What the Bishop said to the Biologist; a Victorian scandal revisited

Yes, Bishop Wilberforce really did ask TH Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, whether he would prefer an ape for his grandfather, and a woman for his grandmother, or a man for his grandfather, and an ape for his grandmother. And Huxley really did say that he would prefer this to descent from a man conspicuous for his talents and eloquence, but who misused his gifts to ridicule science and obscure the light of truth. This and more at the very first public debate regarding Darwin’s work on evolution, only months after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Oxf-uni-mus-nhL: The Oxford Museum of Natural History, where the event took place. Click on this and other images to enlarge

The debate took place at the May 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The actual exchange is whitewashed out of the account of the meeting in the gentlemanly Athenaeum, leading some historians to wonder whether it really occurred, but a recently rediscovered contemporary account places the matter beyond doubt. What I find even more interesting, however, is the way in which argument and counter-argument between Wilberforce and Huxley, and between other supporters and opponents of the concept of evolution, prefigure arguments still being used today.

image from upload.wikimedia.orgR: 150th anniversary commemorative plaque, outside the Museum

The Athenaeum account is freely available here. The fuller account, in the Oxford Chronicle, has recently been published (abstract open, full text behind paywall) by Richard England in Notes and Records, the Royal Society journal of the history of science. There are good accounts in Wikipedia and elsewhere of the historical setting. For completeness, and because of the pay wall, I include the Oxford Chronicle account of the discussion as an Appendix.

The meeting attracted enormous interest, despite the rather uninviting title of the leading lecture, by Professor Draper of New York; “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 law.” Draper drew far-fetched analogies between the development of societies, of individual organisms, and of species, which need not detain us, and concluded that his own work on physiology supported, among other things, the transmutation of species, which was (and is) the central issue separating creationists from those who accept evolution.1

Then things got a lot more interesting. I shall describe what happened by quoting (with some slight compression) the relevant sections of the Oxford Chronicle account, and inserting commentary.

—Professor HUXLEY, being called upon by the chairman, declined entering into the subject, alleging the undesirability of contesting a scientific subject involving nice shades of idea before a general audience, who could not be supposed to judge upon its merits.

Rattlesnake2The chairman was John Stevens Henslow, Darwin’s mentor and close friend, who had recommended Darwin for his position on The Beagle. TH Huxley was not yet the formidable orator that he would later become.

L: Ship’s artist depiction of HMS Rattlesnake, on which Huxley was Assistant Surgeon, and where he began his scientific career

There is disagreement among defenders of science regarding the wisdom of debating with creationists. To Huxley’s objection, that a debate is a poor forum for a layman to explore a scientifically complex subject, we would now add the question of whether such a debate confers an illusion of parity of esteem on creationism, as well as other, sometimes more tangible, benefits. It is, for instance, suspected  that the debate between Bill Nye, “the science guy”, and Ken Ham of the Ark Encounter creationist theme park, saved the latter from bankruptcy. I have myself refused invitations to debate, for the reasons given here, which parallel Huxley’s. On the other hand, refusal to debate can create an impression of uncertainty or, worse these days, elitism, while a debate does bring the evidence for evolution to the attention of a wider audience.

R: Nye-Ham Debate poster, from the creationist Answers in Genesis

—Sir B. BRODIE, who on rising was very warmly received, said he could not subscribe to the hypothesis of Mr. Darwin. Where was the demonstration that his primordial germ had existed? Man had a power of self-consciousness—a principle differing from anything found in the material world, and he did not see how this could originate in lower organisms. Moreover this power of man, being identical with the Divine Intelligence, to suppose that it could originate with matter, involved the absurdity of supposing the source of Divine power was dependent on the arrangement of matter. (Loud cries of ‘hear, hear,’ and much applause.)

