Ian Hesketh, Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate (Toronto, 2009)
Tell me, sir, is it on your grandmother's or your grandfather's side that you are descended from an ape? In June of 1860, some of Britain's most influential scientific and religious authorities gathered in Oxford to hear a heated debate on the merits of Charles Darwin's recently published Origin of Species. The Bishop of Oxford, "Soapy" Samuel Wilberforce, clashed swords with Darwin's most outspoken supporter, Thomas Henry Huxley. The latter's triumph, amid quips about apes and ancestry, has become a mythologized event, symbolizing the supposed war between science and Christianity. But did the debate really happen in this way?
Of Apes and Ancestors argues that this one-dimensional interpretation was constructed and disseminated by Darwin's supporters, becoming an imagined victory in the struggle to overcome Anglican dogmatism. By reconstructing the Oxford debate and carefully considering the individual perspectives of the main participants, Ian Hesketh argues that personal jealousies and professional agendas played a formative role in shaping the response to Darwin's hypothesis, with religious anxieties overlapping with a whole host of other cultural and scientific considerations. An absorbing study, Of Apes and Ancestors sheds light on the origins of a debate that continues, unresolved, to this day.
“Of Apes and Ancestors examines an event that has been widely mythologized in popular culture, one that has contemporary significance with regard to continuing tensions between Christian theology and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Ian Hesketh has written a commendable in-depth introduction to this famous controversy and offers original insights on the creation of the myths surrounding the Oxford debate.” —John Brooke, Faculty of Theology, Oxford University
“In this elegantly written little book, Hesketh has produced a compelling account of the historical significance of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate at Oxford in 1860, using it as a focus to examine the controversy surrounding Darwinian evolution. Hesketh not only covers the main figures involved, including Darwin, Wilberforce, Huxley, Owen, and Hooker, but also discusses how the debate has been remembered and politicized by participants, observers, and twentieth-century intellectuals.” —Bernard Lightman, Science and Technology Studies, York University
“Of Apes and Ancestors is a valuable addition to the ever-growing literature on Charles Darwin and Darwinian evolution. … It would be particularly valuable at the undergraduate level, where it would serve as an engaging introduction to Charles Darwin, his theory of evolution, and the controversy it created in mid-nineteenth-century England.” —Todd Webb, Canadian Journal of History 45:3 (Winter 2010), 619–20.
“Of Apes and Ancestors is short, well written and accessible, and with less that two hundred pages of text it will serve undergraduate audiences. It might usefully provoke them to think about the relationship between the present and the past, about the practice of history, and about the cultural role of the historian." —Piers J. Hale, Victorian Review 37:1 (2011), 211–12.
“Ian Hesketh has given us a handy treatment of the well-known Oxford debate of 30 June 1860, in which Samulel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, pitted himself against a younger generation of Darwin’s defenders. ...Hesketh has gathered everything needed for a more balanced view of events into one convenient little volume.” —Frederick Gregory, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 33 (2011), 413–14.
“Of Apes and Ancestors provides a convincing re-appraisal of the 1860 Oxford debate, revealing the web of personal and private conflicts that lay behind the very public argument between Samuel Wilberforce and Darwin’s supporters, Hooker and Huxley. … [The book] provides an intriguing look at the external factors behind one of Darwinism’s most celebrated events.” —Sebastian Assenza, Spontaneous Generations 4:1 (2010)
“Hesketh's sketch of Wilberforce is particularly satisfying. ...[He] depicts Wilberforce's opposition to the Origin as an episode in a broader Victorian intellectual crisis that scrambled thought and authority within science and within religion. It did not set one against the other. ...Hesketh treats Huxley and Owen's contentious relationship poignantly. ...An inexpensive paperback edition would broaden the book's appeal for classroom use.” —Richard Bellon, Isis 101:4 (2010), 897–898.
“Hesketh’s short and readable book … aims to present a more nuanced and balanced alternative to the kind of triumphalist, Whig history that often prevailed at the Darwin anniversary events of 2009. …[T]he decidedly sympathetic treatment of ‘Soapy’ Sam Wilberforce provides the most interesting and innovative element of [the first] section of the book. … In the second section of the book, the careful delineation of precisely how the myth of the Oxford debate as an indubitable triumph for Huxley and the Darwinian cause was first generated … will be of most value and interest to more specialist readers.” —Gowan Dawson, Journal of British Studies 40:1 (2011), 221–222