Huxley, T. H.
T. H. Huxley 1825-1895
English biologist, philosopher, social critic, lecturer, essayist, and nonfiction writer.
Tenacious and articulate, Huxley became the Victorian era's popularizer of Darwinian evolution, the most fiercely debated issue of his generation. Called "Darwin's Bulldog," Huxley was one of the theory's first adherents and, in such works as Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature, made the first clear statements as to man's place in the evolutionary scheme.
Born on May 4, 1825, in Ealing, Middlesex, near London, Thomas Henry Huxley was the seventh child of George Huxley, a rural schoolmaster. Although he received only two years of formal education during his childhood, he read science, history, and philosophy voraciously; by the time he received a medical apprenticeship to Charing Cross Hospital at the age of 15, he had mastered German, French, and Italian and had read Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33), William Hamilton on logic, and much of Thomas Carlyle. After studying as a free scholar at Charing Cross, Huxley received top honors in chemistry, anatomy, and physiology and took his medical degree from the University of London in 1845, having published his first article—the identification of a structure in the human hair membrane, still known as Huxley's layer. At 21, he became assistant surgeon on the Royal Navy frigate the H. M. S. Rattlesnake, which charted the waters between the Great Barrier Reef and the Australian coast. During the nearly five-year journey Huxley collected and closely studied specimens of marine invertebrates. The research results were regularly contributed to the Westminster Review and, when he returned to England, Huxley found that he had become accepted into scientific circles. He became lecturer on natural history at London's School of Mines and shortly sent for and married his fianceé Henrietta Heathorn, whom he had met in Sydney, Australia.
In 1859, following the birth of his first son and after recovering from an illness which took him to Switzerland, Huxley finally saw the publication of The Oceanic Hydrozoa, a description of his observations during the Rattlesnake voyage. In that same year, in the
Proceedings of the Royal Society, he published his 1858 Croonian lecture, "On the Theory of the Vertebrate Skull," and was appointed secretary of the Geological Society. However, far more significant in terms of his long-term reputation were his 1859 and 1860 reviews of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in the London Times and Westminster Review. Darwin's book stated convictions toward which Huxley himself had been leaning, and it soon became a significant influence upon his career as a lecturer and writer. Huxley began publicly to advocate Darwin's theory of evolution. In June 1860 at the British Association meeting at Oxford, Huxley debated Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce, advancing Darwinian evolution as the best explanation for species-diversity, and in 1862 he gave a series of lectures on Darwin's theories to an audience of workingmen at the Royal School of Mines; shorthand notes of these lectures would later be published as On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature (1862).
The following decades showed his abilities as a preacher of the gospel of evolution coupled with a credo based upon a view toward traditional religious belief that Huxley called "agnostic"—a term coined by him to describe his position against holders of orthodox faith. In the decade following the publication of his first full-length book in 1863, Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature, Huxley found increasing popularity as a lecturer, educator, and public advocate for the emerging new science; this led to his winning numerous offices and honors and to the writing of several essays. One of his most significant achievements in 1864 was his helping to organize with eight fellow scientists, including John Tyndall, Joseph Hooker, and Herbert Spencer, a dinner group known as the X Club. For nearly thirty years they gathered before each meeting of the Royal Society to discuss and plan the politics for the advancement of English science. Known as the "inner cabinet of science," they virtually shaped the direction of scientific affairs in mid-Victorian England and insured continuing contact among eminent researchers and educators.
As Huxley became an eminent member of the scientific community, his commitments grew. In addition to his salaried appointments as inspector of salmon fisheries and as dean of the Royal College of Science, Huxley was also a fellow of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, the Zoological Society, and the Royal College of Surgeons, as well as an honorary member or fellow of a dozen or more other scientific societies. At various times he was president of the Royal Society, the office that he ranked as his highest honor, of the Geological Society, the Paleontographical Society, the Ethnological Society, and the British Association. He was elected to London's first school board and served as a trustee of the British Museum, received the distinguished Copley and Darwin medals, and started a science column in the Saturday Review that gave rise to two influential journals, the Natural History Review and Nature.
