Thomas Henry Huxley Essays Of Elia

Thomas Henry Huxley was one of the first adherents to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and did more than anyone else to advance its acceptance among scientists and the public alike. As is evident from the letter quoted above, Huxley was a passionate defender of Darwin's theory -- so passionate that he has been called "Darwin's Bulldog". But Huxley was not only the bulldog for Darwin's theory, but was a great biologist in his own right, who did original research in zoology and paleontology. Nor did he slavishly and uncritically swallow Darwin's theory; he criticized several aspects of it, pointing out a number of problems.

Biography of Huxley

He was born on May 4, 1825, in Ealing, near London, the seventh of eight children in a family that was none too affluent. Huxley's only childhood education was two years at Ealing school, where his father taught mathematics; this ended in 1835 when the family moved to Coventry. Despite his lack of formal education, young Huxley read voraciously in science, history, and philosophy, and taught himself German. At the age of 15, Huxley began a medical apprenticeship; soon he won a scholarship to study at Charing Cross Hospital. At 21, Huxley signed on as assistant surgeon on the H.M.S. Rattlesnake, a Royal Navy frigate assigned to chart the seas around Australia and New Guinea. Huxley vividly described conditions on the ship in his diary:

I wonder if it is possible for the mind of man to conceive anything more degradingly offensive than the condition of us 150 men, shut up in this wooden box, being watered with hot water, as we are now. . . It's too hot to sleep, and my sole amusement consists in watching the cockroaches, which are in a state of intense excitement and happiness.
Despite the excited cockroaches and the poor science facilities on board, Huxley collected and studied marine invertebrates, in particular cnidarians, tunicates, and cephalopod molluscs. (He also collected a fiancée, Henrietta Heathorn, whom he met and immediately fell in love with while in port in Sydney, Australia.) When he returned to England in October 1850, he found that his research results, which he had mailed back to England from each port of call, had won him acceptance into the ranks of the English scientific establishment. Huxley soon became acquainted with scientists like the geologist Charles Lyell, the botanist Joseph Hooker, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, and the naturalist Charles Darwin. Professional positions in science were rare at the time -- most naturalists were affluent amateurs -- but Huxley managed to support himself on a stipend from the Navy and by writing popular science articles. After leaving the Navy in 1854, Huxley managed to secure a lectureship at the School of Mines in London, and sent for his fiancée. They were married in 1855.

Huxley's Scientific Thought

As the nickname "Darwin's bulldog" would suggest, Huxley was an outspoken defender and advocate for Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Perhaps surprisingly, he was at first an opponent of any evolutionary change at all, believing that the living world had stayed much the same for as far back as its history could be traced, and that modern taxa would eventually be found in the oldest rocks. But he came to accept evolutionary views: his reaction to reading the Origin of Species was "How stupid of me not to have thought of that."

He is best known for his famous debate in June 1860, at the British Association meeting at Oxford. His opponent, Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce, was not-so-affectionately known as "Soapy Sam" for his renowned slipperiness in debate. Wilberforce was coached against Huxley by Richard Owen. During the debate, Archbishop Wilberforce ridiculed evolution and asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother's side or his grandfather's. Accounts vary as to exactly what happened next, but according to one telling of the story, Huxley muttered "The Lord hath delivered him into my hands," and then rose to give a brilliant defense of Darwin's theory, concluding with the rejoinder, "I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth." Huxley's own retelling of the tale was a little different, and quite a bit less dramatic:

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.
All accounts agree that Huxley trounced Wilberforce in the debate, defending evolution as the best explanation yet advanced for species diversity.

However, Huxley did not blindly follow Darwin's theory, and critiqued it even as he was defending it. In particular, where Darwin had seen evolution and a slow, gradual, continuous process, Huxley thought that an evolving lineage might make rapid jumps, or saltations. As he wrote to Darwin just before publication of the Origin of Species, "You have loaded yourself with an unnecessary difficulty in adopting Natura non facit saltum [Nature does not make leaps] so unreservedly."

Huxley's support for natural selection is perhaps surprising when contrasted with his earlier attacks on the evolutionary theories put forth by Lamarck and Robert Chambers. Both of these theories advocated some kind of progression -- some kind of general tendency present in all organisms to evolve "upward" into more and more complex forms. Huxley would have nothing to do with such progressionist ideas, which he regarded as being more metaphysical than scientific; this mistrust of progression lay behind his initial skepticism of all evolutionary ideas. Similarly, Huxley rejected the then-popular theory of recapitulation, following Karl von Baer (whose writings Huxley had translated from the German). Huxley wrote, "the progress of a higher animal in development is not through the forms of the lower, but through forms which are common to both lower and higher. . . "

Huxley's most famous writing, published in 1863, is Evidence on Man's Place in Nature. This book, published only five years after Darwin's Origin of Species, was a comprehensive review of what was known at the time about primate and human paleontology and ethology. More than that, it was the first attempt to apply evolution explicitly to the human race. Darwin had avoided direct mention of human evolution, stating only that "light will be thrown on the origin of Man;" Huxley explicitly presented evidence for human evolution. In this, once again, he locked horns with Richard Owen, who had claimed that the human brain contained parts that were not found in apes, and that therefore humans could not be classified with the apes nor descended from them. Huxley and his colleagues showed that the brains of apes and humans were fundamentally similar in every anatomical detail.

