In July 1860, a fiery debate was raging over a monumental subject… the story of our past and how it linked to the history of life on Earth. In the previous year, British naturalist Charles Darwin had published a book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ (usually referred to as The Origin of Species). In the book, Darwin set out his ideas about how species evolved through time. One controversial idea he proposed was that if natural selection drove change and if all life was interconnected, then humans were descended from apes and not created by God.
Cartoon of Huxley published in the magazine Vanity Fair, in response to the controversy surrounding the Great Debate of 1860.
The implications of Darwin’s theory caused uproar from the Church. Darwin had perhaps anticipated this reaction. He had even delayed publishing his theory for 15 years. It was only when he received a friendly letter from a young naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace containing an essay outlining a theory of evolution almost identical to his own that he was spurred into action.
Tensions climaxed at a debate on June 30 1860, at a scientific meeting held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend Samuel Wilberforce, was due to speak against Darwin’s views. A powerful figure, the rumour was that Wilberforce was going to ‘smash Darwin.’ Nearly 1,000 people crowded into the museum to witness the stand-off.
Darwin was not well enough to attend, so a close friend, the eminent scientist Thomas Henry Huxley, volunteered to debate in his place. Huxley was an impressive public speaker who had vigorously defended Darwin’s views many times and had earned the nickname ‘Darwin’s bulldog’.
'Prof. Darwin. This is the ape of form' Cartoon taken from Figaro, 1874 (Figaro's London sketch book of celebrities).
As Bishop Wilberforce finished delivering his opening address, he enquired of Huxley, ‘Is it on your grandmother’s or grandfather’s side that you are descended from an ape?’ Huxley responded by clearly outlining all the evidence supporting Darwin’s theory. He then turned to the bishop and said, ‘I would rather be descended from an ape than a man who uses his great faculties and influence for the purpose of ridicule.’ This statement sent the crowd into an uproar. One magazine wrote that a Lady Brewster fainted and the audience was implored to ‘listen to God rather than man.’
Evolutionary theory has now been accepted by the scientific community and underpins modern biology. However, even with acceptance, it is worth keeping in mind what a challenge Darwin, Wallace, Huxley, and other evolutionists were facing. Evolution seriously challenged the biblical account of creation taking place in six days, a belief that had been dominant in Western Christian societies for thousands of years... changing this belief was no small feat.