Thomas Henry Huxley
Thomas Henry Huxley
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The Bulldog’s Life: Part I

Review of Huxley: The Devil's Disciple by Adrian Desmond, London: Michael Joseph, 1994 Published in Origins & Design 17:1

But even leaving Mr. Darwin’s views aside,” wrote Thomas Henry Huxley in 1863, in Man’s Place in Nature, “the whole analogy of natural operations furnishes so complete and crushing an argument against the intervention of any but what are termed secondary causes, in the production of the phenomena of the universe; that, in the view of the intimate relations between Man and the rest of the living world; and between the forces exerted by the latter and all other forces, I can see no excuse for doubting that all are co-ordinated terms of Nature’s great progression, from the formless to the formed — from the organic to the inorganic — from blind force to conscious will and intellect.”

High Victorian prose, but the message is plain. Even if Darwin were wrong, argued Huxley, science ought to be wholly naturalistic. Nothing but secondary causes — natural laws — has acted in the history of “Nature’s great progression.” Indeed, after digesting Adrian Desmond’s fascinating and highly readable biography of Huxley, one can plausibly assert that while Huxley may have been Darwin’s disciple (a point on which Desmond provides some contradictory evidence), he was unquestionably, and foremost, an apostle of naturalism.

Thomas Henry Huxley was born in 1825, above a butcher’s shop in Ealing, a village just to the west of London. His father was a failed schoolmaster who moved his family north to Coventry in 1835, where he unsuccessfully ran a savings bank for the local artisans. Apprenticed to a Coventry doctor at 13, Huxley was largely self-taught, a process which continued after he went to London in 1841 to study medicine at Charing Cross Hospital. (As a profession, medicine in early Victorian England had little or nothing of the scientific and social cachet it now possesses in the United States. It was a knockabout trade, whose practitioners were often social and intellectual radicals.) Perpetually in debt, Huxley kept a punishing, self-imposed schedule of study, winning academic awards (e.g., the gold medal for anatomy and physiology from University College) for his efforts — but little else.

Compelled by circumstances, Huxley joined Her Majesty’s Naval Service in 1846, as an assistant surgeon, and was assigned to the HMS Rattlesnake, a surveying ship ordered to “secure Northern Australia for British settlement.” In practice, Huxley’s duties included collecting and dissecting marine specimens, and describing generally the flora and fauna the Rattlesnake would encounter. He made the best of the opportunity. By the time he returned to England in 1850, Huxley had published several papers on marine invertebrates, and found himself with a reputation as an up-and-coming young naturalist. Yet his professional situation was essentially unchanged:

Still he was hungry. Still he seethed about the lack of paid openings [for scientists]. Science should be a salaried meritocracy, not a dabbling ground for the foppish aristocracy. ‘I am sick of writing, weary of longing. The difficulties of obtaining a decent position in England…seem to me greater than ever they were.’ It was a cri de coeur … ‘To attempt to live by any scientific pursuit is a farce…A man of science may earn great distinction — great reputation — but not bread. He will get invitations to all sorts of dinners & conversaziones, but not enough income to pay his cab hire’ (p. 161).

Huxley’s letters to his fiancee Nettie during this period (1850-1855; she remained where he had met her, in Australia, awaiting word that he was financially secure) are a wrenching record of his struggle to make his chosen profession of science pay for itself; which at last suceeded in doing by obtaining a position in 1855 as a lecturer in the Government School of Mines.

Other appointments followed, and from there on Huxley marched to the head of the emerging professional class of “scientists,” crowned (Desmond argues) by Huxley’s election to the Presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1870.

There Desmond ends his story, to be continued in a second volume. Huxley, increasingly influential, lived for another quarter century (d. 1895), and an active period it was. But one is grateful for the incomplete story Desmond does tell.

It bears directly on current controversies, and is filled with rich ironies of history.

In casting his support for Darwin, for instance, Huxley actually lent his pugilistic weight only to the most general view of evolution advanced by the recluse of Downe, while disagreeing with Darwin on many important details.

As Desmond repeatedly notes, it was the underlying naturalism that really mattered to Huxley:

Huxley was exuberantly endorsing the naturalism of Darwin’s vision, not the fine points of his theory. Nothing was said of Darwin’s infinitesimal variations, each selected for its adaptive advantage. Nor did Huxley mention that his own belief in large-scale mutations, his Ancon sheep [bred for short legs], actually negated them. Or that the Home Countries rabbits which happily overran the Australian outback belied Darwin’s vaunted adaptation. Then again, until spaniels and greyhounds refused to cross he considered Darwin’s analogy between domestic breeds and wild species incomplete….Huxley’s bravura performance was in support of Darwin’s evolutionary naturalism, not the minutiae of his mechanism. Darwin had created a new nature for new professionals (p. 262).

