British academy


The Huxley Wilberforce Debate Revisited

Professor Janet Browne, Professor of History of Medicine, University College, London, and Mr John Lucas FBA, Formerly Fellow and Tutor, Merton College, Oxford

6 November 2003, 5.15pm (tea served from 4.45pm; buffet supper at 7.45pm)
The British Academy, 10 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1

According to the legend, Bishop Wilberforce ('Soapy Sam') at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford on Saturday, June 30th, 1860, turned to Thomas Huxley, and asked him 'Is it on your grandfather's or your grandmother's side that you claim descent from a monkey'; whereupon Huxley delivered a devastating rebuke, thereby establishing the primacy of scientific truth over ecclesiastical obscurantism. Although the legend is historically untrue in almost every detail, its persistence suggests that it may nonetheless be true in some deeper, mythical, sense.

To explore this possibility the British Academy has invited Professor Janet Browne to be a neo-Huxley confronting Mr Lucas, as a neo-Wilberforce, with each reconsidering their earlier arguments enjoying the benefit of hindsight 143 years later.

(The transcripts of the first Huxley-Wilberforce debate can be read at:

The British Academy Conversazioni were a series of informal scholarly meetings, which took place on a termly basis organised by Professor Margaret A Boden FBA. It was primarily a discussion meeting lead by British Academy Fellows on a current topic of interest. The audience was drawn from the whole of the Academy and specially invited guests including graduate students. This was the final meeting in the series.