Wilberforce really did confront Huxley with his ape comment!

Author’s note: June 30, 1860 was the date of the famous (and much-misrepresented) ‘debate’ between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at Oxford University. We presented our first article on this in 2009, re-featured in 2019, and it is available as a historical archive.

Recent digitization of newspaper articles from 160+ years ago,1 has given us new information, which puts a very different perspective on the debate. This information was unavailable when the late Prof. J.R. Lucas wrote his paper,2 which we originally endorsed. Hence the need for a new article now on our part.


 commons.wikimedia.org, Ethan Doyle Whiteoxford-university-museum-library
The Oxford University Museum Library, where the famous ‘debate’ was held in 1860.

Thomas Henry Huxley, biologist and anthropologist, is probably best known today for his ‘debate’3 with the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (son of the Christian anti-slavery politician William Wilberforce), at the 30th annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). The BAAS conference involved a week of lectures and discussion, and was held at Oxford University from 27 June to 3 July 1860.

The debate was the first meeting to be held in the newly completed Oxford University Museum Library,4 and was on 30 June, 1860. Some 700 persons crammed in, gents and ladies, the latter fluttering their white handkerchiefs in the humid atmosphere, all hoping to be entertained as well as informed by the proceedings.

Darwin’s Origin of Species had recently been published, on 24 November 1859, and the theory of evolution had both supporters and deniers at the BAAS meetings. A reporter was covering the convention for the London weekly The Press. He wrote: “The theory of Dr. [sic] Darwin … on the origin of species by natural selection, gave rise to the hottest of all debates.”5

Huxley, and Wilberforce to Huxley

On 28 June, Huxley addressed one of the meetings, and according to his own account, in the course of his speech he said: “I could not see what difference it would make to my moral responsibility if I had had an ape for a grandfather.”6

Two days later, on Saturday 30 June, Wilberforce was called on to speak by the Chairman, Professor J.S. Henslow, and did so for about 30 minutes. During this speech, Wilberforce referred to Huxley’s remark of two days earlier, and, apparently as a joke, asked Huxley the question which has become for many people the one thing they associate with the debate. According to the report in The Press of 7 July 1860: “The Bishop of Oxford … asked the Professor [Huxley] whether he would prefer a monkey for his grandfather or his grandmother.”7

Reason for lack of coverage

Concerning this, researcher Vernon Jensen wrote that this question “was, interestingly, not specified by newspaper accounts, except for the London weekly, The Press.8 Jensen also interestingly gave the reason for this lack of newspaper coverage as follows:

Thomas Huxley

“It should be observed that what may be considered a notable lack of press coverage of the convention in general or the Wilberforce–Huxley exchange in particular may be due in part to the apparently bad relationship between the British Association and the press. For instance, the reporter for Jackson’s Oxford Journal blamed the British Association for shabby treatment … ‘inasmuch as no provision is made for them [reporters] in the way of accommodation and they are compelled to get where they can and take notes under most disadvantageous circumstances; and we are informed that it is owing to this fact that the London press has scarcely had a representative on the present occasion beyond their local correspondents.’”9

Francis Darwin … Leonard Huxley … Mrs Sidgwick

That might have been the end of things, with no reason for future discussion, except for the actions of three individuals who recorded what eye-witnesses said. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Francis Darwin (in 1887) and Leonard Huxley (in 1900) revived memories of the event by including it in their biographies of their fathers. And a Mrs Sidgwick, writing under the pseudonym ‘Grandmother’, published her reminiscences in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1898.