In the midst of rapidly increasing professional responsibilities, including ongoing research and writing of textbooks, Huxley continued writing in such varied areas as biology and evolution, zoology, education reform, and politics. Recurring problems of ill health worsened, however, until 1885, when continuing illness forced his retirement from all official appointments. The writings that followed, such as Evolution and Ethics (1893), take on a pessimistic tone; this quality is noted by several modern critics, including James G. Paradis, who, in T. H. Huxley: Man's Place in Nature (1978), finds that Huxley's "philosophical outlook underwent a gradual transition from youthful Romanticism, . . . toward increasing determinism at mid-career, to his final and startling fin de siècle declaration, almost on his deathbed, that man's hope lay in his revolt against nature." Huxley supervised the publication of his Collected Essays during 1893 and 1894, preparing prefaces to each of the nine volumes, and died shortly afterward, on June 29, 1895.
Huxley was a prolific writer whose contributions to Victorian culture and science span anatomy, marine biology, zoology, and paleontology, as well as philosophy, religion, education and politics. Throughout his career, he contributed substantially to facilitating the kind of scientific education he espoused through the publication of textbooks, such as his A Manual of the Anatomy of Vertebrated Animals (1871), which remained the standard text for over twenty-five years. But his Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863), which appeared five years after Darwin's Origin of Species, is one of his most important and influential works. In it, Huxley combines comparative anatomy, embryology, and paleontology to demonstrate man's kinship with lower animals, especially apes. Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature extended Darwin's ideas in remarkably simple layman's language and, for the first time, explicitly applied evolutionary theory to human beings, which Darwin, for the most part, had avoided. Huxley attacked views such as those of Lamarck and Robert Chambers, but he also critiqued Darwin's view that evolution is a gradual process. Rather, Huxley thought that an evolving lineage may undergo rapid "saltations." One of the first to suggest the reptilian ancestors of modern day birds, Huxley claimed that such drastic shifts occurred in the descent of birds from dinosaurs.
Huxley also explored the ethical implications of his and Darwin's theories. His lecture "On the Physical Basis of Life," given before an Edinburgh audience at the heart of Scotch Presbyterianism, flatly rejects all theories of vitalism and spontaneity by declaring that all life forces are determined by chemical ones; a combination of elements produces protoplasm, the physical basis for life, and the mind itself is but "the result of molecular forces." However, he leaves the door open to ethical responsibility by declaring that apparent natural law is only a probability and that matter is unknown, subject to the skeptic's questioning. Indeed, later writings such as Science and Morals (1888) proclaim the unromantic view that morality actually resists the natural order, that it is "a real and living belief in that fixed order of nature which sends social disorganization on the track of immorality."
Although he denied being a materialist and said that he used materialistic terminology only as a tool to express scientific ideas, Huxley faced criticism for seemingly implying the absence of ethical responsibility. Huxley frequently locked horns with the orthodox religious establishment and was known as the "bishop eater" for his provocative and challenging attacks on defenders of biblical literalism; many—most notably Dr. Henry Wace, Archbishop Wilberforce, and W. C. Magee, bishop of Peterborough—criticized his position on religion. But Huxley's strong impact upon English education and his effective leadership among his fellow scientists were recognized throughout his career. He was acquainted with such figures as Joseph Hooker, Charles Lyell, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin, and his leadership in the English scientific community and as a popularizer of science shaped modern science and scientific practice.
On the Educational Value of the Natural History Sciences (nonfiction) 1854
The Oceanic Hydrozoa: A Description of the Calycophoridae and Psysophoridea Observed During the Voyage of H.M. S. "Rattlesnake," in the Years 1846-1850 (nonfiction) 1859
On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature (philosophical prose) 1862
Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (philosophical prose) 1863
Elementary Atlas of Comparative Osteology (drawings) 1864
Lectures on the Elements of Comparative Anatomy (lectures) 1864
A Catalogue of the Collection of Fossils in the Museum of Practical Geology (catalogue) 1865
An Introduction to the Classification of Animals (nonfiction) 1869
Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews (essays) 1870
Lessons in Elementary Physiology (nonfiction) 1871
A Manual of the Anatomy of Vertebrated Animals (nonfiction) 1871
Critiques and Addresses (essays) 1873
A Course of Practical Instruction in Elementary Biology [with H. N. Martin] (nonfiction) 1875
The Evidence of the Miracle of Resurrection (philosophical prose) 1876
American Addresses, with a Lecture in the...
