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The day the theory of evolution levelled up

A great debate between biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce played a huge part in the theory of evolution's spreading through history.

Vanity Fair caricatures of Samuel Wilberforce (left, July 1869) and Thomas Huxley (right, January 1871).

Vanity Fair

Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of the Species," published in 1859, turned out to be a tremendously important work of scientific literature. However, like many scientific works that had come before and were to come since, it created a furore of controversy, one of the biggest in history.

And this is how Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley earned a place in science legend.

The two had both been vocal about Darwin's work. Wilberforce (whose nickname, "Soapy Sam," may be familiar), one of the greatest public speakers at the time, was vehemently against the theory. Biologist Huxley, now reverently referred to as "Darwin's Bulldog," was a firm supporter.

Things between the two came to a head on June 30, 1860 -- 156 years ago today.

Wilberforce and Huxley clashed in a debate over evolution that was to go down in history, not least for the jibes they traded.

This diagram showing species divergence was the only illustration to appear in "On the Origin of the Species."

Charles Darwin, public domain

The debate took place at the Oxford University Museum in England, the meeting place of the night for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It was a night that involved several important scientists (Darwin himself was ill and could not attend), but the heat between Wilberforce and Huxley stole the show.

A verbatim account was never recorded, but an account written 30 years after the debate describes the most famous exchange.

Wilberforce fired at Huxley, enquiring as to whether "it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey?"

Huxley's cutting reply: "If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."

Both sides claimed victory after the debate, but the majority (and indeed history) seems to have awarded the win to Huxley, and Darwinian theory. Although it would take some time for evolution to become fully accepted by science, the debate is widely regarded as the turning point for the acceptance of Darwin's theory, not least because the theory was considered significant enough to be grounds for serious debate in the first place.