Repost: Did Huxley really mop the floor with Wilberforce?

[Note:] I realized I posted this entry very recently, only three months prior to today, but since it is the anniversary of the Oxford debate/lectures I thought it would be fitting to throw this entry up again (with a few minor edits). I have also included two caricatures of Huxley (top) and Wilberforce (bottom) to add to the aesthetics of this piece. I hope you enjoy it


Sometimes textbook cardboard refuses to disintegrate. According to scientific lore on this day in 1860 T.H. Huxley singlehandedly slew Samuel “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce during a debate at Oxford in the sweltering heat, causing a woman to faint and sending Robert Fitzroy, (former captain of the HMS Beagle when it took Charles Darwin around the world) into a frenzy, stalking the aisles and shouting “The book! The book!” while holding a bible aloft. It’s a compelling story, but like many such tales, it’s probably not true.

Although the legend of Huxley’s great victory over Wilberforce continues to this day (see the new video for just one example), historians have known for decades that it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The first problem involves the classic error of taking the later accomplishments of a naturalist and projecting them backwards in time. Huxley was only 35 years old when the Oxford lectures took place; he was hardly the well-known spokesman of science of his later years. Indeed, the reputation he gained in his later in life cast a long shadow over his earlier career and so many of us don’t question the story because (as with Darwin) the image of the scientist in old age is much more prominent in our minds.

Second, Huxley was not asked to debate and he almost didn’t go to the presentations in the first place. He didn’t take the podium opposite of Wilberforce as in a modern political debate, but rather sat in the audience, packed in with many others in the oppressive heat. (The physical climate in the room may have had more to do with the woman fainting than the rhetorical one.) Although Wilberforce was coached by Richard Owen on some points the night before his speech was largely a spoken version of his review of On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection (collected in the invaluable book Adam or Ape), which had not yet been published in the Quarterly Review. At some point Wilberforce asked Huxley by which side of his family was he descended from an ape, but from there on accounts are sketchy, at best.


No one was there preserving what was said at Oxford that day and so many of the accounts of what transpired are biased (either by allegiance or by time) or full of holes. What is known is this; Wilberforce asked Huxley an incredulous question about how he was related to apes and Huxley responded that he would rather be related to an ape than be a clergyman who wastes his talents defending religious dogma. (The precise wording seems to be lost and I do not want to put words into Huxley’s mouth more than I already have.) The heirloom story states that Huxley whispered to a friend beside him “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands” and delivered his retort, but whether anyone heard Huxley is another question altogether. According to one account Huxley’s voice did not carry very far in the packed hall and so no one heard his witty rejoinder. Others viewed Huxley’s reply as inconsequential, some saying that Joseph Hooker’s demonstration of how botany illuminated evolution being much more important in defending Darwin.

As for Fitzroy, the accounts are vague about what he did but there isn’t any support that he leaped up and started wielding Scripture like a madman. Although it is fashionable to juxtapose his more conservative Tory politics with Darwin’s Whig pedigree Fitzory was not a blind bible-basher. During their journeys in Patagonia, for example, Darwin recorded that Fitzroy agreed that the geology Darwin was so studiously recording could not have been laid down as a result of a 40-day-long global deluge. More conservative and opposed to evolution he may have been, but he was not an unhinged zealot. Some accounts note that Fitzroy was asked to speak by John Stevens Henslow, who chaired the presentations during the day, but I have only seen accounts of his denunciation of evolution before the audience traced back to secondary sources and so the reliability of the event is certainly questionable. Indeed, while whiggish accounts claim that the room erupted into chaos when Huxley finished his reply, there’s no compelling reason to believe this was so.

Ultimately, the question of “Who won the day?” cannot be answered with certainty. Members from both sides claimed victory, and even though there was never any actual debate between Wilberforce and Huxley, Huxley’s words have been reproduced in so many books that it has become something of received foolishness in evolutionary circles. Even the Wikipedia entry for Huxley takes the young naturalist’s words to be a defining moment in the history of the evolution idea but there’s no indication that his words were important to any but those already in agreement with him (if anyone heard him at all!). I have little doubt that the sentiment of Huxley’s reply has come down to us intact, and it truly is an excellent response, but it seems that the influence of the response has been magnified by those with an axe to grind rather than accurately recorded. In terms of Huxley’s contributions to evolution his later work assembling potential lineages of transitional forms between reptiles & birds and ancient horses was far more important and it is a shame that he is often slapped with the label of “Darwin’s Bulldog” and given little attention otherwise.

I would like to think that this post will hope to dispel some of the mythology surrounding the beginnings of evolutionary science, but if Stephen Jay Gould couldn’t do it (see his essay on the topic in Bully for Brontosaurus), I don’t have high hopes for myself. It’s such a good story that many feel it simply must to be true. As I’ve come to realize more and more, however, the history of evolution as an idea is much more complex than many of us have been led to believe. It’s easy to give assent to the popular stories and use the same images & examples over and over again, but in some cases I fear monsters have been created that cannot easily be slain. Without a firm understanding of the history of our own discipline, we’ll continually be working off of the “last best” review or representation, and stories will continue to mutate and become caricatures of more impressive, compelling historical events.

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