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Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate (review)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 210-212 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0027

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Of Apes and Ancestors provides a useful introduction to the debate at the Oxford meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science that followed the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, in November 1859. The debate itself, which took place on 30 June 1860, has become the stuff of legend. The hall was packed, the crowd eager for a show, and they were not disappointed. At the end of an hour, the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, was just one more of Huxley's "extinguished theologians." Or so the story goes.

Historians have long known that the actual events were not like this at all—a shame, because it makes a great story. Huxley's voice didn't fill the hall, many thought the bishop had the best of the argument in any case, and Hooker thought that it was he, not Huxley, who had carried the day for the Darwinians. To those of us who like a good story, these are inconvenient truths, but truths nonetheless, and Hesketh gives us a quick run through the people and the playbook to show that history is more complex than the usual story, and a lot more interesting, too, if a little less fun.

Hesketh reminds us that the Oxford debate was important for the science versus religion issue in the 1860s but also as a way into complex denominational concerns. The "Tractarian" Oxford Movement and the Evangelicals were almost united in their opposition to both Essays and Reviews and the Broad Church Movement, which was championed by Frederick Maurice and Charles Kingsley, among others. It was Kingsley who led the Anglican embrace of evolution, who argued that belief in miracles was bad theology, and who wrote to Darwin that Origin had given him an even greater conception of the deity than he had previously held.

To introduce these issues, Hesketh gives us four quick biographical vignettes. Darwin is as anxious as ever, fearful of his wife's Evangelicalism. Wilberforce, a man who never could step out from under his father's own Evangelicalism, struggled to understand the divine reason for his beloved wife's early death (the loss was devastating but made Wilberforce the man he was). The third vignette concerns the bulldog: Huxley's story, as we know from Adrian Desmond's work, was no less complex, or heart-rending. A Royal medalist for his scientific achievements at a young age, Huxley struggled for years to gain a scientific position, only to see a great many lesser lights rise on the strength of their connections. Following Desmond, Hesketh notes that Huxley was driven to embrace evolution as much in opposition to the anatomist Richard Owen, who quickly went from being a mentor to a lifelong rival, as in support of Darwin. Indeed, Owen's highly critical review of Origin was an open and personal attack not only upon Darwin, whose credentials Owen questioned, but upon Huxley and Hooker as well. If Huxley wanted to fight it out, then Owen would not deny him. The final vignette concerns Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin's closest friend and confidant. The initial doubts he had about Darwin's theory were more methodological than theological—Hooker shared a view of the latter similar to Kingsley's. After long consideration, Hooker had been convinced, not by the power of Darwin's argument alone but by his own careful observation of plants. This was to prove significant for his ability to convince others.

Following the introduction of the dramatis personae, Hesketh gives a brief account of the debate itself, which, aside from acknowledging that it was Hooker who made the most convincing argument, even if Huxley made better quips, is standard fare. In the final chapter, Hesketh gets to the point: the life of the debate after the event. Important here are not only the various "lives and letters" or the very many histories of Darwinian victory but also televised and documentary accounts. Even the audio recording of the exhibit at Downe House plays fast and loose with the facts. Professional historians have tended to downplay the debate's drama in search of its true contemporary importance, making the debate little...

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