May 2017 Newsletter - Fake History

Fake history

            Fake news is ‘in the news’. Fake news is propaganda and misinformation, masquerading as real news. Some of these stories are taken seriously - for example, that Neil Armstrong admitted the moon landings never happened, or that KFC served up deep fried rat - and their credibility seems to grow as they go viral on social networks. Social media is full of tall tales, masquerading as news. The more such tall tales are repeated, apparently, the more people become convinced, wrongly, that they are true.

            Fake news can be amusing, and sinister at the same time, depending on whether it is exposed for what it is - fake. There is also such a thing as fake history and fake history is often used maliciously to discredit religious belief. The more fake history is repeated, the more people accept it uncritically. Let me explore one such example.

            In 2010 Richard Dawkins was instrumental in having a memorial stone set up outside the Oxford University Museum to commemorate the day on 30th June 1860, when Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and the biologist Thomas Huxley debated Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of the species’. The debate is famously said to have included a quip by Wilberforce asking Huxley which of his grandparents was descended from the apes, and, quick as a flash, Huxley responded that he would rather be descended from an innocent ape than an ignorant bishop. The fact that a plinth has been set up indicates that many have come to believe that this debate was of enormous importance and significance.

            It wasn’t!

            It never happened, at least not like that.

            The popular version of this encounter, repeated often in articles and TV pseudo-documentaries, is that an anti-scientific and Bible-thumping reactionary old Bishop was humiliated in a debate with a free-thinking man of science. Soon thereafter, it is claimed, mankind began to be liberated from the chains of religious superstition and free to change the world by bringing in ‘The Truth’ by science. Such was the momentous nature of this debate between an old superstitious, outmoded world-view and the new vision of the lions of science that it merits a memorial plinth at the University of Oxford.

            So what actually happened? Actually, no-one is very sure since the debate passed unreported and the version cited above only began to circulate decades after the event, which in itself should give pause for thought.

            First of all, we do know a fair amount about who was involved. The Rt Revd Samuel Wilberforce was the then Lord Bishop of Oxford, and the son of the famous William Wilberforce. Far from being an ignorant old cleric of modern caricature, he was a 54 year old intellectual who was ‘bang up to date’ with the science of his time. He had a first-class honours degree in mathematics and a network of leading scientists among his friends - including the renowned astronomer, Sir John Herschel. Indeed, Samuel Wilberforce was a full Fellow of the Royal Society. Whilst not a full-time scientist, Wilberforce was one of the many ‘gentleman amateurs’ who contributed to science in that era without holding a formal position in a scientific discipline. (It is worth bearing in mind that in 1905 Albert Einstein wrote his four papers which established his genius and built the foundations of modern physics while he was working, not as a professional scientist, but as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland!)

            The other presumed protagonist on that fateful day in 1860 was Thomas Henry Huxley. He came from a less privileged background than Wilberforce, but was exceptionally gifted and so was able to win a scholarship to medical school. In time, he came to work as an academic scientist in London and is known to have had an active dislike of the amateurs like Wilberforce, but was on friendly terms with Charles Darwin.

            In June of 1860 there took place the annual jamboree at Oxford of British science known as the ‘British Association for the Advancement of Science’. The exchange between Wilberforce and Huxley was therefore not a staged event but took place during a week-long gathering, when scientists, journalists, mums and dads, even marriageable daughters, keen to meet handsome young undergraduates, etc, descended upon the university town. The week included balls, dinners, punting on the river and everything you might expect of the upper class Victorians at play. It was a time of fun and games and courtship. This was a million miles from the grey and austere portrait of many a modern account which attempts to further caricature a world seen to be in thrall to the likes of Samuel Wilberforce.

            In addition to all the jollity, talks were given of scientific interest. One such talk was to be given in the newly-opened University Museum on the novel new ideas of Charles Darwin. Naturally, at such an occasion this lecture would be given only by someone with recognised ability and informed in the subject and thus was delivered by Samuel Wilberforce, who was respected as one who was more than qualified to do so. Wilberforce was a brilliant orator and debater and people would turn up to hear him speak simply because it was him speaking. It should be noted that, as far as we know, Wilberforce spoke at length about Darwin’s scientific ideas and said nothing whatsoever about religion. This was a lecture and discussion, not about science and religion, but, according to the contemporary journal that summarised the content of the lecture (Jacksons Oxford Journal of July 1860) it was about the scientific merits and demerits of Darwin’s ideas. It was a scientific lecture.

            At the time Darwin himself was acutely conscious of the lack of evidence for many of his ideas and it was this that Wilberforce explored. It seems likely that Charles Darwin would have agreed with much of the Bishop’s critique. Only at the end of the lecture came the exchange with Huxley and the quip about ancestry which is so often quoted today. According to some reports, Wilberforce even apologised for his off-the-cuff remarks, not wishing to needlessly offend the good professor with his cutting humour.

            The so-called debate, which in the hands of many of the new atheists changed the world for ever, went entirely unreported in the press at the time. Given how hungry the Victorian Press was for scandal and controversy and, in particular, how keen they were to lambast the clergy, it is a remarkable thing that news of this grand debate only emerged decades later. Or perhaps it was unreported because it was unremarkable. It was, after all, just another discussion about an emerging scientific theory. 

            The oft-repeated story, that in 1860 an ignorant cleric tried and failed to defend religious superstition before the intellectual brilliance of the liberated free-thinker Thomas Huxley (aka Darwin’s bulldog), is a fiction. It is fake history, designed to fuel the false notion that science and religion are in endless conflict.

            One of the great ironies of this tale is that if you go to the website of the ‘Oxford University Museum of Natural history’ you will find there that this debate is referred to as ‘a great myth’ ( So the very institution where this debate is meant to have taken place is itself is anxious to note that the much repeated popular account is an historical delusion. Despite this, Dawkins and Co still pressed ahead with the erection of a plinth outside the Museum to mark the spot where this debate didn’t take place. Casual visitors could easily be misled into believing the mythical account and fake history becomes successful in peddling a false view of science and religion on conflict.

            Beware of fake history, and those who use it for their own ends.


            Martin Thomson

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