Huxley founded a remarkable dynasty of English scientists and thinkers. His son Leonard was a noted biographer and "man of letters." Leonard's oldest son Julian was one of the authors of the evolutionary synthesis of the early 20th century; Julian's son Francis became a noted anthropologist. Another of Leonard's sons, Andrew (later Sir Andrew Huxley) was also an eminent scientist, sharing the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on nerve impulses and muscle contraction. Julian's brother Aldous Huxley was a novelist, screenwriter and essayist; his best-known book is the anti-utopia Brave New World. A more distant relative, Leonard George Golden Huxley, became a prominent physicist.

Charles Lamb

Preface to The Last Essays of Elia

This poor gentleman, who for some months past had been in a declining way, hath at length paid his final tribute to nature.

To say truth, it is time he were gone. The humour of the thing, if there was ever much in it, was pretty well exhausted; and a two years’ and a half existence has been a tolerable duration for a phantom.

I am now at liberty to confess, that much which I have heard objected to my late friend’s writings was well-founded. Crude they are, I grant you—a sort of unlicked, incondite things—villainously pranked in an affected array of antique modes and phrases. They had not been his, if they had been other than such; and better it is, that a writer should be natural in a self-pleasing quaintness, than to affect a naturalness (so called) that should be strange to him. Egotistical they have been pronounced by some who did not know, that what he tells us, as of himself, was often true only (historically) of another; as in a former Essay (to save many instances)—where under the first person (his favourite figure) he shadows forth the forlorn estate of a country-boy placed at a London school, far from his friends and connections—in direct opposition to his own early history. If it be egotism to imply and twine with his own identity the griefs and affections of another—making himself many, or reducing many unto himself—then is the skilful novelist, who all along brings in his hero, or heroine, speaking of themselves, the greatest egotist of all; who yet has never, therefore, been accused of that narrowness. And how shall the intenser dramatist escape being faulty, who doubtless, under cover of passion uttered by another, oftentimes gives blameless vent to his most inward feelings, and expresses his own story modestly?

My late friend was in many respects a singular character. Those who did not like him, hated him; and some, who once liked him, afterwards became his bitterest haters. The truth is, he gave himself too little concern what he uttered, and in whose presence. He observed neither time nor place, and would e’en out with what came uppermost. With the severe religionist he would pass for a free-thinker; while the other faction set him down for a bigot, or persuaded themselves that he belied his sentiments. Few understood him; and I am not certain that at all times he quite understood himself. He too much affected that dangerous figure—irony. He sowed doubtful speeches, and reaped plain, unequivocal hatred.—He would interrupt the gravest discussion with some light jest; and yet, perhaps, not quite irrelevant in ears that could understand it. Your long and much talkers hated him. The informal habit of his mind, joined to an inveterate impediment of speech, forbade him to be an orator; and he seemed determined that, no one else should play that part when he was present. He was petit and ordinary in his person and appearance. I have seen him sometimes in what is called good company, but where he has been a stranger, sit silent, and be suspected for an odd fellow; till some unlucky occasion provoking it, he would stutter out some senseless pun (not altogether senseless perhaps, if rightly taken), which has stamped his character for the evening. It was hit or miss with him; but nine times out of ten, he contrived by this device to send away a whole company his enemies. His conceptions rose kindlier than his utterance, and his happiest impromptus had the appearance of effort. He has been accused of trying to be witty, when in truth he was but struggling to give his poor thoughts articulation. He chose his companions for some individuality of character which they manifested.—Hence, not many persons of science, and few professed literati, were of his councils. They were, for the most part, persons of an uncertain fortune; and, as to such people commonly nothing is more obnoxious than a gentleman of settled (though moderate) income, he passed with most of them for a great miser. To my knowledge this was a mistake. His intimados, to confess a truth, were in the world’s eye a ragged regiment. He found them floating on the surface of society; and the colour, or something else, in the weed pleased him. The burrs stuck to him—but they were good and loving burrs for all that. He never greatly cared for the society of what are called good people. If any of these were scandalised (and offences were sure to arise), he could not help it. When he has been remonstrated with for not making more concessions to the feelings of good people, he would retort by asking, what one point did these good people ever concede to him? He was temperate in his meals and diversions, but always kept a little on this side of abstemiousness. Only in the use of the Indian weed he might be thought a little excessive. He took it, he would say, as a solvent of speech. Marry—as the friendly vapour ascended, how his prattle would curl up sometimes with it! the ligaments, which tongue-tied him, were loosened, and the stammerer proceeded a statist!

I do not know whether I ought to bemoan or rejoice that my old friend is departed. His jests were beginning to grow obsolete, and his stories to be found out. He felt the approaches of age; and while he pretended to cling to life, you saw how slender were the ties left to bind him. Discoursing with him latterly on this subject, he expressed himself with a pettishness, which I thought unworthy of him. In our walks about his suburban retreat (as he called it) at Shacklewell, some children belonging to a school of industry had met us, and bowed and curtseyed, as he thought, in an especial manner to him. “They take me for a visiting governor,” he muttered earnestly. He had a horror, which he carried to a foible, of looking like anything important and parochial. He thought that he approached nearer to that stamp daily. He had a general aversion from being treated like a grave or respectable character, and kept a wary eye upon the advances of age that should so entitle him. He herded always, while it was possible, with people younger than himself. He did not conform to the march of time, but was dragged along in the procession. His manners lagged behind his years. He was too much of the boy-man. The toga virilis never sat gracefully on his shoulders. The impressions of infancy had burnt into him, and he resented the impertinence of manhood. These were weaknesses; but such as they were, they are a key to explicate some of his writings.


Lamb, Charles. “Preface to The Last Essays of Elia.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Nov 2006. 13 Mar 2018 <>.


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