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Wilberforce and Huxley: a Legendary Encounter

  • J. R. Lucas (a1)


The legend of the encounter between Wilberforce and Huxley is well established. Almost every scientist knows – and every viewer of the BBC's recent programme on Darwin was shown – how Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, attempted to pour scorn on Darwin's Origin of species at a meeting of the British Association in Oxford on 30 June 1860, and had the tables turned on him by T. H. Huxley. In this memorable encounter Huxley's simple scientific sincerity humbled the prelatical insolence and clerical obscurantism of Soapy Sam; the pretension of the Church to dictate to scientists the conclusions they were allowed to reach were, for good and all, decisively defeated, the autonomy of science was established in Britain and the western world, the claim of plain unvarnished truth on men's allegiance was vindicated, however unwelcome its implications for human vanity might be, and the flood tide of Victorian faith in all its fulsomeness was turned to an ebb, which has continued to our present day and will only end when religion and superstition have been finally eliminated from the minds of all enlightened men. Even churchmen concede that it was a disastrous defeat. Only Owen Chadwick strikes a note of caution, observing that the account given of the incident in Wilberforce's biography seems hardly consistent with an overwhelming defeat, and maintaining that the received account must be a largely legendary creation of a later date.



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* [Added in proof.] Broadcast 12 and 15 Dec. 1978.

1 Edwards, David, Leaders of the Victorian Church (Oxford, 1971), pp. 103–4. Jaki, Stanley L., ‘A hundred years of two cultures’, Culture and science (University of Windsor, 1975), p.3. Meacham, Standish, Lord Bishop: the life of Samuel Wilberforce (Harvard, 1970), pp. 212–17.

2 Chadwick, Owen, The Victorian Church (2 vols., London, 1970, vol. 2, pp. 1012.

3 By MrsSidgwick, Isabella, Macmillan's Magazine, LXXVIII, no. 468, 10. 1898, ‘A Grandmother's tales’, 433–4. I owe the identification to Mr Christopher Chessun, of University College, Oxford.

4 Darwin, Francis, Life and letters of Charles Darwin (3 vols., London, 1888), II, 320–3, hereafter cited as Darwin.

5 Huxley, Leonard, Life and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (2 vols., London, 1900), I, 179–89, hereafter cited as Huxley.

6 Huxley, I, 179.

7 Huxley, I, 180.

8 Fremantle, W. H., Chrales Darwin, his life told &c. (1892), p. 238; quoted in Darwin, II, 320–I. Tuckwell, William, Reminiscences of Oxford (London, 1900), pp. 50–3; hereafter cited as Tuckwell. Huxley, Leonard, Life and letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, (London, 1918), 1, 522–5; hereafter cited as Hooker. Wilberforce, R. G., Life of Bishop Wilberforce (London, 1881), II, 450–1, 1882, III, Errata; hereafter cited as Wilberforce.

9 Hooker to Darwin on 2 July; reprinted in Hooker, 1, 525–7. J. R. Green to W. Boyd Dawkins on 3 July; reprinted in L. Stephen (ed.), Letters of J. R. Green (London, 1901), pp. 42–5. Sir Charles Lyell to Sir Charles Bunbury on 4 July; reprinted Mrs Lyell, Life of Sir Charles Lyell (London, 1881), II, 335; hereafter cited as Lyell. Huxley to Dyster on 9 Sept. 1860, Huxley papers, Imperial College, London, 117 ff.; partly reprinted in Cyril Bibby, Scientist extraordinary, T. H. Huxley (Oxford, 1972), p. 41. George Allman to Huxley 9 July 1860, Huxley papers, 79. George Rolleston to Huxley, ? Dec. 1860, Huxley papers, 151 ff. I am much indebted to Professor Owen Chadwick for making copies of these letters available to me.

10 The Athenaeum, , nos. 1705, 1706 and 1707, 30 June, 7 July and 14 07 1860. Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday 7 July, 1860, p. 2, col. 6.

