THE OXFORD MEETING.



After the publication of The Origin, Darwin shied away from public confrontations his book has initiated. He much preferred to leave that kind of thing to his friends, especially to Huxley who was more than willing to defend Darwin before the public. For this reason he was given the nickname, the “Bulldog of Darwin.” In June 1860 a public debate was held at Oxford by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. At this meeting the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, attempted to ridicule Darwin. This attempt failed and resulted in shambles, partly because the Bishop appeared to be quite ignorant about the contents of the book, and partly because Huxley was the one to confront him. In addition to Wilberforce and Huxley, Richard Owen the anatomist who supplied Wilberforce with ammunition against Darwin, then Darwin’s good friends Professor Henslow and botanist Hooker were also present at the meeting. Robert FitzRoy, the former captain of the Beagle was also there to read a paper on British Storms. Darwin, because of ill health, could not come.
Alan Moorehead in his book on The Voyage of the Beagle describes the meeting delightfully. Soon enough, Wilberforce, also known as “Soapy Sam” plunged into his speech and ridiculed Darwin's ideas on evolution which went flatly against the divine revelation in the Bible. At the height of his peroration he turned to Huxley and asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he descended from an ape. People around Huxley could hear him mutter: "The Lord has delivered him into my hands." Then he stood up and replied to the Bishop's insolent question that he was not ashamed of having descended from an ape but would be ashamed of an ancestor who used the gifts of eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehoods as the Bishop has done. An uproar ensued, the undergraduates cheered and shouted, the clergy angrily demanded an apology, and the ladies on their window seats fluttered their handkerchiefs in consternation. "One of them, a Lady Brewster, collapsed from shock and had to be carried out."

All this sounds like a soap opera from the XIXth century. And so it was. Unfortunately the Oxford Meeting was only the beginning of a long and bitter controversy carried into our present times.

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