Today is an auspicious day in Theory of Evolution History. On this day in 1860, T.H. Huxley and Joseph Hooker held their first evolution debate against Bishop Wilberforce and HMS Captain Robert FitzRoy at Oxford University. Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” and Hooker, one of Charles Darwin’s closest friends and allies, dealt the first blow - indeed had fired the first shot heard around the world - in defense of the Theory of Natural Selection as presented by Darwin in The Origin of Species.
Remarkably, the ignorance and downright challenge to evolution via natural selection has itself not evolved very much although it's now masked in the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design and Creationism. Essentially the argument from the religious is that an all powerful and omnipresent god is and always will be the first cause for life on Earth and also for creation of the entire universe. They claim evolution is false and even worse that it is "the devil's theory."
This devotion to biblical first cause has been stated in numerous ways. However, even using what some claim is “sophisticated theology” no proponent of creation science in the last 155 years of debate, not Wilberforce and certainly not Ken Ham, have ever produced a shred of evidence for their conjecture. But instead they rely fully on the bible to inform their views and their arguments for special creation.
And we must be reminded that each time Intelligent Designers try to teach creationism in public school science classes their efforts have been consistently struck down by judges. The courts have consistently found that Intelligent Design is akin to theology and thus violates the Constitution’s First Amendment regarding separation of Church and State when attempts have been made to teach creationism in science classrooms.
Huxley was quick witted and a staunch defender of Darwin. When Bishop Wilberforce asked him if he felt any shame to have a monkey as an ancestor, Huxley shot back, “(He’d) be more ashamed to be connected to a man who used his great oratory to obscure the truth.” Essentially calling Wilberforce and his ilk intentional obfuscators for the sake of their religious beliefs rather than actually knowing science and the wonder that comes from understanding nature.
Charles Darwin should be remembered as a great man, a great philosopher and a grand master of science. His ideas were and remain so profound that it is impossible to think we’d have the multitude of scientific disciplines today without the Theory of Natural Selection sewn tightly into the breastplate of reason so many of us proudly wear as we claim our own understanding of the operation of the natural world.
But for all of Darwin’s brilliance we also know his was a tortured soul. A man who made himself physically ill at the thought of having to debate or be publicly challenged for his theories. A man who was part of British aristocracy and dearly knew that his Theory would upend Church teachings, call into question the elitism of British society, and cause a scandal in the halls of academia. While also upsetting his deeply religious wife concerning the implications of a natural world without a divine plan or a warm afterlife for the religiously moral.
This is why T.H. Huxley, while not the co-discoverer of Natural Selection (Like Alfred Russell Wallace), deserves equal atheist and humanist piety in the halls of freethought. His advocacy for Darwin’s ideas made him and a core group of intellectuals, naturalists and scholars Darwin’s chief advocates at the birth of what could have easily been an aborted scientific revolution had the religious gotten their way into shaming Darwin and his theories into obscurity.
So we will always remember Darwin for his reasoned and careful brilliance and we should recall Wallace his extraordinary research as well. But no telling of the story of Natural Selection could be told without Darwin’s advocates. Men like T.H. Huxley, John Hooker, Asa Gray, John Draper and even Wallace who came to Darwin’s aid in the first decades of debate over the efficacy of natural selection.
For their protection of Darwin, for their perseverance and honesty the world owes these men a huge and gracious thank you. Let us offer a tip of the hat and allow me to raise my glass in their honor. This for the sake of all species, living and extinct, because to know where we’ve been evolutionarily just may mean we’ll figure out where we’re heading.