Sometimes textbook cardboard refuses to disintegrate. According to scientific lore, T.H. Huxley singlehandedly slew Samuel “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce during a debate at Oxford in the sweltering heat of an 1860 summer, causing a woman to faint and sending Robert Fitzroy, (former captain of the HMS Beagle when it took Charles Darwin around the world) into a frenzy, stalking the aisles and shouting “The book! The book!” while holding a bible aloft. It’s a nice story, but like many such tales, it’s probably not true.

Although the legend of Huxley’s great victory over Wilberforce continues to this day (see the new video featuring some talking heads of evolutionary popularization), historians have known for decades that it doesn’t hold up under scientific scrutiny. The first problem involves the classic error of taking a naturalists later accomplishments and projecting them backwards in time. Huxley was only 35 years old when the debate took place; he was hardly the well-known spokesman of science that he was known to be in his later years. Indeed, the reputation he gained in his later in life cast a long shadow over his earlier career, and so many of us don’t question the story because (like Darwin) the image of the scientist in old age is much more prominent in our minds.

Second, Huxley was not asked to debate, and he almost didn’t go to the debate in the first place. He didn’t take the podium opposite of Wilberforce as in a modern political debate, but rather sat in the audience, packed in with many others in the oppressive heat. (The physical climate in the room may have had more to do with the woman fainting than the rhetorical one.) Although Wilberforce was coached by Richard Owen on some points the night before, his speech was largely a spoken version of his review of On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection (collected in the invaluable book Adam or Ape), which had not yet been published in the Quarterly Review. At some point Wilberforce asked Huxley by which side of his family was he descended from an ape, but here’s where accounts get a bit sketchy.

No one was there preserving what was said that day at Oxford, there was no stenographer, so accounts are often biased or full of holes. What is known is this; Wilberforce asked Huxley an incredulous question about how he was related to apes, and Huxley responded that he would rather be related to an ape than be a clergyman who wastes his talents defending religious dogma. Whether anyone heard Huxley is another question altogether. According to one account, Huxley’s voice did not carry very far in the packed hall, and no one heard his witty rejoinder. Others viewed Huxley’s reply as inconsequential, some saying that Joseph Hooker’s demonstration of how botany illuminated evolution being much more important in defending Darwin. As for Fitzroy, he accounts are vague about what he did, but there isn’t any support that he leaped up and started wielding Scripture like a madman. Indeed, while whiggish accounts claim that the room erupted into chaos when Huxley finished his reply, there’s no compelling reason to believe this was so.

Ultimately, the question of “Who won the day?” cannot be answered with certainty. Both sides claimed victory, and even though there was never any actual debate between Wilberforce and Huxley, Huxley’s words have been reproduced in so many books that it has become something of received foolishness in evolutionary circles. Even the Wikipedia entry for Huxley takes the young naturalists words to be a defining moment in the history of the evolution idea, but there’s no indication that his words were important to any but those already in agreement with him. I have little doubt that the sentiment of Huxley’s reply has come down to us intact, and it truly is an excellent response, but it didn’t seem to be very important. What was much more important (and often forgotten) was Huxley’s later involvement with the x Club and making science a professional enterprise that wrenched theology from studies of the natural world.

I would like to think that this post will hope to dispel some of the mythology surrounding the beginnings of evolutionary science, but if Stephen Jay Gould couldn’t do it (see his essay on the topic in Bully for Brontosaurus), I don’t have high hopes for myself. It’s such a good story that is just has to be true. As I’ve come to realize more and more, however, the history of evolution as an idea is much more complex than many of us have been led to believe. Perhaps I’m a bit biased in that my preferred area of science (paleontology) is historical in nature, but I worry that the work of historians of science is often ignored. It’s easy to give assent to the popular stories and use the same images & examples over and over again, but in some cases I fear monsters have been created that cannot easily be slain. Without a firm understanding of the history of our own discipline, we’ll continually be working off of the “last best” review or representation, and stories will continue to mutate and become caricatures of more impressive, compelling historical events.


  1. #1 Romeo Vitelli
    March 29, 2008

    I can’t comment on Huxley but Fitzroy wasn’t as far gone as the story suggests. He was an invited speaker at the Association meeting but he got shouted down when he tried to attack Darwin’s ideas. He committed suicide years later due to severe depression but he was active to the end. C

  2. #2 toby
    March 30, 2008

    Perhaps the main outcome of the Oxford meeting was that the evolutionists survived undemolished, though Wilberforce had attacked with all his might.

    Gould quotes one evolutionist admitting “I think the bishop had the best of it” so there were other perspectives. He also argues that the real scientific hero was Joseph Hooker, Darwin’s botanist friend, who “smote the Amalekite hip and thigh” as he himself put it to Darwin … but the speech was given the previous day to the Huxley/ Wilderforce encounter.

    There is a parallel here with the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of Dayton Tennessee, where many observers (including H.L.Mencken) thought the most effective speaker on the defence team was not Clarence Darrow, but lawyer Dudley Field Malone.

    An interesting book about a similar epic encounter between two philosophers this time is “Wittgenstein’s Poker” by Eidinow & Edmonds (Faber, 2001). This covers a famous public clash between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1946, after which Popper was able to get his version into print and be accepted as what actually happened.

  3. #3 Monado
    March 30, 2008

    Loren Eiseley’s book Darwin’s Century goes into some of the intellectual background and the ideas swirling around before and after 1859, including one fellow who pointed out correctly that he summarized the whole idea in an offhand comment in the appendix to a treatise on trees before Darwin published.

  4. #4 Prof.Milton Wainwright
    March 10, 2009

    The treatise on trees referred to above is by Patrick Matthew.Both Darwin and Wallace admitted that Patrick Matthew and Charles Wells beat them to the idea of Natural Selection,a fact agreed to by T.H.Huxley (Search Google for “wainwrightscience” for more details

    Prof.Milton Wainwright,Dept.Molecular Biology and Biotechnolgy,University of Sheffield,UK

  5. Ultimately, the question of “Who won the day?” cannot be answered with certainty. Both sides claimed victory, and even though there was never any actual debate between Wilberforce and Huxley, Huxley’s words have been reproduced in so many books that it has become something of received foolishness in evolutionary circles.

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