Thomas Henry Huxley FRS (4 May 1825 Ealing – 29 June 1895 Eastbourne, Sussex) was an English biologist, known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his advocacy of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Huxley's famous 1860 debate with the Lord Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, was a key moment in the wider acceptance of evolution, and in his own career. Wilberforce was coached by Richard Owen, against whom Huxley also debated on whether man was closely related to apes. Huxley was slow to accept some of Darwin's ideas, such as gradualism, and was undecided about natural selection, but despite this he was wholehearted in his public support of Darwin. He was instrumental in developing scientific education in Britain, and fought against the more extreme versions of religious tradition.
Huxley used the term 'agnostic' to describe his own views on religion, a term whose use has continued to the present day, and which throws light on his demanding criteria for proof in science (see Thomas Henry Huxley and agnosticism).
Huxley had little schooling, and taught himself almost everything he knew. Remarkably, he became perhaps the finest comparative anatomist of the second half of the nineteenth century. He worked first on invertebrates, clarifying the relationships between groups that were previously little understood. Later, he worked more on vertebrates, especially on the relationship between man and the apes. Another of his important conclusions was that birds evolved from dinosaurs, namely, small carnivorous theropods. This view is widely held today.
The tendency has been for this fine anatomical work to be overshadowed by his energetic controversial activity in favour of evolution, and by his extensive public work on scientific education, both of which had significant effect on society in Britain and elsewhere.
Huxley, born in Ealing, a small village in Middlesex (now a prosperous suburb in west London), was the second youngest of eight children of George Huxley, a maths teacher at Ealing School until it closed, putting the family into financial difficulties. Like some other British scientists of the nineteenth century (Alfred Russel Wallace comes to mind) Huxley was brought up in a literate middle-class family which became short of money. As a result he left school at 10, after only two years of formal schooling.
Despite this unenviable start, Huxley possessed the most remarkable determination. He became one of the great autodidacts of the nineteenth century (again, like Wallace). He made himself an expert first on invertebrates, and later on vertebrates, all self-taught. He was skilled in drawing, and did many of the illustrations for his publications on marine invertebrates. In his teens he taught himself German, eventually becoming fluent and used by Charles Darwin as a translator of scientific material in German. Later he learnt Latin and enough Greek to read Aristotle in the original. In his debates and writing on science and religion his grasp of theology was better than most of his clerical opponents. So, a boy who left school at ten became one of the most knowledgeable men in Britain.
Aged 20, Huxley was too young to apply to the Royal College of Surgeons for a licence to practice, yet he was 'deep in debt'.
Voyage of the Rattlesnake
Huxley effectively resigned from the navy (by refusing to return to active service) and, in July 1854, he became Professor of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines and naturalist to the Geological Survey in the following year. In addition, he was Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution 1855–58 and 1865–67; Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons 1863–69; President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 1869–1870; and, later, President of the Royal Society 1883–85; and Inspector of Fisheries 1881–85.
The thirty-one years during which Huxley occupied the chair of natural history at the Royal School of Mines included work on vertebrate palaeontology and on many projects to advance the place of science in British life.
Among Huxley's most important work in this period was his continuing investigation of the relationship of man to other animals. For nearly a decade his research and lecturing was directed mainly to this topic, which led him directly into a clash with Richard Owen, a man widely disliked for his behaviour whilst also being admired for his capability. This struggle was to culminate in some severe defeats for the older man. Huxley's Croonian Lecture, delivered before the Royal Society in 1858 on The Theory of the Vertebrate Skull was the start. In this, he rejected Owen's view that the bones of the skull and the spine were homologous, an opinion previously held by Goethe and Lorenz Oken.
