Thomas Huxley

by Doug Linder (2004)

What paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called “the most famous story in all the hagiography of evolution” involved the person who also become the most important disciple of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Thomas Henry Huxley.  The occasion was the June 30, 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, an event highlighted by the first prominent debate over the controversial new theory proposed the previous year by Darwin and Wallace.  Seven hundred people jammed into the glass-roofed long west room at Oxford’s Zoological Museum, enticed by the prospect of hearing “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the influential and eloquent bishop of Oxford, present his attack on evolution.

As Gould observes in an essay in Bully for Brontosaurus, the story of Wilberforce’s speech and Huxley’s rejoinder “has been enshrined among the half-dozen greatest legends of science,” ranking up there with Archimedes “jumping from his bath and shouting ‘Eureka’ through the streets” or Newton being “beaned by an apple.” (BfB, 386)  As the story is generally told, the program got off to a contentious start when Bishop Wilberforce turned to Huxley and insisted that he state whether his relationship to apes came by way of his mother’s or his father’s side of the family.  Huxley, when it came to reply, responded (as reported in an account he later approved for publication):

I asserted…that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather.  If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with…success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real points at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.  (BfB, 394)

Raucous laughter broke out after Huxley’s sharply worded response to Wilberforce.  As the standard account goes, while emotions still roiled, Robert FitzRoy, Darwin’s former ship captain on the Beagle, roamed the halls, holding up a Bible and shouting to all within range, “The Book! The Book!” In fact, however, the evidence suggests that another pro-evolution speaker, botanist Joseph Hooker, took the podium after Huxley’s remarks and delivered a thoughtful argument for evolution, ending the meeting on a intellectually-exciting, though not especially chaotic, note.  The stirring event left a public clamoring for repeat performances.  When a friend suggested as much to Huxley at a party that evening, he replied, “Once in a lifetime is enough.” (Hux, 280)

The confrontation between Wilberforce and Huxley most likely was not so decisive a victory for evolution—if, indeed, it could be considered a victory at all—as is generally supposed.  Wilberforce, in a letter written three days after the meeting wrote, “[I] had quite a long fight with Huxley.  I think I thoroughly beat him.” Surprisingly, one of the few extant eyewitness accounts, by a scientist in attendance, agreed, writing, “I think the Bishop had the best of it.”  (BfB, 389)  The most accurate conclusion to be drawn of the famous meeting is that each side left claiming victory, much as sides would in Dayton sixty-five years later (BB, 393-94; DB, 476)

From this initial battle at Oxford, the brilliant Huxley would go on to become “the greatest popular spokesman for science in his century.”  (BfB, 401)  Although a first-rate zoologist (Huxley, for example, first proposed the dinosaur ancestry for birds and was England’s leading expert on reptile fossils), it is as a publicist for evolution that Huxley is best remembered.

Adrian Desmond, author of a masterful biography Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest, offered a variety of titles—many of them religiously-based—-for Huxley, all of them a testament to his influential role in promoting the theory of evolution:  “the Apostle Paul of the New Teaching,” “a new Luther looking for a pulpit,” “rapier-wielding doubting Thomas,” “the materialist with a messianic streak,” “Darwin’s Rottweiler.”  This skeptical man who coined the term “agnostic” and saw himself as the champion of science considered organized religion his enemy (he first employed the military metaphor “war” to describe the relationship).  He fought with zeal, he fought effectively, and he spared no ammunition.

Desmond describes the major role played by Huxley in reshaping a society suddenly thrown into crisis by Darwin’s shattering theory:

He was born into an age of bishops in cauliflower wigs deliberating on God’s goodness in Nature.  At the end he was riding a penny-farthing through a new world, lit by electricity and criss-crossed by telephone wires.  He left a secular society probing human ancestry, a society led by intellectuals proudly wearing his ‘agnostic’ badge.  (AD, xv)

Huxley surmounted his Dickensian background to become a new type of science celebrity.  He drew overflowing crowds of laborers to hear him tell tales of an ancient earth roamed by dinosaurs and of pre-humans climbing down from the trees of Africa.  He presented original arguments such as they have never heard: “Fossils that prove birds descended from dinosaurs—amazing!”

