Darwin’s bulldog—Thomas H. Huxley
Published: 14 October 2008; Republished 4 November 2009(GMT+10)
This is the pre-publication version which was subsequently abbreviated to appear in
Charles Darwin had little time for the scientific, theological and moral controversies engendered by the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859. Not so Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), who leapt to the fray, even dubbing himself ‘Darwin’s bulldog’.1
Darwin called him, ‘My good and kind agent for the propagation of the Gospel—i.e. the devil’s Gospel.’2
It was Huxley, not Darwin, who enraptured and outraged audiences in the 1860s with talk of our ape ancestors and cave men. London turned out—from cardinals to Karl Marx—to be tantalized and tormented by his scintillating lectures. ‘Bushy-bearded labourers with blistered hands flocked to his talks on our ancestry. He drew the sort of crowds that are reserved for evangelists or rock stars today.’3
‘Out of his provocations came … the West’s new faith—agnosticism (he coined the word).’3
Youth and self-education
Thomas was born in Ealing village, near London, in 1825, the seventh of eight Huxley children. Neglected by his father, he grew up in poverty, with only two years of formal schooling. Living in the industrial squalor of the 1840s, where the Church was a rich man’s luxury, he sought redemption through self-education.
At the age of 12 he read James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth and had his first encounter with anti-biblical geology. An avid reader of history, science and philosophy, he taught himself almost everything he knew until he entered Charing Cross Hospital medical school.4 He put himself through Part 1 of the Bachelor of Medicine exam at London University, winning the gold medal for anatomy and physiology, but did not present to sit Part 2.5
He then became Assistant Surgeon (‘surgeon’s mate’) on HMS Rattlesnake for a southern oceans surveying voyage (1846–1850). Although Huxley had no formal university degree,6 the publishing of his researches on the structure of various marine invertebrates from this trip secured his future acceptance by the British scientific community.7 In 1851, at age 25, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.), which also awarded him its Royal Medal in 1852, a year before Charles Darwin received the same honour.
Huxley and Darwin
In November 1859, Darwin published his Origin of Species. He had been putting it off for some twenty years, ‘fearing execration as an atheist’, but had been galvanised into action by a letter he had received the previous year from Alfred Russel Wallace in which Wallace had broached the same idea as Darwin’s of ‘survival of the fittest’.8
Though Darwin was careful not to say it, the Origin ultimately meant that man was not created, but was merely a developed ape. ‘But without the promise of Heaven or the fear of Hell, why should we live a good life?’9 Darwin had hoped to avoid all such controversy. Not so Huxley, who earlier had written to a colleague, ‘After all, it is as respectable to be modified monkey as modified dirt’.10 Thus, Darwin needed a champion as much as Huxley needed a cause, and soon Darwin was claiming Huxley as his ‘warmest & most important supporter’,11 and ‘my good and admirable agent for the promulgation of damnable heresies’.12
Huxley exuberantly endorsed the naturalism of evolution although, surprisingly, not the mechanism for it. He disagreed with Darwin on the tempo of evolution. For example, Darwin excluded all saltation or ‘jumps’, causing Huxley to write to him: ‘[Y]ou have loaded yourself with an unnecessary difficulty in adopting Natura non facit saltum [Nature makes no leap] so unreservedly.’13 Huxley also disagreed ‘on the analogy between artificial selection and natural selection, on hybridism, and on Darwin’s hypothesis of Pangenesis, that development of features in a parent would be passed on to its offspring.’14
Nevertheless, all this ambivalence by Huxley did not deter his fanatical and aggressive promotion of Darwin’s theory. As law professor Phillip Johnson comments, ‘Faith in evolutionary naturalism is what unites the different factions of evolutionists, not agreement on any concrete scientific propositions.15
What motivated Huxley? Historian Prof. Gertrude Himmelfarb writes, ‘Huxley was the great avenger. Raging against the inferior status of scientists compared with clergymen, he looked forward to the time when he could get his heel “into their mouths and scr-r-unch it round”. The Origin gave him the opportunity.’16
Huxley and the gospel
Huxley, although an unbeliever, was thoroughly familiar with the Gospel, and had little time for Christians who compromised their position by supporting the anti-biblical belief of evolutionary naturalism. He wrote:
