Opposition stemmed from the direct challenge of natural selection to the truth of the creation story and miracles. People were frightened that evolution removed the need for a ‘greater purpose’ in life, and for morality. They claimed that God would not allow mindless sacrifice and suffering.
This animosity fuelled the formation of anti-evolution organisations such as Cardinal Wiseman’s ‘Academia’ and the Protestant Victoria Institute. It also led to much ridicule and debate. Cartoons of Darwin’s head superimposed onto a monkey’s body appeared, and Cambridge students dangled monkeys from the Senate House roof when Darwin went to collect his honorary degree.
Perhaps the most famous event of this kind was the Wilberforce debate. On June 30th, 1860 at the Oxford University Museum, a heated debate ensued between Bishop Wilberforce (a Creationist) and Thomas Henry Huxley, an English zoologist known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ because he passionately defended Darwin’s theory from religious attack throughout this period. The debate was part of the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Much shouting and hurling of insults occurred, and the event was widely publicised. Both sides claimed victory, but it is widely believed that the Darwinists were victorious. This debate has come to symbolise the conflict between science and religion.
Not all reactions were hostile; many newspapers claimed thatThe Origin’s publication marked a new era of scientific discovery. In 1860 seven English scholars acclaimed natural selection and attacked religion in Essays and Reviews. This caused a great uproar; 11,000 Anglican clergymen signed a declaration stating that the Bible and its miracles must be taken literally. But the damage was done – ideas about evolution as opposed to religion had spread.
In 1863 Sir Charles Lyell, a very influential geologist who had previously opposed Lamarck and was a staunch Christian, published the Antiquity of Man which discredited creationism and added fuel to the fire.
Many people were not prepared to dismiss evolution or creationism. Some (including Alfred Russel Wallace) believed that while the body of man evolved, the soul could only have been created by God, distinguishing man from other living organisms. Others claimed that God created the universe, the earth and the first life forms, with evolution taking over from there. These ideas of compatibility caused more argument from theists, who were anxious that compromise would increasingly attenuate the requirement for a God until he became redundant.
Darwin’s second major work, The Descent of Man (published 1871) caused more antagonism. Major concerns this time were about man’s place in the universe. People clung to the thought that man was different from ‘lower’ life forms. The influential anatomist Richard Owen claimed that only man had a hippocampus minor, a region of the brain. However, Huxley later proved that this region is also present in other apes.