Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate

December 3, 2009

A more ambitious project than the contents convey is suggested by the subtitle of Ian Hesketh's book. It amounts to a discussion of what happened at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which took place at Oxford in June 1860 - a meeting that has taken on a legendary status almost akin to Newton and the apple or Alfred and the burnt cakes. At that meeting, Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce's arguments against Darwin's evolutionary theories were (or were not) trounced by Thomas Huxley (or maybe by Joseph Hooker).

Most of the ground covered by Hesketh has been well tilled in the past, but he offers some new insights. He suggests that Huxley's antagonism to the Anglican establishment arose from the fact that many amateur scientists were clergymen, since they had the necessary combination of education, income and leisure to devote themselves to scientific study - unlike Huxley himself, whose background was modest. One thinks of Darwin's network of clerical correspondents and of his mentor, John Henslow, so the hypothesis is plausible, but is not supported by further evidence in this book, despite copious footnotes.

There are some amusing asides. While seeking a post at a naval hospital, Huxley had to prove that he was not an Irishman. Huxley claimed that his "air of modesty" may have made the interviewers believe he was Irish. Presumably he was being ironical, since the man known as "Darwin's Bulldog" was not noted for his subdued character. It was also surprising to read of the ferocity of the Oxford debate itself. Joseph Hooker, in a letter to Darwin, reported of his own response to Wilberforce that "I smashed him amidst rounds of applause - I hit him in the wind at the first shot in 10 words taken from his own ugly mouth".

What seems to have happened is that Wilberforce delivered a rather ill-informed critique of Darwin's work, concluding with a silly gibe about Huxley's descent from apes; Huxley then criticised him for devaluing the debate but may not have been heard by all of the large audience; Hooker followed up with a more pungent, audible analysis drawing attention to Wilberforce's ignorance of science; but they all remained on friendly terms, each party believing that it had won.

Darwin's own comment on the debate, that without such controversy his book "would have done absolutely nothing", is cited by Hesketh, but must surely be regarded as an example of Darwin's famous modesty. It overlooks the fact that On the Origin of Species sold out on the day of publication and has remained in print ever since, and that the controversy it provoked died very quickly both in scientific circles and among leading churchmen. The Catholic theologian (later Cardinal) J.H. Newman wrote that he could see no conflict between religion and Darwin's science, and he even suggested that Darwin qualified for an honorary degree from Newman's own university, Oxford.

In 1882, Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey in the presence of royalty. That doesn't happen to heretics, even though Soapy Sam's views continue to receive a sympathetic hearing among more conservative elements in the United States. Perhaps this book is the final addition to the copious literature that has emerged from Darwin's anniversary year, but it doesn't add much to that which has gone before.

Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate

By Ian Hesketh. University of Toronto Press. 144pp, £16.95. ISBN 9780802092847. Published 1 December 2009.

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