His classification of human races is fourfold: 1 Europeans 2 Mongolian 3 Negro (or Ethiopean) 4 Australian; each of these categories being broken down further into sub-sets. In fact all such anthropological classifications are put in the shade by our modern discovery that the genetic diversity of man in Africa is greater than exists in the rest of mankind put together. [see also Wiki page on race]
From 1870 onwards, Huxley was to some extent drawn away from scientific research by the claims of public duty. From 1862 to 1884 he served on eight Royal Commissions. From 1871 to 1880 he was a Secretary of the Royal Society and from 1883 to 1885 he was President. He was President of the Geological Society from 1868-1870. In 1870, he was President of the British Association at Liverpool and, in the same year was elected a member of the newly-constituted London School Board. He was made a Privy Councillor in 1892.
He was awarded the highest honours then open to British men of science: the Royal Society awarded him the Royal Medal in 1852, the Copley Medal in 1888 and the Darwin Medal in 1894; the Geological Society awarded him the Wollaston Medal in 1876; the Linnean Society awarded him the Linnean Medal in 1890. There were many other elections and appointments to eminent scientific bodies; these and his many academic awards are listed in the Life and Letters. He turned down many other appointments, notably the Linacre chair in zoology at Oxford and the Mastership of University College, Oxford. Balfour died whilst climbing in the Alps; he had just been appointed to a chair at Cambridge.
Public duties and awards
Huxley was originally not persuaded of 'development theory' as evolution was once called. We can see that in his savage review The authorship of this latter review was not known for sure until Wilberforce's son wrote his biography. So it can be said that, just as Darwin groomed Huxley, so Owen groomed Wilberforce; and both the proxies fought public battles on behalf of their principals as much as themselves.
chromolithograph by 'Ape' (Pellegrini)
Famously, Huxley responded to Wilberforce in the debate at the British Association meeting, on Saturday 30th June 1860 at the Oxford University Museum. He was joined at the debate by his and Darwin's friends Hooker and Lubbock, and they were opposed by the Lord Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle. The chair for this debate was Darwins's former botany tutor John Stevens Henslow.
Wilberforce had a track record against evolution as far back as the previous Oxford B.A. meeting in 1847 when he attacked Chambers' Vestiges. For the more challenging task of opposing the Origin, and the implication that man descended from apes (theme continued from the previous day) he had been assiduously coached by Richard Owen—Owen stayed with him the night before the debate (Desmond & Moore p493). On the day Wilberforce repeated some of the arguments from his Quarterly Review article (written but not yet published), then ventured onto slippery ground. His famous jibe at Huxley (as to whether H. was descended from an ape on his mother's side or his father's side) was probably unplanned, and certainly unwise. Huxley's reply to the effect that he would rather be descended from an ape than a man who misused his great talents—the exact wording is not certain—was widely recounted in pamphlets and a spoof play.
Other friends of Darwin spoke also; Hooker especially thought he had made the best points. The general view was and still is that Huxley got the better of the exchange but there are dissenting voices, and Wilberforce himself thought he had done quite well. In the absence of a verbatim report these differing perceptions cannot be judged fairly; Huxley wrote a detailed account for Darwin, a letter which does not survive.
Debate with Wilberforce
Although Darwin did not publish his Descent of Man until 1871, the general debate on this topic had started years before. A key event occurred in 1857 when Richard Owen presented (to the Linnean Society) his view that man was marked off from all other mammals by possessing features of the brain peculiar to the genus Homo. Having reached this (erroneous) opinion, Owen separated man from all other mammals in a subclass of its own. This paper was reprinted in 1863 as chapter 2 of Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (his most influential book), but in the 1894 volume 7 in his Collected Essays the history of the Owen/Huxley debate was edited out. This extended debate, partly oral and partly in print, was a landmark in Huxley's career. It was highly important in asserting his dominance of comparative anatomy, and in the long run more influential in establishing evolution amongst biologists than was the debate with Wilberforce.
'I am Darwin's bulldog' said Huxley, and it is apt; the second half of Darwin's life was lived mainly within his family, and the younger, combative Huxley operated mainly out in the world at large. A letter from THH to Ernst Haekel (Nov 2 1871) goes "The dogs have been snapping at [Darwin's] heels too much of late."