‘I am fairly at a loss to comprehend how any one, for a moment, can doubt that Christian theology must stand or fall with the historical trustworthiness of the Jewish Scriptures. The very conception of the Messiah, or Christ, is inextricably interwoven with Jewish history; the identification of Jesus of Nazareth with that Messiah rests upon the interpretation of passages of the Hebrew Scriptures which have no evidential value unless they possess the historical character assigned to them. If the covenant with Abraham was not made; if circumcision and sacrifices were not ordained by Jahveh; if the “ten words” were not written by God’s hand on the stone tables; if Abraham is more or less a mythical hero, such as Theseus; the story of the Deluge a fiction; that of the Fall a legend; and that of the creation the dream of a seer; if all these definite and detailed narratives of apparently real events have no more value as history than have the stories of the regal period of Rome—what is to be said about the Messianic doctrine, which is so much less clearly enunciated? And what about the authority of the writers of the books of the New Testament, who, on this theory, have not merely accepted flimsy fictions for solid truths, but have built the very foundations of Christian dogma upon legendary quicksands?’17
Huxley added that ‘the Universality of the Deluge is recognised, not merely as a part of the story, but as a necessary consequence of some of its details.’18 And then, concerning the attempts of theologians to say the Flood was only a local event, he wrote, ‘A child may see the folly of it.’19
‘When Jesus spoke, as of a matter of fact, that "the Flood came and destroyed them all," did he believe that the Deluge really took place, or not? It seems to me that, as the narrative mentions Noah’s wife, and his sons’ wives, there is good scriptural warranty for the statement that the antediluvians married and were given in marriage; and I should have thought that their eating and drinking might be assumed by the firmest believer in the literal truth of the story. Moreover, I venture to ask what sort of value, as an illustration of God’s methods of dealing with sin, has an account of an event that never happened? If no Flood swept the careless people away, how is the warning of more worth than the cry of “Wolf” when there is no wolf? If Jonah’s three days’ residence in the whale is not an “admitted reality,” how could it “warrant belief” in the “coming resurrection?” … Suppose that a Conservative orator warns his hearers to beware of great political and social changes, lest they end, as in France, in the domination of a Robespierre; what becomes, not only of his argument, but of his veracity, if he, personally, does not believe that Robespierre existed and did the deeds attributed to him?’20
Concerning Matthew 19:5 [‘Have ye not read, that he which made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and the twain shall become one flesh?’], Huxley wrote,
‘If divine authority is not here claimed for the twenty-fourth verse of the second chapter of Genesis, what is the value of language? And again, I ask, if one may play fast and loose with the story of the Fall as a “type” or “allegory,” what becomes of the foundation of Pauline theology?’21
And concerning 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 [‘For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.’], Huxley wrote,
‘If Adam may be held to be no more real a personage than Prometheus, and if the story of the Fall is merely an instructive “type,” comparable to the profound Promethean mythus, what value has Paul’s dialectic?’
Summing up the position of theologians who compromised the words of the Bible, Huxley observed that ‘the position they have taken up is hopelessly untenable’.
Darwin’s death and the Abbey
When Darwin died, it was due mainly to the efforts of Huxley that he was buried, not in his home town of Downe, but in Westminster Abbey. Huxley and his godless friends coerced Canon Farrar of Westminster Abbey, while others whipped up support in the House of Commons. Thus, the liberal clergy, so despised by Huxley for their readiness to compromise, gave the remains of the agnostic Darwin spiritual recognition in the Abbey.
Huxley died 13 years later. Some suggested a state funeral in the Abbey, but to his credit ‘Huxley had anticipated and scotched that idea’.22 Instead he had a simple funeral in his country town, attended by some of his scientific and atheist friends. One of these gave his wishful opinion that ‘“he that believeth not shall be damned”—is reserved for common people; it does not apply to Fellows of the Royal Society’.23
What is the relevance of Huxley’s life to us today?