Sir Benjamin Brodie, First Baronet,2 physiologist and surgeon-general to Queen Victoria, was also a pioneer in psychology. His first argument, regarding the “primordial germ”, finds echoes when today’s creationists correctly point out that evolution does not explain the origins of life. This is not, however, a valid criticism of evolution, any more than the failure of chemists at that time to explain the origin of atoms would have been a valid criticism of atomic theory. His second criticism was that humans are self-aware, in a way that animals are not. Today we might reply that some species do show evidence of self-awareness, such as the ability to recognise themselves in a mirror. His third point also re-emerges in contemporary creationist discourse; evolution does not explain how an arrangement of matter can display consciousness. Indeed, the relationship between matter and consciousness, like the origin of life, remains one of the outstanding major unsolved problems in science, but it is no more a problem for the evolutionist3 than it is for anyone else.

 —The BISHOP OF OXFORD [Samuel Wilberforce,] on rising, was loudly cheered…. He had given the theory advanced by Mr. Darwin his most careful and anxious consideration. The conclusion he had come to was, that when tried by the principles of inductive science, philosophy or logic, it entirely broke down. (Cheers.)

Note the specific appeal to inductive science. Creationists often complain that evolution science, along with geology and palaeontology (and even archaeology, although they rarely go so far) fails to fit in with their paradigm of the inductive sciences, whose method, they assert, is to extract general truths from repeatable observations, something that is clearly impossible when we are dealing with the vanished past. The argument carries an illusion of profundity, but will not bear examination. Even by 1860, the simple inductive model of science had been shown by the polymath William Whewell, one of Darwin’s influences, to require elaboration.

In any case, the appeal to a definition of science is out of place. It does not really matter whether or not the case for evolution falls within the domain of science, as arbitrarily defined, but whether it is convincing.

And to come to facts, he maintained that those brought forward utterly failed to prove his theory. The permanence of specific forms was a fact confirmed by all observation. Anatomists tell us that even in Egyptian mummies, 4,000 years old, there is not the slightest physiological difference as compared with the race now—(hear, hear)—and so it was with animals and plants. All spoke of the irresistible tendency of organised beings to assume an unalterable character. (Applause.)

Seti_I_memmy_headMummified head of Seti I, died 1279 BCE

The argument from mummies had also been used by Cuvier. The demand for proof is inappropriate at the birth of a new theory, if indeed it is ever appropriate in science, but let that pass. Darwin was quite explicit in his awareness that evolution required deep time, hence his description of Kelvin as “one of my sorest troubles”. Kelvin, however, wanted to limit the age of the Earth to just a few tens of millions of years. Detectable change over a mere 4,000 years by the methods then available was not to be expected.

As for “the irresistible tendency of organised beings to assume an unalterable character”, the Bishop has simply made up a general claim about how nature operates, in order to justify his specific conclusion. Compare how today’s creationists talk about a so-called “law of (a)biogenesis”, which simply means that they don’t like the idea that life could have arisen by natural processes, or, even worse, a “law of conservation of information”, which means that they don’t like the way in which evolution gives rise to novelty.

The Bishop facetiously asked if he had any particular predilection for a monkey ancestry, and, if so, on which side – whether he would prefer an ape for his grandfather, and a woman for his grandmother, or a man for his grandfather, and an ape for his grandmother. (Much laughter.)

Remember that this was Victorian England, where Wilberforce was a member of an influential family, son of the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, while Huxley was the self-educated son of a failed village schoolteacher.

… The line between man and the lower animals was distinct. There was no tendency on the part of the lower animals to become the self-conscious intelligent being, man; or in man to degenerate and lose the high characteristics of mind and intelligence.

The difference between human and animal intelligence now seems considerably less absolute, with animals having been shown to display tool usemeaningful soundsproblem-solving, and cultural transmission of discoveries.

All experiments failed to show any tendency in one animal to assume the form of the other.

Nor should they, given that Darwinian evolution is gradual. But the fallacy persists. I have had creationists claim that evolution is unreal because after a century of breeding experiments, fruitflies are still fruitflies.

Even in the great case of the pigeons, quoted by Mr. Darwin, he admitted that no sooner were these animals set free, than they returned to their primitive type. (Hear, hear.)

