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The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate

  by Colin Gauld
University of New South Wales

[Since the centenary, in 1959, of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species much information has become available about the now legendary encounter at the 1860 meeting of the British Association between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Henry Huxley. This essay examines the functions and characteristics of the reports, in both the educational and historical literature, about the encounter.]


In its report of the meeting (Section 1) of the British Association conference on Saturday 30 June 1860 (at which the encounter took place), The Athenaeum of 14 July 1860 reported speeches by nine people. The "keynote" address by Professor J.W. Draper was entitled "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", Wilberforce's and Huxley's speeches were the fourth and fifth reported and Joseph Hooker's the ninth. Although the newspaper reports were brief, reconstructions of Wilberforce's presentation, based on newspaper reports and on his review in the Quarterly Review of July 1860 (Wilberforce, 1860), are available (Gauld, 1992; Jensen, 1988; Lucas, 1979; Phelps & Cohen, 1973; Wrangham, 1979) showing that it reflected the scientific concerns that people of the day had with Darwin's book. Writing to Hooker in July 1860 about Wilberforce's review essay of The Origin of Species Darwin admitted "It is uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties' (Darwin, 1888, Volume 2, p.324-5). Later, in a letter to Lyell, Darwin commented that "the Bishop makes a telling case against me, by accumulating several instances where 1 speak very doubtfully" (Darwin, 1888, Volume 2, p.332). During the course of Wilberforce's speech he asked a rhetorical question about the implications of Darwin's theory for Huxley's simian ancestry and Huxley responded with references to Wilberforce's alleged misuse of oratorical skills and with comments on some of the scientific issues Wilberforce had raised. The repartee caused quite a stir at the meeting but was reported only in The Press (7 July 1860, p.656) at that time. There is strong evidence that Huxley's speech was not sufficiently compelling to counteract that of the Bishop. But Hooker's, later in the session, was much more effective in defending Darwin's position against the Bishop's arguments (Gilley, 1981; Huxley, 1918, Volume 1, p.526). Indeed the report, in The Athenaeum, of Hooker's speech occupied about three times the space devoted to that of Huxley (or of Wilberforce).


References to the Wilberforce-Huxley encounter were found in 63 books. The earliest report was dated 1896 (republished in 1960) while the latest was 1991. Half were published after 1974. The list includes twelve biographies of Darwin (including one biographical novel) and three of Huxley. Thirteen books, identified as "technical", dealt in depth with particular aspects of Darwin's thought, the nature of the Darwinian revolution, or influences of Darwin's theory on later generations. Of reports in the more educational literature, 11 were encyclopedia entries dealing with the life of Darwin or Huxley, 17 were in relatively popular expositions of the history of science, history of biology or of the theory of evolution and 7 were in school or university texts.

The structure of the accounts
Word lengths of the 63 accounts of the Wilberforce-Huxley encounter ranged, from 10 to almost 3000 words. The median length is just over 200 words while the mean is just under 500 words. The longer accounts tend to be found in the biographies of Darwin and Huxley and technical works while the shorter accounts tend to be found in encyclopedias, texts and the more popular works.

Seven of the accounts do not report anything of what was said. Fifty-one mention the repartee while only 15 of the 63 report anything of what was said in the speeches (besides, the repartee). Of these 11 occur in the biographical or technical area. In 45 there is no mention at all of Hooker or his contribution while in only 10 is there any suggestion that Hooker's might have been the more effective response to Wilberforce's arguments.

The contexts of the anecdote
In the literature reviewed the anecdote is set in a variety of contexts. The most frequent setting, occurring in 48 of the 63 accounts, is a discussion of the initial reception of The Origin of Species and the opposition, both scientific and religious, which its publication engendered. In 23 of the 28 biographical or technical accounts this is the main setting. A further two are set in a discussion of Huxley's role as Darwin's defender (Darwin's "bulldog"). Of the other three accounts one emerges from a discussion of Darwin's health (he was at a health "resort" during the British Association meeting in 1860), one relates to an outline of the history of the Oxford University Museum in which the meeting was held, while the third (in the biographical novel) is a gathering at Darwin's home to report on the meeting.

