The 1860 Oxford Debate: Wilberforce, Hooker, Huxley, And The Argument Over The Origin Of Species

From all that I hear from several quarters, it seems that Oxford did the subject great good. It is of enormous importance to the showing the world that a few first-rate men are not afraid of expressing their opinion. I see daily more and more plainly that my unaided book would have done absolutely nothing.

–Charles Darwin
in a letter to Thomas Henry Huxley,
July 20, 1860 (Darwin Correspondence Project)

The 1860 Oxford Debate over Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species helped to make Western society what it is today—a thriving, open-minded civilization in which scientific evidence is valued over unquestioning belief. Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker, both taking the side of evolution by natural selection, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who argued against Darwin’s idea, debated the theory of evolution at the Oxford University Museum on June 30th, 1860. Religion had been of great importance in society for centuries, but in the 19th century, some were beginning to reconsider the literalness of the bible, and how important God’s role was in the creation of the species. Darwin’s ideas, and the men who promoted them, threatened the beliefs of deeply religious people, who depended on the idea of a god to uphold their everyday traditions. The Oxford Debate was the first public debate over The Origin of Species and began a long discussion that continues today. Although there are still many people who don’t accept the idea of evolution, the debate influenced a greater number of people to understand and consider Darwin’s theory than had before the debate had occurred. By arguing effectively against Bishop Wilberforce, Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker helped to spread Darwin’s ideas and successfully changed the way people thought about science, religion and themselves.
Before the 1860 Oxford Debate, the idea of God was unquestionable, but as the 19th Century progressed, those who supported a literal reading of the bible felt more and more challenged (Stefoff, 28). During the early 1800’s in Europe, there wasn’t much conflict between religion and science, just a sort of friendly ignorance. As scientists began noticing inconsistencies between the story of creation told in Genesis, and the evidence that they had found about the history of the earth and the evolution of animals and plants, this relaxed separation began to dissipate. It was found that not only was the world much older than the bible portrayed, as originally noted by the geologist Charles Lyell, but that the species did not all come into being at once. Later on in the century, but still before Darwin’s book was published, scientists in France, such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, began to extract the idea of God from the creation of species; and in Germany, theologians such as Johann Gottfried Eichhorn and Johann Salomo Semler were reconsidering how literal the bible really was (Karmen, 24-28). However, this scientific breakthrough did not only affect scientific circles. The social structure in England was largely dependent on the idea of a higher being. As Professor Anne Harrington, Chairman of the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University said, “The [Anglican] Church wasn’t just one institution…it was the framework [of society.]” Though many Christians didn’t believe in a literal bible by that point in time, they still believed in God as the creator of the species. William Paley wrote about this idea in Natural Theology, a book similar to Darwin’s in its persuasive format and in the evidence presented, but different in its opinion. Paley stated that the purpose of science is to understand how nature relates to God (Heiligman, 23). Paley and Darwin both acknowledged that species had evolved over time, but while Paley concluded that God had arranged the species to develop in this way (Paley also coined the term “The Great Clock Maker” to refer to God), Darwin understood that the species had evolved through organic mechanisms such as natural selection, “the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring” (New Oxford American Dictionary). It was the great discussion and conflict over Darwin’s idea—that the species evolved without divine intervention—that led to the 1860 Oxford Debate.
On June 30, 1860 at the Oxford Union in England, a crowd of almost 700 gathered to hear three men argue about Darwin’s theory in a debate that challenged the beliefs of the deeply religious (Brooke). The man on the side of religion was Samuel Wilberforce, a Bishop of the Anglican Church, who considered himself an amateur scientist. He argued against Darwin and for biblical creation, pronouncing that God created the world and the species. The other two men—Thomas Henry Huxley, well known for being “Darwin’s bulldog” (for his natural inclination to sit, stay and heel at Darwin’s will, as considered by those opposing him; or for being a fierce debater for Darwin’s side, as believed by his allies); and Joseph Hooker, who is less well-known for the debate than the other two, but contributed important scientific proof for evolution—took the side of Darwin’s theory of evolution (Heiligman, 191). Darwin himself wasn’t present. He was never one for dispute, and claimed illness to avoid the meeting. The debate was so intense that one woman even fainted, and Robert FitzRoy (Charles Darwin’s captain aboard the HMS Beagle, the ship that took Darwin on the voyage on which he found evidence for his theory of evolution) stood up waving a bible over his head and yelling that Darwin was wrong (Brooke, St. Edmunds’ College).
One of the reasons why people like FitzRoy disagreed with the theory of evolution was that they were bothered by the fact that Darwin’s idea suggested that God might not be necessary to explain the origin of the species. Others, such as the Duke of Argyll, believed in “a sort of guided evolution,” in which a creator plays a part (Ruse, 133). Although Argyll’s understanding of the origin of the species was less conservative than FitzRoy’s, he still refused to accept that the species evolved independently and instead insisted that God monitored and controlled the species’ development. Surprisingly, Huxley was harsher on the idea of God in evolution than even Darwin himself, who said in correspondence with the American botanist Asa Gray, “Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical… and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence” (Darwin Correspondence Project). Darwin did not rule out the idea of God, but found proof that the species were unaided in their evolution.
People like FitzRoy were also disturbed by the fact that Darwin’s theory suggested that humans were related to apes, instead of the previous belief that they were formed to resemble God and the angels (Stefoff, 94). Wilberforce touched upon this fear in his famous line directed at Huxley, something along the lines of, “Is it from your grandfather or your grandmother that you claim descent from an ape?” As Rebecca Stefoff said in Charles Darwin: And the Evolution Revolution, this was the “disturbing aspect” of evolution and “the bishop’s [Wilberforce] jibe had struck at the heart of [it]” (93-94). Huxley replied to Wilberforce with the equally famed, “If then, the question is put to me, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather, or a man highly intelligent possessed with great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule in a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape” (Hesketh, 82). These powerful words influenced further discussions on evolution, and overall consequences to the different aspects of society, especially science and religion.
