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Darwin Correspondence Project

British Association meeting 1860


Thomas Henry Huxley
Thomas Henry Huxley, Vanity Fair, Jan 28th 1871
Cambridge University Library

Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Oxford, June–July 1860

Several letters in the year 1860 contain references to events that took place at the  meeting that year of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Oxford, 26 June – 3 July 1860. Darwin had planned to attend the meeting, having arranged his accommodation in Oxford, but in the end was unable to attend because of his own poor health and that of his daughter, Henrietta Emma Darwin. Indeed, Darwin spent the week of the meeting at Edward Wickstead Lane’s hydropathic establishment at Sudbrook Park in Richmond, Surrey, undergoing treatment for a stomach that had “utterly broken down” (letter to Charles Lyell, 25 [June 1860]).

Undoubtedly the most famous incident of the meeting was the verbal encounter between Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Henry Huxley that occurred during the Saturday, 7 July, meeting of Section D (zoology and botany, including physiology). Although details concerning the “debate” between Huxley and Wilberforce over Darwin’s theory were not well reported in the contemporary press (see Ellegärd 1990), they have emerged from personal recollections. Various accounts of the involvement of particular participants can be found in their respective Lives and letters: Thomas Henry Huxley (L. Huxley 1900, 1: 179–89); Joseph Dalton Hooker (L. Huxley 1918, 1: 521–4); Charles Lyell (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 335–6); John Lubbock (Hutchinson 1914, 1: 50); John William Draper (Fleming 1950); and also Darwin (LL 2: 320–3, F. Darwin ed. 1892, pp. 236–9). (For a summary of the various accounts of the Huxley–Wilberforce debate, see Jensen 1988.) Discussions of Darwin’s theory that occurred in other sections of the meeting are less well known.

The following account of the 1860 meeting of the British Association in Oxford has been drawn from the Athenæum, which provided the most complete contemporary report of the meeting and which Darwin himself read. Only those passages in the coverage of the proceedings of the various sections that directly relate to discussions of Darwin’s theory have been transcribed here, preceded by their precise attribution.

Athenæum, 7 July 1860, p. 19: Introduction to the reports

. . . Yet the main interest of the week has unquestionably centred in the Sections, where the intellectual activities have sometimes breathed over the courtesies of life like a sou’-wester, creating the waves of conversation with white and brilliant foam. The flash, and play, and collisions in these Sections have been as interesting and amusing to the audiences as the Battle at Farnborough or the Volunteer Review to the general British public. The Bishop of Oxford has been famous in these intellectual contests, but Dr. Whewell, Lord Talbot de Malahide, Prof. Sedgwick, Mr. Crawford, and Prof. Huxley have each found foemen worthy of their steel, and made their charges and countercharges very much to their own satisfaction and the delight of their respective friends. The chief cause of contention has been the new theory of the Development of Species by Natural Selection—a theory open—like the Zoological Gardens (from a particular cage in which it draws so many laughable illustrations)—to a good deal of personal quizzing, without, however, seriously crippling the usefulness of the physiological investigations on which it rests. The Bishop of Oxford came out strongly against a theory which holds it possible that man may be descended from an ape,—in which protest he is sustained by Prof. Owen, Sir Benjamin Brodie, Dr. Daubeny, and the most eminent naturalists assembled at Oxford. But others—conspicuous among these, Prof. Huxley—have expressed their willingness to accept, for themselves, as well as for their friends and enemies, all actual truths, even the last humiliating truth of a pedigree not registered in the Herald’s College. The dispute has at least made Oxford uncommonly lively during the week.

Athenæum, 7 July 1860, pp. 25–6: Thursday session of Section D.—Zoology and botany, including physiology, President John Stevens Henslow

