The debate is best remembered today for a heated exchange in which Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. The encounter is often known as the Huxley-Wilberforce debate or the Wilberforce-Huxley debate.
No verbatim account of the debate exists, and there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding what Huxley and Wilberforce actually said.
The idea of transmutation of species was very controversial in the first half of the nineteenth century, seen as contrary to religious orthodoxy and a threat to the social order, but welcomed by Radicals seeking to widen democracy and overturn the aristocratic hierarchy. The anonymous publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844 brought a storm of controversy, but attracted a wide readership and became a bestseller. At the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Oxford in May 1847, the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce used his Sunday sermon at St. Mary's Church on "the wrong way of doing science" to deliver a stinging attack obviously aimed at its author, Robert Chambers, in a church "crowded to suffocation" with geologists, astronomers and zoologists. The scientific establishment remained hostile to the ideas, but the book had converted a vast popular audience.
Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published on 24 November 1859 to wide debate and controversy. The influential biologist Richard Owen wrote an extremely hostile anonymous review of the book in the Edinburgh Review, and also coached the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, who wrote an anonymous 17,000-word review in the Quarterly Review.
Thomas Huxley, who was one of the small group with whom Darwin had shared his theory before publication, emerged as the main champion of evolution. He wrote a favourable review of the Origin in The Times in December 1859, along with several other articles and a lecture at the Royal Institution in February 1860.
The reaction of orthodox churchmen was hostile, but their attention was diverted in February 1860 by a much greater furore over the publication of Essays and Reviews by seven liberal theologians. Amongst them, the reverend Baden Powell had already praised evolutionary ideas, and in his essay he commended "Mr. Darwin's masterly volume" for substantiating "the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature".
The controversy was at the centre of attention when the British Association for the Advancement of Science convened a meeting at the new Oxford University Museum of Natural History in June 1860. On Thursday 28 June, Charles Daubeny read a paper "On the final causes of the sexuality in plants, with particular reference to Mr. Darwin's work...." Owen and Huxley were both in attendance, and a debate erupted over Darwin's theory. Wilberforce agreed to address the meeting on Saturday morning, and there was expectation that he would repeat his success at scourging evolutionary ideas as at the 1847 meeting. Huxley was initially reluctant to engage Wilberforce in a public debate about evolution, but Robert Chambers persuaded him not to desert the cause. The reverend Baden Powell would have been on the platform, but he had died of a heart attack on 11 June.
The discussion was chaired by John Stevens Henslow, Darwin's former mentor from Cambridge. It has been suggested that Owen arranged for Henslow to chair the discussion "hoping to make the expected defeat of Darwin the more complete". The main focus of the meeting was supposed to be a lecture by New York University's John William Draper, "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". By all accounts, Draper's presentation was long and boring. After Draper had finished, Henslow called on several other speakers, including Benjamin Brodie, the President of the Royal Society, before it was Wilberforce's turn.
In a letter to his brother Edward, Alfred Newton wrote:
According to Lucas, "Wilberforce, contrary to the central tenet of the legend, did not prejudge the issue", but he is in a minority on this, as Jenson makes clear. Wilberforce criticised Darwin's theory on ostensibly scientific grounds, arguing that it was not supported by the facts, and he noted that the greatest names in science were opposed to the theory. Nonetheless, Wilberforce's speech is generally only remembered today for his inquiry as to whether it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that Huxley considered himself descended from a monkey.
When Huxley heard this he whispered to Brodie, "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands". Huxley then rose to defend Darwin's theory, finishing his speech with the now-legendary assertion that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. This apparently had a tremendous effect on the audience, and Lady Brewster is said to have fainted.
Next, Henslow called upon Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who had been Darwin's captain and companion on the voyage of the Beagle twenty-five years earlier. FitzRoy denounced Darwin's book and, "lifting an immense Bible first with both hands and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man".
The last person to speak was Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin's friend and botanical mentor. According to Hooker, it was he and not Huxley who delivered the most effective reply to Wilberforce's arguments: "Sam was shut up—had not one word to say in reply, and the meeting was dissolved forthwith" Ruse claims that "everybody enjoyed himself immensely and all went cheerfully off to dinner together afterwards".
It is said that during the debate, two Cambridge dons happened to be standing near Wilberforce, one of whom was Henry Fawcett, the recently-blinded economist. Fawcett was asked whether he thought the bishop had actually read the Origin of Species. "Oh no, I would swear he has never read a word of it", Fawcett reportedly replied loudly. Wilberforce swung round to him scowling, ready to recriminate, but stepped back and bit his toungue on noting that the protagonist was the blind economist. (See p. 126 of Janet Browne (2003) Charles Darwin: The Power of Place.)
Though the debate is frequently depicted as a clash between religion and science, a case could be made for saying that for the many clerics in the audience, the underlying conflict was between traditional Anglicanism (Wilberforce) and liberal Anglicanism (Essays and Reviews). Many of the opponents of Darwin's theory were respected men of science: Owen was one of the most influential British biologists of his generation; Adam Sedgwick was a leading geologist; Wilberforce was a Fellow of the Royal Society (though at that time about half of the Fellows were well-placed amateurs). Darwin, Huxley and Hooker were professionals who concentrated on the advance of scientific knowledge, and were determined not to be baulked by religious authority. Their kind of science was to grow and flourish, and to become (for good or ill) largely autonomous from religious tradition.
The debate has been called "one of the great stories of the history of science" and it is often regarded as a key moment in the acceptance of evolution. Brooke argues that "the event almost completely disappeared from public awareness until it was resurrected in the 1890s as an appropriate tribute to a recently deceased hero of scientific education". Without question, the debate marked the moment when it became clear that Darwinism could not be suppressed the way similar ideas had been earlier in the nineteenth century (see Lawrence; Vestiges of Creation).