Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Great Debate

"Soapy Sam" Wilberforce vs. T.H. Huxley as pictured by Vanity Fair (source)

The Time: 30 June 1860, seven months after the publication of Origin

The Place: the meeting of the British Association at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

A group of scientists and philosophers had gathered to hear John William Draper of NYU present a long and boring paper called "On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others". After which several guests were asked to speak, informally though, which is why no verbatim account of what was said exists.
After several others had spoken, a heated exchange was started by Samuel "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce (Bishop of Oxford) and Thomas Huxley (biologist and grandfather of Aldous).
Wilberforce outlined the Church's view on species, which was that they are what they are and have always been and that Darwin's theory was not supported by facts. Whereas Huxley (who would become known as Darwin's Bulldog) defended Darwin, by saying that it was the best explanation for where species come from so far.
Wilberforce then asked Huxley if he was descended from an ape through his grandfather's or grandmother's side.
To which Huxley replied that he would rather be related to an ape then a man of ability and position who uses his brains to obscure the truth.
The audience was so effected by the exchange that Lady Brewster fainted.
Everyone who agreed with Huxley though that he had won and everyone who agreed with Wilberforce (especially Wilberforce) thought that he had won. But everyone had enjoyed themselves and they all went out to dinner afterwards.

Although both sides claimed victory, the debate was a key moment in the wider acceptance of evolution, not because of the debate between Church and Science but because it showed that Darwin's theory was able to withstand debate because it was supported by facts.

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