T. H. Huxley Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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.