Thomas Henry Huxley is usually known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” While Charles Darwin remained quietly at home, letting his science speak for itself, Huxley, sixteen years younger, aggressively defended evolution with his pen and his voice. Huxley’s confrontation with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Oxford in 1860 has long been recognized as one of the turning points in the history of science and a major step in the freeing of English science from domination by religious authority. Huxley has become part of the legends of science.
Adrian Desmond (who coauthored with James Moore the 1992 biography Darwin) uses this biography to place Huxley’s defense of Darwin in context, as well as to remind readers that Huxley was far more than simply a defender of Darwin: Huxley also was a major actor in the transformation of Victorian society. The theory of evolution was not only a scientific theory; it was also the principal weapon in Huxley’s arsenal as he fought tradition and monopoly in science and in the larger society.
To fully understand Desmond’s arguments in Huxley, it helps to have read the Desmond-Moore biography of Darwin. That book provides a picture of science, English society, and the place of evolution in history that complements this book.
Although the names of Huxley and Darwin will be forever linked in history because of their alliance in support of evolution, the two men were polar opposites in almost every other way. Darwin was independently wealthy and was perhaps the last of the great amateur gentleman-scientists. His great voyage of discovery aboard HMS Beagle was as the companion to the ship’s captain. Huxley’s youth and early adulthood was marked by poverty. When he sailed aboard HMS Rattlesnake, it was as an assistant surgeon, thrilled to be earning seven shillings a day. He was at the forefront of the struggle to make science a middle- class, salaried profession, in no small part because he needed to earn his living. Darwin was a recluse, hidden away in the country, with almost no interest in or contact with the scientific institutions of Great Britain. His laboratory was in his home. Huxley loved crowds, resided in London, and was a member of numerous committees, government commissions, and societies. It was not uncommon for him to be president of two or more scientific societies simultaneously. His home and his laboratory were entirely different spaces. For Darwin, cursed with ill health, a few good hours of work was a blessing; Huxley was renowned for his energy and output. Darwin hated controversy and did not reach out to the general public with his writings. Controversy seemed to energize Huxley, who loved the role of popularizer. He furnished the literary and mass-circulation journals with article after article and spoke before audiences ranging from the nobility to day laborers—and his skills were acclaimed by all his audiences.
Even their approaches to science differed. Darwin would engage in extended researches, over many years, of a very detailed nature. For all of his ill health, he did finish projects. His preferred form of publication was the great monograph. Among the subjects he investigated were orchids, earthworms, and climbing plants. He was a field naturalist with an ecological vision. In contrast, Huxley had a more narrow range of research interests. He was primarily an embryologist, one of the great students of invertebrates during the middle of the nineteenth century and an excellent paleontologist. He was a skilled dissector and microscopist. Monographs were not his forte. Instead, he wrote essays and articles. He promised far more than he ever had the time to deliver.
In what was perhaps the ultimate ironic difference, for all his enthusiastic support of evolution, Huxley was very reluctant to accept Darwin’s great insight, natural selection. What Huxley embraced was the need for some rational explanation of life to replace dependence on a supernatural explanation, not Darwin’s specific mechanism for evolution. He was uncertain how evolution took place, only that it did.
Of all these differences, those of financial and social status were the most important and most defining. Huxley was born above a butcher’s shop. Life was a continuous struggle for financial security and social status. In his extended family, failure was commonplace. His father was a poor schoolmaster whose school was in decline. Alcoholism, insanity, and scandal touched his siblings, his in-laws, and his children. His wife, born in the...
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