The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate Revisited

Thursday, November 6th, 2003 at the British Academy


According to the legend, Bishop Wilberforce (``Soapy Sam'') at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford on Saturday, June 30th, 1860, turned to Thomas Huxley, and asked him ``Is it on your grandfather's or your grandmother's side that you claim descent from a monkey''; whereupon Huxley delivered a devastating rebuke, thereby establishing the primacy of scientific truth over ecclesiastical obscurantism. Although the legend is historically untrue in almost every detail, its persistence suggests that it may nonetheless be true in some deeper, mythical, sense. To explore this possibility the British Academy has invited Dr Janet Browne to be a neo-Huxley confronting Mr J.R. Lucas, as a neo-Wilberforce, with each reconsidering their earlier arguments


Professor Boden:

On the day, Wilberforce had the better of it, but by the end of the nineteenth century Darwinism had triumphed, and history as often was hard on the losers. Nevertheless the triumph of Darwinism was not as complete as it seemed then, and much work had to be done in the twentieth century to make it coherent and convincing. Many of Wilberforce's criticisms were cogent, and the theory that took account of them and adequately answered his objections was markedly different from the one under discussion in 1860. It is reasonable to ask now what he, who claimed to be a loyal disicple of scientific method, would have made of the subsequent discussion, and the scientific conclusions finally arrived at.

Huxley's intemperate enthusiasm was an embarrassment to Darwin, who wrote urging him to moderate his polemics. Huxley succeeded in attracting wide publicity for Darwin's thought, but at the cost of arousing needless antagonisms, and distorting the whole tenor of subsequent discussion. Would a latter-day Huxley seek to ruffle feathers wherever possible, or think it better to engage in constructive dialogue to see how the difficulties still felt by some thinkers about some aspects of neo-Darwinism could be accommodated?


Huxley (Professor Browne) in brown : Wilberforce (Mr Lucas) in purple

My Lord, you did me the honour of asking me a question at Oxford 143 years ago. If the question is put to me again, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature, such as yourself, and possessing great means and influence, and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—then I still unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

Every rational biologist in the year 2003 believes in the truth of evolution by natural selection. We share 95 percent of our genes with chimpanzees. Animal ancestry is widely held to provide an explanation for personality and behaviour; selective processes demonstrably govern the body’s molecular and cellular workings; the sciences of palaeontology, biogeography, taxonomy, anatomy and embryology take their primary meaning from evolutionary history; ecologists regard it as the main rationale for preserving biodiversity; the medical world battles to keep up with rapidly adapting pathogens, and even the common currency of newspaper advertisements boasts that a BMW car has a ‘selective’ advantage. Though the general reading public in the West may not fully understand the details of evolution any more than they know the diameter of the earth, they certainly accept it, just as they believe the earth is round. If anyone is a reviled minority in this country it is not Darwinians but devout fundamentalist Christians. Darwinism is triumphant, God is seemingly dead, mankind has evolved from apes, DNA is the secular replacement for the Christian soul.

I believe that I was right.

Let me make my position clear. The Oxford meeting—and if I may say so, the generous opportunity you gave me to make a palpable hit—was a turning point in my career. At Oxford I recognised that I could make my name as a scientific controversialist instead of squeezing out a living as an underpaid and under-appreciated lecturer in the Government School of Mines. As it happens, I had not really found my niche before that chance to contest you publicly. I suddenly saw that I could lead a transformation in British science, not least by attacking the repressive mumbo-jumbo of the church. And I saw that Darwin’s theory was the highly developed weapon that I needed—a Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism as I said in the Westminster Review. I was a young man then, only 35. I gave the rest of my life to promoting the use of clear and definite conceptions in the intellectual world, the empirical verification of facts, and the search for the rational, natural laws of the living world. I believed then—and I still do—that the most potent instrument for the extension of scientific knowledge which has come into men’s hands since the publication of Newton’s Principia, was Darwin’s Origin of Species.

And even though no one remembered exactly what was said at Oxford, even though my voice was not well heard, even though someone said I looked very like the bishop and was this a family spat, even though many of the Bishop's supporters went away feeling that their man had won the day, and even though it is now described as one of those iconic moments in history that actually possesses very little real content, I think that the event was also a turning point in the relations between science and religion. If there was ever a time when the metaphor of warfare was appropriate, this was the time. Science went on the offensive. Darwin’s theory, and my vigorous support for it, intensified the Victorian church’s disarray and provided a standard around which doubters and disbelievers of many different persuasions could rally.

