The God of Science on the Neck of her Enemies

The Oxford Debate 1860Theology and Parsondom are in my mind the natural and irreconcilable enemies of Science. Few see it but I believe that we are on the Eve of a new Reformation and if I have a wish to live 30 yrs, it is to see the God of Science on the necks of her enemies.

Thomas Henry Huxley to Frederick Dyster (30, January 1859).

Over the holidays, I had the chance to read a couple of different things. The first was Ian Hesketh’s Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate (2009). At 128 pages, including notes, it is a quick read. Although short, Of Apes and Ancestors aptly synthesizes a remarkable amount of scholarship on the famous (or infamous) Huxley-Wilberforce debate at Oxford in 1860. Its aim is to examine, from the perspective of each key participant, including Charles Darwin, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, T.H. Huxley, Richard Owen, and Joseph Hooker, the Oxford debate; and, moreover, the way it has been “mythologized” then and now.

Hesketh begins with Darwin as a “historian of natural history.” Darwin was neither confrontational nor combative. He preferred to express himself in written word, but even then he limited himself to personal letters and revisions to his Origin of Species (1859).  Hesketh points out that Darwin “answered his critics not by writing responses to the many periodicals and newspapers where reviews of the Origin appeared or by debating his foes in the public sphere of scientific and learned societies…he responded by continually revising the Origin in order to take into account new evidence but also new problems exposed by critics and friends alike.” Perhaps one reason for this was Darwin’s invariable illness, particularly his “constant stomach churning, flatulence, and retching.”

Hesketh also points out that despite illness, Darwin was a meticulous and patient observer of nature. Darwin published his Journal of Researches in 1839 (renamed later The Voyages of the Beagle) based on his famous HMS Beagle voyage (1831-1836), becoming instantly “something of a celebrity among naturalist circles.” When it came time to publishing his Origin,  Darwin was careful not to “smash received wisdom or to overturn the central tenets of Christian thought.” Indeed, as Hesketh writes, “the Origin, far from being the secular text it is often presented as, established a theory of evolution from within a Christian framework.” In its first edition, and even more so in its second, the Origin presented the “evolving world” as guided by a “divine being.”

Despite his conciliatory efforts, Darwin’s Origin invited many critics—but more from the scientific community than the established church! For example, Richard Owen (1804-1892), comparative anatomist and Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons, wrote a strident review of Origin in the April 1860 issue of the Edinburgh Review. “Owen dismissed the idea that natural selection could do what Darwin claimed and suggested alternative possibilities, such as his own theory of archetypes.”

Darwin was also privately chastened by Baden Powell (1827-1860), Savillian Professor of Mathematics at Oxford. On Powell’s account, Darwin had failed to acknowledge his predecessors. Both Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), for example, had acknowledged their debts to predecessors and, according to Powell, Darwin ought to as well.

One of Darwin’s most fiercest critics was the geologist Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873). Incidentally, Darwin was once a student of Sedgwick. He admitted that he admired parts of Darwin’s Origin, but added that “other parts made him laugh ’till my sides were almost sore’ and that he had read much of the book with ‘profound sorrow.'” Darwin, according to Sedgwick, had “deserted” the “true method of induction.”

In January of 1860, Darwin finally decided to write “An Historical Sketch” of the idea of transmutation, which would act as a preface to the American and German editions of the Origin. He begins with French naturalists Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), then moves on to lesser known figures such as a Dr. W.C. Wells, Reverned W. Herbert, Patrick Matthew, and Scottish zoologist Robert Edmund Grant (1793-1874). Darwin then offers pointed criticism against the anonymous author (Robert Chambers [1802-1871]) of the popular Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Yet he also wrote that the Vestiges provided an “excellent service in this country in calling attention to the subject [of evolution], in removing prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views.” Darwin goes on to describe the evolutionary views of Henry Freke, Herbert Spencer, Charles Naudin, Alexandre Keyserling, Henry Schaaffhausen, Henri Locoq, Baden Powell, Alfred Wallace, and Karl Ernst von Baer, concluding with T.H. Huxley and Joseph Hooker. Thus rather than defending his theory through periodical press or public debate, Darwin offered a subtle rebuttal to his critics in his historical sketch, which he penned about a month before the Oxford debate.

Hesketh follows in the next chapter with a fascinating portrait of Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873). Samuel’s father, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was, of course, the Great Emancipator, fighting “against the slave trade as leader of the evangelical Clapham Sect.” When Samuel was twelve, his father began writing letters of purpose and guidance to him. “There are more than six hundred of these letters,” writes Hesketh, “and they served as the foundation of his moralistic belief system.” He wrote to him to “watch unto prayer,” to “maintain such a state of mind” that will “render you fit at any time,” “to compose your spirits and engage in that blessed exercise,” to “walk by faith and not by sight,” and to “do all in the name of our Lord Jesus.” When Samuel went off to study at Oxford his father wrote that now was the time for him to become his “own master,” and to prepare himself for he “will be tried to a different standard from that which is commonly referred to, and be judged by a more rigorous rule; for it would be folly, rather than merely false delicacy, to deny that from various causes my character is more generally known than that if most men in my rank in life.”