Man and ape
Huxley was certainly not slavish in his dealings with Darwin. As shown in every biography, they had quite different and rather complementary characters. Important also, Darwin was a field naturalist, but Huxley was an anatomist, so there was a difference in their experience of nature. Lastly, Darwin's views on science were different from Huxley's views. For Darwin, natural selection was the best way to explain evolution because it explained a huge range of natural history facts and observations: it solved problems. Huxley, on the other hand, was an empiricist who trusted what he could see, and some things are not easily seen. With this in mind, one can appreciate the debate between them, Darwin writing his letters, Huxley never going quite so far as to say he thought Darwin was right.
Huxley's reservations on natural selection were of the type "until selection and breeding can be seen to give rise to varieties which are infertile with each other, natural selection cannot be proved". Huxley's resistance to Darwin's massaging and suasion is evidence of mental firmness; he may be Darwin's bulldog, but not his poodle! At least he went so far as to say that he knew of no better hypothesis.
In November 1864 Huxley succeeded in launching a dining club, the X Club, like-minded people working to advance the cause of science; not surprisingly, the club consisted of most of his closest friends. There were nine members, who decided at their first meeting that there should be no more. The members were: Huxley, John Tyndall, J. D. Hooker, John Lubbock (banker, biologist and cousin of Darwin), Herbert Spencer (social philosopher and sub-editor of the Economist), William Spottiswoode (mathematician and the Queen's Printer), Thomas Hirst (Professor of Physics at University College London), Edward Frankland (the new Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution) and George Busk, zoologist and palaeontologist (formerly surgeon for HMS Dreadnought). All except Spencer were Fellows of the Royal Society. There were also some quite significant satellites such as William Flower and George Rolleston, (Huxley protegées), and liberal clergyman Arthur Stanley, the Dean of Westminster. Guests such as Charles Darwin and Hermann von Helmholtz were entertained from time to time.
The X Club
When Huxley himself was young there were virtually no degrees in British universities in the biological sciences and few courses. Most biologists of his day were either self-taught, or took medical degrees. When he retired there were established chairs in biological disciplines in most universities, and a broad consensus on the curricula to be followed. Huxley was the single most influential person in this transformation.
In the early 1870s the Royal School of Mines moved to new quarters in South Kensington; ultimately it would become one of the constituent parts of Imperial College London. The move gave Huxley the chance to give more prominence to laboratory work in biology teaching, an idea suggested by practice in German universities. That must be part of the reason; indeed it does help to explain the stultifying nature of much school biology. But zoology as taught at all levels became far too much the product of one man.
Huxley was comfortable with comparative anatomy, at which he was the greatest master of the day. He was not an all-round naturalist like Darwin, who had shown clearly enough how to weave together detailed factual information and subtle arguments across the vast web of life. Huxley chose, in his teaching (and to some extent in his research) to take a more straightforward course, concentrating on his personal strengths.
School of Mines and Zoology
Huxley was also a major influence in the direction taken by British schools: in November 1870 he was voted onto the London School Board. Perhaps Lenin was right when he remarked (in Materialism and empirio-criticism) "In Huxley's case... agnosticism serves as a fig-leaf for materialism".
Schools and the Bible
Huxley's interest in education went still further than school and university classrooms; he made a great effort to reach interested adults of all kinds: after all, he himself was largely self-educated. There were his lecture courses for working men, many of which were published afterwards, and there was the use he made of journalism, partly to earn money but mostly to reach out to the literate public. For most of his adult life he wrote for periodicals—the Westminster Review, the Saturday Review, the Reader, the Pall Mall Gazette, Macmillan's Magazine, the Contemporary Review. Germany was still ahead in formal science education, but interested people in Victorian Britain could use their initiative and find out what was going on by reading periodicals and using the lending libraries.