Speaking personally, I was never an atheist. My name—doubting Thomas—suited me. When I coined the term agnosticism in 1869 it was meant to underline my hostility to the institutionalised religion of the day. But it also signalled my awareness that religious belief satisfied a profound human need. Neither Mr Darwin nor myself have ever denied the existence of a supreme force. Instead I always urged that science and the church should occupy separate spheres. When working on scientific matters, scientists should put their faith in natural laws, not in those of the supernatural. This form of scientific naturalism, exhibited to a high degree in the Origin of Species, has been extremely productive. I never minded when people accused me of turning this naturalism into an alternative creed or called me Pope Huxley. Naturalism, not supernaturalism, has manifestly been the best way forward for science. No one should deny the truth on grounds of faith alone.

1. So I ask you now to agree that surely Darwin was right?

Yes, but

The Theory of Evolution has itself evolved.
The theory I attacked in 1860 had many weak points, as Darwin himself acknowledged.
Since then
(a) an enormous amount of empirical (observational) evidence has been found in the geological record
(b) the theory of genetics has been discovered, and has shown how favourable adaptations can be preserved, and not just diluted in successive generations, and how demes can gradually drift apart until they become genetically separate from each other.

I accept that some of what you say has validity. I admit, for instance, that many of us were sceptical about particular biological and geological points. I was sceptical in 1860 about the possibility of ever proving natural selection in the conventional way and said as much in the Westminster Review—and at a lecture at the Royal Institution—which made my friend Darwin groan. I pointed out that the case must ultimately remain unproven until Darwin (or someone else) showed how varieties could turn into reproductively self-contained species. What could possibly make two closely related varieties, often living together, become mutually infertile and start to diverge from each other? I was never satisfied with the compromises that Darwin proposed. It was something on which we agreed to differ. We also differed over the slow rate of change that Darwin adopted, which I found absurd when a good sharp saltation was all that was needed to make a new species. Furthermore, I thought his theory of inheritance, the one he called pangenesis, was nonsense. Geologists ridiculed his explanation of the Sussex Downs and his eternal draughts of geological time.

Yet I should also say that this did not stop me believing that evolution by natural selection was by far the best hypothesis that had yet been put forward. The issue of ape ancestry, and the ambiguous place of man’s soul in a newly secularized universe, did not distress me like it distressed Sir Charles Lyell. Poor Lyell once wrote to me that he could never ‘go the whole orang’. And a number of good friends like Asa Gray and Charles Kingsley mistakenly tried to put God and teleology back into the scheme, putting back the sense of purpose that Darwin utterly banished from nature. Young St George Mivart even tried to turn it into Catholic doctrine, of all things! So we were hardly united in our religious views or in the way we took up Darwinism. One meta-narrative will not fit all.

For myself, I followed the philosophical line set out by John Stuart Mill who stated that ‘although Darwin does not seem to have proved the truth of his doctrine, he does seem to have proved that it may be true’ —which I take to be as great a triumph of ingenuity as could possibly be achieved on the question. And I admit that I was right to be sceptical on purely biological grounds. It took the development of the science of genetics and nearly 100 years of research in the field and laboratory to work out how adaptations might be preserved in a population sufficient for new species to emerge. The theory is still controversial. The great naturalist Ernst Mayr, notoriously thought Darwin was wrong-headed over the issue of speciation. Stephen Jay Gould modified Darwin’s gradualism into a punctuated chronological scheme with variable rates of change. Pasteur and countless others inquired about the first origins of life—was it in a primeval soup or more recently perhaps from outer space as Fred Hoyle suggests. Lord Kelvin contested the age of the earth, and thus the debate continues. Every part of Darwin’s thesis was open to test. That’s good science.

2. Were you right at the time to be sceptical?


There was very little empirical evidence in favour and quite a lot against.
The most telling argument in favour was put forward by Hooker, after we had spoken, and was that Evolution offered an explanatory schema which explained the similarities between different species.
But that schema ran against another, equally telling one, that species were fixed and unalterable.
Darwin's evidence, drawn from husbandry and the selective breeding of domestic animals and racing pigeons, showed that adaptive traits could be inherited, but not to the extent that a species was altered. Dogs remained dogs, and when pigeons interbred, they reverted to type.
It was like the case of allotropes in chemistry: carbon could take the form of transparent diamond, or black graphite. But although different in colour and shape, they were only variants of the same chemical element. Similarly with red, white and black phosphorus, and with different forms of sulphur. The unalterability of chemical elements was a necessary presupposition of chemistry, and the idea that any could be transmuted into gold was a mediaeval fantasy.
It needed very good evidence to refute the fixity of species, and that evidence was not then forthcoming.
But I always allowed that if such evidence were produced, it would be decisive.


Taking a stand for evolution was the best thing I have ever done. The years after publication of the Origin were as much mine as they were Darwin’s, especially since Darwin hated to appear in public, whereas I thrived in the limelight. The evolutionary debate became my forum. My phrases became the phrases of the day.

‘How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!’

‘Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science, as the strangled snakes besides that of Hercules.