11 On Thursday, 28 June; see The Athenaeum, p. 26, col. i.

12 Hooker, 1, 525–7.

13 Lyell, 11, 335; quoted in n. 41 below. See also The Rev. A. S. Farrar to Leonard Huxley, 12 July 1899, Huxley papers, 16; quoted below p. 327.

14 The Athenaeum, p. 19, col. i.

15 Ibid., p. 26, col. i.

16 Especially Huxley, 1, 179, quoted above, pp. 313 f., and 1, 189, quoted below pp. 325 f.

17 Tuckwell, p. 51: ‘Another pause, an appeal from the chairman to Huxley, his sarcastic response that he certainly held a brief for Science, but had not yet heard it assailed.’

18 The Reverend A. S. Farrar to Leonard Huxley, 12 July 1899, Huxley papers, Imperial College, London, 14; cf. Burgon, J. W., Lives of twelve good men (London, 1891), p. 277 for Wilberforce's interest in geology as well as ornithology.

19 The Athenaeum, p. 26, cols. i–ii.

20 Ibid. p. 65, col. iii.

21 Ibid. p. 28, col. i.

22 Wilberforce, 11, 450.

23 The Quarterly Review, CVIII, 07 1860, 225–64; reprinted in Samuel Wilberforce, Essays contributed to the Quarterly Review (London, 1874), 1, 52–103, and in part in Johnson, R. Brimley (ed.), Famous reviews (London, 1914), pp. 267–87.

24 Hooker, 1, 526; Tuckwell, p. 51; but note that Fawcett, Henry, Macmillan's Magazine, III, no. 14 (12 1860), p. 88, quoted in n. 52 below, complained that no mention of the geological evidence was made. Much must have been left out.

25 The Quarterly Review, pp. 225–56; Wilberforce, Essays, 1, 52–92; Brimley Johnson, Famous reviews, pp. 267–79.

26 The Quarterly Review, p. 231; Wilberforce, Essays, 1, 58–9; Brimley Johnson, Famous reviews, p. 270.

27 The Quarterly Review, p. 256; Wilberforce, Essays, 1, p. 92; Brimley Johnson, Famous reviews, p. 279.

28 The Athenaeum, p. 65, col. i.

29 Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday 7 07, 1860, p. 2, col. 6.

30 The Quarterly Review, pp. 239–45; Wilberforce, Essays, 1, 70–7; Brimley Johnson, Famous reviews, p. 271. But see n. 24 above.

31 See below, pp. 325 f.

32 I am indebted to Sir Alister Hardy for many valuable discussions on the true nature of speciation. See his The living stream (London, 1965), pp. 96–7.

33 Darwin, II, 324–5.

34 Darwin, II, 356; it was published in 1868 under the title The variation of animals and plants under domestication and contains besides a chapter on dogs, two chapters on pigeons.

35 The Athenaeum, p. 65, col. i. Cf. Huxley, I, 193, and Fawcett, Henry, Macmillan's Magazine, III, no. 14 (12 1860), pp. 83–4.

36 The Athenaeum, p. 65, col. ii.

37 Huxley, T.H., Hume (London, 1879).

38 The Quarterly Review, pp. 253–4; Wilberforce, Essays, 1, p. 89; Brimley Johnson, Famous reviews, p. 278.

39 Fawcett, Henry, Macmillan's, III, no. 14 (12. 1860), p. 81, corrected by J. S. Henslow, 111, no. 16 (Feb. 1861), p. 336.

40 The Athenaeum says ‘the greatest names in science’, but reports Hooker as saying ‘that the Bishop of Oxford having asserted that all men of science were hostile to Mr Darwin's hypothesis – whereas he himself was favourable to it – he could not presume to address the audience as a scientific authority’. It is unlikely that the reporter would have introduced the discrepancy – compare Jackson's Oxford Journal (quoted pages 318–19 above). It is more likely that Hooker misheard – one of the earliest steps in the making of the myth – or – quite pardonably in that context – misrepresented Wilberforce in order to introduce his own remarks with a pleasing mock modesty.

