Little Bits of History

Monkeying Around

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 30, 2012

Thomas Huxley

June 30, 1860: Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and biologist Thomas Huxley debate at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was published on November 24, 1859. Charles Darwin was aboard HMS Beagle captained by Robert FitzRoy as the ship sailed the world’s seas. Between 1831 and 1835, the ship was used for scientific study around the world. Darwin kept detailed notes throughout the journey. He did not publish his findings immediately upon return, but waited over twenty years and published only when it looked like his theory would be put forth by another scientist.

The idea of evolution, also called common descent and the transmutation of species, had been around since at least the sixth century BC. The first record of the idea was found in the writings of Greek philosopher, Anaximander. It was also touted by other Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Afro-Arabs. Charles Darwin contributed the idea of natural selection as a way for species to advance. Based on the idea of good mutations surviving and passing on the new genetic information, while poor mutations died out, the theory of evolution was gaining popularity.

But the idea was not accepted as credible by a variety of people. Several prominent men of the era met at Oxford to discuss the highly controversial ideas Darwin presented. Bishop Wilberforce was one of the premiere speakers of his time. He was also an Anglican Bishop and completely opposed the ideas set out in Darwin’s book. There is no verbatim account of the debate as carried out on this day. There were speakers, some quite boring, and then there was an exchange of opinions. The reports following the debate are our only records. Huxley was a noted scientist and a supporter of Darwin. Darwin himself was too ill to attend the debate.

During the exchange, in a fit of pique, the Bishop was said to have asked the scientist if it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley is said to have whispered to a friend, “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.” He then replied to the Bishop that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor, but would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his gifts to obscure the truth. While this was supposed to have silenced the Bishop, others mention a speech by Joseph Dalton Hooker, a friend and mentor to Darwin, whose presentation left Wilberforce silent.

Sam was shut up – had not one word to say in reply, and the meeting was dissolved forthwith. – Joseph Hooker, after his speech

Oh no, I would swear he has never read a word of it. – Henry Fawcett, when asked if he believed Wilberforce had read On the Origin of Species

He (Huxley) then got hold of the BP’s assertions and showed how contrary they were to facts, and how he knew nothing about what he had been discoursing on. – Alfred Newton in a letter to his brother concerning the debate

False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness. – Charles Darwin

Also on this day:

What Was That? – In 1908, the Tunguska event occurs.
Tight Rope – In 1859, Charles Blondin crossed the Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
Brilliant – In 1905, Einstein published a paper.