Francis Darwin informed his readers of a quote from Charles Lyell: “The Bishop asked whether Huxley was related by this grandfather’s or grandmother’s side to an ape.”10

Leonard Huxley gave his readers Rev. W.H. Freemantle’s Wilberforce quote: “I should like to ask Professor Huxley … as to his belief in being descended from an ape. Is it on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side that the ape ancestry comes in?”11 

Leonard Huxley also gave Rev. A.S. Farrar’s version: “If anyone were to be willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother?”11 Farrar’s own comment was that Wilberforce’s words “did not appear vulgar, nor insolent, nor personal, but flippant”.11

Mrs Sidgwick’s reminiscence was: “… was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey?”12

Readers will note that the words used differ slightly from raconteur to raconteur, with some paraphrasing and summarising, but we accept that they represent the recollections of ear-witnesses as to what they think they heard Wilberforce say, almost 40 years before, as no verbatim account of the debate was kept. Although we do not have the exact words, History has given us the gist of what was said.

Huxley to Wilberforce

en.wikipedia.org, public domainsamuel-wilberforce
Bishop Samuel Wilberforce

Back at the debate: Thomas Huxley responded to the remarks by Wilberforce. Again, slightly different versions exist. The Press reporter wrote that Huxley said: “he would much rather have a monkey for his grandfather than a man who could indulge in jokes on such a subject.”13

Huxley himself, in his letter to his friend Dr Dyster, written about two months after the 1860 BAAS meetings, gave a somewhat expanded version: “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 and influence and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”14

We note that Huxley, in the three quotes attributed to him (one on 28 June, one on 30 June, and this one 2 months later), used the word ‘grandfather’ but not the word ‘grandmother’, in any of them.

Alfred Newton’s testimony

One of the scientists present at the meeting on 30 June 1860 was Alfred Newton (Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University from 1866 to 1907). In a letter to his brother Edward Newton, dated July 25, 1860, Alfred Newton described what he witnessed as follows:

“Referring to what Huxley had said two days before, about after all its not signifying to him whether he was descended from a Gorilla or not, the Bp. [Bishop] chaffed [teased] him and asked whether he had a preference for the descent being on the father’s or the mother’s side? This gave Huxley the opportunity of saying that he would sooner claim kindred with an Ape than with a man like the Bp. who made so ill an use of his wonderful speaking powers to try and burke [suppress], by a display of authority, a free discussion on what was, or was not, a matter of truth … .”15

Comment censored

Forward to present times: On 28 June 2017, The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science (RSJHS) published an article by Richard England titled “Censoring Huxley and Wilberforce: A new source for the meeting that the Athenaeum ‘wisely softened down’.”16 This article states that in mid-July 1860, the British magazine The Athenaeum published a summary of the discussions about Darwin’s theory at Oxford, but omitted the exchange between Wilberforce and Huxley. It says it “was censored to remove material that was considered objectionable.” (p. 371) It goes on to say: “The most common explanation for this curious omission is that the event was not particularly significant to the audience in 1860, and that it was only after it was enshrined in the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887) that it gained iconic status.” (p. 372)

Comment recovered

However, the RSJHS article goes on to say:

“On 21 July 1860, the Oxford Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette, a liberal penny weekly, published a much more detailed account, which appears to be closer to the unexpurgated source used by the Athenaeum. … [I]t is much longer, particularly in its reporting of the comments of Huxley and Wilberforce. It describes the famous question and response, setting them in the context of the discussion as a whole, and it also includes a follow-up exchange between Wilberforce and Huxley that focuses on the question of scientific authority. (p. 372) Its inclusion of details about audience reactions also gives a much better sense of the agency of the crowd in responding to and shaping the discussion that day. … Its existence also confirms the view that the Athenaeum account is a censored version of the events, intended to suppress the sharpness of the conflict between champions of science and faith.” (p. 373)

“The Oxford Chronicle account, unlike that in the Athenaeum, echoes the raucousness and rudeness of the exchange that is hinted at in other brief contemporary accounts as well as in much later recollections of people who were there. The Bishop’s question, in this version … rhetorically puts Huxley’s grandparents in bed with apes … .” (p. 378)

Author Richard England suggested: “Set side by side, it appears that the material absent from the Athenaeum account was excised from an original that must have looked much like what appeared a week later in the Oxford Chronicle.” (p. 379)

England also quoted a comment in the Publisher’s Circular for 17 July 1860 which stated: “Our journals have wisely ‘softened down’ the sharpness of the feud. However someone involved in the composition of the original report … seems to have felt that the full story was worth publishing, and supplied it to the Oxford Chronicle.” (p. 380)

Richard England concluded:

“[T]he arguments, jokes, and laughter that the Athenaeum omitted, and that old men and women much later recalled, were not simply retrospective embellishments, but central experiences which did not easily make their way into print in 1860. … There was a set-to [argument] in which a professor and a bishop were humorously rude to one another, one which overstepped the boundaries of polite debate. As one observer noted, ‘the proprieties of the Association have been outraged.’ Such harsh language as Wilberforce and Huxley had used did not belong in an official report. When Francis Darwin and Leonard Huxley wrote the biographies of their famous fathers many years later, they took up the encounter not so much to mythologize the conflict between science and religion, as to recover an aspect of a meeting which contemporary sensibilities had expunged from the authoritative record of the discussion at the time.” (p. 382)


The evidence of those present at the meetings is that Huxley (first), then (two days later) Wilberforce and then Huxley again, did make statements in accord with the words attributed to them. Without the procreative aspect involved, all three statements could be seen as frivolous banter, not worth either putting in, or deliberately excluding from, any newspaper accounts at the time, nor of ‘softening down’ in the official report, nor of accusing Wilberforce of rude or offensive behaviour. However, the fact that these ‘adjustments’ were deemed necessary by those who did them, upholds the factuality of what was claimed to be said, with Wilberforce unfortunately ‘caught up in the moment’.

Our conclusion

We conclude that contemporary reports, recently unearthed by digitization of nineteenth-century periodicals, show that the incident did occur. We suggest that writers of modern accounts, who were not there but who say the famous exchange did not happen because there were no reports for about 40 years, need to revise their conclusions, as we have done.

Published: 2 August 2022

References and notes

  1. E.g., the London weekly The Press for 7 July 1860 was digitized and made available at some time between 2 October 2019 and 17 February 2022, according to the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). Return to text.
  2. Lucas, J.R., Wilberforce and Huxley: a legendary Encounter, The Historical Journal 22(2):313–330, 1979. Return to text.
  3. Commonly called a ‘debate’, it was an animated public discussion, with Professor J.S. Henslow as Chairman, but without time limits for speakers or a vote as to the winner, as in current debates. Return to text.
  4. For an informative independent summary of the conference, see “Return to the Wilberforce—Huxley Debate” in The British Journal for the History of Science, 21(2):161–179 (Jun. 1988), written by J. Vernon Jensen. Return to text.
  5. The Press, p. 656, 7 July 1860. (Darwin did not have a doctorate.) Return to text.
  6. Huxley, T.H., Letters and Diary 1860, Letter to Frederick Dyster, 9 September 1860. Return to text.
  7. Ref. 4, p. 166, quoting The Press, p. 656, 7 July 1860. Return to text.
  8. Ref. 4, p. 166, (Vernon Jensen’s comment). Return to text.
  9. Ref. 4, pp. 170-71, quoting Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 30 June 1860, p. 5. Return to text.
  10. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2, pp. 321-22, 1887. Return to text.
  11. Ref. 4, p. 167, Footnote 54. Return to text.
  12. Ref. 4, p. 167, Footnote 55, which quotes Macmillan’s Magazine, October, 1898, p. 443. Return to text.
  13. The Press, p. 656, 7 July 1860. Return to text.
  14. Ref. 4, p. 168 (quoting Huxley). Return to text.
  15. Wollaston, A.F.R., Life of Alfred Newton, Late Professor of Comparative Anatomy, Cambridge University, 18661907, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1921, p. 119–120 . Return to text.
  16. England, R., Censoring Huxley and Wilberforce: A new source for the meeting that the Athenaeum ‘wisely softened down’, The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 28 June 2017. Page-number references to portions quoted have been included in the article text. Return to text.