Oh wait, I’ve just checked the poster and we’re 129 years too late – precisely. Damn.
But if you had been in the Piccadilly area at 8 pm on Monday 16th Feb 1880, you could have attended his talk on ‘The characters by which dogs resemble and differ from other animals’, the first of a series of six lectures on ‘Dogs and their forefathers’. The whole series would have set you back a mere sixpence. Sorry, I’m afraid it was for working men only: Huxley was ahead of his time in many different ways, but not in all.
Thomas Henry Huxley is perhaps chiefly remembered as Darwin’s bulldog, the man who famously jousted on evolution with Bishop Wilberforce at Oxford in 1860 in the aftermath of the publication of On the Origin of Species. But his contributions to 19th Century science were far wider and deeper than his stout defence of Darwin’s work. I am reminded of this every day because my office at Imperial is in the Huxley building. Alas, this is not one of Imperial’s finest architectural statements (1), but once through the rather anonymous entrance on Queens Gate, you are greeted by the bust of Huxley, overseeing proceedings with an affable eye and checking that his legacy is in good shape.
Huxley studied medicine for considerably longer than Darwin. But though he served as an assistant surgeon—and amateur naturalist—on the five-year voyage of HMS Rattlesnake (1846-50) to explore the north-eastern waters of Australia, he never completed his medical education. Instead, on his return to London he threw himself into scientific pursuits, principally anatomy, physiology and palaeontology. By chance in 1854 he secured a temporary lectureship at the Royal School of Mines (now part of Imperial College), a post that he held on to for thirty years.
No shrinking violet, Huxley was always eager for a public forum to promote science, and not just to the genteel classes who supped it with glasses of champagne at the Royal Institution on a Friday evening. Huxley’s lectures to working men were an integral part of a broader program to raise the status and impact of science in 19th Century society. Huxley also served tirelessly on the first London School Board in 1870, just as primary school education was being made compulsory for all children in Britain. In this role he strove to establish a place for science alongside the classics in the school curriculum. He was also instrumental in pioneering formal training in science at university.
Huxley’s skill as a sharp-witted writer and public speaker soon brought him to prominence. He clashed early on with Richard Owen—then England’s finest anatomist—being rankled as much by Owen’s selfish character as by his conservative approach to palaeontology. Though Owen was highly regarded by many and often compared to Cuvier, the French master of this field, Huxley’s view was dimmer:
What a capital title that is they give him of the British Cuvier. He stands in exactly the same relation to the French as British brandy to cognac.
That sharpness of tongue was never to leave him. It was deployed masterfully in his debate with Wilberforce and many times later in his published exchanges with defenders of the biblical account of creation, among them Prime Minister Gladstone. A correspondent from Devon who wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette to complain about an article by Huxley received the reply:
A Devonshire man is good enough to say of me that ‘cutting up monkeys is his forte, and cutting up men is his foible.’ With your permission I propose to cut up a Devonshire Man; but I leave it to the public to judge whether, when so employed, my occupation is to be referred to the former or latter category.
His combative spirit could sometimes get the better of him—there’s little doubt in my mind that he would have made an enthusiastic and engaging blogger on Nature Network. His taste for debate, especially on religious matters, earned him the sobriquet Pope Huxley from some quarters, and arguably deflected his intellect from scientific matters where it might have been more gainfully employed. It might even be said that Huxley wove the mantle later picked up by Richard Dawkins, though he was always less militant, coining the term agnostic and adhering to that position till the end of his life.
But Huxley was not simply out to antagonise religious types. His wider agenda was to clear a space for science, free from ecclesiastical interference. He fought and campaigned not just to have Darwins’s ideas heard but for science itself to be regarded as part of the core of our culture. In that he succeeded admirably and it’s a shame we missed that lecture.
(1) The present Huxley Building is a rather gruesome concrete monstrosity. The original edifice—now the Henry Cole Wing at the V&A Museum—is much more impressive.
For more on Huxley (I fear I have done him a disservice in this very brief sketch), check out Albert Ashforth’s Thomas Henry Huxley (Twayne Publisher’s Inc, New York, 1969). It’s an easy read at only 162 pages. However, having tasted the aperitif, I am definitely tempted by Adrian Desmond’s two-volume opus, Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest (available from Amazon), based solely on my enjoyment of his biography of Darwin (co-authored with James Moore).