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Past Events > 2020

25. The Great Debate

14 October 2020, 15:00 - 16:00

Song Connections

Study Event

This event will be broadcast from Museum of Natural History

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Presented in association with TORCH, with support from the Humanities Cultural Programme, and the Museum of Natural History

On 30 June 1860, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History hosted a clash of ideologies that has become known as the ‘Huxley-Wilberforce Debate’, or simply the ‘Great Debate’. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), nicknamed ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, was championing Charles Darwin’s revolutionary concept of evolution by natural selection, published less than a year before. Meanwhile, Samuel ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce (1805-1873), Bishop of Oxford, threw all the force of his theological training into upholding the idea of biblical creation.

An account of the debate written thirty years after it happened has Wilberforce taunting Huxley by asking him whether ‘it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey?’. Huxley supposedly whispered to Sir Benjamin Brodie: ‘The Lord hath delivered him unto my hand’ before replying, witheringly: ‘if then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape’. (Read more here).

Today we present this event from the actual room where the debate happened, the Huxley Room. Paul Smith, Director of the Museum of Natural History, tells us more about the debate and its importance past and present, while we look at three composers of the period and ask how these questions of ‘religion vs science’ influenced their general outlook as well as their selection of song texts.

The event is illustrated by the excellent young mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, who was supposed to give one of our Song at Wolfson concerts in May, with pianist Natalie Burch, who gave our outstanding family concerts last year.


The talk and music for this event will be pre-recorded, but will be introduced live by our speakers, who will also be available to answer any questions at the end. During the event, please email any questions ([email protected]) or post them on social media (#OLF2020), and we will answer as many as time allows.


Artist Portrait

Carola Darwin

Carola Darwin


Carola Darwin combines a career as an opera and concert singer with research and writing about music. She took her first degree in Natural Sciences (Chemistry) at Cambridge, before gaining an M Mus (Perf.) in singing from the Royal Northern College of Music. At the Oxford Lieder Festival 2019, she premièred Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful: a song-cycle on texts about evolution and the environment, commissioned with funds from the Arts Council. Operatic roles include Fox (The Cunning Little Vixen, Surrey Ope... Read Full Biography
Artist Portrait

Paul Smith

Paul Smith


Paul Smith is Director of Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Professor of Natural History. He is also a Fellow of Kellogg College. Prior to coming to Oxford he was Head of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, as well as Director of the Lapworth Museum of Geology. He has spent most of his career working in university museums in Cambridge, Copenhagen, Birmingham and Oxford. Paul undertook his BSc in geology at the University of Leicester before moving to the University ... Read Full Biography
Artist Portrait

Helen Charlston

Helen Charlston


Hailed “a rather special mezzo” (Music Web International), Helen is a young artist increasingly in demand in the UK and abroad. Recent concert highlights include debuts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (Handel Messiah/Stephen Layton), Royal Northern Sinfonia (Mendelssohn Lobgesang/Paul McCreesh) and at the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona (Bach Matthew Passion/Gabrieli Consort and Players); a worldwide tour of Handel Messiah with the Seattle Symphony, the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Symphon... Read Full Biography
Artist Portrait

Natalie Burch

Natalie Burch


An alumna of Chetham’s School of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Natalie Burch is widely in demand as a collaborative pianist across London and the UK. She won the accompaniment prize at the 2015 Maureen Lehane Awards at Wigmore Hall, was a finalist alongside 2nd Prize winner James Way at the 2017 Kathleen Ferrier Awards and is a 2018 Britten-Pears, Leeds Lieder and Samling Artist. Much in demand as a song specialist she regularly collaborates with a number of award-winning artists. Recent and future projects incl... Read Full Biography

This event is part of a series:

Connections Across Time - A Brief History of Song

Over a packed eight days, world-class artists including Benjamin Appl, Ian Bostridge, Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams will present some 40 concerts and events, from venues across Oxford and completely live. From the comfort of your own home, you will be able to enjoy these concerts live-streamed in the highest quality. We’ll be exploring every possible advantage of this temporary ...

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