As the first public debate over The Origin of Species, the 1860 Oxford Debate influenced the spread of discussion over the theory of evolution and resulted in consequences to the scientific and religious communities, as well as the general populace.
The first immediate success of the debate was that “a number of [influential] authors” began to openly write about evolution favorably (Stefoff, 95). Authors who began to write about evolution in this way included the well-known and highly regarded Charles Lyell, a geologist who was reluctant at first to publicly agree with the controversial idea, as well as Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist who developed his own theory of evolution around the time Darwin was considering publishing his book (Stefoff, 76). Both Asa Gray and Reverend Baden Powell, mathematician and priest of the Church of England, endorsed the theory of evolution as well (Ruse, 132). Despite his deeply religious beliefs, Gray promoted the first American publication of The Origin of Species and is recognized for bringing the idea of evolution to America. Only a few months after the debate, reporters began to write about evolution in popular magazines, commenting on how Darwin’s theory was correct. An example of this was an article by Henry Fawcett in Macmillan’s Magazine, an English paper, that discussed the debate and reported the incidents at the Oxford University, while praising Darwin’s new and inspirational ideas. As Fawcett concludes, “If Mr. Darwin’s theory were disproved to-morrow, the volume in which it has been expounded [The Origin of Species] would still remain one of our most interesting, most valuable, and most accurate treatises on natural history” (92). This was a great success, because the debate influenced a known magazine to show the general public not only what Darwin’s idea was about, but also display that it was a correct and well-explained one. Additionally, the debate influenced tentative supporters, such as Huxley, to rise up and share their opinion. In the wake of the debate, many scientists continued to research evolution, such as Asa Gray, and Othniel Marsh, an American paleontologist who studied and improved Darwin’s theory (Stefoff, 84). The discussion over evolution continued with the help of the 1860 Oxford Debate, and so, by the end of the 1800’s, most scientists acknowledged that the theory of evolution was correct and that they could no longer argue for ideas based on belief. According to Professor John Durant, director of the MIT Museum and adjunct professor of the MIT Program in Science, Technology and Society, “By 1870, virtually everyone accepted the idea of evolution (including human evolution); but few accepted that natural selection was an adequate mechanism to account for it.” Durant continued, “By the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, religious establishment had largely come to terms with evolution…Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey!”
Some may say that the 1860 Oxford Debate was not a success, because the debate resulted in a distribution of opinions that is even and the argument still continues today, rather than the conflict being completely solved. However, the debate promoted Darwin’s ideas, which, in turn, further promoted the acceptance of evolution. Many years after the debate, the conflict that Huxley, Hooker and Wilberforce began continued to spread to other continents. In America, in 1925, The Scopes Trial occurred, in which John Thomas Scopes, gym coach and science teacher at Rhea County High School in Tennessee, was put on trial for teaching evolution in schools (Foote). As recently as 2005, President George H. W. Bush announced that intelligent design, an alternate name for creationism, should be taught in schools. A survey conducted in the same year by National Geographic displays that a minority of people in the United States believe that the theory of evolution is correct (National Geographic). Additionally, according to Professor John Durant, the chance of the opinion on evolution becoming more positive is “very slight, at least in the U.S. This is because of two inter-connected facts: one, [that] the U.S. is by far the most religious among all the highly industrialized societies in the world; and two, [that] a very large section of religious opinion in the U.S. (broadly, conservative evangelical Protestant opinion) has decided to reject evolution as a matter of religious principle. However, the United States is an exception, and most of the Western world accepts the theory of evolution. For example, in Iceland, almost 90% of the population believes that evolution is correct; and in Denmark and Sweden, more than 80% recognize the truth in Darwin’s theory (National Geographic). In Great Britain, Charles Darwin’s visage is even featured on a £10 note. The The debate influenced further discussion about evolution which helped to advance the idea. These examples display that the debate was successful, because it spread knowledge about Darwin’s theory.
As Darwin said in his 1860 letter to Huxley, the 1860 Oxford Debate “did the subject great good” (Darwin Correspondence Project). The theory of evolution managed to prevail, despite strong resistance. The advancements in biological and geological sciences, showing that the literal version of the bible was not possible, assisted in Darwin’s formulation of evolution, which in turn led to a tension-filled debate. Many people watched the debate, and others wrote about it afterwards. This first public debate over The Origin of Species aided Darwin’s book in the continuation of its fame and admiration and affecting multiple aspects of society, such as science, religion and education. Even though the theory of evolution may not be accepted by all, today, 150 years after the debate, there is greater understanding of the theory than before. All of these examples show that the 1860 Oxford Debate over the theory of evolution, as presented by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species was successful in promoting Darwin’s theory. Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker argued effectively against Bishop Wilberforce, therefore helping to promote evolution and alter the way people considered science, religion and the human species. As Leonard Huxley wrote in his biography about his father, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley,
“The importance of the Oxford meeting lay in the open resistance that was made to authority, at a moment when even a drawn battle was hardly less effectual than acknowledged victory. Instead of being crushed under ridicule, the new theories secured a hearing, all the wider, indeed, for the startling nature of their defense.” (204)

Kaley Pillinger, Age 14, Grade 8, Hunter College High School, Silver Key

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