The technique of printing his more popular lectures in periodicals which were sold to the general public was extremely effective. A good example was The physical basis of life, a lecture given in Edinburgh on November 8th, 1868. Its theme — that vital action is nothing more than "the result of the molecular forces of the protoplasm which displays it" — shocked the audience, though that was nothing compared to the uproar when it was published in the Fortnightly Review for February 1869. John Morley, the editor, said "No article that had appeared in any periodical for a generation had caused such a sensation". It was like "the stir that in a [former] epoch was made by Swift's Conduct of the Allies, or Burke's French Revolution" (Morley 1917 p90). The issue was reprinted seven times and protoplasm became a household word; Punch added 'Professor Protoplasm' to its other tags for him.
The topic had been stimulated by Huxley seeing the cytoplasmic streaming in plant cells, which is indeed a sensational sight. For these audiences Huxley's claim that this activity should not be explained by words such as vitality, but by the working of its constituent chemicals, was surprising and shocking. Today we would perhaps emphasise the extraordinary structural arrangement of those chemicals as the key to understanding what cells do, but little of that was known in the nineteenth century.
When the Archbishop of York thought this 'new philosophy' was based on August Comte's positivism, Huxley corrected him: "Comte's philosophy [is just] Catholicism minus Christianity" (Huxley 1893 vol 1 of Collected Essays Methods & Results 156). A later version was "[positivism is] sheer Popery with M. Comte in the chair of St Peter, and with the names of the saints changed." (lecture on The scientific aspects of positivism Huxley 1870 Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews p149). Huxley's dismissal of positivism damaged it so severely that Comte's ideas withered in Britain.
The following list is given by Leonard Huxley in his biography of his father (titles somewhat shortened here). The Royal Commission is the senior investigative forum in the British constitution. A rough analysis shows that five commissions involved science and scientific education; three involved medicine and three involved fisheries. Two were directed solely to Scotland and two to Ireland. Several involve difficult ethical and legal issues. All are directed partly or wholly towards the examination of possible changes to law and/or administrative practice.
He was also elected to two general Commissions on Ireland (which at that time referred to the whole island).
1862 Trawling for herrings on the coast of Scotland.
1865–65 Sea fisheries of the United Kingdom.
1870–71 The Contagious Diseases Acts.
1870–75 Scientific instruction and the advancement of science.
1876 The practice of subjugating live animals to scientific experiments (vivisection).
1876–78 The universities of Scotland.
1881–82 The Medical Acts. [i.e. the legal framework for medicine]
1884 Trawl, net and beam trawl fishing.
1866 On the Royal College of Science for Ireland.
1868 On science and art instruction in Ireland. Royal and other Commissions
See also: Huxley family
Pencil drawing from the National Portrait Gallery.
In 1855, he married Henrietta Anne Heathorn (1825–1915), an English emigrée whom he had met in Sydney. They kept correspondence until he was able to send for her. They had five daughters and three sons:
Huxley's relationship with his relatives and children were quite genial by the standards of the day—so long as they lived their lives in an honourable manner, which some did not. After his mother, his eldest sister Lizzie was the most important person in his life until his own marriage. He remained on good terms with his own children, which is more than can be said of many Victorian fathers. This excerpt from a letter to Jessie, his eldest daughter is full of affection:
The most famous descendents in the third generation are offspring of Leonard Huxley:
Sir Julian Huxley FRS, grandson (1887–1975, son of Leonard Huxley and Julia Arnold) was a notable evolutionary biologist, who promoted the idea of humanism and was the first Director of UNESCO. His work in zoology was broader even than his grandfather: it included ethology and wildlife conservation, genetics and development as well as evolution. His two sons were both scientists of note: Anthony Julian Huxley, a botanist, and Francis Huxley, an anthropologist.
Aldous Huxley, grandson, (1891–1963, son of Leonard Huxley and Julia Arnold) was a famous author (Chrome Yellow 1921, Brave New World 1932, Eyeless in Gaza 1936, Ape and Essence 1948, The Doors of Perception 1954).