Huxley served as the diligent and unpaid marketer of the reclusive Darwin’s ideas.  With his gift for words, Huxley’s essays on natural selection helped the theory of evolution gain new supporters.  Nature picks the best of the struggling individuals of a species, he explained.  They were “like the crew of a foundered ship, and none but the good swimmers have a chance of reaching land.” (Hux, 264)  Darwin expressed admiration for his younger friend’s talents.  “The old fogies will think the world will come to an end,” he wrote to Huxley after reading one of his popular essays on evolution.  “I should have said that there was only one man in England who could have written this essay & that you were the man.” (Hux, 264)  Where others balked at the startling Darwin’s startling conclusion that all species came from one primordial life form, or that man was as much a product of evolution as any other species, Huxley went the whole way. To Darwin, he was his “warmest and most important supporter.” (Hux, 267)

The darkest days for Huxley, just as for his friend Darwin, came in the days and weeks following the death of his young son, another victim of scarlet fever.  When he received, in that dark fall of 1860, a consolatory letter for a Cambridge history professor, promising a reunion with his three-year old son in the hereafter, Huxley responded in moving words that might be the credo for any true lover of science.  Suggesting to the history professor that he put away all prejudice and re-evaluate his belief in immortality, Huxley wrote: “Sit down before fact as a little child.  I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.” (Hux, 288)

In the years that followed, Huxley worked on his own study of evolution and carried his message about our ape-ancestry to the great unwashed.  Crowd after crowd packed venues such as the great theater at Picadilly to hear Darwin’s magnetic disciple mix science with a little philosophy.  Understanding our evolutionary background, Huxley told the mostly working class audience, is a check on “the arrogance of man,…admonishing the conqueror that he is but dust.” (Hux, 293)  We rose from brutes, he said, but we are “assuredly not of them.” (Hux, 294)  His lectures proved so popular, that enterprising audience members took shorthand notes and soon he found his words peddled in bootleg pamphlets on newsstands around London.  “I regret that I did not publish them myself and turn an honest penny,” he complained.  (Hux, 310)

In 1863, Huxley published Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. With its cover showing skeletonized man “tripping ahead of his ‘grim relatives’” (a procession of apes), it was the first work to address the controversial subject of human’s origins, and the public rushed to buy copies even at the high price of six shillings.  Darwin expressed admiration for the “clearness and condensed vigor” of Huxley’s prose.  Within a week, publishers rushed to print a second run.  (Hux, 312-13)  Critics of all sorts sprang forward to denounce Man’s Place for a variety of sins, including undermining the racist assumptions of the day and lowering mankind into a cesspool of “absolute materialism” and “atheism” from whose darkness the universe will seem “quite unintelligible.”  (Hux, 320)

For the next three decades, Huxley campaigned, in his hard-edged and uncompromising style, for evolution as if there were to be an election between science and dogmatic religion, and that all of England would be voting.  Voters must choose which side of the “great gulf fixed between science and theology” they were on: with the “anthropomorphism of theology” or “the passionless impersonality…which science shows everywhere underlying the thin veil of phenomena.”  (SOG, 18) Huxley believed science could elevate the masses and provide the basis for a new and fairer morality.  As Adrian Desmond observed, “Science in Huxley’s hand had a religious potency.”  (Hux, 626)  The title of his important 1869 collection of essays, Lay Sermons, suggests how he saw scientific thinking as the substitute for traditional easy answers to life’s central questions.