In 25 of the 35 more educational books (encyclopedias, popular presentations and texts) the setting is a discussion of the opposition to Darwin's book. The 7 references to Huxley as Darwin's defender all occur in encyclopedia entries about Huxley. The remaining 3 references relate to Huxley's long running opposition to the views of Owen the anatomist (Wilberforce is presented as Owen's spokesman at the meeting), to a consideration of Huxley's personal characteristics or to a discussion of the relative status of three theories for present biological diversity - special creation, spontaneous generation and transmutation of species (evolution). In this last mentioned text the encounter is used to illustrate the thesis that

mixing science and religion is always unfortunate, for it makes an objective weighing of the evidence pro and con virtually impossible; the emotional attachment is simply too strong (Baker & Allen, 1979, p.459).
Comments on the effects of the encounter
While the reports of the encounter are largely part of a wider discussion of initial opposition to Darwin's The Origin of Species comments on the effects of this encounter are less uniform. Ten of the 63 authors make no reference either to the immediate outcome of the encounter on the audience or to the longer term outcome within the history of science in the second half of the 10th century. Twenty-five authors make some reference to both these outcomes and another 28 to either the immediate or the longer term outcome (but not to both). Twenty-three of the 43 comments about the immediate outcome refer to Huxley's triumph or to Wilberforce's defeat (or to both), while another 11 mention the excitement and the uproar which followed Huxley's speech. Nine authors (all in the biographical or technical area) comment that the outcome was somewhat ambiguous or uncertain and imply that it was not clear who the audience judged to be the "winner".

Sixteen of the 35 authors who comment about the long term significance of the event (some authors make more than one comment) state that it represented a defeat for religion (or the Church) by science, 12 claim that it gained a hearing for evolution when the climate of opinion was against it, while 7 see it as the beginning of the public opposition to Darwin's theory. For 2 it established the importance of Darwin and Huxley, for 2 it changed no one's opinions at all and for 2 it was simply a significant episode in the history of science.

A summary of the accounts
Thus, the major emphasis in these accounts of the incident, and especially those in the educational literature, is not so much on scientific criticisms of The Origin of Species as on the reactions to the book and, in particular, the response from the Church. The anecdote serves an almost exclusively cultural function in the educational literature surveyed. In fact, any possible value which might lie in the scientific substance of the speeches is usually nullified by references to Wilberforce's alleged ignorance, to his scientific blunders, to his need to be coached (badly it appears) by Owen, and on his use of oratorical techniques, scoffing tone, ridicule and insolence in place of substantial argument. On the other hand, Huxley is portrayed as sober and grave as he succinctly explained Darwin's ideas, exposed the Bishop's errors and demolished what few arguments he presented. Little detail is provided about what he said because the judgement has already been made that there was no scientific substance to what Wilberforce said.

The accounts possess an internal logic of their own in which they play down the importance of any substantial criticism of Darwin's theory, focus on the repartee as the significant aspect of the event and on Huxley as the victor, and overlook the apparently more notable contribution of Hooker to the occasion.

Even a cursory glance at reports of the encounter should make clear that Huxley's clever reply to Wilberforce's clever question, considered impartially, can have little worthwhile to contribute to the debate over the status of Darwin's theory. It is simply concerned with etiquette and good manners. A rational judgement about the outcome can only be made on the basis of what was said in the other parts in the speeches and about this most of the reports are, unfortunately, silent.


It is interesting that, while there were brief newspaper reports of the content of the speeches (especially summaries in The Athenaeum of speeches by Wilberforce, Huxley and Hooker) there was little mention at all of the repartee. In the almost 30 years following the event, the only public references to the repartee seems to be those in The Press of 7 July 1860 and Macmillan's Magazine of December 1860.

The accounts which form the source for most future references to the event are those by Huxley and Hooker recalled in 1880 for the publication, two years later, of Darwin's Life and Letters (Darwin, 1888, Volume 2, pp.320-325; see also Huxley, 1900, Volume 1, pp.182-188; Huxley. 1918, Volume 1, pp.525-527; Volume 2, pp.300-304).

