1860 Oxford evolution debate

1860 Oxford evolution debate

The 1860 Oxford evolution debate took place at the Oxford University Museum on 30 June 1860, seven months after the publication of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species". Several prominent British scientists and philosophers participated, including Thomas Henry Huxley, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, Benjamin Brodie, Joseph Dalton Hooker and Robert FitzRoy.

The debate is best remembered today for a heated exchange in which Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.]

The last person to speak was Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin's friend and botanical mentor. According to Hooker, it was he and not Huxley who delivered the most effective reply to Wilberforce's arguments: "Sam was shut up—had not one word to say in reply, and the meeting was dissolved forthwith" [Huxley L. 1918. "Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker OM, GCSI". 2 vols, I p522-5 (letter to Darwin, July 2nd 1860).] Ruse claims that "everybody enjoyed himself immensely and all went cheerfully off to dinner together afterwards". [cite book |last=Ruse |first= Michael |authorlink= Michael Ruse |title= Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion |date= 2001 |publisher= Cambridge University Press |location= Cambridge |isbn= 0-521-63716-3 |pages= 5]

It is said that during the debate, two Cambridge dons happened to be standing near Wilberforce, one of whom was Henry Fawcett, the recently-blinded economist. Fawcett was asked whether he thought the bishop had actually read the "Origin of Species". "Oh no, I would swear he has never read a word of it", Fawcett reportedly replied loudly. Wilberforce swung round to him scowling, ready to recriminate, but stepped back and bit his toungue on noting that the protagonist was the blind economist. (See p. 126 of Janet Browne (2003) "Charles Darwin: The Power of Place".)

Reaction and legacy

Summary reports of the debate were published in "The Guardian", "The Athenaeum" and "Jackson's Oxford Journal". Both sides immediately claimed victory, but the majority opinion has always been that the debate represented a major victory for the Darwinians. [Jenson, J. Vernon 1991. "Thomas Henry Huxley: communicating for science". U. of Delaware Press, Newark: Chapter 3.]

Though the debate is frequently depicted as a clash between religion and science, a case could be made for saying that for the many clerics in the audience, the underlying conflict was between traditional Anglicanism (Wilberforce) and liberal Anglicanism ("Essays and Reviews"). Many of the opponents of Darwin's theory were respected men of science: Owen was one of the most influential British biologists of his generation; Adam Sedgwick was a leading geologist; Wilberforce was a Fellow of the Royal Society (though at that time about half of the Fellows were well-placed amateurs). Darwin, Huxley and Hooker were professionals who concentrated on the advance of scientific knowledge, and were determined not to be baulked by religious authority. Their kind of science was to grow and flourish, and to become (for good or ill) largely autonomous from religious tradition.

The debate has been called "one of the great stories of the history of science"Brooke, John Hedley (2001). " [http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/cis/brooke/ Darwinism & Religion: A Revisionist View of the Wilberforce-Huxley Debate] ". Lecture delivered at Emmanuel College, Cambridge on 26 February 2001. Retrieved on 14 February 2008.] and it is often regarded as a key moment in the acceptance of evolution. Brooke argues that "the event almost completely disappeared from public awareness until it was resurrected in the 1890s as an appropriate tribute to a recently deceased hero of scientific education". Without question, the debate marked the moment when it became clear that Darwinism could not be suppressed the way similar ideas had been earlier in the nineteenth century (see Lawrence; Vestiges of Creation).

ee also

*Creation-evolution controversy
*Thomas Henry Huxley#Debate with Wilberforce
*T.H. Huxley#Man and ape
*Alfred Newton#Reception of the Origin of Species
*Huxley Memorial Debate


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