He Almost Scooped Darwin

In June 1860, Thomas Henry Huxley was planning to depart early from the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Scheduled for the next day at the Oxford meeting was a discussion of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which had appeared seven months earlier and was causing a stir in Britain and much of the rest of the Western world. While walking on the street, Huxley—who was one of the rising young stars of British biology—happened to meet Robert Chambers, a successful Edinburgh publisher. When Chambers learned that Huxley was not going to attend the expected showdown over Darwin’s controversial theory, he “broke out into vehement remonstrances” and accused Huxley of “deserting” the Darwinians. Moved by Chambers’s ardent appeal, Huxley had a change of heart, and the Darwinian revolution took a dramatic turn.

What happened the next day has become one of the legendary episodes in the history of science. An audience of between seven hundred and one thousand people attended the meeting, including some of the most distinguished scientists in Britain. Following a lengthy, pro-Darwinian paper, Samuel Wilberforce, the slickly eloquent bishop of Oxford, began a half-hour-long attack on Darwinian theory. With glib lines like “Is it credible that a turnip strives to become a man?,” Wilberforce’s speech met with peals of sympathetic laughter, and his rhetoric hit home. Finally he turned to Huxley, who was seated near him on the speaker’s platform, and asked him whether it was on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side that he claimed descent from an ape.

Slapping his thigh and turning to the man seated next to him, Huxley muttered, “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.” He then rose to give a spirited, point-by-point rebuttal of the bishop’s ill-informed attack. He saved the best for last:

[Asked] if I would 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.

Such was the amalgam of wit and ferocity that later led Huxley to proclaim himself “Darwin’s bulldog.”

Although eyewitnesses were divided about who won that day, one relevant fact is no longer in dispute. The contributions of Robert Chambers, whose chance encounter with Huxley helped to turn the tide of public opinion in Darwin’s favor, went well beyond the 1860 debate. For the previous sixteen years, Chambers had done more to prepare the way for the Darwinian revolution than any of Darwin’s most energetic defenders.

Unknown to most of his countrymen (although suspected by some), Chambers was the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. This extraordinary book, which first appeared in 1844, presented an evolutionary account of the origins of the stars, the solar system, life on earth, and …

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