The Bishop has admitted evolution within the pigeon species, but denies the possibility of one species being descended from another. Here he much resembles present-day creationists, who accept the brute fact of microevolution (they could hardly do otherwise), but assert that macroevolution is impossible.

Everywhere sterility attended hybridism, as was seen in the closely-allied forms of the horse and the ass.

This argument, which seems to me better than most, surfaces again in Scott M Huse’s 1983/1997 book, The Collapse of Evolution. Mules are generally sterile (although exceptions have been recorded), and we can now attribute their sterility to the mismatch of chromosome number between horses (with 64 chromosomes) and a donkey (with 62). How chromosome number can change during evolution from a common ancestor, and how this process leaves clues within chromosome structure, is an interesting topic in its own right.

R: Human chromosome 2.  Shows internal end-type (telomere) material, corresponding to the fusion of what in non-human apes are two chromosomes, explaining why we have 23 pairs of chromosomes while they have 24

Viewing the matter in another aspect, he did consider it a most degrading assumption—(hear, hear)—that man, who, in many respects, partook of the highest attributes of God—(hear, hear)—was a mere development of the lowest forms of creation. (Applause) He could scarcely trust himself to speak upon the subject, so indignant did he feel at the idea.

Here we have displayed the kind of appeal to emotion that Huxley had warned against. Wilberforce argues from the fact that he finds evolution unpalatable, to the conclusion that evolution is untrue. I fear we all do this sort of thing. Unfortunately, reality does not care about what we find palatable, or even what makes us feel indignant.

Religion had nothing to fear [from science]. But what he did protest against was the hasty adoption of unsound hypotheses and unproved assertions for the weighty realities of scientific truth. (Applause.) What appeared irreconcilable in the present state of scientific knowledge would in the fullness of time be made manifest, and redound to the triumph of both. (Prolonged cheering.)

Or, as The Athenaeum reports it,

Mr. Darwin’s conclusions were an hypothesis, raised most unphilosophically to the dignity of a causal theory. He was glad to know that the greatest names in science were opposed to this theory, which he believed to be opposed to the interests of science and humanity.

“Hasty” is a strange word to apply to Darwin’s book, obviously many years in the making, and the accusation of being only a hypothesis is all too reminiscent of present-day accusations that evolution is “only” a theory.

To be fair to the Bishop (and, incidentally, to further illustrate Huxley’s point about debating complex issues), his Quarterly Review response to Darwin’s book is respectful, detailed, and powerfully argued.

Professor HUXLEY followed. In reply to the Bishop’s query he said that if the alternative were given him of being descended from a man conspicuous for his talents and eloquence, but who misused his gifts to ridicule the laborious investigators of science and obscure the light of scientific truth, or from the humble origin alluded to, he would far rather choose the latter than the former. (Oh, oh, and laughter and cheering.)

The Bishop’s provocations had persuaded Huxley to put aside his previous reservations about taking part in the debate, and years later he claimed to have muttered, in response to the remarks about his grandparents, “The Lord has delivered him into my hands.”

This was the second time that Huxley had been goaded into speaking after initial reticence; the first time involved Darwin’s adversary, Richard Owen (see Appendix).

He then defended Mr. Darwin’s theory from the charge of being a mere hypothesis, and said it was an explanation of phenomena in natural history holding the same relation as the undulating theory to the phenomena of light. Did any one object to that theory because an undulation of light had never been arrested and measured?

At that time, the wave theory of light was generally accepted, because of diffraction and polarisation, but there was as yet no theory available as to what kind of waves they were. Huxley’s point is that we have no problem in accepting underlying explanations of scientific phenomena, even if the underlying processes (undulation and, at that time, natural selection) had not been observed directly.

His charge against Mr. Darwin’s opponents was that they did not attempt to bring forward any important fact against his theory. That theory was an explanation of facts the result of laborious research, and abounded in new facts bearing upon it. Without asserting that every part of the theory had been confirmed, he maintained that it was the best explanation of the origin of species which had yet been offered—(hear, hear)—and he did protest against this subject being dealt with by amateurs in science, and made the occasion of appeals to passion and feeling. (Applause.)