Sir Andrew Huxley OM FRS, grandson (b 1917, son of Leonard Huxley and Roselind Bruce) won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1963 jointly for work on nerve impulses. Andrew is the second Huxley to become President of the Royal Society (1980–85).
Noel Huxley (1856–1860) died aged 4.
Jessie Oriana Huxley (1856–1927), married architect Fred Waller in 1877.
Marian Huxley (1859–1887) married artist John Collier in 1879.
Leonard Huxley (1860–1933) author.
Rachel Huxley (1862–1934) married civil engineer Alfred Eckersley in 1884, he died 1895.
Henrietta (Nettie) Huxley (1863–1940), married Harold Roller, travelled Europe as a singer.
Henry Huxley (1865–1946), became a fashionable general practitioner in London.
Ethel Huxley (1866–1941) married artist John Collier (widower of sister) in 1889.
"Dearest Jess, You are a badly used young person—you are; and nothing short of that conviction would get a letter out of your still worse used Pater, the bête noir of whose existence is letter-writing. Catch me discussing the Afghan question with you, you little pepper-pot! No, not if I know it..." [goes on nevertheless to give strong opinions of the Afghans, at that time causing plenty of trouble to the Indian Empire—see Second Anglo-Afghan War] "There, you plague—ever your affec. Daddy, THH." (letter Dec 7th 1878, Huxley L 1900) Family
Biographers have sometimes noted the occurrence of mental illness in the Huxley family. His father became "sunk in worse than childish imbecility of mind" contained this comment: "The direct result of this enquiry is... to prove that the laws of heredity are as applicable to the mental faculties as to the bodily faculties".
Mental problems in the family
Darwin's ideas and Huxley's controversies gave rise to many cartoons and satires. It was the debate about man's place in nature that roused such widespread comment: cartoons are so numerous as to be almost impossible to count; Darwin's head on a monkey's body is one of the visual clichés of the age. Three or four items of especial ripeness are:
Next HUXLEY replies That OWEN he lies And garbles his Latin quotation; That his facts are not new, His mistakes not a few, Detrimental to his reputation. To twice slay the slain By dint of the Brain (Thus HUXLEY concludes his review) Is but labour in vain, unproductive of gain, And so I shall bid you "Adieu"!
Say am I a man or a brother, Or only an anthropoid ape?
Policeman X — Huxley, your Worship, I take to be a young hand, but very vicious; but Owen I have seen before. He got into trouble with an old bone man, called Mantell, who never could be off complaining as Owen prigged his bones. People did say that the old man never got over it, and Owen worritted him to death; but I don't think it was so bad as that. Hears as Owen takes the chair at a crib in Bloomsbury. I don't think it will be a harmonic meeting altogether. And Huxley hangs out in Jermyn Street.
[Tom Huxley's 'low set' included Hooker 'in the green and vegetable line' and 'Charlie Darwin, the pigeon-fancier'; Owen's 'crib in Bloomsbury' was the British Museum, of which Natural History was but one department.]
An illustration by Linley Sambourne showed Huxley and Owen studying a captured water baby. In 1892 Thomas Henry Huxley's five-year-old grandson Julian saw this engraving and wrote his grandfather a letter asking:
Dear Grandpater – Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day? – Your loving Julian.
Huxley wrote back:
My dear Julian – I could never make sure about that Water Baby. I have seen Babies in water and Babies in bottles; the Baby in the water was not in a bottle and the Baby in the bottle was not in water. My friend who wrote the story of the Water Baby was a very kind man and very clever. Perhaps he thought I could see as much in the water as he did – There are some people who see a great deal and some who see very little in the same things. When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing.
Monkeyana (Punch vol 40 18th May 1861). Signed 'Gorilla', this turned out to be by Sir Philip Egerton MP, amateur naturalist, fossil fish collector and — Richard Owen's patron! and the story includes a satire on the reaction to Darwin's theory, with all the main scientific participants appearing, including Richard Owen and Huxley. Satires
Abram, Abraham became
- By will divine
Let pickled Brian's name
- Be changed to Brine!