Huxley’s dogged opposition to any place for theology (or teleological explanation) in science set him to arguing positions which, from our post- Darwinian perspective, we are more accustomed to seeing in the mouths of creationists. If Robert Chambers’s anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was a theistic account of the progressive development of living things, then, as Huxley savagely reviewed the tenth edition of the book, he would prove that organisms changed little over their fossil history, in no particular direction. Stasis, not progressive change, was the rule. In 1862, Huxley’s address to the Geological Society

had nothing to do with Darwinism. Huxley did not try to trace newts and lungfish back to their common Devonian ancestor. Instead of concentrating on origins, he harped on the sharks’ and crocodiles’ long unchanging history. He could not shake his ten-year-old belief that the fossil record showed no progress. …Huxley’s claws risked maiming his friends. His fossil papers left not the slightest hint that he was Darwin’s bulldog. In Edinburgh’s museum he had found more labyrinthodonts mixed with the fish; that they were mistaken for one another should have suggested something to Darwin’s right-hand man. But no. He used Anthracosaurus to show that amphibians had passed through prodigious periods unchanged. It was the greatest irony that those closest to Darwin could not give him the fossil back-up he needed… (p. 303)

As the English translator of the anti-Darwinian embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), Huxley had learned to think of living things as falling into fundamentally distinct groups — “the vertebrates, molluscs, starfish and insects” — that could not be united in any sort of evolutionary chain, for “each [was] based on a unique archetypal plan” (p. 191). Until quite late in his friendship with Darwin, this vision of organisms persisted. As Desmond argues,

In fact Huxley did not think in terms of origins at all. Geometry, not genealogy, fascinated him: the surreal beauty of nature’s secret architecture. Species were not to be explained historically, by messy mutations and supposed progression. They had to be appreciated as abstract anatomical patterns…. fish, reptiles, birds and mammals were all equidistant from the abstract vertebrate type. Molluscs had their distinct sphere, as did coelenterates. And with the spheres unconnected no trilobite could illicitly jump the gap to call itself a fish (p. 223).

Desmond argues that it was the forceful impact of Ernst Haeckel’s “phylogenetic” system of classification that finally converted Huxley, moving him “to connect his ancient lung-bearing Crossopterygian fish with the first labyrinthodont amphibians — in other words, to show how fish grew limbs and slithered out of the water” (p. 355). Huxley’s reasons for so doing are philosophically interesting. It was “more profitable to go wrong,” he argued (presumably, to go wrong means to connect as related by descent what are, in fact, unrelated forms), “than to stand still” — meaning, one supposes, to admit that the evolutionary puzzle at hand could not be solved by the available evidence.

But Huxley’s diffidence about natural selection was lifelong. As he became a central figure in British science, he scrupulously separated “evolution” from “Darwinism,” which he took to mean “natural selection.” As the historian James Moore (co-author with Desmond of the recent biography Darwin) observes,

Natural selection was of such little consequence that in a famous essay celebrating “the coming of age of the Origin of Species,” Huxley could omit even to allude to the theory. “The first thing seems to me to drive the fact of evolution into people’s heads,” he excused himself to Darwin; “when that is once safe, the rest will come easy.”

Huxley “never fully subscribed” to natural selection, Moore notes — “although he held that its nonteleological naturalism represented ‘the fundamental principles of a scientific conception of the universe.'”

That conception, and its careful protection, was the prize Huxley saw worth struggling for — and it is that intellectual heritage (now, of course, the general presumption of naturalism) in which debates about origins still occur. While Huxley viewed Comte’s positivism as a sham religion — “Catholicism minus Christianity,” he dubbed it — he was indeed a positivist (in our sense) in his understanding of knowledge. But what label should he wear?

What could he call himself? He was shifting power to an elite whose authority rested in right reasoning, not mythical realities. He had already dropped the ‘Unknowable’ as the last remnant of idolatry….he came up with ‘Agnostic.’ It was another pitch for his professionals. It switched the emphasis to the scientific method and its sensual limitations. Agnosticism was made for the moment….He could also lecture the clergy with clean hands. He portrayed agnosticism not as a rival ‘creed,’ but as a method of inquiry. The sciences, he told the Young Men’s Christian Association, ‘are neither Christian, nor Unchristian, but are Extra-christian’, in a word, ‘unsectarian’ (p. 374).

Nearly any official pronouncement from nearly any scientific society in our day, on the topic of origins, will echo this theme. One must makes one’s peace with naturalism, for it is the way of science (which is itself the way of knowledge). If theology has a place, Huxley argued, it was in the “deeps of man’s nature,” as a matter of subjective judgment. But any theology or philosophy that connected God directly to the objects of nature had been vanquished, he thought:

…Genesis, the ‘old traditions’, the incarnations of god, Disraeli’s angels — ‘theology’ in a word — that was a debased branch of history, amenable to test, indeed tested and found wanting. As such, science had no ‘intention of signing a treaty of peace with her old opponent, nor of being content with anything short of absolute victory and uncontrolled domination over the whole realm of the intellect’ (pp. 331-332).

And thus we come down to 1995, where debates are raging anew over the scope of naturalism. One wonders what Huxley would make of them, a century after his death. It is fairly certain his remarks would be sharp and to the point — but perhaps, one hopes, on the side of entertaining the possibility that naturalism had failed to fulfill its grand promise.

Desmond’s biography is well worth reading. It brims with affection for its prickly subject, and his times, and throws fresh light on the emergence of naturalism as the prevailing philosophy of science in the 19th century, and in our own day.

Paul Nelson

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Paul A. Nelson is currently a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and Adjunct Professor in the Master of Arts Program in Science & Religion at Biola University. He is a philosopher of biology who has been involved in the intelligent design debate internationally for three decades. His grandfather, Byron C. Nelson (1893-1972), a theologian and author, was an influential mid-20th century dissenter from Darwinian evolution. After Paul received his B.A. in philosophy with a minor in evolutionary biology from the University of Pittsburgh, he entered the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. (1998) in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory.