The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate, Oxford 1860

Lennox takes pains to show that at the time of the debate there was no clearly acknowledged victor. Both men felt they’d won, both had supporters to this claim, both had opponents to this claim and popular reporting from the time felt it about even or failed to mention it at all. He then cites Frank James’ theory that Huxley may have been perceived victorious because Wilberforce was not well-liked. Up until this point Lennox has made a very firm case for his point that this debate that is often thought of as science vs. religion is in fact about something else. But then his even-handedness falters:

Once more, institutional power played a key role. Huxley was on a crusade to ensure the supremacy of the emerging new class of professional scientists against the privileged position of clerics, however intellectually gifted. He wanted to make sure that is was the scientists who wielded the levers of power. The legend of a conquered bishop slain by a professional scientist suited that crusade, and it was exploited to the full (28).

Now institutional power may well have been a factor, and if it was then it ties very nicely to the preceding section about Galileo and the Aristotelean worldview, but Lennox’s evidence for this is obscured. I’ve reread the section several times and Huxley’s ‘crusade’ is hitherto unmentioned, let alone that Huxley ‘exploited’ this. Lennox does cite Michael Poole in the paragraph after this, but that is to say that a central element in Huxley’s crusade is the concept of ‘Nature’. With the separation of the paragraph it is not clear if Poole is the source for Huxley’s crusade and exploitation of the situation, or whether Poole’s point is in addition to some other source.

Lennox is careful to paint the Christian Wilberforce in a most positive light by telling the reader that after the debate Wilberforce wrote a 50-page review of “The Origin of the Species” that Darwin found ‘uncommonly clever’, and that he wanted the debate to be on purely scientific grounds. But then he tars the agnostic Huxley with at best sloppily cited and at worst not cited claims of crusades and exploitation. Lennox’s version of Huxley may well be true and accurate, but Lennox is a better writer than this. Reread the section yourself and see if you come to a similar or different conclusion.

One thought on “The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate, Oxford 1860

  1. Marco

    I must agree with you on this one – Not being really familiar with the circumstances of Huxley vs Wilberforce, he doesn’t make clear what he means about the institutional powers in play and the “crusade” other than Huxley using Nature with a capital N. I guess he means that Huxley deified Nature to capture the spiritual appeal of science away from theism. Ironically, Dawkins also cited Huxley’s philosophy in derision from the opposite angle in regards to his agnosticism. Crusades and exploitation appears harsh without additional evidence – the worst that could be said given his evidence is of “evangelising Nature” – successfully.


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