Thomas Henry Huxley (1825)
It was on this date, May 4, 1825, that Thomas Henry Huxley was born in Ealing, near London. He was largely self-educated, read voraciously in science, history, and philosophy, and even taught himself German. As a medical apprentice, Huxley signed on as assistant surgeon with the H.M.S. Rattlesnake, a Royal Navy frigate charting the seas around Australia and New Guinea. It was an opportunity much like the one Darwin had aboard The Beagle, and as with Darwin, the experience changed his life.
He collected specimens and wrote about his observations, so that when he returned to England he found himself a minor celebrity in the scientific community. In 1859, when Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, Huxley read it and at once remarked, “How stupid of me not to have thought of that.” He wrote to the author (23 November 1859):
I finished your book yesterday… As for your doctrines I am prepared to go to the Stake if requisite… I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse & misrepresentation which unless I greatly mistake is in store for you… And as to the curs which will bark and yelp — you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead — …I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.
His defense of Darwin’s theories, and especially to their application to the evolution of the human species, earned him the nickname, “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Huxley is best known for his famous debate in June 1860 against Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce, who had his own nickname, “Soapy Sam,” for his notorious slipperiness in debate. When Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother’s side or his grandfather’s, Huxley is said to have replied something like, “I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth.”
Huxley invented the term agnostic to describe his view, after David Hume, that the mind cannot reach realities beyond the senses. He disdained Christian doctrines and his son, Leonard Huxley, recalled his father saying, “the most remarkable achievement of the Jew was to impose on Europe for eighteen centuries his own superstitions.”
Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.