 In July 1876, Huxley boarded the Germanic, a tramp sailing ship, for a seven-week passage across the Atlantic to the United States.  Arriving in New York harbor on August 5, Huxley studied Manhattan’s skyline and observed, “Ah, that is American.  In the Old World, the first things you see as you approach a great city are steeples; here you see…centers of intelligence.” (Hux, 470)

For the next six weeks of that Centennial Summer, Professor Protoplasm (as one American publication dubbed him) traveled more than 3,000 miles around the eastern half of the United States proselytizing for Darwinism.  In one packed lecture hall after another, Huxley extolled evolution.  Offers for additional lectures continued to pour in. His stops included Tennessee, where a half century later the Scopes trial would test the ideas he now presented to welcoming audiences.  He hobnobbed with Tennessee’s Governor Porter and on the campus of Nashville’s new Methodist university, Vanderbilt, Huxley discovered that a bust in his likeness.  A three-night run of lectures at Chickering Hall in New York City drew capacity audiences. As he told mesmerized audiences that fossil discoveries on the American plains proved evolution to be “a matter of fact,” he was backed by blown up photographs of chicken-sized dinosaurs and American fossil-toothed birds.  A headline in the New York Herald after the first night’s lecture proclaimed, “The Gauntlet Thrown Down by Modern Science.”  (Hux, 480)  The Daily Graphic ran a full-cover cartoon of “Huxley Eikonoklastes” battering a statue of Moses.  The Tribune issued a 10-cent commemorative issue containing the texts of Huxley’s New York speeches on the morning following his final lecture.

In addition to lecturing, Huxley took time to study American fossil collections and meet with leading American scientists.  The Peabody fossil collection at Yale impressed Huxley mightily.  He declared that seeing the Peabody’s Badlands fossils was alone “worth all the journey across.” (Hux, 471)  He journeyed to the banks of the Connecticut River to study primeval three-toed tracks.  A collection of fossil horses from the Nebraska hills convinced him that the modern horse had an American ancestry.  The collection ranging from the fox-sided Orohippus to the pony-sized Pliohippus was, Huxley decided, “the most wonderful thing I ever saw.” (Hux, 473)  He spoke at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and met with America’s leading evolutionists, including Harvard botanist Asa Gray, whose brand of evolution mixed with intelligent design elements that Huxley found strange.  When Huxley set sail back for Europe in late September he had many Americans believing, in the words of Yale’s Othniel C. Marsh, “to doubt evolution…is to doubt science.” (Hux, 482)  Darwinism had come of age.

Darwin’s admiration for his great disciple and friend continued to grow to the very end.  “Huxley is the king of men,” Darwin wrote in a letter to an American friend.  Students in Professor Huxley’s class at the Royal School of Mines were surprised one day to see Huxley enter the classroom with an older friend. “Darwin was instantly recognized by the class…and sent a thrill of curiosity down the room, for no one present had ever seen him before.”  (Hux, 510)  On March 27, 1882, Darwin wrote the last words in a thirty-year friendship to Huxley: “I wish to God there were more automata in the world like you.” (Hux, 519)

When word of Darwin’s death reached Huxley, he met with Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, to arrange a burial of “royal character” for the great naturalist.  To do otherwise, Huxley argued, would be an historic mistake.  “Fifty or one hundred years hence it would seem absolutely incredible to people that the state had in no way recognized his transcendent services to science,” he declared.  (Hux, 520)  Arrangements were in fact made, and Thomas Huxley was among the pallbearers who carried the coffin containing the agnostic’s body to the northeast corner of the nave of Westminister Abbey, where it was laid to rest next to the monument for Sir Isaac Newton.  The Times reported on the chosen resting place for Darwin’s body, commenting, the “Abbey needed needed it more than it needed the Abbey.” (Hux, 521)

Huxley’s crusade for science transformed the world.  The world he left in 1895 was far different than the one that existed when he began his career as a zoologist and publicist for Darwinism nearly a half century earlier.  By the end of his life, the industrial and professional classes had been liberated, and the previously overwhelming power of the Church and the Anglican universities constrained.  Huxley contributed to creating an open, skeptical society in which intellectuals for the first time had access to power.  He emancipated dissent and helped shake the complacency of the Victorian age. 

Evolution/Creationism Homepage