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SOURCE: "Memorial Tribute to Professor Thomas H. Huxley," in Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. XV, November 11, 1895, pp. 40-50.
[In the following essay, Osborn surveys Huxley's career and pays tribute to his lasting influence.]
All the members of this Academy, all men of science in America, in fact, are in different ways indebted to the late Professor Huxley. We would be ungrateful, indeed, especially in this section of the Academy, if we failed to join in the tributes which are being paid to him in different parts of the world.
In his memory I do not offer a formal address this evening, but as one of his students, would present some personal reminiscences of his characteristics as a teacher, and some of the most striking features of his life and work.
Huxley was born in 1825. Like Goethe, he inherited from his mother his brilliantly alert powers of thought, and from his father, his courage and tenacity of purpose, a combination of qualities which especially fitted him for the period in which he was to live. There is nothing striking recorded about his boyhood as a naturalist. He preferred engineering, but was led into medicine.
At the close of his medical course he secured a navy medical post upon the "Rattlesnake." This brought with it, as to Darwin, the training of a four years voyage to the South Seas off eastern Australia...
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SOURCE: "Citizen, Orator, and Essayist," in Thomas Henry Huxley: A Sketch of His Life and Work, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1900, pp. 204-17.
[In the essay that follows, Mitchell examines Huxley's rhetorical style and his involvement in scientific organizations.]
A great body of fine work in science and literature has been produced by persons who may be described as typically academic. Such persons confine their interest in life within the boundaries of their own immediate pursuits; they are absorbed so completely by their avocations that the hurly-burly of the world seems needlessly distracting and a little vulgar. No doubt the thoughts of those who cry out most loudly against disturbance by the intruding claims of the world are, for the most part, hardly worth disturbing; the attitude to extrinsic things of those who are absorbed by their work is aped not infrequently by those who are absorbed only in themselves. None the less it is important to recognise that a genuine aversion from affairs is characteristic of many fine original investigators, and it is on such persons that the idea of the simple and childlike nature of philosophers, a simplicity often reaching real incapacity for the affairs of life, is based. There was no trace of this natural isolation in the character of Huxley. He was not only a serious student of science but a keen and zealous citizen, eagerly conscious of the great social and...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Man's Place in Nature and Other Essays, by Thomas Henry Huxley, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1906, pp. ix-xvii.
[In the following essay, Lodge distinguishes Huxley's scientific materialism from naturalized philosophies, claiming that his heroic efforts in favor of the former did not imply the latter.]
Forty years ago the position of scientific studies was not so firmly established as it is to-day, and a conflict was necessary to secure their general recognition. The forces of obscurantism and of free and easy dogmatism were arrayed against them; and, just as in former centuries astronomy, and in more recent times geology, so in our own lifetime biology, has had to offer a harsh and fighting front, lest its progress be impeded by the hostility born of preconceived opinions, and by the bigotry of self-appointed guardians of conservative views.
The man who probably did as much as any to fight the battle of science in the nineteenth century, and secure the victory for free enquiry and progressive knowledge, is Thomas Henry Huxley; and it is an interesting fact that already the lapse of time is making it possible to bring his writings in cheap form to the notice of a multitude of interested readers. The pugnacious attitude, however, which, forty years ago, was appropriate, has become a little antique now; the conflict is not indeed over, but it has either totally...
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SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of T. H. Huxley," in The University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, January, 1949, pp. 159-75.
[In this essay, Houghton contends that, contrary to traditional appraisals, Huxley used a variety of rhetorical tools to advocate his agnosticism.]
