Samuel Wilberforce 
(click to enlarge). Cartoon from Vanity Fair 1869.It has to be one of the great stories of the history of science. The event we remember happened in Oxford on 30 June 1860 when the British Association for the Advancement of Science was in town. Seeking to score a point against Darwin's disciples, the Bishop of Oxford unwisely baited Thomas Henry Huxley by enquiring whether he would prefer to think of himself descended from an ape on his grandfather's or grandmother's side. According to legend he quickly had his comeuppance. Huxley whispered to a neighbour: "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands". And replying to the provocation he said that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a bishop - or words to that effect. It was rumoured that Huxley said he would rather be an ape than a bishop; but Huxley denied ever saying such a thing. What he had said was bruising enough. He was not ashamed of a simian ancestry but "he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth." Writing in Macmillan's Magazine many years later, Isabel Sidgwick recalled that "no one doubted [Huxley's] meaning, and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to be carried out; I, for one, jumped out of my seat."

Thomas Huxley (click to enlarge). Cartoon from Vanity Fair 1871. It was, it seems, a tremendous occasion. According to another report, "the room was crowded to suffocation long before the protagonists appeared on the scene, 700 persons or more managing to find places." And the report continues: "the very windows by which the room was lighted down the length of its west side were packed with ladies, whose white handkerchiefs, waving and fluttering in the air at the end of the Bishop's speech, were an unforgettable factor in the acclamation of the crowd." In yet another report Soapy Sam got what he deserved; for he had spoken for no less than half an hour with "inimitable spirit, emptiness and unfairness." Huxley's riposte was a victory for scientific professionalism over clerical interference. Or was it?

A legend in need of revision?

It is the kind of story that would have to be invented were it not true. Actually, it probably was invented –at least in part. One answer to the question why this celebrated exchange occurred at all is that it didn't – or at least that the legend is deeply misleading. Scholars who have tried to piece together what really happened have been frustrated by the paucity of contemporary comment and its lack of unanimity.

For example, on one account the Bishop's question had been rather different: it had been a joke to be sure and one that misfired, but the issue had been how far back one would have to go to trace one's animal ancestry. The image of a head-on conflict between science and the Anglican Church also turns out to be simplistic. How, for example do we account for the following fact recorded in Leonard Huxley's Life of his father? Close to a group of Huxley's sympathisers had been "one of the few men among the audience already in Holy orders, who joined in – and indeed led – the cheers for the Darwinians." At least some clerics were on Huxley's side.

One of the most distinguished of the Darwinians was Joseph Hooker, Assistant Director of Kew gardens. But to read his account of the proceedings is to meet the view that Huxley had caused hardly a stir. He had not even had the strength of voice for his stinging reply to carry. According to Hooker the person who really won the day for the Darwinians was ... Hooker! In fact, the more closely we look at the legend the more suspect it becomes. The idea that Huxley won a famous victory was not even countenanced in Leonard Huxley's heroic Life. The result of the encounter, though a check to the anti-Darwinian sceptics, could not be represented as an "immediate and complete triumph for evolutionary doctrine". This was precluded by the "character and temper of the audience, most of whom were less capable of being convinced by the arguments than shocked by the boldness of the retort." One of Huxey's most recent and empathetic biographers, Adrian Desmond, agrees that talk of a victor is ridiculous. The Athenaeum put it rather well: the Bishop and Huxley "have each found foemen worthy of their steel, and made their charges and countercharges very much to their own satisfaction and the delight of their respective friends."

There is an additional, perhaps surprising, reason why we should not speak of victors. Instead of anti-Darwinians being converted by either Huxley or Hooker, we know that at least one Darwinian was de-converted in the debate. This was Henry Baker Tristram, one of the first to apply Darwin's principle of natural selection. Tristram had been fascinated by the phenomenon of camouflage – how the desert larks of North Africa, for example, were of a darker hue than those of more favoured districts. Competition between lighter and darker birds gave him the answer, as the darker would be less visible to desert predators. Tristram had been converted by another naturalist, Alfred Newton, whose own conversion to Darwinism reminds us that conversion is not an experience confined to the religious. Newton recalled that "it came to me like the direct revelation of a higher power; and I awoke next morning with the consciousness that there was an end of all the mystery in the simple phrase 'Natural Selection'." But Newton also tells us that his one convert , Tristram, soon sank into apostasy. The occasion was the Wilberforce-Huxley debate. Apparently Tristram "waxed exceedingly wroth as the discussion went on and declared himself more and more anti-Darwinian." So much for Huxley's victory. Far from any lasting significance, 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. That delicious remark, "the Lord hath delivered him into mine hands", was probably a retrospective invention of that decade. There is, to my knowledge, no reference to it in the few contemporary reports. Once the story began to gather momentum as a result of the Life and Letters (of Darwin and Hooker as well as Huxley) it took on the aspect of a foundation myth – one of the defining moments of an emerging scientific professionalism.