The anecdote emerges, then, as very much dependent on how Huxley and Hooker saw the event and the form in which it appears today represents their reconstruction of the occasion (Browne, 1978; Gilley, 1981). Even Hooker's apparently more decisive role, affirmed by him in a letter to Darwin two days after the meeting (Huxley, 1918, Volume 1, p.526), was down-played in deference to Huxley's version.

The view that the outcome of the encounter was decided on the basis of the repartee depends on a prior conclusion about the relative value of arguments presented by both sides at the meeting. Huxley, Hooker and those who supported Darwin, naturally enough, found Wilberforce's arguments objectionable and they provide the data upon which today's versions of the event are based. For example, on 2 July 1860 Hooker wrote to Darwin that

Sam Oxon got up and spouted for half an hour with inimitable spirit, ugliness and emptiness and unfairness. I saw he was coached up by Owen and knew nothing, and he said not a syllable but what was in the Reviews; he ridiculed you badly and Huxley savagely (Huxley, 1918, Volume 1, p.526).
The next day J.R. Green, a pro-Darwinian undergraduate, described the proceedings to W.B. Dawkins in a letter, parts of which were later published in Huxley's Life and Letters (Huxley, 1900, pp.184-5). He wrote
...up rose "Sammivel", and proceeded to act the smasher;... the smasher got so uproarious as to pitch into Darwin's friends - Darwin being smashed - and especially Professor Huxley... Which being ended - and let me say that such rot never fell from episcopal lips before - arose Huxley, young, cool, quiet, sarcastic, scientific in fact and treatment, he gave his lordship such a smashing as he may meditate on with profit over his port at Cuddesdon (quoted in Gilley, 1981).
However, contrary to the above comments, Wilberforce's speech, rather than reflecting ignorance, prejudice and religious sentiment, in fact encapsulated many of the scientific objections people of his day had to Darwin's book (Gauld, 1992; Lucas, 1979; Oldroyd, 1980, p.132; Wrangham, 1979; see also Hull, 1973).


On 30 June 1860 the encounter appears to have had few of the attributes and effects which came to be associated with it at a later stage and which continue to be associated with it in more recent times. It has become a sketch in which non-essential features are eliminated and those considered to be its essence are emphasised. In the literature it is presented as a dogmatic statement rather as part of a case to be defended. For many authors this sketch seems to have become a symbol by which the triumph of science over religious opposition is announced.

As historically adequate accounts, the majority of the reports of the Huxley-Wilberforce encounter are deficient in four significant ways.

Firstly, rather than attempting to give an impartial account of the occasion and its significance, a perspective which has been based almost exclusively on the perceptions of Huxley, Hooker and their supporters is used. Many of the words used to describe the roles of Wilberforce and Huxley come from letters written by Darwin's supporters and selected for publication from 1888 onwards. There is little attempt to present a more balanced view of the occasion such as that of Chadwick (1970, p.10-11) or of Lucas (1979).

Secondly, the reduction of the opposition which Darwin's ideas called forth to that of a churchman who had no arguments worth considering belie the strength of scientific criticism of the theory which was widespread in the 1860s. Most of Wilberforce's objections in his review of Darwin's The Origin of Species were scientific or philosophical rather than religious. Even Huxley admitted that

on the whole, then, the supporters of Mr Darwin's views in 1860 were numerically extremely insignificant. There is not the slightest doubt that, if a general council of the church scientific had been held at that time, we should have been condemned by an overwhelming majority (Darwin, 1888, Volume 2, p.186)
Thirdly, the typical report is inadequate as a symbol of the response of the Church to Darwin's theory. The religious response was not in any way as uniform as is often portrayed. While undoubtedly there was opposition from Christians of various types, Moore (1979) has identified two significant groups of Christians in the years up to 1900 who had little difficulty in accepting Darwin's views. The Christian "Darwinists", who were largely theological liberals, interpreted Darwin's position in a metaphysical sense, while the Christian "Darwinians", who were more theologically orthodox or conservative, accepted Darwin's position with little modification (see also Livingstone, 1978).