While at Oxford Samuel encountered the Tractarians. The Tractarians believed that the “revival of evangelicalism…had necessarily weakened the spiritual and corporate roles of the established Church.” This internal conflict within Christianity between the High (Tractarian) and Low (evangelical) Church in the 1830s struck a presentiment fear in Samuel. He saw these fears fulfilled in the 1850s and 1860s when the liberal Board Church Movement attempted to “modernize the Church,” and “reshape Christianity to conform to science.” As Hesketh notes, “in 1860, three months before Wilberforce denounced evolution at the Oxford debate, the Broad Church Movement published its Essays and Reviews,” which argued that Christianity’s relevance depended entirely on its “reasonableness.” Written by seven different authors, six of whom were well-known Anglican clergymen, Essays and Reviews “challenged orthodox Christianity to face up to scientific and historical evidences and to abandon the lies and half-truths that had been perpetuated over the centuries.” What is more, when Samuel’s wife died in 1841, he entered a “crisis of faith that [he] overcame through a renewed devotion to the Church of England.” Her death was a sign for him to devote himself entirely to the church. “Defending Christian truth would become Samuel’s purpose in life, ‘his burden of desolate service.'” This deeply devoted Anglican bishop would conclude that the Essays and Reviews—or anything else that was contrary to orthodox Christianity—was pure heresy.

Hesketh is careful to note that Wilberforce did not view science as “evil,” however. Indeed, Wilberforce “enjoyed thinking about scientific questions and debates of the day.” He was even a great supporter of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). Thus when Darwin’s Origin appeared, he offered scientific arguments against it; namely, that breeding negated natural selection, and the fact that there was only meager evidence for transitional forms. In other words, for Wilberforce Darwin’s theory was scientifically wrong.

But Wilberforce also offered religious arguments. Darwin’s theory of evolution contradicted “the revealed relation of creation to its Creator.” It is interesting to note that many of the religious arguments precipitated against Origin were anticipated by Darwin. Captain Robert FitzRoy, Darwin’s companion on the HMS Beagle, offered similar criticism when they both published their accounts of the journey in the late 1830s. More importantly, Darwin’s wife, Emma, in a heartfelt and thoughtful letter concerning his mental health, offered similar religious arguments against his research. “For Emma,” Hesketh writes, “transmutation posed an extremely important and practical problem to their life together: it suggested that it would end in meaningless death.” She writes, “I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other for ever.” Like Wilberforce, the “spectre of death” haunted Darwin. His own illness and in the face of losing several children, “Emma believed that Charles, having turned away from the comforting hand of God, was needlessly tortured and tormented by thoughts of death.” According to Hesketh, “Wilberforce and Darwin represent the extreme poles of the many possible responses to the era’s crisis of religious doubt.” In short, Wilberforces’ battle against Darwinian theory of evolution must be understood in the context of a broader struggle within the Church of England and his own religious crisis.

The following two chapters concern the three other key figures to the Oxford debate: T.H. Huxley, Richard Owen, and Joseph Hooker. Huxley at first was opposed to Darwin’s theory of transmutation, but once he “grasped the political and social relevance of Darwinian evolution, as well as its scientific merits” Hesketh claims, “he became Darwinism’s most outspoken advocate.” Huxley’s lower-middle-class background gave him a unique perspective on life. Spending time in London’s East End, amongst its squalor, filth, and disease, Huxley was “shocked by the middle class’s indifference to such misery…Christianity had clearly failed these people, Huxley believed, and something—anything—needed to take its place for the sake of humanity.”

Similar to Huxley, Owen had humble origins. Unlike Huxley, however, Owen depended on the patronage of others. His career was contingent on “maintaining a balance between the quality of his work and the expectations of Tory patrons and an Anglican scientific establishment.” When Owen and Huxley first met, Owen took on the role of mentor. He took Huxley out to dinners to meet his Royal Society and wrote recommendation and reference letters for him. Writing to his sister, Huxley said that “Owen has been amazingly civil to me and it was through his writing to the First Lord that I got my present appointment.”

Owen was also a deeply religious man. He saw his archetype theory as revealing “God’s original patterns from which the earth’s species were formed.” Huxley began attacking Owen’s ideas in his critical reviews of Chamber’s Vestiges. Huxley became even more hostile when Owen secured a visiting lectureship at the School of Mines, where Huxley taught as a professor of natural history. In 1858, Owen was the president-elect of the BAAS, and used his “presidential address as a pulpit to prove man’s special status.” In the same year Huxley gave a lecture at the Royal Institution arguing that “man was a part of nature in the same way as other organisms, and furthermore, that man’s mental and moral faculties were fundamentally the same as those of the animal world.” Huxley would then ridicule and attack Owen at a lecture at the Royal Society in June of 1858. Huxley began defending Darwin in his review of Origin in The Times on 26 December 1859, where he continued to attack Owen. In Huxley’s second review of the Origin in Westminster Review the invectives against Owen continued unabated. During this barrage of assaults, Owen remained still and silent. It was not until his patrons urged him to respond that he finally did. He published an anonymous review of Origin in Edinburgh Review. According to Hesketh, “Owen did more than rip apart the Origin piece by piece; he also challenged the author’s credentials…Nor was the Origin the only victim of that review: Owen used the opportunity to denounce” Huxley and Hooker.

