Darwin’s Apostles: The Legendary Debate

The following is an excerpt from Darwin’s Apostles, a book by David Orenstein and Abby Hafer about the scientists who backed up Charles Darwin, to be published by Humanist Press this spring.

The scene is famous. June 30, 1860, at Oxford University. The British Association for the Advancement of Science had been having its annual meeting for several days. Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species had been published seven months earlier. The infamous Oxford evolution debate was taking place!

The room was packed and hot. Somebody fainted and had to be carried out. Legend has it that the fainting took place after Thomas Henry Huxley threw shade on Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford, but no one knows if that was actually the reason. What we do know is that it was hot, packed, and tense. We also know that the idea that someone would needle a bishop in public was shocking in that time and place.

Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, was eventually asked to speak, even though he was not a scientist and had never done any science. That’s because this was back in the days when the thoughts of bishops were considered to be intellectually and socially important. The mass of clergy in the room loved it and made a point of laughing in all the right places, and cheered loudly and often.

Wilberforce stated that he based his objections to evolution only on scientific rather than on religious grounds, but he lied. He lied in the way that denialists often lie, by mixing it in with so much overwhelming verbiage that it can be hard to keep track of when he’s ignoring facts, when he’s contradicting himself, and when he’s simply getting things horribly wrong.

The review began by pretending to sound complimentary, talking about the excellence of Darwin’s writing style. But Wilberforce then quickly began making light of common descent by claiming that if Darwin could only prove it, he would accept his “cousinship with the mushrooms.”

During the debate, he foolishly claimed that all men of science were hostile to evolution by natural selection, a claim that was provably false given the scientists who were present in that very room who were defending evolution. Of course, this was also a way of belittling those defenders of evolution, claiming that they were somehow not “real men of science”—snobbish words, coming from a bishop who didn’t do science at all. Then he got down to his own bad science.

First, he tried to make evolution fit into the church’s model of the “Great Chain of Being,” pretending that all species were trying to move higher up this imagined scale going from plants to animals to humans, so that “turnips are tending to become men.”

Second, he repeatedly confused natural selection with Lamarckism, known as “transmutation of species.”

Third, he claimed that species never changed, and that proof of this could be found in the fact that the mummified remains of cats and dogs from ancient Egypt were exactly the same as modern cats and dogs, and this meant that evolution could not be true:

From the early Egyptian habit of embalming, we know that for four thousand years at least the species of our own domestic animals, the cat, the dog, and others, has remained absolutely unaltered.

This meant that he was ignoring the work of geologists who had been saying for decades, with evidence, that the earth was far older than a few thousand years. Charles Lyell, the most distinguished of those geologists, was ridiculed by the bishop in this debate.

Fourth, he also ignored the vast amounts of fossil evidence that showed that many species had begun, lived, and died out long before ancient Egypt ever came into being. He mentions geology, and even different geologic periods, so he seemed to know something about them, but he “failed” to see that ancient Egypt is geologically modern.

Fifth, he failed to understand that evolution does not generally occur by way of inter-species mating. Wilberforce said repeatedly and correctly that the offspring of inter-species matings, if they are produced at all, are generally sterile. Although this is true, it has little to do with how species originate through natural selection.

Sixth, he failed to understand that evolution by natural selection does what a good theory is supposed to do, that is it points towards areas of research that might be fruitful. For instance, Wilberforce could not figure out how the electricity-producing organs in electric eels and other electric fish could have evolved. “We see no possible solution on the Darwinian theory for the presence at once so marked and so exceptional of these organs,” he said, chiding Darwin “for scarcely admitting that their presence is little else than destructive of his theory.”

Of course, today, having done research into physiology, we now know that electricity is generated by both muscle tissue and nervous tissue. For instance, the heart is a muscle, and an EKG is a record of the electrical events that take place in your heart. We now know that the electric organs in these fish are evolved from nervous and muscle tissue. We also know that some fish emit weak electric currents that are used only for perception in murky water, while others emit the killing levels of electrical discharge of electric eels. Thus, it is clear now how electric organs in fish were able to evolve. But Wilberforce dismissed out of hand the idea that science could ever progress.

And then, of course, in the end he turned to religion, even while pretending not to:

Man’s derived supremacy over the earth; man’s power of articulate speech; man’s gift of reason; man’s free-will and responsibility; man’s fall and man’s redemption; the incarnation of the Eternal Son; the indwelling of the Eternal Spirit—all are equally and utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God, and redeemed by the Eternal Son assuming to himself his nature.

Wilberforce continued to carry on about God for several more paragraphs, then threw in something extra, specifically to annoy Huxley: “Was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?”

Huxley tried to respond by talking about the evidence for evolution. But people weren’t listening. Unfortunately, Huxley did not have a loud voice at the time and didn’t know how to carry an audience during a debate. So he gave up on patiently presenting evidence, and cut the bishop off at the knees, instead replying: “He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.”

People who heard Huxley’s dig were shocked, because Wilberforce had religious privilege. He could insult other people, but other people weren’t supposed to insult him back, particularly not in public, in his own diocese.

Finally, the botanist Joseph Hooker spoke. Unlike Huxley, he could be heard above the din. When he addressed the audience, people listened. Hooker was a convinced evolutionist and already a distinguished scientist. He was a good friend of Darwin’s but had only accepted evolution by natural selection because the evidence for it was overwhelming, based on Darwin’s work and on his own research in botany.

Hooker made sure the audience knew that Wilberforce could not possibly have read the book he was claiming to criticize. He also made sure the audience knew that Wilberforce knew absolutely nothing about botany. The latter is very significant—an anti-Darwinian with great influence was a zoologist named Richard Owen, who had probably coached Wilberforce ahead of time for this debate. But Owen did not understand the botanical evidence for evolution, and neither did Wilberforce. As a result, Wilberforce tried to lie about the botanical evidence but was bad at it.

After Hooker sat down, the meeting disbanded, with all sides thinking they had won. Darwin himself wrote to Huxley the next month, saying:

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

In other words, Darwin himself knew the value of his apostles—the people who risked their own careers, reputations, and peace of mind to help the idea of evolution by natural selection be accepted scientifically and publicly.