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Science History

Of Apes and Ancestors

Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate

by (author) Ian Hesketh

University of Toronto Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2009
History, History, Evolution
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2009
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  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2020
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  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Oct 2009
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  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Dec 2009
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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.

About the author

Ian Hesketh is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.

Ian Hesketh's profile page

Editorial Reviews

'Hesketh does an effective job of summarizing current historical thought on the Oxford debate. Of Apes and Ancestors serves as a welcome primer.'

ISIS vol 101:04:10

‘Ian Hesketh has given us a handy treatment of the well-known Oxford debate… He has gathered everything needed for a more balanced view of events into one convenient little volume.’

Journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences; vol 33:03:2011

Of Apes and Ancestors is a thought-provoking account of the Oxford debate. 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, <em>Canadian Journal of History: Winter 2010</em>

‘Apes and Ancestors is short, well written and accessible, and with less than 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, <em> Victorian Review, vol 37:01:2011 </em>

Other titles by Ian Hesketh