For anyone so obviously devoted to controversy and propaganda, Huxley enjoyed a reputation for candour and sincerity that seems almost incredible. We can scarcely believe that the self-appointed champion of science, writing in an age of bitter religious controversy, and endowed with both pugnacity and a flair for style, could have resisted the temptation to use rhetorical sophistries of one kind or another. And use them he did, and with all the more success because, by great good luck, he had managed to acquire a reputation for simple honesty and plain speech which disarmed the usual caution of critics, as well as of general readers, on approaching polemical literature.
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SOURCE: "T. H. Huxley's Treatment of 'Nature'," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 18, January, 1957, pp. 120-27.
[In the following essay, Stanley claims that Huxley's early, romantic view of nature differs from his later, scientific philosophy. Stanley suggests that the shift may have occurred as a result of John Stuart Mill's essay "Nature."]
The reader of Thomas Henry Huxley may be puzzled in observing the contradictory points of view toward Nature embodied in the various essays. In any one essay the view is consistent. But in one piece Nature appears as a loving mother heaping rich gifts upon her children if they obey her rules. And in another Nature is the non-moral sum of all phenomena. That is, in one essay Huxley is romantic; in another, scientific. An effort to explain this opposition required first an examination of Huxley's writings in chronological order. This inspection revealed that in all discussions of Nature made before 1871, Huxley treated the subject from the romantic point of view; and that from 1876 onward, his attitude was scientific. Between 1870 and 1876 Huxley did not discuss the topic. The two periods are separated by an event which may have some significance; namely, the posthumous publication in 1874 of John Stuart Mill's essay "Nature," which had been completed in 1854. The possible relevance of this essay to Huxley's later treatment of Nature will be...
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SOURCE: "T. H. Huxley's Theory of Aesthetics: Unity in Diversity," in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 21, Fall, 1962, pp. 49-55.
[In the following essay, Blinderman examines Huxley's art criticism as it bridges the gap between science and humanities and explicates his literary powers.]
Leonardo Da Vinci, painter and inventor, and Albert Einstein, violinist and mathematician and social critic, were geniuses of Protean talent, creative in art and science. Another such figure whose works are illuminated by the creative imagination which makes for constant contemporaneity was Thomas Henry Huxley. He is less well known than these two epitomes of human power, but he was a spokesman of the Victorian New Reformation, a prophet of science, and a critic of art. Huxley's unpublished papers confirm the conviction of students familiar with his published volumes that he was more than Darwin's bulldog—though his efforts as a popularizer of Darwinism need not be belittled. In addition to being a scientist of noteworthy repute, he was an artist in prose, a point generally conceded even by those victim to his episcophagous appetite. He was, furthermore, a critic of art whose commentaries upon structure are valuable in at least two respects. First of all, these commentaries indicate that a sense of structure pervaded his thinking, manifesting itself in his scientific research, in his philosophical...
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SOURCE: "A Huxley Essay as 'Poem'," in Victorian Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 2, December, 1970, pp. 177-91.
[In the essay that follows, Gardner explores the literary devices used by Huxley to support his claim that "On the Physical Basis of Life" is poetry.]
Of all the acknowledged nineteenth-century masters of non-fictional prose, Thomas Henry Huxley raises in its most acute form the critical problem of justifying nonfiction as "literature" and "art." As scientist, educator, and agnostic, Huxley more than makes good a claim to significance as "background" and grist for the mills of intellectual and social history. Nor would many deny that his writings—whether they be treatises addressed to the Royal Society or essays published in the Fortnightly—are remarkable for their clarity, forcefulness, and grace of style. But on what grounds can any of them be termed "literature" and in what sense can their author be called an "artist?" The very people who conscientiously include him in their syllabuses may very well be those who most enjoy the joke of Dickens's including The Collected Poems of T. H. Huxley among the false book-backs with which he decorated his study at Gadshill. Even the very texts out of which Huxley is taught in literature courses prejudice his right to be considered by English departments at all. One, for example, compares him to Mill, concluding that both "enter only a little...
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SOURCE: T. H. Huxley: Man's Place in Nature, University of Nebraska Press, 1978, pp. 1-9, 11-45, 165-96.
[In the following excerpts, Paradis examines Huxley's early, romantic scientific view and his later view that man's hope lies in his moral objection to natural determinism. Paradis also explores Huxley's conception of the role of the scientist in understanding humankind's existential condition, comparing it specifically with Matthew Arnold's view as expressed in Culture and Anarchy.]