“On the Final Causes of the Sexuality of Plants, with particular Reference to Mr. Darwin’s Work “”On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection,”"” by Dr. DAUBENY.— Dr. Daubeny began by pointing out the identity between the two modes by which the multiplication of plants is brought about, the very same properties being imparted to the bud or to the graft as to the seed produced by the ordinary process of fecundation, and a new individual being in either instance equally produced. We are, therefore, led to speculate as to the final cause of the existence of sexual organs in plants, as well as in those lower animals which can be propagated by cuttings. One use, no doubt, may be the dissemination of the species; for many plants, if propagated by buds alone, would be in a manner confined to a single spot. Another secondary use is the production of fruits which afford nourishment to animals. A third may be to minister to the gratification of the senses of man by the beauty of their forms and colours. But as these ends are only answered in a small proportion of cases, we must seek further for the uses of the organs in question; and hence the author suggested that they might have been provided, in order to prevent that uniformity in the aspect of Nature, which would have prevailed if plants had been multiplied exclusively by buds. It is well known that a bud is a mere counterpart of the stock from whence it springs, so that we are always sure of obtaining the very same description of fruit by merely grafting a bud or cutting of a pear or apple tree upon another plant of the same species. On the other hand, the seed never produces an individual exactly like the plant from which it sprang; and hence, by the union of the sexes in plants, some variation from the primitive type is sure to result. Dr. Daubeny remarked that if we adopt in any degree the views of Mr. Darwin with respect to the origin of species by natural selection, the creation of sexual organs in plants might be regarded as intended to promote this specific object. whilst, however, he gave his assent to the Darwinian hypothesis, as likely to aid us in reducing the number of existing species, he wished not to be considered as advocating it to the extent to which the author seems disposed to carry it. He rather desired to recommend to naturalists the necessity of further inquiries, in order to fix the limits within which the doctrine proposed by Mr. Darwin may assist us in distinguishing varieties from species.

Prof. HUXLEY, having been called on by the Chairman, deprecated any discussion of the general question of the truth of Mr. Darwin’s theory. He felt that a general audience, in which sentiment would unduly interfere with intellect, was not the public before which such a discussion should be carried on. Dr. Daubeny had brought forth nothing new to demand or require remark.— Mr. R. DOWDEN, of Cork, mentioned, first, two instances in which plants had been disseminated by seeds, which could not be effected by buds; first, in the introduction of Senecio squalida, by the late Rev. W. Hincks; and, second, in the diffusion of chicory, in the vicinity of Cork, by the agency of its winged seeds. He related several anecdotes of a monkey, to show that however highly organized the Quadrumana might be, they were very inferior in intellectual qualities to the dog, the elephant and other animals. He particularly referred to his monkey being fond of playing with a hammer; but although he liked oysters as food, he never could teach him to break the oysters with his hammer as a means of indulging his appetite.— Dr. WRIGHT stated that a friend of his, who had gone out to report on the habits of the gorilla—the highest form of monkey—had observed that the female gorilla took its young to the sea-shore for the purpose of feeding them on oysters, which they broke with great facility.— Prof. OWEN wished to approach this subject in the spirit of the philosopher, and expressed his conviction that there were facts by which the public could come to some conclusion with regard to the probabilities of the truth of Mr. Darwin’s theory. Whilst giving all praise to Mr. Darwin for the courage with which he had put forth his theory, he felt it must be tested by facts. As a contribution to the facts by which the theory must be tested, he would refer to the structure of the highest Quadrumana as compared with man. Taking the brain of the gorilla, it presented more differences, as compared with the brain of man, than it did when compared with the brains of the very lowest and most problematical form of the Quadrumana. The deficiencies in cerebral structure between the gorilla and man were immense. the posterior lobes of the cerebrum in man presented parts which were wholly absent in the gorilla. The same remarkable differences of structure were seen in other parts of the body; yet he would especially refer to the structure of the great toe in man, which was constructed to enable him to assume the upright position; whilst in the lower monkeys it was impossible, from the structure of their feet, that they should do so. He concluded by urging on the physiologist the necessity of experiment. The chemist, when in doubt, decided his questions by experiment; and this was what was needed by the physiologist.— Prof. HUXLEY begged to be permitted to reply to Prof. Owen. He denied altogether that the difference between the brain of the gorilla and man was so great as represented by Prof. Owen, and appealed to the published dissections of Tiedemann and others. From the study of the structure of the brain of the Quadrumana, he maintained that the difference between man and the highest monkey was not so great as between the highest and the lowest monkey. He maintained also, with regard to the limbs, that there was more difference between the toeless monkeys and the gorilla than between the latter and man. He believed that the great feature which distinguished man from the monkey was the gift of speech.

Athenæum, 14 July 1860, pp. 64–5: Saturday session, Section D.—Zoology and botany, including physiology

