Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 30, 1860 --- Darwin's Bulldog

A famous clash between Religion and Science takes place at Oxford. Less than a year after publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the British Association for the Advancement of Science hosts a discussion on the theory of evolution.

Ironically, one of the first speakers is Admiral Fitzroy, commander of Darwin's research vessel, the Beagle. The old sailor confesses the "acutest pain" over his role in the development of such an ungodly idea. He would later shoot himself in his London townhouse.

The main event, so to speak, however, is a debate featuring the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce and the biologist, T.H. Huxley (right), who stands in for the reclusive Darwin. The Bishop, a bluff, good-humored man (nicknamed "Soapy Sam" for his habitual hand-washing motion while speaking), had told friends he was eager "to smash Darwin." Concluding his assault, the Bishop turns to Huxley and inquires: "Is it on his grandfather's or grandmother's side that the ape ancestry comes in?"

While the crowd of 700 roars, Huxley, rising to respond, whispers to a friend: "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands." Huxley's reply is devastating: "If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man - a man of restless and versatile intellect - who, not content with success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice."

A hitherto unfriendly audience, stunned briefly, erupts in wild applause. A woman (Lady Brewster, they say) faints amid the tumult. Huxley, who attended with reluctance, left with a new nickname - "Darwin's bulldog" - and a belief in "the practical value of public speaking ... I should carefully cultivate it, and try to leave off hating it."

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