"I am Darwin's bulldog" coined by THH himself and so self-evidently apt that it was almost universally copied.
"How extremely stupid [of me] not to have thought of that" said in particular of the idea of natural selection. [versions in Life & Letters of CD and L&L of THH differ slightly as indicated]
"After all, it is as respectable to be modified ape as to be modified dirt" written in a letter to Dr Frederick Dyster 30th Jan 1859, i.e. before the publication of the Origin. [Huxley papers at Imperial College: HP 15.106]
"The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands" said to Sir Benjamin Brodie after Wilberforce's jibe in the Oxford debate. [L&L of THH Chapter 14]
"Life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain more than once". Last of a series of exchanges when Owen repeated his claims about the Gorilla brain in a Royal Institution lecture. [Athenaeum 13 April 1861 p.498; Browne vol 2 p.159]
"The fact is that he (Richard Owen) made a prodigious blunder... and now his only chance is to be silent & let people forget the exposure!" THH to J.D. Hooker 27 April 1861 about Owen's view on human and ape brains; and of course Owen was not silent.
"Not far from the invention of fire... we must rank the invention of doubt." [Collected Essays vol 6, viii] Huxley
"I think his tone is much too vehement" [Charles Darwin in letter to Hooker about THH's Royal Institution lecture in 1854]
"Huxley gave the death-blow not only to Owen's theory of the skull but also to Owen's hitherto unchallenged prestige" Notes
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Clack, Jenny (2002), Gaining ground: the origin of tetrapods, Indiana
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Cronin, Helena (1991), The ant and the peacock: altruism and sexual selection from Darwin to today, Cambridge University Press
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Darwin, Charles & Alfred Russel Wallace, written at London, "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection", Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology 3 (9): (Read 1 July): 45–62, 1858.
Darwin, Francis & A.C. Seward (1903), More Letters of Charles Darwin. 2 vols, London: John Murray
Desmond, Adrian (1994), Huxley: vol 1 The Devil's Disciple, London: Michael Joseph, ISBN 0-7181-3641-1
Desmond, Adrian (1997), Huxley: vol 2 Evolution's high priest, London: Michael Joseph
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Desmond, Adrian & James Moore (1991), Darwin, London: Joseph
Di Gregorio, Mario A (1984), T.H. Huxley's place in natural science, New Haven: Yale University Press, ISBN 0300030622
Duncan, David (1908), Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer. 2 vols, Michael Joseph
Eve, A.S. & C.H. Creasey (1945), Life and work of John Tyndall, London: Macmillan
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Huxley, Leonard (1900), The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley. 2 vols 8vo, London: Macmillan
Huxley, Thomas Henry (1854), "Review of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, tenth edition", British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review (no. 13)
Huxley, Thomas Henry (1855), "On certain zological arguments commonly adduced in favour of the hypothesis of the progressive development of animal life in time", Proceedings of the Royal Institution 2 (1854–58)
Huxley, Thomas Henry (1859), The Oceanic Hydrozoa, London: The Ray Society, ISBN 0300030622
Huxley, Thomas Henry (1860a), "On species, and races and their origin", Proc. Roy. Inst. 1858-62 (no. III): 195
Huxley, Thomas Henry (1860b), "The origin of species", Westminster Review (no. April)
Huxley, Thomas Henry (1861), "On the zoological relations of man with the lower animals", Natural History Review (new series) (no. 1)
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Huxley, Thomas Henry (1864), "Further remarks on the human remains from the Neanderthal", Natural History Review (London) (no. 4): 429–46
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Morley, John (1917), Recollections. 2 vols, Macmillan
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Owen, Richard (1858), "On the characters, principles of division, and primary groups of the Class Mammalia", Proc Linnean Society: Zoology (no. 2): 1–37
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Poulton, Edward Bagnall (1896), Charles Darwin and the theory of natural selection, London: Cassell.(Chapter 18 deals with Huxley and natural selection)
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- Be changed to Brine!