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Huxley, Thomas Henry (1825–1895)


Thomas Henry Huxley, the biologist and the most versatile man of science of nineteenth-century England, was born at Ealing, near London. Like many eminent Victorians, Huxley was self-educated. While still an adolescent he read extensively in history and philosophy, learned several foreign languages, and began a medical apprenticeship. In 1842 he entered Charing Cross Hospital, where he distinguished himself by winning prizes in chemistry, anatomy, and physiology, and by publishing his first research paper. From 1846 to 1850 he was assistant surgeon on H.M.S. Rattlesnake while it conducted surveying operations in Australian waters. Huxley made capital out of this voyage, as Charles Darwin had done on the voyage of the Beagle, and sent home a number of scientific papers dealing with marine animals. These papers established his reputation as a first-rate biologist, and in 1851 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. After leaving the navy he settled in London, where he eventually obtained several small appointments, the chief one being that of naturalist at the Government School of Mines. Here he began his paleontological investigations, which resulted in more than twenty memoirs on the anatomy and classification of fossils. During the next four decades Huxley became one of the intellectual leaders of England. His strong, skeptical, earnest mind was enlisted on behalf of a great variety of causes. He championed Darwin's theory of evolution, disputed with churchmen about the Bible, worked for educational reforms, served on eight royal commissions, and refused a professorship at Oxford. As a public lecturer he was brilliant at clarifying abstruse subjects and developing polemical arguments. He also wrote copiously in forceful, eloquent prose. Yet he produced no really seminal ideas or magnum opus, partly because his efforts were so dispersed. In the following discussion, attention will be limited his views on the nature of science, metaphysics, ethics, and religion.

The Nature of Science

For Huxley, two aspects of the sciences were of special importance. One was their historical continuity with modes of thought used by men in the ordinary commerce of life. "Science," he once said, "is nothing but trained and organized common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit . The man of science, in fact, simply uses with scrupulous exactness the methods which we all habitually use carelessly" (Collected Essays, Vol. III, pp. 4546). Hence there is a unity of procedure in all the sciences. This was the other aspect of the sciences that he deemed important, because it allowed a specification to be given of the steps that must be taken if the procedure is to be properly carried out. In an essay of 1854, "On the Educational Value of the Natural History Sciences" (Collected Essays, Vol. III), Huxley listed the steps as: (1) observation of the facts, including those elicited by experiment; (2) comparison and classification, leading to general propositions; (3) deduction from the general propositions to the facts again; and (4) verification. Later he came to see that hypotheses are essential to the procedure of science, especially as devices for "anticipating nature." But he did not sufficiently stress the connection between a hypothesis and the scientific problem that initiates an inquiry, or the role of the hypothesis in determining what facts are to be observed.


It was the effective use of scientific method in Darwin's Origin of Species that helped to convert Huxley to the doctrine of evolution by natural selection. As a young man he had held antievolutionary views, not because he believed in the special creation of species, but because he failed to find a scientific explanation of how their transmutation could have been effected. Darwin's book proved to be "a flash of light which, to a man who has lost himself in a dark night, suddenly reveals a road that, whether it takes him straight home or not, certainly goes his way" (Life and Letters of T. H. Huxley, Vol. I, pp. 245246). His reflection on having mastered Darwin's central thesis was, "How exceedingly stupid not to have thought of that."

Huxley espoused Darwinism not as a dogma, however, but as a "most ingenious hypothesis" that offered a rational account of how the organic world came to be what it is. The hypothesis was not contradicted by any known evidence, nor was it seriously rivaled; yet it was not established beyond a shadow of doubt. For instance, certain physiological peculiarities of organisms, such as hybrid sterility, had still to be explained in terms of natural selection. To Huxley, some of Darwin's formulations seemed quite unsatisfactory. To speak of variations "arising spontaneously" was to employ "a conveniently erroneous phrase." To commit oneself to the principle natura non facit saltum ("nature makes no leap") was to invite needless trouble. For in fact, Huxley declared, "Nature does make jumps now and then, and a recognition of this is of no small importance in disposing of many minor objections to the doctrine of transmutation" (Collected Essays, Vol. II, p. 77). But even if it remained to be shown that natural selection sufficed for the production of species, "few can doubt that it is a very important factor in this operation." To that extent Darwinism was certainly here to stay.

Huxley was sensitive to a number of philosophical questions generated by the theory of evolution. The questions that particularly interested him arose when three considerations were taken seriously. First, like all scientific theories, Darwinism "starts with certain postulates and the validity of these postulates is a problem of metaphysics." Second, the theory of evolution had to be extended to the cosmos as a whole, if its scope was not to be arbitrarily restricted. But at that point philosophical issues had to be faced. Did the cosmos evolve from some "epicurean chance-world," or had its order been eternally the same? Finally, the study of organisms pointed to the conclusion that they began as, and are now, physicochemical systems. It could therefore be assumed that molecular motions are the basis of all vital processes, including so-called conscious ones. But if this was so, metaphysical materialism gained strong support.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

The philosophical standpoint most congenial to Huxley was derived from his reading of René Descartes, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Of prime importance was the contention "that our certain knowledge does not extend beyond states of consciousness, or the phenomena of mind. Our sensations, our pleasures, our pains, and the relations of these, make up the sum total of the elements of positive, unquestionable knowledge" (Collected Essays, Vol. VI, pp. 317318). Beyond this we have only uncertain inferences or beliefs. Hence, when we talk about "matter" and "the physical world," we are interpreting some mental phenomena, just as we are interpreting other phenomena when we talk about "mind" and "the self." For matter is only a postulated cause of certain conscious states, in the same way that mind is a postulated substratum of those same states. This is all that criticism leaves of "the idols set up by the spurious metaphysics of vulgar common sense."

