Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1897

Article abstract: The first and most influential defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Huxley forcefully articulated its implications in the fields of religion, philosophy, and ethics.

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Early Life

Thomas Henry Huxley was born on May 4, 1825, in Ealing, Middlesex, England, a village not far from London. The seventh and youngest child of George and Rachel Huxley, he was reared in a family of limited means. Though his father had taught mathematics, Huxley had had only two years of formal education before the Ealing school closed and his father changed professions. At the age of ten, Huxley became responsible for his own education.

Ironically, the inquisitive and self-motivated boy probably learned more on his own, systematically working through his father’s library, than he would have in the incompetent semipublic education system of early nineteenth century England. Demonstrating the drive that would characterize his later years, he taught himself both French and German in order to read such writers as René Descartes and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in their native languages. He read widely both in the humanities and in the sciences, laying a foundation that would serve him in his later efforts to bridge the two disciplines.

In 1842, Huxley won a scholarship to study medicine at London University’s Charing Cross Hospital. A swarthy, energetic young man, whose keen eyes betrayed a voracious intellectual appetite, he took full advantage of his first complete course of instruction, winning the university’s Gold Medal in Anatomy and Physiology upon his graduation in 1845. A few months later, he discovered a cellular component of human hair that came to be known as “Huxley’s layer.”

The following year, Huxley joined the navy and was appointed assistant surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake, a surveying ship that began a four-year cruise of the South Pacific. Though he was not officially the ship’s naturalist, he undertook a rigorous study of marine plankton that earned for him the reputation of a serious and gifted young scientist upon its publication in London. In 1851, a year following his return to London, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, England’s most respected scientific institution. In 1852, he won the society’s gold medal for his studies of invertebrate animals. In 1854, he resigned from the navy, hoping against the odds to secure a position that would allow him to do scientific research in London. That same year, his gamble paid off and he received two such appointments, one as professor of natural history and paleontology in the Royal School of Mines, and the other as curator of fossils in the Museum of Practical Geography. Combining the two modest salaries, he earned enough to send for his fiancée, Henrietta Anne Heathorn of Sydney, Australia. In 1855, the two were married.

In the years that followed, Huxley built his reputation not only as a rigorous scientist but also as a gifted public speaker. He became known as a spokesman for the sciences, never afraid to defend controversial findings from attacks by politicians and religious leaders. When Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, these attributes brought Huxley to the forefront of the century’s most heated debate.

Life’s Work

Though Huxley eventually made much use of Darwin’s study, demonstrating its implications in a wide number of fields, he had opposed all previous theories of evolution. His reviews of the versions of it put forward by Robert Chambers and Jean Baptiste Lamarck had been scathing. It was only upon reading Darwin’s work, following the course of Darwin’s logic and tallying his numerous observations, that Huxley could embrace the controversial idea. For his own part, Darwin had sought Huxley’s approval before publishing the book. A shy, retiring man, Darwin lacked the stamina required to defend his work from the onslaught of vicious attacks it was sure to receive. In Huxley, Darwin found a respected and able supporter.

In a series of heated debates following the book’s publication, Huxley championed Darwin’s theory of evolution as the most successful framework yet proposed, within which to organize the known biological facts. What is more important, he fought to defend the broader principle that such controversies are better settled by examining the observable evidence than by appealing to unsupported scripture. In the most important of these debates, opposing the influential Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford, Huxley defiantly asserted his and his colleagues’ intention to continue to test Darwin’s theory, without regard to the clergy’s attempts to discredit them.

From 1860 to 1863, Huxley began the first of a series of studies intended to carry out this intention, extensively comparing primate anatomies. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin had only hinted that the theory of evolution could be applied to humans. In Huxley’s most important book, Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), the younger scientist demonstrated that humans bear a close enough resemblance to the great apes to be included in their taxonomical class. Though a number of scientists initially rejected his conclusions, Huxley, like Darwin, thoroughly documented his findings with an entire volume of observed phenomena. His observations were there to be checked, and eventually the majority in the scientific community was convinced. No longer considered separate from the animal kingdom, humans joined the class of primates.

Sensitive to the fears that such findings engendered, Huxley devoted a large part of his later years to issues raised by the new science in the fields of religion, morality, and philosophy. In a line of his thought that culminated in the book Evolution and Ethics (1893), he attempted to ease concerns that a moral education could not be taught without religion, describing ethics as one of the human species’ special survival mechanisms. He argued that when people in a group treat one another ethically, each member conscious of the well-being of the others, the survival of the group (and thus of each individual) is made more secure. For this reason, he firmly believed that in the public schools a good moral education should accompany both a rigorous scientific education and a firm grounding in the humanities. As one of the founding members of the school board of London, he had a chance to put these views into practice.

