Sunday, August 19, 2007
As the nickname "Darwin's bulldog" would suggest, Huxley was an outspoken defender and advocate for Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Perhaps surprisingly, he was at first an opponent of any evolutionary change at all, believing that the living world had stayed much the same for as far back as its history could be traced, and that modern taxa would eventually be found in the oldest rocks. But he came to accept evolutionary views: his reaction to reading the Origin of Species was "How stupid of me not to have thought of that."
He is best known for his famous debate in June 1860, at the British Association meeting at Oxford. His opponent, Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce, was not-so-affectionately known as "Soapy Sam" for his renowned slipperiness in debate. Wilberforce was coached against Huxley by Richard Owen. During the debate, Archbishop Wilberforce ridiculed evolution and asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother's side or his grandfather's. Accounts vary as to exactly what happened next, but according to one telling of the story, Huxley muttered "The Lord hath delivered him into my hands," and then rose to give a brilliant defense of Darwin's theory, concluding with the rejoinder, "I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth." Huxley's own retelling of the tale was a little different, and quite a bit less dramatic:
If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape. All accounts agree that Huxley trounced Wilberforce in the debate, defending evolution as the best explanation yet advanced for species diversity.