Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)
|Born||4 May 1825 |
Ealing, London, England
|Died||29 June 1895 |
Eastbourne, Sussex, England
|Institution||Royal School of Mines |
University of London
|Alma mater||Charing Cross Hospital |
University of London
|Academic advisor||Thomas Wharton Jones|
|Notable students||Michael Foster|
|Known for||'Darwin's bulldog'|
Thomas Henry Huxley, FRS (4 May 1825 Ealing, London - 29 June 1895 Eastbourne, Sussex)  was an English biologist, known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his advocacy of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Thomas Huxley's most famous debate was against Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce who was coached by Richard Owen (against whom he also debated). He demonstrated that there were close similarities between the cerebral anatomy of humans and gorillas. Huxley did not accept some of Darwin's ideas, such as gradualism and was more interested in advocating a materialist professional science than in defending natural selection.
A talented populariser of science, he coined the term "agnosticism"  to describe his stance on religious belief (see Thomas Henry Huxley and agnosticism).
In evolution, Huxley developed the concept of the "Pithecometra principle" (analogous to "man evolved from apes") that was discussed by Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, from Huxley's 1863 essay "Evidence as to Man's place in nature" stating that man was more closely related to apes than apes were to monkeys (details below). 
Huxley is also credited with inventing the concept of "biogenesis", a theory stating that all cells arise from other cells and also "abiogenesis", describing the generation of life from non-living matter.
Huxley, born in Ealing in west London, was the second youngest of eight children of George Huxley, a teacher of mathematics in Ealing School until it closed, putting the family into financial difficulties. Like some other British scientists of the nineteenth century (Alfred Russel Wallace comes to mind) Huxley was brought up in a literate middle-class family which became short of money. As a result he left school at 10.
Despite this unenviable start, Huxley possessed the most remarkable determination. He became one of the great auto-didacts of the nineteenth century (again, like Wallace). He made himself an expert first on invertebrates, and later on vertebrates, all self-taught. He was skilled in drawing, and did many of the illustrations for his publications on marine invertebrates. In his teens he taught himself German, eventually becoming fluent and used by Charles Darwin as a translator of scientific material in German. Later he learnt Latin and enough Greek to read Aristotle in the original. In his debates and writing on science and religion his grasp of theology was better than most of his clerical opponents. So, a boy who left school at ten became one of the most knowledgeable men in Britain.
He became apprenticed to a GP at 13 and studied medicine at Sydenham College, and for a short period he was able to study at Charing Cross Hospital, where he obtained a small scholarship. At twenty he passed his first MB examination, at the University of London, winning the gold medal for anatomy and physiology. However, he did not present himself for the final exams and consequently did not qualify with a university degree (another distinction he shares with Wallace). However, his apprenticeship was a sufficient basis for his later appointment to HMS Rattlesnake as Assistant Surgeon. In 1845, he published his first scientific paper, demonstrating the existence of a hitherto unrecognized layer in the inner sheath of hairs, a layer that has been known since as Huxley's layer.
Huxley then applied for an appointment in the Royal Navy. He was made assistant surgeon ('Surgeon's Mate') to HMS Rattlesnake, about to start for surveying work in Torres Strait. Rattlesnake left England on December 3, 1846 and, once they had arrived in the southern hemisphere, Huxley devoted his time to the study of marine invertebrates. He began to send details of his discoveries back to England and his paper, On the Anatomy and the Affinities of the Family of Medusae, was printed by the Royal Society in the 'Philosophical Transactions', in 1849. Huxley united the Hydroid and Sertularian polyps with the Medusae, to form a class to which he subsequently gave the name of Hydrozoa. The connection he made was that all the members of the class consisted of two cell layers, enclosing a central cavity or stomach. This is characteristic of what are now called the Cnidaria. He compared this feature to the serous and mucous structures of embryos of higher animals.
The value of Huxley's work was recognized and, on returning to England, in 1850, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the following year, at the age of twenty-six, he not only received the Royal Society Medal but was also elected to the Council. He secured the friendship of Joseph Dalton Hooker and John Tyndall, who remained his lifelong friends. The Admiralty retained him as a nominal assistant-surgeon, in order that he might work on the observations he had made during the voyage of Rattlesnake. He then produced important memoirs, such as Ascidians, in which he solved the problem of Appendicularian organism, whose place in the animal kingdom Johannes Peter Müller had found himself wholly unable to assign and on the morphology of the Cephalous Mollusca.
