Charles C. Mann in Breakthrough Journal:
On June 30, 1860, Samuel Wilberforce, DD, 36th Bishop of Oxford, attended the 30th annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Oxford University. Countless students have been taught that during the meeting, Wilberforce attacked evolution, setting off an impromptu debate which became a “tipping point” in the history of thought. I was one of those students. The debate, my biology professor explained, was the opening salvo of the war between Science and Religion — and Religion lost. My textbook backed him up. Wilberforce’s anti-evolution assault, it said, was swept aside by researchers’ “careful and scientific defense.” In a flourish unusual in an undergraduate text, it boasted that the pro-evolution arguments “neatly lifted the Bishop’s scalp.” That day the forces of empirical knowledge had beaten back the armies of religious ignorance.
None of this is accurate. There was no real debate that day in Oxford. Nor was there a clear victor, still less a scalping. Not that many people were paying attention; the “debate” was not mentioned by a single London newspaper. Still, the exchange was important, though the quarrel was less between scientific theory and religious faith than between two conceptions of humankind’s place in the cosmos. And far from being an enduring victory for rationality over faith, the debate inaugurated a conflict which continues to the present day, and is less about the past than about the future.
In 1860 science was not assumed to be inaccessible to ordinary people; the attendees at the Advancement of Science meeting included many ordinary, middle-class Britons, as well as Oxford students and faculty. The crowd packed a hall at the university’s new museum, standing in aisles and doorways. In that jammed, sweltering space, the subject on attendees’ minds was On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Published just seven months before, the book had created a public uproar, dividing educated Britons into pro- and anti-evolution camps.