Darwin and the Bishop’s Wife

The skeleton of an orangutan and a human compared. From Richard Owen’s The Principal Forms of the Skeleton and of the Teeth.

I have developed something of a bad habit. Whenever I am reading a book, paper, or article and I spot a bit of unattributed “received wisdom” I immediately get the urge to track down the reference to see if the author is in error. The task might consume only a few minutes or it may take many hours, but I cannot help my compulsion.

An op-ed by Karl Giberson and Darrel Falk, co-creators of the Biologos website, set me to work this afternoon. The pair wrote;

But the biggest problem [preventing the acceptance of evolution] was dismay that humans were related to primates: “Descended from the apes? Dear me, let us hope it is not true,” allegedly exclaimed the wife of a 19th-century English bishop upon hearing of Darwin’s new theory. “But if it is true, let us hope it does not become widely known.”

[A Beliefnet interview with Francis Collins, the scientist who coined the term “biologos” and also helped organize the website, used the same quote.]

I had seen this quote before, though in varying forms. Sometimes it is attributed to the Bishop of Worcester, sometimes to his wife (or the wife of the Bishop of Exeter), sometimes to an unnamed Victorian woman not allowed (for unspecified reasons) to attend the 1860 Oxford lectures on evolution, and yet other times it is split between an anonymous Victorian husband and wife. The original source of the quote, however, is never provided.

This sounded like a job for Stephen Jay Gould. After all, he attempted to find the origins of the famous quote about “God’s inordinate fondness for beetles” attributed to J.B.S. Haldane, but unfortunately Gould is no longer with us. (Gould’s essay on his efforts to find the source of the beetle quote can be found in the anthology Dinosaur in a Haystack.) If I was to find out the answer I would have to try and find out the answer myself.

I had expected that I would be able to follow the trail of the quote back to around the time it was said to have been uttered, 1860. No such luck. As far as I was able to discover the quote did not come into popular usage until about 1942.

It was in that year that the anthropologist Ashely Montagu published Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, and he opened the second chapter with the following;

It is said that when the theory of evolution was first announced it was received by the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral with the remark, “Descended from the apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

Frustratingly, Montagu did not include a reference. Since 1942, however, the usage of the quote has exploded. It has become a bit of “everyone knows” mythology that is repeated without any need for a reference and, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, has mutated into a variety of forms.

But where did this quote come from? Montagu’s phrasing indicates that the quote was already well-known when he transcribed (paraphrased?) it, yet there appears to be no occurrence of it whatsoever before 1942. Although the original quote may be hiding in some elusive journal, periodical, or book, I have not been able to find any trace of it before that year.

It is possible that the quote was never actually said but was fashioned to represent the shock that Victorian-era society supposedly felt when Darwin published On the Origin of Species. I am not suggesting that Montagu fabricated the quote himself, but it may have made the rounds as a favorite story for some time. Then again, there might be some modicum of truth to it. The quote is often associated with the lectures on evolution delivered at Oxford during the summer of 1860, an event that did generate a good deal of public attention.

Still, it would be strange if such a juicy quote went unused for over eight decades. It appears almost out of nowhere in Montagu’s work and has proliferated rapidly ever since. This is suspicious, and we should be careful in continuing to use the quote. With such uncertain origins it is quite possible that the quote is apocryphal and as such may be a like a “bad bit of stone” that we should discard. It might be cherished, but if it is a fabricated quote then it does us no good to keep using it.

Perhaps more importantly, though, continuing to use the quote without confirming its origins lets us get away with being lazy. We can quote it over and over again because it is a piece of trivia that everyone knows so we need not bother thinking about it further. No real research or understanding of the history of science is required; it is all summed up in an exquisite little quote for us. Since many scientists who speak about Darwin do not know half as much as they should about him or his legacy, though, such conveniences allows us to not have to bother with doing some historical research. The complex way in which evolutionary theory was received is obscured by appealing to this quote which instead plays up the worn “warfare between science and religion” model.

As far as I have been able to tell no one has successfully traced the origins of the quote. For me the trail ran cold, but perhaps professional historians have had better luck and I have missed their work. If the puzzle has been solved I would be glad to hear of it, but if not then it might be worthwhile to try to figure it out.

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