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Wilberforce and Huxley on ‘Yo Momma’ and Ape Ancestry

In the course of a debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Huxley, in which Huxley defended the doctrine of evolution, the Bishop said: “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?” Then, in a graver tone, he asserted that the views of Huxley were contrary to the revelations of Scripture. In the course of his refutation Huxley said: “I asserted — and I repeat — that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were any ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man who plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and to distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.”

[Editor: This account of Samuel (not William) Wilberforce’s attempt at mockery and Huxley’s forceful rejoinder is, apparently, a myth. David N. Livingstone argues: “It is indeed impossible to know exactly what went on in the Oxford Natural History Museum that summer day, and much of the story as it has come down to us is a fabrication. It was stitched together many years after the event and is largely the product of the big Victorian biographies of the likes of Darwin…” (“Huxley Defeated Wilberforce In Their Debate” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Ronald L. Numbers, ed. (Harvard University Press: 2009), p. 155.) Indeed, in Wilberforce’s review of Origin of Species, to which we do have access, he is apparently at ease with a humble descent: “Newton’s patient philosophy taught him to find in the falling apple the law which governs the silent movements of the stars in their courses; and if Mr. Darwin can with the same correctness of reasoning demonstrate to us our fungular descent, we shall dismiss our pride, and avow, with the characteristic humility of philosophy, our unsuspected cousinship with the mushrooms…”]


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