THE HUXLEY-WILBERFORCE DEBATE
On June 30, 1860, there was a meeting at Oxford University of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This was only months after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and interest in the subject was intense.
Darwin did not attend, but the Darwinian position was represented by “Darwin’s bulldog” Thomas Huxley, who stood that day for Darwin’s cause not because he believed Darwin’s theory of natural selection but because he had a fiery hatred of biblical creationism. Years later Huxley said of Bible-believing naturalists who resisted Darwinism, “I should like to get my heel into their mouths and scr-r-unch it round” (Lord Ernie, “Victorian Memoirs and Memories,” The Quarterly Review, 1923, 239 (475): 224, cited from Ian Taylor, From the Minds of Men, p. 363).
The most formidable challenger to Darwin on this occasion was Samuel Wilberforce [pictured above], an Anglican bishop and the son of the famous William Wilberforce, abolisher of the slave trade.
The evolutionary myth has it that Wilberforce was defeated before Huxley in a hands down manner and that with this defeat “the Christian religion,” too, was left in tatters.
Supposedly Wilberforce addressed Huxley and asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey. Obviously intended as a joke, Huxley took the occasion to retort, in effect, that he would rather have an ape for a grandfather than an ignorant bishop.
There are many myths about this encounter.
First, there is the myth that Wilberforce was an old buffoon blindly defending the Bible and Christianity on the basis of mere tradition. In evolutionary accounts of this event, Wilberforce is typically called by the nickname “Soapy Sam.” Supposedly he was “slick” like soap, but this is not a respectful term for a church leader and is used by his detractors in an obvious attempt to lower the man’s esteem in the eyes of readers.
In fact, Wilberforce had a serious Christian piety (“his diary reveals a tender and devout private life,” New World Encyclopedia). He was deeply concerned about social issues, having inherited from his father a hatred of slavery. He was also a brilliant man and an able naturalist (referring to for one who studies nature). His arguments that day were not based on the Bible but on science and morality, and they were directed at the tremendous weaknesses of Darwin’s theory.
Wilberforce stated his position as follows:
“... we have objected to the views with which we are dealing solely on scientific grounds. We have done so from our fixed conviction that it is thus that the truth or falsehood of such arguments should be tried. We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation” (Wiker, The Darwin Myth, p. 102).
Wilberforce’s presentation that day was based on his published review of Darwin’s Origin. He “was quite well read in science, and brought just the kinds of objections against Darwin’s theory that other eminent scientists were offering. These were, of course, the very objections that Darwin feared, as they pinpointed the weak spots of his theory” (Wiker, p. 101).
“The review contained very carefully argued points showing that in view of the known stability of species, Darwin had not made out his case in supposing that one species could be transmuted into another. Darwin acknowledged the cogency of this critical review article as, ‘uncommonly clever: it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well the difficulties’ (F. Darwin, Charles Darwin, Life and Letters, 1887, vol. 2, p. 324)” (Ian Taylor, In the Minds of Men, p. 364).
Wilberforce was also deeply concerned about the moral consequences of Darwinism. For one thing, he believed it would weaken the cause of abolition by giving ammunition to those who viewed Negroes as inferior. This concern was noble and perfectly reasonable in light of Darwin’s theory of “the survival of the fittest” and his racist views that Negroes and aboriginals were inferior and would doubtless be conquered and even destroyed. Darwinism was the best gift ever given to a slaver. His book was subtitled “The preservation of favored races in the struggle for life,” and he was not referring merely to animals. Consider the following statement that Darwin made in The Descent of Man:
“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphos apes ... will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”
In this quote, Darwin looked upon the Negro and the Australian aborigine as just a little higher on the evolutionary scale than the gorilla, and he said they would be exterminated. Exterminated!
The real reason that Wilberforce was hated by the Darwin-Huxley clan was that he was an effective public figure who stood forcefully against the skepticism that they represented.
“Church liberals hated Wilberforce’s hard line, as he condemned their softpedalling on miracles. He castigated the ‘seven against Christ’, the liberal Anglican contributors to the innocent-sounding Essays and Reviews, whose critique of [Genesis] and biblical literalism inflamed more passions in a year than Darwin managed in a lifetime. ... Wilberforce drew up a petition declaring that ‘the whole Canonical Scriptures’ was the literal ‘Word of God’” (Adrian Desmond, Huxley, pp. 278, 328).
Wilberforce was hated because his opposition to theological liberalism was effective. His petition “in favour of biblical inspiration and eternal torments” was signed by 11,000 Anglican clergy and resulted in the condemnation of Essays and Reviews at the Convocation of Canterbury in 1861.
Second, there is the myth that Wilberforce was trying to “savage” Huxley that day. In fact, it was just a joke. Even Adrian Desmond, the extremely sympathetic biographer of Darwin and Huxley, says that “the bishop, after two hours of boring speeches in a stuffy room, tried to lighten the proceedings with a joke that palpably missed the mark” (Desmond, Darwin, p. 495). It was Huxley, full of hatred toward the Bible and its “parsons” and typically thin skinned, who made “a mountain out of a molehill.”
Third, there is the myth that Huxley’s retort was the highlight of the meeting.
In fact, there is evidence that few even heard it. Joseph Hooker told Darwin that he had entered the discussion because “he was afraid that Huxley’s voice had not carried well” (Himmelfarb, p. 292).
Fourth, there is the myth that Huxley was on the side of Darwinism that day because he actually believed it.
In fact, Huxley didn’t even believe in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which was the prominent point in On the Origin of Species. Huxley believed that the fossil record demonstrated that animals appeared suddenly and remained the same throughout time. Had he been an honest man and not on a personal vendetta against God, Huxley would have joined Wilberforce that day in arguing against Darwinism!!!!!
Fifth, there is the myth that Huxley’s arguments persuaded the majority of the crowd.
Darwin’s most serious biographers debunk this.
Gertrude Himmerfarb observes:
“In fact, most of the clergy remained unmoved ... Probably the effect of the meeting was less to shift sentiment than to harden it, to intensify party strife among those already endowed with party spirit” (p. 293).
Adrian Desmond adds, “Perceptions of the event differed so wildly that talk of a ‘victor’ is ridiculous” (Huxley, p. 280), and, “Wilberforce went away happy that he had given Huxley a bloody nose, while many in the crowd adjudicated it an entertaining draw” (Darwin, p. 497).
Even Huxley acknowledged that the crowd was predominantly hostile to his party following the meeting.
What is true is that the meeting represented a major changing of the times, and it is rightfully an icon of the great battle fought in the last half of the 19th century between God and skepticism, creation and evolution, the Bible and theological modernism.
The most outspoken proponents for the Bible that day might have been Robert Fitz-Roy, Darwin’s old captain of the H.M.S. Beagle. Fitz-Roy was then head of England’s Meteorological Department and was at Oxford to give a paper on storms.
“With military bearing the Admiral, ‘lifting an immense Bible first with both and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man.’ He admitted that the Origin of Species had given him ‘acutest pain.’ It was a sad sight as the crowd shouted him down” (Desmond, Darwin, p. 495).
This fascinating spectacle is frequently ridiculed by Darwinists, but Fitz-Roy was right. We should believe God rather than man. In this present dark world, rushing pellmell toward apocalypse, truth is shouted down, but the Bible will ultimately triumph because it is indeed the Word of the eternal, all-powerful God. Jesus warned that the road to destruction is broad, whereas the road of truth is narrow (Matthew 7:13-14), so we are not surprised to find truth in the extreme minority at the present time.
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