Then as now, the basic creationist tactic was to ignore the evidence presented, a serious failing in 1860 and unforgivable today, when we have fossil evidence far beyond Darwin’s expectation, and evidence from molecular biology of a kind that Darwin could not even have imagined. But Huxley’s disclaimer regarding “every part of the theory”, was prudent. We now know the causes of speciation and diversity to be numerous, with Darwinian natural selection just one process among many. As for “appeals to passion and feeling”, it is increasingly clear that we ignore these at our peril. The successful defence of science must win over “amateurs in science”, by appealing to such passions as curiosity and our sense of wonder and beauty, and so it should be in a democracy.

The question was not so much one of a transmutation or transition of species as of the production of forms which became permanent, e.g. the short-legged sheep of America, which were not produced gradually, but originated in the birth of an original parent of the whole stock, which had been kept up by a rigid system of artificial selection. (The professor, on resuming his seat, was loudly applauded.)

So new characteristics can arise, and breed true, confirming the central assumption of mutability as opposed to the creationist doctrine of the fixity of species. This we now attribute to mutation, but we should remember that the participants in this debate had no notion of the true nature of inheritance.

The BISHOP of OXFORD again rose, ridiculed Professor Huxley’s appeal to authority in connection with his remarks on amateurs in science, denied the cogency of his examples, and after experiencing some interruptions in his scientific dicta, sat down amid loud cheers.

Professor HUXLEY, in answer, said the Bishop had misapprehended his remarks upon authority. What he had deprecated was authority like the Bishop’s, authority derived from a reputation acquired in another sphere. (Hear, hear, and laughter.)

Indeed, present-day creationists proudly parade surgeons and mechanical engineers as if they were authorities on geology and genetics. Huxley was, however, being a little unfair, as the Bishop had appealed to the authority of his scientist supporters, not to his own ecclesiastical standing

Dr. BIRD, who announced himself as a statistician, asserted that he could prove Mr. Darwin’s theory was unsound by statistics.

I don’t know what statistical arguments Dr. Bird had in mind, but the scientists at the Discovery Institute, dedicated to Intelligent Design creationism, base their arguments on the statistical unlikeliness of organisms. Their fallacy, recognised as such by the scientific mainstream, is neglect of how readily seemingly vast improbabilities can accumulate by repeated acts of selection.

Fizroy barometerAdmiral FITZROY stated, as an old friend of Mr Darwin’s, he deeply regretted the views he had put forth (loud cries of question). He denied Prof. Huxley’s statement that Mr Darwin’s work was a logical arrangement of facts, and was proceeding to theological considerations when the interruptions became so noisy that the chairman requested the gallant admiral to sit down.

We must feel sorry for Admiral Fitzroy, who had been captain on The Beagle, and was a pioneer in the use of meteorology in the service of maritime. Holding a Bible aloft, he implored the audience to believe God rather than man, the very words used today by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the Noah’s Ark theme park. Fitzroy, a much under-appreciated pioneer of marine weather forecasting, suffered from depression, and in 1865 committed suicide by cutting his throat.

Above, barometer, ca. 1880, using Fitzroy’s improved design with vernier reading and day-to-day comparisons 

Dr. HOOKER, being called upon by the President to state his views of the botanical aspect of the question, said that the Bishop had completely misunderstood Mr. Darwin’s hypothesis by confounding the transmutation of existing species one into another with that of the successive development of species by variation and natural selection. The first of these doctrines was wholly opposed to everything in Mr. Darwin’s work, the whole book, indeed, being a protest against it.

Indeed. As I noted earlier, Wilberforce and generations of later creationists are right to scoff at the idea that parents clearly belonging to one species would suddenly give rise to offspring clearly belonging to another, but the whole point of the evolutionary account is that a parent species gives rise to its successor(s) by a series of gradual changes.