In 1981, the National Academy of Sciences [USA] resolved that ‘Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief.’15 Law professor Phillip Johnson comments: ‘The life of Thomas Huxley is the best answer to such nonsense. In reality scientists (like other people) are obsessed with the God question and the whole point of evolutionary naturalism is to keep the Divine Foot, and the people gathered behind it, from getting inside the door.’15
Huxley’s Debate with Wilberforce
Huxley is probably best known today for his debate with the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (son of the anti-slavery politician, William Wilberforce) at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It was held in the Oxford Museum library before an audience of over 700 on June 30, 1860, just seven months after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Both Huxley and Wilberforce had written reviews of the Origin beforehand. Huxley had produced 5,000 words of adulation for The Times of December 26, 1859. Wilberforce, who was vice-president of the British Association, had a first-class honours degree in mathematics, and was an enthusiastic ornithologist, had written a 18,700-word, carefully argued, scientific assessment for The Quarterly Review of July 1860,24 in which he devoted six pages (pp. 239–245) to the absence in the geological record of any case of one species developing into another. When Darwin read Wilberforce’s Origin review, he said, ‘It is uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties.’25
At the Oxford meeting, Wilberforce gave a condensed version of his Origin review. His speech ‘rather than reflecting ignorance, prejudice and religious sentiment, [as commonly portrayed] in fact encapsulated many of the scientific objections people of his day had to Darwin’s book’.26 ‘As he saw it, and as most of his audience saw it, he was showing that it was, as a matter of scientific fact false, and only having established this did he go on to say in effect “and a good thing too”.’27 Huxley then spoke and was followed by Robert FitzRoy (former captain of the Beagle), and Darwin’s friend, Joseph Hooker.
Most modern-day accounts of the debate include a story that Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether he was related to an ape on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side. To which Huxley replied that he would prefer an ape for a grandfather to a man who employed his faculties and influence for the purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific debate.
In fact, it is extremely unlikely that this alleged exchange occurred at the debate. J.R. Lucas sums up the evidence for and against this story in a long article in The Historical Journal28 summarized in Nature.29 He points out that the audience was larger than a full House of Commons, which means that, in the noisy and somewhat gladiatorial circumstances of the debate, not everyone would have heard everything that was said, or have correctly heard everything that was said.
Hooker did not mention it in his letter to Darwin, written two days later.30 Journalists’ reports in current periodicals did not mention it. Lucas writes, ‘[W]e have a journalist’s report … in three issues of The Athenaeum and a briefer one in Jackson’s Oxford Journal. These accounts give a different picture. Neither of the journalists present reported these tremendous words or noted their tremendous effect.’31 Similarly the Evening Star of the following day carried an account of the debate, but made no mention of the alleged incident.32
The various versions in letters by Darwin’s supporters, published several decades after the event, vary considerably. ‘[I]t received little attention until the affair was reported in Darwin’s Life and Letters, compiled in 1887 by his son Francis.’33,34 No verbatim account of the debate was kept.
According to Huxley himself, his own words were, ‘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.’35 Notice that Huxley was asking himself a hypothetical question. Had Wilberforce asked it, Huxley would surely have said, ‘The Bishop asked me … ’ or, addressing Wilberforce, ‘You asked me … ’, but he didn’t say either of these things. Nor did he mention the word ‘grandmother’.
Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s biographer, writes: ‘Perceptions of the event differed so widely that talk of a “victor” is ridiculous. Huxley believed himself “the most popular man in Oxford for full four & twenty hours afterwards”. … Hooker thought that … it was he (Hooker) who subsequently “smashed” Wilberforce “amid rounds of applause”. … In the chaos the punchdrunk combatants failed to see the jaunty Wilberforce leaving. He bore “no malice”, convinced that he had floored Huxley.’36
Nevertheless, despite the biased and mutated accounts of this meeting, or perhaps because of them, history has come to regard this event as something of a turning point in the public acceptance of the theory of evolution.
For an updated version of this box, see Huxley’s Debate with Wilberforce—Setting the record straight.
Re-featured on homepage: 27 June 2012
- Not to be confused with ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler’, a term coined by Oxford theologian Alister McGrath about Richard Dawkins. Return to text.
- C. Darwin to T.H. Huxley, 8 August 1860. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Edited by Francis Darwin, 2:123–124, D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1911. Return to text.