Huxley also took it upon himself to promote the education of adults who, like himself, had never had the benefit of a primary or secondary education. In his very popular Workingman Lectures, he took the time to express complex scientific and philosophical concepts in language that people from all walks of life could understand. He emphasized that science itself is nothing more than observation and common sense, applied in a systematic fashion and stored in books.

When Huxley died on June 29, 1895, in Eastbourne, East Sussex, England, he had published a number of important books and countless influential articles, he had received honorary degrees from some of the finest universities both in Great Britain and in the United States, and he had been elected president of Great Britain’s Royal Society. His life’s work has been carried on impressively by his son Leonard Huxley, a biographer and man of letters, and by his grandsons Aldous Huxley, the novelist, Andrew Fielding Huxley, cowinner of the 1963 Nobel Prize in Medicine, and Julian Huxley, a leading biologist who served as the first director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Summary

Though in the general public the controversy surrounding evolution has not ended, in the scientific community the theory has, with rare exceptions, been universally accepted since Thomas Henry Huxley’s time. Had the theory been disproved, Darwin, Huxley, and the few other scientists who had fought initially for its acceptance would probably have been ridiculed out of their profession. Instead, evolution has survived to become the cornerstone of modern biology, and all who have benefited from the great strides in twentieth century medicine and disease control owe a debt to these courageous scientists.

In addition, Huxley in particular helped his contemporaries to see how helpful results could be obtained in any area of human thought, through the application of scientific inductive reasoning—beginning with the observed facts and working up toward the answers to the larger questions. This aspect of Huxley’s thought has been missed by many of his opponents. For example, his opposition in religious circles considered him an atheist, but Huxley did not actually believe that there was enough evidence either to prove or to disprove the existence of God. To describe his own position, he coined the term “agnostic” defining it as one who is not afraid to admit when there are not enough observable facts to have a reliable opinion on a given topic. As he stated in 1868 in his essay “On the Physical Basis of Life”:

Why trouble ourselves about matters of which, however important they may be, we do know nothing, and can know nothing? We live in a world which is full of misery and ignorance, and the plain duty of each of us is to try to make the little corner he can influence somewhat less miserable and somewhat less ignorant than it was before he entered it.

Bibliography

Ashforth, Albert. Thomas Henry Huxley. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969. A fairly recent examination of Huxley’s thought, focusing on the decade that followed Huxley’s years defending Darwin. Ashforth discusses Huxley’s reexamination of Western beliefs and values in the wake of nineteenth century scientific breakthroughs.

Bibby, Cyril. T. H. Huxley: Scientist: Humanist, Educator. New York: Horizon Press, 1960. Excellent modern biography. Provides a vivid picture of Huxley in his many activities. Well documented with original research.

Clodd, Edward. Thomas Henry Huxley. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1902. Draws heavily on Leonard Huxley’s biography of his father, but valuable for its early twentieth century critical perspective. Reprinted in 1977.

Huxley, Leonard. The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1900. The biography most often used as a source for other biographies, though not in itself complete. Notably lacking in details of Huxley’s individual essays, lectures, and addresses.

Huxley, Thomas H. Collected Essays. 9 vols. London: Macmillan, 1893-1894. Huxley brought together this collection from among what he considered to be his most important miscellaneous essays and lectures. Focuses primarily upon the impact of science on other areas of human thought. Includes volumes titled Science and Education, Science and the Hebrew Tradition, and Science and the Christian Tradition, among others.

Huxley, Thomas H. Evolution and Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1893. One of Huxley’s most important works, the culmination of much of his thought on this subject. In this book, Huxley explains why morality does not need to rest upon religion.

Huxley, Thomas H. Man’s Place in Nature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959. Huxley’s most important scientific study. He demonstrates how, according to the established rules of taxonomical classification, humans belong in the primate group with the great apes, monkeys, and lower primates. Exhaustive in its documentation.

Huxley, Thomas H. Scientific Memoirs. Edited by E. Ray Lankester and Michael Forster. 5 vols. London: Macmillan, 1898-1903. Huxley’s most important scientific essays, collected after his death.

Peterson, Houston. Huxley: Prophet of Science. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1932. A lengthy critical discussion of Huxley’s life and accomplishments, focusing on the philosophical underpinnings of his work. Rich in biographical detail.

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