41 Lyell to Sir Charles Bunbury on Wednesday, 4 July[ Lyell, p. 335]: ‘I was not able to attend the section of Zoology and Botany (Henslow in the chair), when first Owen and Huxley, and on a later day the Bishop of Oxford and Huxley, had a spar, and on the latter occasion young Lubbock and Joseph Hooker declared their adhesion to Darwin's theory.’

42 See Carter, G. S., A hundred years of evolution (London, 1957), p. 70.

43 Tuckwell, p. 52; Hooker, I, 526.

44 Tuckwell, p. 52; nor did he later show any hostility to Huxley; see Huxley, 1, 188.

45 Letter to Leonard Huxley, quoted Life of Huxley, 1, 188–9.

46 Reported in Life of Huxley, 1, 189.

47 P. 19, col. i.

48 Monypenny, W. F. and Buckley, G. E., Life of Disraeli (London, 1910), IV, 374.

49 Wilberforce, 11, 450–1.

50 Quoted above, pp. 313 f.

51 Lyell, 11, 335. Green (L. Stephen, Letters of J. R. Green, pp. 44 f.) was a contemporary ear-witness, but his reliability is impugned by Farrar. See his letter to Huxley quoted pages 326–8 below.

52 Macmillan's Magazine, 111, 88. Since I shall, in effect, be disbelieving Fawcett's testimony, it is only fair to quote him in full. ‘We were therefore not a little astonished, that in the discussions upon Mr Darwin at the British Association at Oxford geology was not even alluded to. It was sad, indeed, to think that the opponents of the theory sought to supply this omission by summoning to their aid a species of oratory which could deem it an argument to ask a professor if he should object to discover that he had been developed out of an ape. The professor aptly replied to his assailant by remarking, that man's remote descent from an ape was not so degrading to his dignity as the employment of oratorical powers to misguide the multitude by throwing ridicule upon a scientific discussion. The retort was so justly deserved, and so inimitable in its manner, that no one who was present can ever forget the impression it made.’

53 Huxley papers, 117 ff.; quoted below, p. 326; also in Cyril Bibby, Scientist extraordinary, p. 41.

54 Quoted above, p. 314.

55 Huxley, 1, 188.

56 Cf. his review in The Quarterly, pp. 325–6; Wilberforce, Essays, 1, 64–5.

57 The Athenaeum, no. 1707, 14 July 1860, p. 65, col. iii.

58 Huxley, 1, 189.

59 Hooker, 1, 527.

60 Lyell, 11, 335.

61 Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, I, 11; see, for example, Rolleston to Huxley, Huxley papers, 151 ff.

62 Darwin, Francis and Seward, A. C., More letters of Charles Darwin (London, 1903), 1, 157–8.

63 Huxley, 1, 189.

64 Huxley, 1, 302 n.

65 Farrar to Leonard Huxley, 12 July 1899, Huxley papers, 13 ff.; quoted in part Huxley, 1, 182–3 n.

66 Wilberforce, 11, 451. ‘In the course of this speech which made a great impression, the bishop said that whatever certain people might believe, he would not look at the monkeys in the zoo as connected with his ancestors.’ (My italics.)

67 Vernon Harcourt to Leonard Huxley, quoted Huxley, 1, 185. According to The Athenaeum (p. 65, col. i), Huxley met the challenge by pointing out that each individual had been ‘once a monad’.

68 Tuckwell, pp. 51–52.

69 Westminster Review [vol. LXXIII, no. CXLIV] – New Series, vol. xvii, no. 11, p. 541; quoted in Cyril Bibby, Scientist extraordinary, pp. 39–40.

70 L. Stephen, Letters of J. R. Green, pp. 44 f.

71 The Athenaeum (p. 19, col. i), although not conclusive, supports this view. ‘But others – conspicuous among them Professor 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.’

72 Huxley, 1, 302 n.; see also Huxley, T. H., Collected essays (London, 1893), 111, 119.

73 Owen Chadwick, History of the Victorian Church, 11, 25, 27.

74 Cf. Searle, J. R., The campus war (Pelican, 1972), p. 99, for modern, secular analogues.

75 L. Stephen, Letters of J. R. Green, p. 45.

Wilberforce and Huxley: a Legendary Encounter

  • J. R. Lucas (a1)


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