Hooker was Darwin’s closet friend and confidant. “It was Hooker, rather than Huxley, who defended evolution in the face of Wilberforce’s religious backlash.” Their friendship dates back to 1843. Before that, in 1839, while Hooker was voyaging on the HMS Erebus, he read Darwin’s Journal of Researches. Hesketh claims that “Hooker had been born into a devoutly evangelical family, and there is little evidence that he dissented from this religiosity.” But this latter claim is difficult to maintain in light of Hooker’s comments at the BAAS 1866 meeting in Nottingham, where he denounces the voices of religious orthodoxy as “savages” with primitive beliefs.

At any rate, Hooker was an important source of information for Darwin. Hooker would visit Darwin frequently at his Down House, and, recalling in later years, he wrote that Darwin consistently “pumped” him for information: “It was an established rule that he every day pumped me…for half an hour or so after breakfast in his study.” Hooker was indispensable to Darwin, and could not have developed evolutionary theory without his help. Hooker at first  resisted transmutation, but after several exchanges with another Darwin supporter, Asa Gray, Hooker came to the conclusion that evolution was consistent with “the most exalted conception of the Deity.” Hesketh concludes this chapter by asserting that “evolution had become just as much Hooker’s theory as Darwin’s.”

In the next two chapters we finally reach the Oxford debate. Thursday, 28 June, and Saturday, 30 June, were the most important meetings. On Thursday Owen and Huxley spared against the differences and similarities between the brain of a man and the brain of a gorilla. But this was, as Hesketh puts it, a mere “appetizer for Saturday’s main course.” On Saturday John William Draper started things off with a paper “On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with Reference to the Views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the Progression of Organisms is determined by laws.” This is a particularly interesting paper for my own research into Draper, but here I will only point out that it was not well received by those attending the BAAS that day.

Several other presenters spoke before Samuel Wilberforce finally rose and thundered against Darwin, “giving the crowd what they had waited so long for.” The force of Wilberforce’s speech has been put succinctly by Hesketh: “By the ‘principles of inductive science,’ argued Wilberforce, Darwin’s theory could not be proven, at least not by the facts Darwin himself had presented.” There was a roar of approval from the audience. Huxley responded in turn, affirming his preference for an ape as an ancestor rather than “a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs those facilities for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion.” And the crowd roared once more.

The details of the debate shall not detain us here. What is of more import is how the Oxford debate was remembered. Thankfully, Hesketh provides a brief summary of nineteenth and twentieth century renditions:

1) Wilberforce argued that the Origin contradicted scripture and ridiculed Huxley by questioning his ancestry—a clever tactic to sway an audience unlikely to support humankind’s evolution from apes.

2) Huxley defended the scientific merits of evolution and humorously exposed Wilberforce’s use of Christianity to obscure the truth.

3) The audience roared  in approval of Huxley’s defense and was largely swayed to an evolutionary view of species. The Darwinians clearly won the day.

4) The debate was a crucial episode in the battle fought by evolutionists against the powerful and unscientific established church, pitting scientists against clerics.

But as Hesketh persuasively argues in these last two chapters, the evidence renders a more complex story:

1) Wilberforce challenged the methodology of the Origin and charged that the text was unphilosophical. He then questioned Huxley’s ancestry, following up on a statement made by Huxley in a debate with Owen a few days earlier.

2) Huxley suggested that he would rather be related to an ape than to a man who would obscure the truth. There is evidence that this response was not heard by many in the crowd, that he was unable to throw his voice over such a large and loud assembly.

3) Huxley and Wilberforce were not the only speakers. Several others spoke against and in favor of evolution, and it is most likely that it was Hooker’s speech, rather than Huxley’s, that left its mark on the crowd.

4) This battle was likely a draw rather than outright victory for either party. Also, the battle was not necessarily between clerics and scientists but between generations: the younger generation supporting Darwin and younger scientists, and an older generation supporting Wilberforce and conservative scientists.

Finally, Hesketh draws out three major points of significance for this narrative:

1) The debate was cast in a dramatic format of heroes and villains, of good and evil, easily fitting within the binary narrative of science versus religion that developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Indeed the Oxford debate became the touchstone of this narrative.

2) Stories of the clash affected the relationship between science and religion in a negative way. They placed a strain on the argument that science and religion could coexist.

3) The debate generated great interest in Darwinism and emboldened the Darwinists. Indeed, Darwin was certain that the debate would serve his theory well, and he was right.

Interestingly enough, it was Huxley, more than anyone else, who took a central role in shaping this narrative. In personal correspondences, gossip networks, periodicals, and published letters and memoirs, Huxley strategically constructed a symbolic memory of conflict between science and religion at the Oxford debate of 1860. As his letter to Frederick Dyster in 1859 clearly demonstrates, he wanted to see the “God of Science on the necks of her enemies.”


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