Ian Hesketh. Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate

Sebastian Assenza


In Of Apes and Ancestors, Ian Hesketh attempts to de-mythologize the famous Oxford debate between Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, and Charles Darwin’s friends, Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker. Hooker and Huxley clashed publicly with Wilberforce at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in June of 1860. At issue was the scientific content and general implication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Hesketh argues that this event is best understood as a minor episode in a complex web of personal and professional rivalries between two generations of naturalists. He further argues that Huxley aggressively reinterpreted the actual events of the debate for years afterwards, turning them into a “Galileo moment” for the nineteenth century, a moment in which science bravely stood up to religious authority and refused to back down. While his treatment of the debate and its context is well supported, the connection Hesketh draws between Huxley’s narrative and modern historiography is somewhat tenuous.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4245/sponge.v4i1.12020