Today, we join the first major battle in a long
war. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Author Hal Hellman talks
about the day in 1860 when 700 people, many of
them Anglican clergy, crowded into a hall at
Oxford University. The British Association for
the Advancement of Science met to discuss
Darwin's new book, The Origin of Species by
Means of Natural Selection. Darwin himself
was chronically ill and didn't come to Oxford for
the meeting. But Darwin never got involved in the
kind of combat this meeting was sure to generate.
The person carrying the fight against evolution
was an eloquent Anglican Bishop named Samuel
Wilberforce. Wilberforce's father had been the
driving force behind England's giving up slavery
Samuel Wilberforce had been an athlete,
mathematician, and debater at Oxford. He'd picked
up the name Soapy Sam for his slipperiness
in ecclesiastical arguments. He didn't understand
biology, and he may not have read Darwin very
carefully beforehand. But a naturalist named
Richard Owen prepared
him. Owen had once mentored Darwin. He'd become
increasingly annoyed as Darwin's name grew more
lustrous than his own and was happy to join the
So who would speak for Darwin? Who would chance
being savaged by the Church's heavy artillery?
The obvious candidate was Darwin's most famous
supporter, Thomas Huxley. History has called
Huxley Darwin's Bulldog. He was feisty
enough, but this would be walking into the lion's
Another naturalist, Robert Chambers, talked him
into attending. The idea of evolution wasn't new.
Darwin had simply made sense of it by adding the
mechanism of natural selection. Chambers was one
of many who'd talked about evolution before
Darwin and had been viciously attacked by
Wilberforce for doing so.
The meeting began on June 20th, 1860. After long
preliminaries, Wilberforce took the podium and
began his systematic assault on evolution. At the
end, he turned to Huxley and asked if it was his
grandfather or grandmother who'd descended
from an ape.
Huxley muttered to himself,
"The Lord has delivered [Wilberforce] into my hands." The
audience began chanting for Huxley to speak. When
he did, he finished by saying he'd rather be
descended from a monkey than from someone who
would so prostitute the truth.
That might well have been the defining moment in
the great science-religion debate of the 19th
century. One woman screamed and fainted at such
an insult to a bishop. The clergy shouted in
outrage. The pro-evolution people shouted their
We've used military language to describe the
debate ever since. In 1925, the Oxford meeting
was restaged in Tennessee at the Scopes Trial. William Jennings
Bryan played Wilberforce to Clarence Darrow's
Huxley. And the battle goes on today. Now it's
being fought in our schools. New Wilberforces
call up new Huxleys to go at it with little more
sense of open inquiry than there was at Oxford,
140 years ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hellman, H., Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the
Liveliest Disputes Ever. New York: John Wiley &
Sons, Inc., 1998, Chapter 5.
For another mention of the Oxford meeting, see the end of
Huxley, from Vanity Fair,
1871 Wilberforce, Vanity
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.