‘Science is nothing but trained and organised common sense’

‘Given the molecular forces in a mutton chop, deduce Faust or Hamlet therefrom’

These are my words. I am proud that they have materially shaped the story of Darwinism for more than a century.

3. Was it unfortunate that you took a stand against Evolution?

It is always unfortunate to be wrong, but it is better to be bravely wrong than safely silent.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s Einstein was engaged in controversy about the implications of quantum mechanics. He could not bring himself to believe that ``God plays dice''. Although quantum mechanics produced only probabilistic results, it must, he maintained, be only a statistical abbreviation of some deeper, determinist theory, as thermodynamics was. Together with Podolsky and Rosen he wrote a powerful paper in 1935 to prove this. But he was wrong. Experiments by Aspect and others in the 1980s leave little room for doubt. But we don't think less of Einstein on that account. By formulating the EPR argument he forced physicists to think more deeply about the meaning of quantum mechanics. It led to Bell's theorem and the two-colour theorem, and laid the ground for Aspect's experimental work.
I don't want to compare myself to Einstein, except in regard to our both having been proved wrong. But it was only in the wake of criticisms levelled much more acutely by other biologists than by me that Darwin's original theory was refined into the theory of evolution we have now.


4.Would you now concede with the benefit of hindsight that I won the day?

You were muddled, misconstrued my position, and muddied the waters of subsequent debate. You barged in, making out that it was a simple conflict between empirical evidence and theological dogma, quite failing to see that there was empirical evidence on both sides, and that you were relying on general background assumptions as much as I was. I was allowing that evidence might turn up which would force me to acknowledge my kinship with mushrooms and monkeys, but you were determined to cast me in the role of an ecclesiastical obscurantist. By so doing, you polarized the debate, and made it much more difficult for the issues to be discussed dispassionately and rationally.

It was not a confrontation between science and religion: there were scientists on both sides, and churchmen on both sides. Sunday's University Sermon, by Frederick Temple welcomed Evolution; and many churchmen have done so at later times, just as some Darwinians have been devout theists. You thought you were fighting for science, but by being so confrontational, you stimulated an anti-science counter-attack. You did not realise it, but you helped to create creationism


5. I helped establish the profession of scientist: was not that a good thing?

Up to a point.
But there have been costs as well as gains.

Science is now a closed book to many, otherwise educated, people; and scientists are isolated in a sort of intellectual ghetto, and regarded as nerds by the trend-setters.


6. I stood for the autonomy of science. Will you not allow that on that important point, I won?

Up to a point. And at a great cost.
Your claim that science should be value-free can be achieved, but at the cost of limiting the range and relevance of science. If it is autonomous, and restricts the sort of argument it takes into consideration, it no longer can aspire to giving us the whole truth about nature, or providing us with answers to all the questions we ask ourselves.

Let me illustrate this in the dilemma modern science finds itself in over racism. Two days before criticizing Darwin, I had intervened in the Anthropology Section to protest against the view that African tribesmen were racially inferior to us; and one of my criticisms of Darwin was that his theory could be used to justify the enslavement of negroes by white men---a very topical issue, I should point out, in 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War. Now, in the Twenty-first Century, we are embarrassed about scientific research into racial peculiarities. I myself am fascinated by the proportion of different blood groups being different in Pembrokeshire from what it is in the rest of Wales, or by the Caucasians' ability to digest lactose in adult life, or by the incidence of sickle-cell anaemia among black Africans, and I speculate on possible evolutionary explanations. But more Evangelical Antiracists, as I might call them, are queasy. Racial research is a No-Go area. If a scientist were to maintain as a scientific truth that black men were on average less intelligent than white men, he would be excoriated (though I suspect that research showing that Indians and Chinese were on average more intelligent than Europeans would be acceptable). I distance myself from my Evangelical contemporaries, just as I did in 1860. I don't want to fetter scientific research or deny its findings. I say `Yes' to autonomous scientific research, but `Yes, but'. Scientific facts are true, but not the whole truth. Empirical findings are what they are, but the there are further factors we need to consider.

Our understanding of what it is to be a man is much wider and deeper than the purely empirical observations which are all that the autonomous scientist allows himself to take into consideration. You were quite wrong to think that I was saying `No' to science as against his `Yes'. That was not the issue between us. Rather, against your `Yes, full stop', I was saying `Yes, but'. I could allow that Evolution could be true, or that there are significant differences between the races, and still maintain that we are not just animals, and that all men, whatever the colour of their skin, are children of God. But a science that claims both to be autonomous and to give us the complete truth cannot do this. Faced with this dilemma, some people will accept the science and deny the moral status of mankind: others, however, will sense the immoral implications of Darwinism, and on that account reject it out of hand.