With regard to the general phenomena of species, Dr. Hooker’s experience of the Vegetable Kingdom indicated that the general characteristics of orders, genera, and species amongst plants differed in degrees only from those of varieties, which afforded the strongest countenance to Mr. Darwin’s hypothesis.

Inside_the_temperate_houseInside the Temperate House, Kew Gardens, commissioned while Hooker was Associate Director

Hooker points out that the observed resemblances between different plants fit Darwin’s proposal of a family tree related by gradual descent, rather than the existence of distinct immutable kinds; thus the hypothesis (as one could then call it) of evolution had a strong observational basis. To this we would today add the excellent overall match between the family tree based on resemblances, the now very clearly defined tree based on a fossil record that in 1860 was only rudimentary, and the tree constructed from molecular data of a kind that in 1860 could not even have been imagined.

As regarded his own acceptation of Mr. Darwin’s views, he expressly disavowed having adopted them as a creed. He knew no creeds in scientific matters.

Scientific conclusions always remain open to questioning and revision. By using the word “creed”, Hooker is provocatively contrasting science with religion.

Having fifteen years ago been privately made acquainted with Mr. Darwin’s views,  now that they were published he had no hesitation in publicly adopting Darwin’s hypothesis, as that which offers by far the most probable explanation of all the phenomena presented by the classification, distribution, structure, and development of plants in a state of nature and under cultivation

“Fifteen years”; so much for Wilberforce’s allegation of haste, or for the attacks on Darwin’s character by present-day creationists who repeatedly accuse him of plagiarism from Wallace and others. Notice the appeal to “all the phenomena” of “classification, distribution, structure, and development of plants”, including biogeography and embryology, and how the use of the same scheme for both wild and cultivated plants supports the analogy between artificial and natural selection

and he should, therefore continue to use his hypothesis as the best weapon for future research, holding himself ready to lay it down should a better be forthcoming, or should the now abandoned doctrine of original creations regain all it had lost in his experience. [End of report]

Note Hooker’s pragmatic working philosophy. He does not demand proof, but provisionally accepts what seems most probable, and regards it as “the best weapon for future research”, while acknowledging the (increasingly remote) possibility that this may change in the light of new evidence.

Hooker regarded himself as a person who had emerged from the debate with the greatest credit, and I would agree. His philosophy of science acknowledges that theories are tools in the construction of research programmes, rather than mere inductive explanations of what has already been discovered, and his defence of evolution is all the more crushing for the apparent modesty of its claims. Science advances, not by seeking elusive certainties, but by acknowledging its own inescapable fallibility.

An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily

1] Present-day creationists refer to “kinds” rather than species. This word echoes the language of Genesis, and also, by its ambiguity, makes their position that much harder to refute.

2] Not to be confused with the second baronet, his son the chemist, also Sir Benjamin.

3] “Evolutionist”; I do not like this expression, since it appears to place those who accept and those who reject the fact of evolution on the same footing, and would welcome suggestions for an alternative.

h/t The Dispersal of Darwin

Oxford Natural History Museum, MykReeve via Wikipedia; Commemorative plaque, Own work of Stemonitis via Wikipedia; Mummified head of Seti I by G. Elliot Smith, via Wikimedia Commons; Human chromosome 2 public domain, NIH via Wikipedia;. Fitzroy barometer image from SellingAntiques website; Temperate greenhouse interior Prl42 own work via Wikipedia

Appendix: See my accompanying post here for transcript of discussion following Draper’s initial presentation, from Oxford Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette, 21 July 1860, with Athenaeum account for comparison, as reported by Richard England, with my own paragraphing for ease of reading. I also attach the full Athenaeum account of this encounter, and of an earlier occasion at this meeting where Huxley was moved to set aside initial reticence, this time in response to Richard Owen.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on November 6, 2017, in Charles Darwin, Creationism, Evolution, History of Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for pointing this out – an interesting read.


  2. Holding The Line In Florida

    Always enjoy reading about this. Huxley is one of my favorites in history.


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