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WINTER 2002 - This month from Architects of Eternity


Oxford Encounter. The University Museum, Oxford, England, Lat 51.46N, Long, 1.15W. 30 June, 1860

If you walk along Museum Road in the centre of Oxford you will see an enormous yellow building come gradually into view beyond the lawn on Parks Road. It is magnificent, a tall tower flanked by its pale yellow wings of Cotswold limestone rising imposing and noble into the streets above Oxford. It looks for all the world precisely what it is, a temple to the new theology of the Victorian age: Science. It was along this road that Thomas Henry Huxley walked on the morning of 30 June 1860. I imagine him pausing at the end of Museum Road and looking across at the same view, gaze lingering perhaps on the imposing arched entrance with the unfinished adze marks still raw in the stone where, famously, the University had finally run out of money and the Irish labourers had downed tools and gone home. Then crossing the road, perhaps he wondered how he had got talked into this, he had after all promised himself that he would not become involved in the evolution debate while visiting Oxford. The year had been busy enough with invective and diatribe at the Athenaeum and the Linnean already. He had made his point to those who would not accept the new world view - particularly Owen - that had come about only the year before when John Murray had published the book that had been so long - twenty years or more - in the writing: Darwin's Origin. In later years Thomas Henry Huxley's famous dictum would be that there would be no need to reslay the slain.

But the day before he had seen Chambers and that had been the catalyst for him to remain in Oxford. Perhaps it was because of some residual guilt over his own savage review of the Edinburgh publisher's Vestiges of Creation six years before - a book Huxley still regarded as the weakest form of scientific speculation about the nature of evolution - but he had listened rather than passing by as Chambers demanded that he stay on in Oxford and attend the debate the next day. And the next day he found himself standing and staring at the Museum, realising perhaps that his mind had been made up there and then and he had not realised it. His wife Nettie waited for him in Reading, but if he became bored he still had time to catch the four o'clock train.

Huxley was amazed when he entered the Museum. As many as seven hundred - perhaps more - had come to the debate. Expectations were clearly high for this morning's session, even though the previous Wednesday meeting at which the evolution debate had already been aired had not been spectacular. But he must have realised that the public had come for sport. They had come to see the professors battle it out over Mr Darwin's new-fangled theory. Huxley - Darwin's Bull-Dog as he would come to be branded - was by temperament a man who did not seek trouble, but neither would he shirk its company if it sought him. When he arrived at the upper gallery he found that the meeting had been moved because the lecture theatre would not seat seven hundred people. It had been switched to the reading room of the soon-to-be-completed library. Inside a corpulent figure resplendent in the purple robes of the clergy sat on a stage; Wilberforce, known to the critics of his smooth tongue as Soapy Sam. Beyond the stage not far from Lady Brewster sat his friend, the botanist Hooker. He joined them and they sat gossiping while they waited for the meeting to start. At length John Draper - the human scientist from New York - rose and started a lengthy and tedious diatribe on the impact of Darwinism on the intellectual development of Europe. The room grew restless, and soon the students started shouting for Huxley. Henslow, keen to maintain order, moved on and the debate as to the relative merits of the new Darwinian charter for mankind ebbed and flowed but made little progress. Huxley kept his peace apart from a barbed riposte early on when he admitted with astringent irony that he did indeed hold a brief for science, but had yet to hear it assailed. The crowd bayed for blood. They wanted scientific fisticuffs in this, its new arena. Surely the Bishop would oblige! They shouted for him and eventually, standing and deploying all his orator's skill Wilberforce put the case for church and creation. His peroration was lengthy and wide-ranging; he criticised the Origins unphilosophical character and also cited the fact that Egyptian mummies were so similar to modern humans that Darwin's ideas on the mutability of species could not but be wrong. At the end he could not resist the appeal of a final dig at Huxley, sitting so grave and quiet at the edge of the room. He was reminded said he, of the session only that Wednesday in which Professor Huxley had debated the similarities of the brain of man and that of the orang-utan with that other great thinker, Professor Owen. The Bishop now had a question of his own for Professor Huxley: viz. Was it through his grandmother's or grandfather's side of the family that he claimed descent from an ape?

Sir Benjamin Brodie the chemist sat on Huxley's other side, and in later years claimed that he had heard the great man utter softly the words 'the Lord hath delivered him into my hands', but noone else heard it. And yet stage-managed to perfection Huxley waited until the noise in the room had reached a crescendo before standing, and waiting calmly and quietly for the noise to subside. He had, said he, listened with interest and attention to the Bishop's discourse, and yet had been unable to discern much or indeed any originality of fact or interpretation within it, except that is for the Bishop's closing remark concerning his own preferences in the matter of ancestry. The question would not have occurred to him, being of no relevance in scientific debate, but it would be churlish not to furnish a reply. And his reply was as follows: if the question was would he rather have miserable ape for a grandfather (he was careful to avoid mentioning women - that way lay cheap vulgarity) or a man highly endowed with influence and mental faculty who then used them for the mere purpose of ridiculing reasoned scientific debate, why then he unhesitatingly affirmed his preference for the ape…

The room erupted. The students cheered, this was after all what they had come for. Wilberforce paled but said nothing. Lady Brewster fainted, Henslow reddened, Hooker smiled.

Evolution was on the map at last.

Architects of Eternity

Extracted from Architects of Eternity by Richard Corfield. Published by Hodder Headline, ISBN 0-7472-7179-8.

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Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk