Wife of the Bishop of Worcester? Wife of the Bishop of Birmingham? Wife of Samuel Wilberforce? Wife of an English Canon? A Decorous Spinster? Fictional?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a remarkable quotation that dramatically highlights the controversial intersection between science and religion in the nineteenth century. The words were attributed to a Bishop’s wife in an anecdote in the book “Origins” by the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and the science writer Roger Lewin:
On hearing, one June afternoon in 1860, the suggestion that mankind was descended from the apes, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester is said to have exclaimed, ‘My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.’ As it turns out, she need not have been quite so worried: we are not descended from the apes, though we do share a common ancestor with them. Even though the distinction may have been too subtle to offer her much comfort, it is nevertheless important.
This mordant tale has always deeply impressed me. So, I was rather confused when I came across another version of the anecdote from Nicholas Humphrey, a Professor at the London School of Economics:
When, in the 1880s, the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife received information that Charles Darwin was claiming that human beings were descended from monkeys, she is reported to have said to her husband, ‘My dear, let us hope it is not true; but, if it is true, let us hope it will not become generally known.’
Worcester or Birmingham? 1860 or 1880s? Could you resolve these discrepancies and find the historically accurate version of this quote? My research only left me more puzzled.
Quote Investigator: QI believes that this popular, colorful, and didactic tale is apocryphal. When QI began exploring this quotation he quickly located another inconsistent version of the story in a book titled “The Altruistic Species” which mentions “the famous response of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s wife upon learning of Darwin’s theory: ‘Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us hope it does not become widely known'”.
Samuel Wilberforce was a well-known orator who engaged in a famous debate concerning evolution at Oxford. He was the Bishop of Oxford and then of Winchester, but he was never the Bishop of Worcester or Birmingham.
Charles Darwin’s monumental work On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. QI has located no evidence for the existence of this quotation in the 1860s, 1870s, or 1880s. The earliest citation known to QI appeared in an 1893 text titled “Verbum Dei: The Yale Lectures on Preaching”. In this volume a variant of the quote appeared within a lecture written by a British pastor named Robert Forman Horton. The words were attributed to a spinster and not to a married woman:
The Church swarms with people who have no spiritual sinew, and whose lungs cannot breathe the invigorating air of Truth: they take up the cry of that timid and decorous spinster who, on hearing an exposition of the Darwinian theory that men are descended from apes, said, “Let us hope it is not true, or if it is, let us hush it up.”
QI believes that this basic anecdote was incrementally transformed over many decades to generate multiple modern instantiations of the story. The details of these tales change over time, but they do not appear to be based on firm historical evidence.
Conceivably there exists a diary entry or newspaper account that is contemporaneous with the 1860s or 1880s, but QI has not yet found it. None of the modern accounts examined by QI provide citations to data of the relevant period. The preponderance of evidence indicates that current narratives for this tale have been heavily fictionalized.
Here is a selected subset of citations arranged in chronological order.
Continue reading Darwinism: Let Us Hope It is Not True, But If It is, Let Us Pray It Does Not Become Widely Known