“On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with Reference to the Views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the Progression of Organisms is determined by Law,” by Prof. DRAPER, M.D., of New York.— The object of this paper was to show that the advancement of man in civilization does not occur accidentally or in a fortuitous manner, but is determined by immutable law. The author introduced his subject by recalling proofs of the dominion of law in the three great lines of the manifestation of life. First, in the successive stages of development of every individual, from the earliest rudiment to maturity; secondly, in the numberless organic forms now living contemporaneously with us, and constituting the animal series; thirdly, in the orderly appearance of that grand succession which in the slow lapse of geological time has emerged, constituting the life of the Earth, showing therefrom not only the evidences, but also proofs of the dominion of law over the world of life. In those three lines of life he established that the general principle is, to differentiate instinct from automatism, and then to differentiate intelligence from instinct. In man himself three distinct instrumental nervous mechanisms exist, and three distinct modes of life are perceptible, the automatic, the instinctive, the intelligent. They occur in an epochal order, from infancy through childhood to the more perfect state. Such holding good for the individual, it was then affirmed that it is physiologically impossible to separate the individual from the race, and that what holds good for the one holds good for the other too; and hence that man is the archetype of society, and individual development the model of social progress, and that both are under the control of immutable law: that a parallel exists between individual and national life in this, that the production, life, and death of an organic particle in the person, answers to the production, life, and death of a person in the nation. Turning from these purely physiological considerations to historical proof, and selecting the only European nation which thus far has offered a complete and completed intellectual life, Prof. Draper showed, that the characteristics of Greek mental development answer perfectly to those of individual life, presenting philosophically five well-marked ages or periods,—the first being closed by the opening of Egypt to the Ionians; the second, including the Ionian, Pythagorean, and Eleatic philosophies, was ended by the criticisms of the Sophists; the third, embracing the Socratic and Platonic philosophies, was ended by the doubts of the Sceptics; the fourth, ushered in by the Macedonian expedition and adorned by the splendid achievements of the Alexandrian school, degenerated into Neoplatonism and imbecility in the fifth, to which the hand of Rome put an end. From the solutions of the four great problems of Greek philosophy, given in each of these five stages of its life, he showed that it is possible to determine the law of the variation of Greek opinion, and to establish its analogy with that of the variations of opinion in individual life. Next, passing to the consideration of Europe in the aggregate, Prof. Draper showed that it has already in part repeated these phases in its intellectual life. Its first period closes with the spread of the power of Republican Rome, the second with the foundation of Constantinople, the third with the Turkish invasion of Europe: we are living in the fourth. Detailed proofs of the correspondence of these periods to those of Greek life, and through them to those of individual life, are given in a work now printing on this subject, by the author, in America. Having established this conclusion, Prof. Draper next briefly alluded to many collateral problems or inquiries. He showed that the advances of men are due to external and not to interior influences, and that in this respect a nation is like a seed, which can only develope when the conditions are favourable, and then only in a definite way; that the time for psychical change corresponds with that for physical, and that a nation cannot advance except its material condition be touched,—this having been the case throughout all Europe, as is manifested by the diminution of the blue-eyed races thereof; that all organisms and even man are dependent for their characteristics, continuance, and life on the physical conditions under which they live; that the existing apparent invariability presented by the world of organization is the direct consequence of the physical equilibrium, but that if that should suffer modification, in an instant the fanciful doctrine of the immutability of species would be brought to its proper value. The organic world appears to be in repose because natural influences have reached an equilibrium. A marble may remain motionless for ever on a level table, but let the table be a little inclined, and the  marble will quickly run off; and so it is with organisms in the world. From his work on Physiology, published in 1856, he gave his views in support of the doctrine of the transmutation of species; the transitional forms of the animal and also the human type; the production of new ethnical elements, or nations; and the laws of their origin, duration, and death.

