford Museum

Keith Thomson

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?

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