Last reviewed: June 2018
English biologist and educator.
May 4, 1825
Ealing, Middlesex, England
June 29, 1895
Eastbourne, East Sussex, England
Thomas Henry Huxley was the son of an assistant master in a public school, but he had only two years in the "pandemonium of a school" before he began, at seventeen, a course of medical studies at Charing Cross Hospital. In his boyhood, however, he had read widely and indulged his curiosity in all sorts of ways, even to observing an autopsy when he was thirteen. Following his graduation in 1845, he published his first scientific paper and joined the Royal College of Surgeons. Arctic explorer Sir John Richardson secured for him a billet as assistant surgeon aboard HMS Rattlesnake, a post which Huxley used primarily to study the surface life of the tropical seas. His papers, based on data collected during the four-year voyage, and published by the Royal Society, helped to establish the concepts of ectoderm and endoderm in evolution. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1852. In the following year, he was awarded the Royal Medal for his contributions to science. He was also recognized as one who had the rare talent for making crucial connections between science, worldly affairs, and the education of children and youth. Thomas Henry Huxley.
Thomas Henry Huxley.
Dedicated to a rigorous inductive method, Huxley attacked the idealistic evolutionists, Richard Owen and Lorenz Oken, and insisted that "there is no progression from a lower to a higher type, but a more or less complete evolution of one type." The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was a turning point in Huxley’s life: From then on, he devoted himself largely to research, publication, and public debate relating to the theory of evolution. In Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, Huxley demonstrated that, anatomically, humans are, in body and brain, one with the animal world. The book was written in simple, persuasive language, and some scholars have posited that it anticipated modern anthropology. The book is a demonstration of the eclecticism of Huxley’s scientific and literary talents. Having been appointed lecturer to the School of Mines in 1854 and to the Geological Survey in 1855, Huxley turned his attention to the role of fossils in evolutionary studies and concluded that if the hypothesis of evolution had not existed, paleontologists would have had to invent it.
Huxley's public life included service on ten royal commissions, the posts of secretary (1871–1880) and president (1881–1885) of the Royal Society, and membership on the London School Board (1870–1872). In the latter position, he strongly influenced the British concept of elementary education, with his demands that, in addition to the three R’s, courses be taught in physical education, home economics, the various aesthetic arts, and natural science in school laboratories. His impact on English and even on American education was enormous. Huxley is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of modern science education in public schools.
During his lifetime, his scientific fame and his notoriety derived from his vigorous public controversies over the doctrine of evolution, controversies that led him to be erroneously identified simply as a "materialistic atheist." He enjoyed debating the subject and attacking fundamentalist Christian concepts upon premises such as, "There is no evidence of the existence of such a being as the God of the Theologians," and "The cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends." Yet he also asserted that "the substance of matter is a metaphysical unknown as is the substance of mind" and that "atheism is on purely philosophical grounds untenable." In the tradition of Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, he believed that humankind must learn to subdue through social organization the qualities of ape and tiger that originally enabled humans to survive.
As a preacher of the gospel of evolution (he called himself "Darwin’s Bulldog"), Huxley became one of the foremost advocates of Darwinism. He was fully aware of the immediate implications of evolution for theology, education, and even science; he addressed them one by one in his writings and lectures. He was convinced that science and religion did not have to be incompatible. He coined the term "agnostic" to characterize his religious views in the light of science.
In his last years, Huxley, suffering from a painful illness, was unable to fulfill the duties of the Privy Councillorship which he accepted in 1892, and he died at Eastbourne on June 29, 1895. Standing for all that was best in the Victorian agnostic tradition, his influence was, and still is, enormous. Huxley, with the mind of a scientist and the instinct of a poet, was able to present the importance of science in the context of humanity. He had the gift of synthesizing his rationalism with aesthetic imagination and his intellectual integrity with political advocacy for a variety of educational and humanitarian causes. He was a dramatic lecturer and a remarkable essayist with poetic gifts. His grandsons, Julian and Aldous Huxley, each developed what might be called a single facet of T. H. Huxley’s rich personality, the former as one of Britain’s leading scientists and the latter as a novelist and metaphysical speculator.