Nothing great in science has ever been done by men, whatever their powers, in whom the divine afflatus of the truth-seeker was wanting.
T. H. Huxley, "The Progress of Science: 1837-1887"
The Victorian debate over the challenge offered by the new science to traditional concepts of man and man's place in nature found its most prophetic focus in the clear, forceful argument of T. H. Huxley's generalist or popular essays. Huxley, whose professional reputation as a British anatomist and physiologist was well established and growing, undertook a second career, that of an essayist and cultural critic of mid-Victorian England, in the full recognition that technology had proved itself a force to alter society and that theoretical science was proving itself a force to alter assumptions as fundamental as man's...
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SOURCE: "T. H. Huxley's Rhetoric and the Popularization of Victorian Scientific Ideas: 1854-1874," in Victorian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, Spring, 1986, pp. 363-86.
[In this essay, Block explores Huxley's rhetorical style and the extent to which he shaped modern scientific writing.]
The most recent books treating Thomas Henry Huxley make a strong claim for the impact that his work had on developing a sense of "man's place in nature" and his place in science during the nineteenth century.1 Critics agree that many of Huxley's essays remain important landmarks and persuasive defenses of Victorian science. Yet few have sought to describe precisely how Huxley's drive for "unity in diversity" developed,2 or how his fabled "clarity of expression"3 effectively accommodated itself to the lesser knowledge and stronger prejudices of his different audiences. I propose to sketch briefly the evolution of Huxley's rhetorical strategy in some of his popular scientific essays. I shall also demonstrate the extent to which these and all Huxley's major essays are motivated by a peculiar sense of structure and certain characteristic modes of development. I shall then show how Huxley employed this rhetoric in a specific phase of the popular debate over evolutionary theory: the mind-matter debate that developed following his famous 1868 Edinburgh address, "On the Physical Basis of Life." Adapting...
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SOURCE: "Evolution and Ethics in its Victorian Context," in Evolution & Ethics: T. H. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, With New Essays on its Victorian and Sociobiological Context, Princeton University Press, 1989, pp. 3-55.
[In this essay, Paradis discusses the social and political implications of Huxley's "Prolegomena" and "Evolution and Ethics."]
In the summer of 1892, three years before his death, an ailing T. H. Huxley wrote the celebrated lecture "Evolution and Ethics," which he delivered at Oxford University the afternoon of May 18, 1893. The lecture, together with the "Prolegomena," an introductory essay completed in June of 1894, set traditional humanistic values in direct conflict with the physical realities revealed by nineteenth-century science. The forces of nature, seen by Huxley in terms of powerful material and instinctual laws, were poised, he now argued, against civilization and the future of humanity.
Huxley built his two essays on a domestic foundation, using a wealth of autobiographical themes and images. The struggle against odds, the need for self-restraint, the summoning of courage to strip off the veil of nature and remove the garment of make-believe, all lifelong personal themes, were transformed in the manner of Montaigne into dimensions of the human condition. Willingly or not, we are all controversialists in a transitory universe:...
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Ashforth, Albert. Thomas Henry Huxley. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969, 182 p.
Brief biography of Huxley that evaluates his contributions in light of modern science.
Bibby, Cyril. T. H. Huxley: Scientist, Humanist and Educator. London: Watts, 1959, 330 p.
Biography of Huxley that emphasizes his eclectic interests.
Desmond, Adrian. Huxley: The Devil's Disciple. London: Michael Joseph, 1994, 475 p.
Biography of Huxley focusing particularly on his agnosticism and social criticism, and the extent to which he ushered in "the great Victorian crisis of faith."
Irvine, William. Thomas Henry Huxley. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1960, 40 p.
Brief biography of Huxley published for the British Council and the National Book League.
Peterson, Houston. Huxley: Prophet of Science. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1932, 334 p.
Discusses Huxley's literary prowess as well as his advances in biology and how they shaped modern science.
Band, Henretta Trent. "Thomas Henry Huxley's Opposition to...
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