- Desmond, A., Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest, Addison-Wesley, Massachusetts, USA, 1997, adapted from dust-cover and p. xvii. Return to text.
- ‘In his teens he taught himself German, eventually becoming fluent and used by Charles Darwin as a translator of scientific material in Germen.’ Thomas Henry Huxley, Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Henry_Huxley, 6 February 2008. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, pp. 34–35. Return to text.
- ‘His only degree “qualifications” thus were honorary doctorates—from Breslau, Edinburgh, Dublin, Cambridge, Würzburg, Oxford, Bologna, and Erlangen’ received in his later years.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica 6:179, 1995. Return to text.
- Two papers by Huxley were published by the Linnean Society and one by the Royal Society. Return to text.
- See Grigg, R., Alfred Russel Wallace: ‘co-inventor’ of Darwinism, Creation 27(4):33–35, 2005. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p. 266. Return to text.
- T.H. Huxley to Frederick Dyster, 30 January 1859, as quoted in ref. 3, p. 253. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, pp. 267. Return to text.
- C. Darwin to T.H. Huxley, 16 December 1859, More Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin and A.C. Seward, John Murray, London, 1903, 1:131, Letter 85, as quoted in darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F1548.1&viewtype=text&pageseq=1, 12 March 2008. Return to text.
- T. H. Huxley to C. Darwin, Nov. 23, 1859. Ref. 2, pp. 26–27. Return to text.
- Blinderman, C. and Joyce, D., The Huxley File, #4 Darwin’s Bulldog, aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/guide4.html, 12 March 2008. Return to text.
- Johnson, P.E., Thomas Huxley, A Pioneer in a Still-Raging Scientific Debate, Washington Times, 4 January 1998, p. B8. Return to text.
- Ernle, Quarterly Review, ccxxxix, (1923), 224, as quoted by Himmelfarb, G., Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, Chatto &Windus, London, p. 217, 1959. Return to text.
- Huxley, T., Science and Hebrew Tradition, Vol. 4 of Huxley’s Collected Essays, ‘The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science’, (1890), pp. 207–208, aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE4/Lights.html, 18 March 2008. Return to text.
- Ref. 17, p. 214. Return to text.
- Ref. 17, p. 225. Return to text.
- Ref. 17, pp. 232–233. Return to text.
- Ref. 17, pp. 235–236. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p. 611. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, pp. 612–613. Return to text.
- Wilberforce’s Review of the Origin of Species is available at usp.nus.edu.sg/victorian/science/science_texts/wilberforce.htm (last accessed 14 May 2010), 26 March 2008. Return to text.
- C. Darwin to J.D. Hooker, July 1860, ref. 2, pp. 117–118. Return to text.
- Gauld C., Update: The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate, [An analysis of 63 books on the subject.] Ships Resource Center, www1.umn.edu/ships/updates/wilbrfrz.htm, 13 March 2008. Return to text.
- Lucas, J.R.,Wilberforce and Huxley: a Legendary Encounter, The Historical Journal 22(2):319, 1979. Return to text.
- Ref. 27, pp. 313–330. Return to text.
- Lucas, J., Wilberforce no ape, Nature 287:480, 9 October 1980. Return to text.
- Bowlby, J., Charles Darwin: A New Life, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, pp. 354–55, 1990. Return to text.
- The Athenaeum, nos. 1705, 1706, 1707, 30 June, 7 July, 14 July 1860; Jackson’s Oxford Journal 7 July, 1860. Quoted in ref. 27, p. 315. Return to text.
- Ref. 30, pp. 358–59. Return to text.
- See Blackmore, V. and Page, A., Evolution the Great Debate, A Lion Book, Oxford, UK, p. 103, 1989. Return to text.
- One source is Mrs Isabella Sidgwick, writing as ‘Grandmother’ in Macmillan’s Magazine 78(468):433–434, October 1898, i.e. 38 years later. Available in ref. 27, pp. 313–314. Return to text.
- T.H. Huxley to F. Dyster, 9 September 1860, quoted in ref. 3, p. 279. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p. 280. Return to text.