Are you going to this seminar? Huxley’s speaking.

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.

Huxley's Lecture Poster
Huxley’s poster, sadly somewhat hidden on the backstairs of the Imperial College Library

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.

Our patron, keeping a watchful eye

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).

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11 Responses to Are you going to this seminar? Huxley’s speaking.

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    I would quibble with your remark about doing Huxley a disservice – quite the contrary! Sounds like a fascinating fellow. Despite his sexist poster, I’d subscribe to his blog. I didn’t to Jeremy Bentham ‘s, who although equally if not more prestigious is just a little dry for my taste.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    You are very kind Heather but it was not false modesty. There is so much more to the man; that much I gleaned from Ashforth’s relatively slim volume. Once I’ve cleared my bedside pile of books I’m going to order Desmond’s book and get to know him a bit better.
    In the meantime, I liked this quotation from him”

    If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger.

  3. Caryn Shechtman says:

    It looks like Huxley’s talk is still relevant! Check out this economist article on dog breeds.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Hah – I bet he would have loved that! The group mentioned were clearly taking their cue from Darwin in using observations from domestication to shed light on variation. Intriguingly they showed that a single allele of the Insulin Growth Factor 1 gene was largely responsible for small size in dogs.
    I immediately wondered why the enormous size variation seen in dogs isn’t replicated in domesticated cats. I can think of two possible explanations:

    Big cats are much scarier that big dogs

    Cats simply won’t put up with the sort of nonsense that dog are subjected to

  5. Eva Amsen says:

    How slow am I? For the past week I had seen this blog post title in my snapshot, but at seeing the word “seminar” I immediately thought “Oh, a seminar in a town where I am not. I’m not clicking that.” Only today, when I saw it again, did my brain register the Huxley part of it and realize he has been dead for quite a while…

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for that insight into the psychology of blog title interpretation. I had intended not to have a fixed structure for my titles, eschewing Jenny’s “In which…” or Richard’s “On…”, but if I adopted “WAKEY, WAKEY EVA! Here comes…”, would that help? ;-)
    BTW – if anyone has a serious answer to the question of the relative lack of variation in domesticated cats, I would be interested.

  7. Frank Norman says:

    I have to say that, personally, big dogs can be quite scary so I’m not convinced by that possible explanation.

  8. Eva Amsen says:

    Oh, I’ve actually tried to find info on cat genetic stability once after watching something on TV, but with no/little success. I had seen a TV program in which it was mentioned that cats in New York are still very similar, genetically, to cats in Amsterdam, because the original cat population was from there. This was surprising, because other cats have come to NYC from all kinds of places after that. I think I did find the original paper, but couldn’t access it at the time, and just gave up.
    This may or may not be related to the low variety in cheetahs (that’s easy to find info on, but I’m just being lazy/hungry now. It’s lunch time!)
    So cats are just genetically much stabler than dogs…? But why – no clue.

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    I had a conversation about this over coffee and my interlocutor suggested that cats simply have not been put under the same artificial selective pressure that dogs have been exposed to, because they’re not that useful. So probably there’s nothing inherently stable about the cat genome; it just hasn’t been played around with enough.

  10. Heather Etchevers says:

    I subscribe to the artificial breeding selection theory. This is in part supported by the wide variety in coat color in mice and horses (and maybe cats?), also subjected to the same intense artificial pressure. No particular use to selecting for size in cats or mice, but there is in horses, and you have some fairly divergent breeds there as well (and interesting recessive conditions, as well).

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