February 25, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

History Highlight: The Two Wilberforces

Those seeing the new movie Amazing Grace (opened Feb 2, 2007) about England’s long political battle to end slavery may not realize the family connection of the film’s hero with the controversy over Darwinism. William Wilberforce, the champion of abolition who brought an end to the slave trade as depicted in the film, had a son, Samuel, who became a leader in the fight against Darwinism in 1860. The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce stood strong not only against the rising tide of liberal theology in the mid-19th century, but took particular umbrage at Darwin’s “flimsy speculation” as he called it. He wrote a strident review against The Origin of Species for the Quarterly Review that really got under Charles Darwin’s skin. Darwin recognized the input of his arch-foe, Richard Owen, director of the British Museum, the leading paleontologist of the day.

Bishop Wilberforce was at the focal point of a pivotal event in the rise of Darwinism. At a lively series of lectures at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford, just months after the publication of Darwin’s Origin, Wilberforce faced off against Thomas Huxley in a famous interchange about evolution. Contrary to later depictions of the event as a victory of Huxley’s rationalist science against Wilberforce’s theological dogmatism, each side felt they had made the better case. Wilberforce, not only a theologian but a professor of mathematics, spoke for nearly half an hour before Huxley. Apparently he got strong support from the audience. It is highly doubtful he uttered an insulting jibe about Huxley’s ape ancestry as later revisionists alleged, or that Huxley delivered a devastating counter-thrust. In fact, Huxley and Wilberforce both acted on amicable terms of mutual respect after the episode.1 Darwin himself, though, glad that illness prevented his attendance at the meeting, told Huxley, “I would as soon have died as tried to answer the Bishop in such an assembly.” He probably would have also had died to have heard his former Beagle captain FitzRoy at the meeting giving an impassioned denunciation of the evolutionary views of the erstwhile shipboard naturalist.

Many came to the meeting lusting for a fight over the new evolutionary views. Activists on both sides tended to hear what they wanted to hear and report it accordingly. Unfortunately for Wilberforce and other theists, the apparent progress of materialist science (as evidence through industrial progress), coupled with discontent over established religion, combined to give Darwin’s views a more “trendy” air that appealed especially to young scientists. Darwin’s aides capitalized on this in a rapid-fire sequence of articles, attacks, pamphlets, new journals and other publicity strategies in the days following the June meeting at Oxford. Within 10 years, most opposition to evolution had been swept away.2 Throughout his life, Bishop Wilberforce continued to be an adamant opponent of Darwinism. His prestige and trenchant criticisms gave the father of evolution fits. See also the postscript in an article about Amazing Grace by Jonathan Sarfati on Creation on the Web and an analysis of the urban legend by a pro-evolution writer, J.R. Lucas.


1This was also apparently the meeting where Huxley presented his famous “monkeys and typewriters” illustration that has also become an urban legend. It is not at all credible that Wilberforce, a mathematics professor, was stupefied by Huxley’s imaginative story as often depicted. See the article by Russell Grigg on CMI.
2The event also took place during a sea change in natural science. A new class of researchers dubbed “scientists” by Anglican priest and historian William Whewell in 1834 was beginning to carve out its turf. Formerly “natural philosophers” who worked either from their independent means or within church-run academic institutions, this growing class was seeking academic respectability and a unique professional domain (and the auspices of the universities). Darwin’s theory came just at the time the “scientist” was emerging as a new kind of professional animal. Historian of science Lawrence Principe, for example, has emphasized this very period as a kind of turf war for the emerging scientist class. Books characterizing a “warfare between science and religion” became popular at this time. One particularly awful example, Principe relates in his Teaching Company series Science and Religion, was written by John Draper – who, incidentally, was the first (and a rather boring) speaker at that same British Association meeting!

Wilberforce understood better than most that Darwin’s views, if accepted, would be dangerous. He also perceived that they were less scientific than anti-Christian, relying not on evidence but on “flimsy speculations.”

Nevertheless, the Huxley-Wilberforce debate became a pivotal event in the history of science. Its effects rippled far beyond the question of how species arise. The significance of this event was described by Janet Browne, one of the most respected biographers of Darwin, in a penetrating analysis of the occasion after her depiction of the events as they unfolded on June 30, 1860 at Oxford. Notice the references to strategy, propaganda, and jockeying for position by the “Darwinites” as she calls them:

The significant thing is that a contest had taken place.  This occasion presented a clearly demarcated display of the respective powers of conflicting authorities as represented in two opposing figures. Wilberforce and Huxley were perceived as fighting over the right to explain origins—a dispute over the proper boundary between science and the church that seemed as physically real to the participants and to the audience as any territorial or geographical warfare.  Each side was convinced that its claims about the natural world were credible and trustworthy, that its procedures were the only valid account of reality.  As it happened, these opposing forces were unequally balanced in Victorian England. Science at that time held little innate authority in itself, and its status was sustained mainly through the the rhetorical exertions of its practitioners, among whom Huxley would come to shine, whereas the church was the strongest body in the nation, attracting and retaining the very best intellects of the age. Afterwards, it was rumored that Huxley’s victory for science was falsely embellished by science’s supporters. In this dispute, the challenge was clear. Any success for the Darwinian scheme would require renegotiating—often with bitter controversy—the lines to be drawn between cultural domains. Science was not yet vested with the authority that would come with the modern era. Its practitioners were exerting themselves to create professional communities, struggling to receive due acknowledgement of their expertise and the right to choose and investigate issues in their own manner. As Wilberforce demonstrated, that authority currently lay for the most part with theology. The gossip running through the crowd afterwards quickly crafted an epic narrative, a collective fiction with an inbuilt meaning much more tangible and important than reality. All felt they were witnessing history in the making.
    A public polarization of opinion had emerged.  The issue became excitingly simple. Were humans descended from monkeys or made by God?
—Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton, 2002), pp. 124-125.