The question of speaking out

Does this mean we are dealing with a damp squib? Not exactly because, whatever the precise terms of the debate, there were serious issues involved. There were questions of cultural authority and questions of etiquette. There were questions about the autonomy of the sciences and about the freedom to speak one's mind. Leonard Huxley denied that his father had scored a victory, but he concluded his account with an up-beat message:

The importance of the Oxford meeting lay in the open resistance that was made to authority, at a moment when even a drawn battle was hardly less effectual than acknowledged victory. Instead of being crushed under ridicule, the new theories secured a hearing, all the wider, indeed, for the startling nature of their defence.

Consider for a moment this business of speaking out. There is reference to it in a letter Darwin wrote to Huxley some three weeks after the event. Charles Darwin (click to enlarge) "From all that I hear from several quarters, it seems that Oxford did the subject great good. It is of enormous importance, the showing the world that a few first-rate men are not afraid of expressing their opinion." There is a certain poignancy in that remark given Darwin's own reluctance to go public. In their absorbing biography, Adrian Desmond and James Moore point out that much of Darwin's illness may have stemmed from the psychological burden of harbouring a theory he could not release. To have published during the early 1840s, when a draft of the theory had already been written, would have been painful to members of his family. It might have tainted a growing scientific reputation with materialism and political radicalism. By the Summer of 1860 he had, of course, gone public, but he was to remain grateful when others fought his battles for him. Darwin to Huxley 3 July 1860: "I honour your pluck; I would as soon have died as tried to answer the bishop in such an assembly". Darwin would as soon have died many times before he eventually did.

We do sometimes forget the social pressures that could lead to repression. It was not merely that to speak out on matters of religion was to risk ostracism. It was part of the culture of a scientific gentleman – certainly earlier in the century – that one would not press one's heterodoxy if by so doing one injured the faith of more sensitive brethren. The risks were still real in 1860. Here is Hooker writing to Darwin in 1865: "It is all very well for Wallace to wonder at scientific men being afraid of saying what they think… Had he as many kind and good relations as I have, who would be grieved and pained to hear me say what I think, and had he children who would be placed in predicaments most detrimental to children's minds…he would not wonder so much." On the subject of human antiquity the balance was still so delicate in the early 1860s that Hugh Falconer could find relief in the reflection that it was he, and not the likes of Soapy Sam who had exposed the modernity of an Abbeville jaw: "had the exposé been made by the enemy", Falconer wrote, "the whole subject would have been put back quarter of a century."

Huxley himself was not insensitive to the subject of what it was appropriate to say in public. There was part of him which cautioned restraint. On June 28, two days before his encounter with Wilberforce, Huxley had been present at another session of the "British Asses" as they were affectionately called. He had heard Oxford's Professor of Chemistry, Charles Daubeny, deliver a paper on "the final causes of the sexuality of plants, with particular reference to Mr. Darwin's work on the Origin of Species." Huxley had been invited to enter the discussion but had shown no enthusiasm to do so on the ground "that a general audience, in which sentiment would unduly interfere with intellect, was not the public before which such a discussion should be carried on." But there was also a part of Huxley that could not be suppressed – especially when provoked by Richard Owen. More on Owen later, but at that Thursday meeting he had expressed his view that the brain of a gorilla was so different from the brain of a man that a continuity premised on the action of natural selection had to be suspect. Not so for Huxley whose brain had been making a special study of brains. He had found himself, after all, on his feet, flatly contradicting the superintendent of the natural history departments at the British Museum. This battle over brains was to become fiercely acrimonious over the next couple of years. Perceptions of what happened on the Saturday meeting of the British Association cannot be detached from what had occurred on the Thursday. Among the inner circle of Darwinians, it was supposed that Owen and Wilberforce were in league and that the bishop had been coached by England's Cuvier. "Hooker tells me", Darwin wrote to Huxley, "Hooker tells me you fought nobly with Owen ... and that you answered the B. of O. capitally." Note that Huxley had answered the bishop but that his fight had been with Owen. We shall see later that the confrontation between Huxley and Wilberforce cannot be reduced to a simple clash between science and religion. The bishop enrolled eminent scientists of the day in his critique of Darwin's theory. He was talking to the scientists and listening to them. Darwin's mentor, the geologist Charles Lyell, reported that he had had "a good half hour's argument with the Bishop of Oxford" who thought Darwin's book "the most unphilosophical he had ever read."

One thing does emerge from these primary sources. Whatever construction we place on the event there was clearly a commotion of a kind. Let us look at some deeper reasons for it.