The announcement of this paper attracted an immense audience to the Section, which met this morning in the Library of the New Museum. The discussion was commenced by the REV. MR. CRESSWELL, who denied that any parallel could be drawn between the intellectual progress of man and the physical development of the lower animals. So far from the author being correct with regard to the history of Greece, its masterpieces in literature—the Illiad and Odyssey—were produced during its national infancy. The theory of intellectual development proposed was directly opposed to the known facts of the history of man.— SIR B. BRODIE stated, he could not subscribe to the hypothesis of Mr. Darwin. His primordial germ had not been demonstrated to have existed. Man had a power of self-consciousness—a principle differing from anything found in the material world, and he did not see how this could originate in lower organisms. This power of man was identical with the Divine Intelligence; and to suppose that this could originate with matter, involved the absurdity of supposing the source of Divine power dependent on the arrangement of matter.— The BISHOP OF OXFORD stated that the Darwinian theory, when tried by the principles of inductive science, broke down. The facts brought forward did not warrant the theory. The permanence of specific forms was a fact confirmed by all observation. The remains of animals, plants, and man found in those earliest records of the human race—the Egyptian catacombs, all spoke of their identity with existing forms, and of the irresistible tendency of organized beings to assume an unalterable character. The line between man and the lower animals was distinct: there was no tendency on the part of the lower animals to become the self-conscious intelligent being, man; or in man to degenerate and lose the high characteristics of his mind and intelligence. All experiments had failed to show any tendency in one animal to assume the form of the other. In the great case of the pigeons quoted by Mr. Darwin, he admitted that no sooner were these animals set free than they returned to their primitive type. Everywhere sterility attended hybridism, as was seen in the closely-allied forms of the horse and the ass. Mr. Darwin’s conclusions were an hypothesis, raised most unphilosophically to the dignity of a causal theory. He was glad to know that the greatest names in science were oppposed to this theory, which he believed to be oppposed to the interests of science and humanity.— Prof. HUXLEY defended Mr. Darwin’s theory from the charge of its being merely an hypothesis. He said, it was an explanation of phenomena in Natural History, as the undulating theory was of the phenomena of light. No one objected to that theory because an undulation of light had never been arrested and measured. Darwin’s theory was an explanation of facts; and his book was full of new facts, all bearing on his theory. Without asserting that every part of the theory had been confirmed, he maintained that it was the best explanation of the origin of species which had yet been offered. With regard to the psychological distinction between man and animals; man himself was once a monad—a mere atom, and nobody could say at what moment in the history of his development he became consciously intelligent. The question was not so much one of a transmutation or transition of species, as of the production of forms which became permanent. thus the short-legged sheep of America were not produced gradually, but originated in the birth of an original parent of the whole stock, which had been kept up by a rigid system of artificial selection.— Admiral FITZROY regretted the publication of Mr. Darwin’s book, and denied Prof. Huxley’s statement, that it was a logical arrangement of facts.— Dr. BEALE pointed out some of the difficulties with which the Darwinian theory had to deal, more especially those vital tendencies of allied species which seemed independent of all external agents.— Mr. LUBBOCK expressed his willingness to accept the Darwinian hypothesis in the absence of any better. He would, however, express his conviction, that time was not an essential element in these changes. Time alone produced no change.— Dr. HOOKER, being called upon by the President to state his views of the botanical aspect of the question, observed, that the Bishop of Oxford having asserted that all men of science were hostile to Mr. Darwin’s hypothesis,—whereas he himself was favourable to it,—he could not presume to address the audience as a scientific authority. As, however, he had been asked for his opinion, he would briefly give it. In the first place, his Lordship, in his eloquent address, had, as it appeared to him, completely misunderstood Mr. Darwin’s hypothesis: his Lordship intimated that this maintained the doctrine of the transmutation of existing species one into another, and had confounded this with that of the successive development of species by variation and natural selection. The first of these doctrines was so wholly opposed to the facts, reasonings, and results of Mr. Darwin’s work, that he could not conceive how any one who had read it could make such a mistake,—the whole book, indeed, being a protest against that doctrine. Then, again, with regard to the general phenomena of species, he understood his Lordship to affirm that these did not present characters that should lead careful and philosophical naturalists to favour Mr. Darwin’s views. To this assertion Dr. Hooker’s experience of the Vegetable Kingdom was diametrically opposed. He considered that at least one half of the known kinds of plants were disposable in groups, of which the species were connected by varying characters common to all in that group, and sensibly differing in some individuals only of each species; so much so that, if each group be likened to a cobweb, and one species be supposed to stand in the center of that web, its varying characters might be compared to the radiating and concentric threads, when the other species would be represented by the points of union of these; in short, that the general characteristics of orders, genera, and species amongst plants differed in degrees only from those of varieties, and afforded the strongest countenance to Mr. Darwin’s hypothesis. As regarded his own acceptation of Mr. Darwin’s views, he expressly disavowed having adopted them as a creed. He knew no creeds in scientific matters. He had early begun the study of natural science under the idea that species were original creations; and it should be steadily kept in view that this was merely another hypothesis, which in the abstract was neither more nor less entitled to acceptance than Mr. Darwin’s: neither was, in the present state of science, capable of demonstration, and each must be tested by its power of explaining the mutual dependence of the phenomena of life. For many years he had held to the old hypothesis, having no better established one to adopt, though the progress of botany had, in the interim, developed no new facts that favoured it, but a host of most suggestive objections to it. On the other hand, having fifteen years ago been privately made acquainted with Mr. Darwin’s views, he had during that period applied these to botanical investigations of all kinds in the most distant parts of the globe, as well as to the study of some of the largest and most different Floras at home. Now, then, that Mr. Darwin had published it, he had no hesitation in publicly adopting his hypothesis, as that which offers by far the most probably explanation of all the phenomena presented by the classification, distribution, structure, and development of plants in a state of nature and under cultivation; and he should, therefore continue to use his hypothesis as the best weapon for future research, holding himself ready to lay it down should a better be forthcoming, or should the now abandoned doctrine of original creations regain all it had lost in his experience.

About this article

This article has been adapted from one originally published in The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 8, Appendix VI.