Browne launched from this episode into a chapter about Darwin’s “Four Musketeers” (Huxley, Hooker, Lyell, and Asa Grey, 01/04/2004) who capitalized on this public relations bonanza.  Within a decade, through an almost master-planned campaign of smearing opponents and popularizing Darwin’s views, they pretty much won over the entire intellectual world. Now you see why J. P. Moreland said that the Darwinian revolution was primarily a movement to rid science of theology.

The supposed “warfare between science and religion” was not started by the theologians. Science and theology had a long, mutually supportive history. It was started by the Darwinites, like Americans John Draper and Andrew D. White, whose revisionist histories (Draper, 1863; White, 1896) needed to demonize churchmen in order to legitimate the Darwinian revolution. Historian Lawrence Principe emphasizes that the conflict model of the science-religion interaction is dismissed by all modern historians. For today’s Darwin Party to insist they need to defend science from creationism rings as hollow as hearing Ahmedinejad say he needs nukes for defense.

Evolutionist J. R. Lucas agrees in his analysis of the Huxley-Wilberforce interchange. “This is the most important reason why the legend grew,” he says; “At the time, Wilberforce was perfectly entitled to have an opinion about science, but in the later years of the century scientists were increasingly jealous of their autonomy, and would see in Huxley’s retort a claim they were increasingly anxious to assert.” In matters of science, effectively, the opinions of theologians were no longer welcome—an ironic outcome considering Darwin himself had but one degree—in theology!

One cannot ignore the sociopolitical and economic forces that contributed to the rise of Darwinism. Other evolutionary theories had been proposed in prior decades (Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Robert Chambers), with only a modicum of success. Why did Darwin succeed so triumphantly? Was it the genius of his theory of natural selection, and the scientific evidence he amassed to support it? Certainly his theory contained more detail and logical development, but to what extent was it a well-timed pretext for more substantive social factors to come into play?

As evidence, consider that natural selection theory fell into disrepute over the next four decades and was nearly moribund by the turn of the century. Darwin himself had to concede more to Lamarck under repeated attacks on his mechanism by other scientists. It cannot be, therefore, that evolutionism became popular because of the scientific soundness of Darwin’s mechanism.  There were highly-educated, well-trained and eminently-respected scientists who vigorously opposed Darwin’s ideas: e.g., Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s geology teacher; Richard Owen, founder and director of the British Museum; John Phillips, Oxford geology professor and president of the Geological Society of London; Louis Agassiz, one of the most famous American scientists of the period, and many others. In fact, ironically, most of the early criticisms of Darwin’s thesis came from scientists, not theologians.

Nevertheless, the vision of a “fact” of evolution (i.e., common ancestry through material mechanisms, whatever they were) rapidly took over the intellectual world right at the time three powerful social movements were in place to empower its acceptance: (1) the widespread belief in progress (evidenced by the apparent superiority of the British Empire), (2) discontent with establishment Victorian religion (with a resulting value put on secularism), and (3) the rise of the scientist class as an independent profession. Given these forces, any cause celebre that facilitated movements already underway could have been more celebre than cause. One can see how the Huxley-Wilberforce story could be blown out of proportion. It became a distortion, exploited by an avant garde ready to claim its portion by extortion.

The upshot was that science was taken captive by materialism, not by force of evidence, but by revolutionary tactics of agenda-driven advocates on a turf war against a weakened church (whose own leaders were either undermining the historical foundations of the faith, or were living lives inconsistent with the teachings of Christ). By 1874, in a presidential address to the British Association, John Tyndall had pretty much established the claim of institutionalized naturalistic science to explore anything and everything it desired, including origins, meaning and ultimate destiny, baptizing its speculations (e.g., 01/17/2007) in the name of science (see James Clerk Maxwell’s satirical poem in the 08/10/2005 commentary). This went far beyond the first limited claims by Darwin to explain the origin of species. Like communists, the Darwinites seldom concede power once they have usurped it.  That explains the histrionics of today’s professional science elites when creationism and intelligent design proponents, despite a much longer experience in natural philosophy, move to reassert rights to their historic domains of inquiry (e.g., 01/11/2007, 01/06/2007).

Samuel Wilberforce’s fight against the incipient intellectual slavery of science to materialism is another story that must be told, because the Darwinite propaganda and subterfuge continues unabated to this day. There are only preliminary signs its grip is weakening. The science of the 21st century is too big a challenge for an outdated, simplistic philosophy devised by a 19th century bearded Buddha and his disciples.

Meanwhile, go see Amazing Grace: the Movie.  It’s an excellent use of the film medium to educate and inspire. Here is a movie that brings to life a period of history that should be known by everyone.  Watching William Wilberforce struggle through the darkest days of opposition presents a sober lesson: never underestimate the lengths to which those who allow evil to exist will rationalize their positions with pragmatic and intellectual-sounding arguments – as his son Samuel Wilberforce would discover again in 1860. But never underestimate also the power of perseverance and the courage of rightly-based convictions. And, as the film illustrates, a little creativity and strategizing can help when dealing with entrenched, self-serving interests.

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