The particular issue on which we clashed in 1860 was gradualism. If man evolved gradually from a primate, where should we draw the line? It is an issue that is with us still. In a television sketch by Rowan Atkinson a woman goes with her tiresome nine-year-old son to her doctor, and asks for a termination, and when she is asked the date of conception, she starts to convert the son's nine years into months. The joke exploits the incompatibility in modern thinking which holds that it is wrong to kill people but right to abort embryos. When does a foetus acquire the status of a human being that must not be killed?

All I can say, in conclusion, is that Mr Darwin claimed that if he had not stirred up the mud, someone else would have done so very soon. He was thinking, no doubt, of the other figures of the day who came up with very much the same idea—not least my good friends Alfred Russel Wallace and Herbert Spencer, whose writings were somewhat obscured by the glittering path of the Origin of Species, and equally too the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of creation, afterwards identified as Robert Chambers, whose book first gave the public an understanding of evolutionary processes in general. It was Spencer, after all, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. As a publicist, however, I can see that Darwin’s book was truly remarkable for crystallising issues that were already in the air, for adding to a line of distinguished philosophical precursors, for bringing amazingly fertile, workable insights to Victorian science and for unsettling centuries of complacent thought about humanity’s place in nature. He provided a flash of light on the road, the working hypothesis we sought. The resulting controversy, for which I proudly consider I was mostly responsible, pushed these transformative new ideas into every nineteenth century home. And if I were a historian, I would add that we all yearn for discovery stories like these to map out past developments and future progress, especially in the sciences.

Even so when I wrote on agnosticism and evolution and ethics at the end of my life, I was saddened by the story of humanity’s evolution. Out of the darkness of prehistoric ages, I wrote, man emerges with the marks of his lowly origin strong upon him…It is not I who seek to base Man’s dignity upon his great toe, or insinuate that we are lost if an ape has a hippocampus minor. On the contrary I have done my best to sweep away this vanity. I have endeavoured to show that no absolute structural line of demarcation can be drawn between the animal world and ourselves. And yet at the same time, no one is more strongly convinced than I am of the vastness of the gulf between civilized man and the brutes; or is more certain that whether from them or not, he is assuredly not of them..

7. Has not Darwin proved that we are apes rather than angels?

Not `rather than' but `not only but also'.

Darwin was uncomfortable with the implicit materialism of natural selection, and its seeming endorsement of unbridled competition. The key word was `nature', or, in modern terms `environment'. Darwin took it for granted that it was something definite, which was continually putting pressure on organisms, and winnowing out the best adapted forms. But what constitutes the environment is different for different species. The environment of most mammals is different from that of the primates or birds, since most mammals lack colour vision, and live in a colourless world, and cannot survive better by avoiding red berries or meat that has turned green. We find it difficult to imagine what it would be like to be a bat or an electric eel, but can easily accept that their environment must be very different from ours. Nor is it only perceptual powers that alter the way the environment impinges: equally important are the drives and habits of the organism that influence its behaviour. The feedback from its various activities will constitute the main pressure of the environment on each organism. As the behaviour and perceptual powers of the organism vary, so also does its environment as it registers on it.

A telling example is given by Sir Alister Hardy, who remarks on the time when tits learned to peck through the cardboard tops of milk bottles, and drink the creamy milk beneath. Milk bottles thereby became a significant part of their environment, and an ability to recognise milk bottles coupled with a beak strong enough to get through the tops would give a tit a competitive advantage in the struggle for existence. It is tempting to extrapolate and envisage a time when tits could distinguish milk-bottle-likely back doors from milkless front doors, and to develop beaks capable of getting through thicker and thicker cardboard, aluminium foil and even plastic.

Once we recognise that nature, or the environment, is correlative with the organism, it will seem much less alien and materialistic. For if the environment registers on the organism in response to its drives, habits and perceptual powers as it strives to maintain itself in the face of environmental pressures, it will evolve as successive generations of organisms do. Biology will no longer just a matter of biochemistry and thermodynamics, but of information theory and the theory of games.

Organisms are able to maintain themselves in the face of alterations in their environment by having some feedback mechanism, whereby they adjust to offset alterations in their environment. If one morsel of food is not available, another is taken: if one mate is not won, another is wooed. Feedback mechanisms secure some measure of independence from the environment. But that independence is only secured at the cost of greater sensitivity. My body temperature remains constant, but only because I sweat and shiver, and take off a garment if I feel my surroundings are too hot, or take cover if they re too cold. The pressure to adapt in the face of the environment is a pressure to become more independent of it, and thus to become a more and more separate, but at the same time sensitive, entity. It is a pressure towards self-hood, and carries with it the logic of self-hood, the need for cooperation with other selves, and ultimately self-awareness and the quest of the questioning intellect to understand itself and the world in which it finds itself. So Huxley had only half a truth: we are descended from the apes, but have moved a little, and aspire to move further, towards the angels.

Yes: man is a has-been ape. But No: he is a would-be angel.