Huxley resigned from the navy and, in July 1854, he became Professor of Natural History at the School of Mines and naturalist to the Geological Survey in the following year. His most important research belonging to this period was the Croonian Lecture, delivered before the Royal Society, in 1858, on The Theory of the Vertebrate Skull. In this, he rejected Richard Owen's view that the bones of the skull and the spine were homologous, an opinion previously held by Goethe and Lorenz Oken.
Huxley's most famous work was Evidence as to Man's place in Nature (1863) where he addressed the key issues before Charles Darwin published his Descent of Man in 1871. Of his many contributions to journals one might select his papers on human evolution such as Further remarks on the human remains from the Neanderthal (1864) and his papers on the origin of birds such as Further evidence of the affinity between the dinosaurian reptiles and birds (1870) as being of great interest then and now.
Huxley is also known for his treatise on physiography which is a detailed physical geography of the Thames River Basin, published in 1878, though this, like his textbook on the crayfish, has much less relevance today.
There is so much in his life of scientific and social interest that it seems extraordinary that he was given no award by the British state until he was made Privy Counsellor late in life (in this he did better than Darwin, who got no award of any kind from the state). Perhaps he had commented too often on his dislike of honours, or perhaps his many assaults on the traditional beliefs of organised religion made enemies in the establishment (he had vigorous debates in print with Prime Ministers Disraeli, Gladstone and Arthur Balfour). As recognition of his many public services (he served on eight Royal Commissions, became Inspector of Fisheries for a period, and more or less established scientific education in Britain) he was given a pension by the state. When one compares this with, say, Charles Lyell (who was awarded first a knighthood, then a baronetcy) or William Thomson (who was made a knight, a baron and awarded the Order of Merit) one is forced to conclude that the British establishment treated Huxley in a shabby manner.
In contrast, Norway awarded him the Order of the North Star; and Huxley did collect many academic awards, mostly honorary doctorates from Britain and Germany. He was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1888 and the Darwin Medal in 1894. And his writings are still widely read today, which can be said of few nineteenth century scientists.
His collected essays, published by Macmillan in nine volumes (1893-94), are a convenient way for the modern reader to make contact with this great scientific Englishman. They include scientific, religious and social topics, and show why he was held in such high regard by his contemporaries and by historians of science and society today.
The following list is given by Leonard Huxley in his biography of his father (titles somewhat shortened here). The Royal Commission is the senior investigative forum in the British constitution. A rough analysis shows that five commissions involved science and scientific education; three involved medicine and three involved fisheries. Two were directed solely to Scotland and two to Ireland. Several involve difficult ethical and legal issues. All are directed partly or wholly towards the examination of possible changes to law and/or administrative practice.
He was also elected to two general Commissions on Ireland (which at that time referred to the whole island).
In 1855, he married Henrietta Anne Heathorn (1825-1915), an English emigrée whom he had met in Sydney. They kept correspondence until he was able to send for her. They had five daughters and three sons, including the writer Leonard Huxley (1860-1933):
The most famous descendents in the third generation are offspring of Leonard Huxley:
Huxley was originally not persuaded of 'development theory' as evolution was once called. We can see that in his savage review (1854) of Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a book which contained some quite pertinent arguments in favour of evolution. Huxley had also rejected Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's theory of transmutation, on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to support it. All this scepticism was brought together in a lecture to the Royal Institution in 1845, which made Darwin anxious enough to set about an effort to change young Huxley's mind. It was the kind of thing Darwin did with his closest scientific friends, but he must have had some particular intuition about Huxley, who was from all accounts a most impressive person even as a young man.
Huxley was therefore one of the small group who knew about Darwin's views before they were published (that group included Joseph Dalton Hooker and Charles Lyell). The first publication by Darwin of his ideas came when Wallace sent Darwin his famous paper on natural selection, which was presented to the Linnean Society in 1858 along with excerpts from Darwin's notebook and a Darwin letter to Asa Gray. Huxley's famous response to the idea of natural selection was "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!". However, the correctness of natural selection as the main mechanism for evolution was to lie permanently in Huxley's mental pending tray. He never conclusively made up his mind about it, though he did admit it was an hypothesis which was a good working basis.
Logically speaking, the prior question was whether evolution had taken place at all. It is to this question that much of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was devoted. Its publication in 1859 completely convinced Huxley of evolution and it was this and no doubt his admiration of Darwin's way of amassing and using evidence that formed the basis of his support for Darwin in the debates that followed the book's publication. He did this in a lecture at the Royal Institution in February 1860, and spoke in favour of Darwin's ideas in the debate at the British Association meeting, at the Oxford University Museum, in June. He was joined at the Oxford debate by their mutual friend Hooker, and they were opposed by the Lord Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle.