Fourthly, it is unlikely that the encounter represented the intellectual victory often claimed for it. However, it may have been a victory for Darwin in another sense. Huxley's son, his biographer and editor of his letters, wrote

The result of this encounter, though a check to the other side, cannot, of course, he represented as an immediate and complete triumph for evolutionary doctrine. This was precluded by the character and temper of the audience, most of whom were less capable of being convinced by the arguments than shocked by the boldness of the retort ... The importance of the Oxford meeting lay in the open resistance that was made to authority, at a moment when even a drawn battle was hardly less effectual than acknowledged victory. Instead of being crushed under ridicule. the new theories secured a hearing, all the wider, indeed, for the startling nature of their defence (Huxlcy, l900, p.189).
In the light of these shortcomings or exaggerations, not only does the typical report of this encounter appear in the literature as a sketch but this sketch possesses all the characteristics and deficiencies of a caricature.


Using historical anecdotes to teach about the cultural context of science requires a sound understanding of this context. At the same time, making reference to history to teach about concepts requires an understanding of the intellectual climate of the time so that arguments can be dealt with in the setting of the historical period in which they occur. In most reports of the Huxley-Wilberforce encounter, the cultural context is severely misrepresented. The opportunity which it provides for giving closer attention to the criticisms levelled against Darwin's book is also overlooked because of a faulty predisposition towards the value of these arguments.


  • Baker, J.W. & Allen, G.E. (1979). A Course in Biology, (3rd Edition). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Browne, J. (1978). The Charles Darwin-Joseph Hooker correspondence: An analysis of manuscript sources and their use in biography. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 8, 351-366.
  • Chadwick, O. (1970). The Victorian Church, Part II. London: Adam & Charles Black.
  • Darwin, F. (1888). Life and letters of Charles Darwin, Volume 2. London: John Murray.
  • Gauld. C.F. (1977). The role of history in the teaching of science. Australian Science Teachers Journal, 23(3), 47-52.
  • Gauld, C.F. (1991). History of science, individual development and science teaching. Research in Science. Education, 21, 133-140.
  • Gauld, C.F. (1992). Wilberforce, Huxley and the use of history in teaching about evolution. The American Biology Teacher 54, 406-410.
  • Gilley, S. (1981). The Huxley-Wilberforce debate: A reconsideration. In K. Robbins (ed), Religion and Humanism. Oxford: Blackwell, pp.325-340.
  • Hull, D.L. (1973). Darwin and his Critics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Huxley, L. (1900). The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, Volume 1. London: Macmillan.
  • Huxley, L. (1918). The Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Volumes 1 & 2. London: John Murray.
  • Jensen, J.V. (1988). Return to the Wilberforce-Huxley debate. British Journal for the History of Science, 21, 161-179.
  • Livingstone, D. (1978). Darwin's Forgotten Defenders. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Lucas, J.R. (1979). Wilberforce and Huxley: A legendary encounter. The Historical Journal. 2(2), 313-330.
  • Moore, J. (1979). The Post-Darwinian Controversies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Oldroyd, D. (1980). Darwinian Impacts. Kensington: University of New South Wales Press.
  • Phelps, L.A. & Coben, E. (1973). The Wilberforce-Huxley debate. Western Speech, 37, 56-64.
  • Wilberforce, S. (1860). Review: On The Origin of Species, by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races on the Struggle for Life. By Charles Darwin, M.A., F.R.S., London, 1860. The Quarterly Review, 108, 225-264 (originally published anonymously as was the convention).
  • Wrangham, R. (1979). The Bishop of Oxford: Not so soapy. New Scientist, 83, 450-451.

Excerpted from: Research in Science Education, 22 (1992):149-156, with kind permission of the author.

See also Gauld's fuller account of Wilberforce's arguments and how they might be used in a classroom lesson: American Biology Teacher, 54(Oct., 1992): 406-410.

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