Thomas Henry Huxley (b. 4 May 1825; d. 29 June 1895) was an intellectual giant of the 19th century, a pioneering genius whose influence was felt throughout the worlds of science, education, and politics of Victorian England. A man of astonishing energy and prodigious talent, Huxley had a sharp wit and a brilliant, questioning mind. What he may have lacked in patience for tedious detail, he more than made up for in insight and intellect. And although he was never one to sacrifice principle for propriety, and was vigorous in defense of his ideas, he treated his opponents with courtesy and respect.
Students of intellectual history will recall that Huxley invented the term "agnostic" to describe his own views. Generations of free-thinkers are in his debt, because his codification of the concept into our language, freed us from the limited dichotomy of belief vs. disbelief, in and out of theistic contexts.
However, as "Darwin's bulldog", Huxley is best remembered today for his prominent role in defending evolution against attacks from scientists, theists, and philosophers; in fact, one might well wonder how readily the scientific establishment of England would have accepted Darwin's views without Huxley's indefatigable efforts. The point holds a certain irony, for Huxley's biological writings show much less explicit support for natural selection than for evolution itself.
Thomas Huxley's writings span a remarkable range, reflecting his broad interests, intellectual passions, and social commitment. At the age of 20, he published his first paper "On a hitherto undescribed structure in the human hair sheathe" in the Medical Gazette. His "Diary of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Rattlesnake", published posthumously by his grandson Julian, recounts his four year voyage (1846-1850), but unlike Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle", offers less insight into the growth of Huxley's scientific ideas than in his ongoing activities.
The list of Huxley's subsequent scientific writings spans nearly ten pages, and although the bulk of this work appeared in the period between 1849 - 1879, he continued to publish in the scientific literature until the late 1880s. Among his most notable scientific works are his 1863 "Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature", which went beyond the "Origin of Species", by explicitly extending the idea of evolution to the human species. His well-known essay "On a Piece of Chalk", taken from a public lecture given to English workers, reconstructs from that small item the historical geology of Britain, and demonstrates the methods of science as "organized common sense". The latter appears in the collection "Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews", which offers a good introduction to some of Huxley's social and political views.
However, all of his writings are well-worthwhile, and the nine volume Collected Essays (1893-1894), common in the better libraries and sometimes to be found in antiquarian bookstores, is a treasure trove for anyone interested in scientific and intellectual history.
Further reading about Thomas Huxley:
The Devil's Disciple, by Adrian Desmond, 1994. Viking Penguin, New York.
T.H. Huxley's Place in Natural Science, by Mario A. DiGregio, 1984. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven.
T. H. Huxley: Man's Place in Nature, by James G. Paradis, 1978. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
The Huxleys, by Ronald W. Clark, 1968. McGraw-Hill & Co., New York.
The Life and Letters of T.H. Huxley, edited by Leonard Huxley, 1901. Appleton & Co., New York.
T.H. Huxley's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, edited by Julian Huxley, 1936. Doubleday, Doran, & Co., New York.
Click to go to D. Blackburn's home page