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Huxley, Wilberforce and the Oxford Museum

Keith Thomson

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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