This article is from
Creation 13(1):33, December 1990

Browse our latest digital issue Subscribe

Did Wilberforce say it?

Writers dealing with the famous debate between Huxley and Wilberforce often repeat the story that the Bishop, towards the end of his speech, turned to Huxley and asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey?

Huxley, in reply, is supposed to have said, that he was not ashamed of having a monkey as an ancestor, but he would be ashamed of having as an ancestor a man who used his abilities in a sphere of science with which he had no real acquaintance and used aimless rhetoric in an appeal to religious prejudice.

J.R. Lucas sums up the evidence for and against this story in a long article in The Historical Journal,1 summarized in Nature.2 He points out that the audience was ‘larger than a full House of Commons’,3 which means that, in the noisy and somewhat gladiatorial circumstances of this debate, not everyone would have heard everything that was said, or have correctly heard everything that was said.

Of Wilberforce’s science, as presented in the debate, he says, ‘These were serious scientific arguments, worthy of a vice-president of the British Association. Darwin acknowledged their cogency.’

He goes on to say, ‘It is doubtful that Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape. It makes a good story, but Wilberforce had used the first person plural in his review, and the use of the first person is borne out by Wilberforce’s biography and one—admittedly late—account. What Wilberforce may have asked Huxley in the second person is where he drew the line between human descendants and ape-like ancestors, if, as was generally admitted, the offspring was of the same species as the parents. [Reference: Huxley, L, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, Vol. i, 185, quoting Vernon Harcourt]…Huxley, however, was ready to answer the question he had not been asked. Three months earlier, in the April issue of the Westminster Review, he had accused the critics of Darwin of making him out to be no better than an ape himself, and since Wilberforce was now criticizing him for being a Darwinian, he must be calling him an ape too.’

It would seem therefore that Wilberforce did not try to ridicule Huxley, but rather the reverse was actually what happened. If so, it gives a very different picture of what really occurred at this famous debate.


  1. Lucas, J.R., ‘Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 22, 1979, pp. 313-330.
  2. Lucas, J.R., ‘Wilberforce no ape’, Nature, Vol. 287, 9 October 1980, p. 480.
  3. Ref. 1, page 317.