June 30, 1860 (a Saturday)

A cartoon from Vanity Fair depicting Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

On this date, one of the most memorable dramas in the history of science took place at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford University. Darwin’s The Origin of Species had been published in 1859, but his health was not good enough to allow him to go to the Oxford meeting. However, Thomas Henry Huxley was there and it was he who so brilliantly debated Darwinism with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of the Church of England. More than 700 people crowded into the lecture room on that day – so many, in fact, that the meeting had to be moved to the library of the University Museum. Wilberforce, having refused to regard monkeys as his ancestors, turned to Huxley during the debate and asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from “a venerable ape.” Huxley took the challenge and is reputed to have answered, “If I am asked whether I would choose to be descended from the poor animal of low intelligence and stooping gait, who grins and chatters as we pass, or from a man, endowed with great ability and splendid position, who should use these gifts to discredit and crush humble seekers after truth, I hesitate what answer to make!”

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One response to “June 30, 1860 (a Saturday)

  1. Also present was Frederic Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who preached at the time on how faith should not contradict scientific knowledge. “The believer is bound to recognise the value of science.”

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