'I am Darwin's bulldog' said Huxley, and it is apt; the second half of Darwin's life was lived mainly within his family, and the younger, combative Huxley operated mainly out in the world at large. A letter from THH to Ernst Haekel (Nov 2 1871) goes "The dogs have been snapping at his heels too much of late."
After 1860 Huxley concentrated on the subject of man's origins, maintaining that man was related to apes. In this he was opposed by Richard Owen, who stated that man was clearly marked off from all other animals by the anatomical structure of his brain. This was actually inconsistent with known facts and was effectually refuted by Huxley in various papers and lectures, summed up in 1863 in Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature.
The thirty-one years during which Huxley occupied the chair of natural history at the School of Mines included work on vertebrate palaeontology along with various projects to advance the place of science in British life. Memoirs on fossil fish established far-reaching morphological facts. The study of fossil reptiles led to his demonstrating, in the course of lectures on birds (delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1867) the fundamental affinity of the two groups which he united under the title of Sauropsida.
From 1870 onwards, he was to some extent drawn away from scientific research by the claims of public duty. From 1862 to 1884 he served on eight Royal Commissions. From 1871 to 1880 he was a secretary of the Royal Society and from 1881 to 1885 he was president. He was made a Privy Councillor in 1892. In 1870, he was president of the British Association at Liverpool and, in the same year was elected a member of the newly-constituted London School Board. His many academic awards are listed in the Life and Letters referenced below.
His health broke down in 1885. In 1890, he moved from London to Eastbourne where he had the satisfaction of seeing the nine volumes of his Collected Essays published by Macmillan. In 1884 he heard of the Eugene Dubois' discovery in Java of the remains of Pithecanthropus erectus (now known as Homo erectus). Finally, in 1895 he died of a heart attack (after contracting influenza and pneumonia).
Huxley was the founder of a very distinguished family of British academics, including his grandsons Aldous Huxley (the writer), Sir Julian Huxley (the first Director General of UNESCO and a founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature) and Sir Andrew Huxley (the physiologist and Nobel laureate).
Huxley is credited with the quote, "Try to learn something about everything and everything about something" More typical was his response to GH Lewes who said (about the difficulty of writing) "I get up steam at once: in short, I boil at low temperatures!" to which Huxley retorted "That implies a vacuum in the upper region!".
Huxley was a major influence in the direction taken by British schools. In primary schooling, he advocated a wide range of disciplines, similar to what is taught today: reading, writing, arithmetic, art, science, music, etc. In higher education he also foresaw how schools should be run, with two years of basic liberal studies followed by two years of some upper-division work, focusing on a more specific area of study. This was a fresh approach to the general study of classics in contemporary English colleges. Much of his educational approach is found in his work On a Piece of Chalk , a profound essay first published in MacMillan's Magazine in London, 1868. The piece reconstructs the geological history of Britain, from a simple piece of chalk and demonstrates the methods of science as "organized common sense".
Huxley also advocated teaching the Bible in schools. This may seem out of step with his evolutionary theories and personal agnostic convictions but he believed that the Bible's significant literary and moral teachings were quite relevant to English ethics. Modern Christian apologists consider Huxley the father of atheistic evangelism, though he himself maintained throughout his life that he was an agnostic, not an atheist. Despite this, V.I. Lenin remarked (in Materialism and empirio-criticism) "In Huxley's case... agnosticism serves as a fig-leaf for materialism".
He tried to reconcile evolution and ethics, in his book Evolution and Ethics, which proposed the principle of the "fitting of as many as possible to survive". An essay published in that collection, The Struggle for Existence in Human Society (first published in Nineteenth Century), prompted Peter Kropotkin to write the classic Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in critique of Huxley's brand of Social Darwinism.
Huxley was the principal of the South London Working Men's College, founded in 1868 in Blackfriars Road, an institution which later produced the South London Gallery and Camberwell College of Arts.
His large sideburns were also seen as an influence on others, especially Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Charles Tupper.
In On the Methods and Results of Ethnology (1865), Huxley proposed a classification system for the human races:
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Huxley T.H. 1854. Review of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, tenth edition, 1854. British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review 13 425-39.
Huxley, Thomas H. 1855. On certain zological arguments commonly adduced in favour of the hypothesis of the progressive development of animal life in time. Proceedings of the Royal Institution 2 (1854-58) 82-85.
Darwin C. and Wallace A.R. 1958. On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. J. Proc. Linnean Soc: Zoology 3(9) 45-62.
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