Huxley expressed many of his philosophical ideas in a book on Hume that he wrote for the English Men of Letters series in 1878. He agreed with Hume's account of perception as a process that yields only sense impressions, but he held that Hume had failed "to recognize the elementary character of impressions of relation" and also had failed to make clear that having a sense impression is a case of knowing. Hume had correctly represented the order of nature as an unbroken succession of causes and effects, so that there can be no uncaused volitions such as proponents of "free will" postulate. But determinism, Huxley affirmed, is entirely compatible with ascribing responsibility to human beings for their deliberate actions. As Hume had rightly understood, "the very idea of responsibility implies the belief in the necessary connexion of certain actions with certain states of mind" (Collected Essays, Vol. VI, p. 222).

metaphysical presuppositions of science

From this philosophical standpoint, Huxley dealt with questions that fall under the three considerations mentioned above. Science, he affirmed, postulates a rational order of nature, the operation of material forces, the universality of causation, and the immutable necessity of laws. All these factors need to be properly interpreted. Thus, "nature" is simply the totality of phenomena, whose regular occurrence constitutes nature's "rational order." Material forces are at best hypothetical entities which Huxley said he could not conceive clearly. As Hume had insisted, "causation" refers to the relation of invariable succession among phenomena. "Necessity" is a term that should be limited to logic and has no warranted application to the physical world. For the laws that science formulates are records of observed regularities, not agents which "force" things to happen as they do. Hence, "our highest and surest generalizations remain on the level of justifiable expectations, that is, very high probabilities." The quest for certainty in science is an irrational pursuit.


It is also irrational to hope that we can ever know anything about the ultimate origin or ultimate nature of the universe. Speculation about such matters is fruitless, for they lie outside the limits of philosophical inquiry. To identify his position on this issue, Huxley coined the name "agnostic" about 1869. "It came into my head," he said, "as suggestively antithetical to the "agnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant" (Life and Letters of T. H. Huxley, Vol. I, p. 462). Agnosticism, however, is not another creed; it is an outlook that results from the adoption of a principle, at once intellectual and moral, which states that a man ought not to assert that he knows a proposition to be true unless he can produce adequate evidence to support it. Conversely, an agnostic repudiates as immoral "the doctrine that there are propositions which men ought to believe without logically satisfactory evidence." The justification of this principle lies in the success which follows upon its application, whether in the field of natural or of human history.

Because of an agnostic's outlook, he cannot accept the tenets of metaphysical materialism, according to which nothing exists in the world save matter, force, and necessity. For these three concepts are intelligible only insofar as they are related to the phenomena of mind. Hence, "Materialism is as utterly devoid of justification as the most baseless of theological dogmas." Yet to reject materialism is by no means to espouse idealism or spiritualism. "Spiritualism is, after all, little better than Materialism turned upside down" (Collected Essays, Vol. IX, p. 133). Nor does it follow that the sciences must eschew materialistic language. On the contrary, such language is often useful in investigating the order of nature, as Huxley himself showed in more than one paper. But to use materialistic language for scientific purposes is quite different from accepting a metaphysics based on materialism.


As a biologist, Huxley took the view that the bodies of animals, including humans are best regarded as mechanical systems. Yet the mind and states of consciousness undeniably exist, and their relation to the working of the physical body has to be explained. This was the question Huxley discussed in a well-known paper of 1874, "On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata." States of consciousness are represented as being no more than effects of bodily processeschiefly, the molecular changes in brain substance that has attained a certain degree of organization. Furthermore, no evidence can be found for supposing "that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism." Animals, then, are conscious automata. The working of their bodily mechanism is unaffected by their mental activity. "The mind stands related to the body as the bell of the clock to the works, and consciousness answers to the sound which the bell gives out when it is struck." This is Huxley's version of epiphenomenalism. The doctrine did not purport to give an ultimate explanation of the mind-body relationship. It did not even purport to explain how the passage from molecular movement to conscious states is effected. Concerning the details of this passage, he declared, "I really know nothing and never hope to know anything."


The greatest impact of Huxley's agnosticism was on the religious dogmas of his time. As a young man he accepted a form of theism. In a paper of 1856, "On Natural History as Knowledge, Discipline, and Power" (Royal Institution Proceedings, London, Vol. II, 18541858, pp. 187195), he contended that the design revealed by nature pointed to the existence of an Infinite Mind as its author. But he discarded this view when he became a Darwinian, on the ground that the argument from design had received its deathblow. Thenceforth, he attacked those who claimed to prove that a supernatural God exists, or who affirmed that biblical and Christian doctrines are rationally credible. His most dramatic clash was with Bishop Wilberforce at the Oxford meeting of the British Association in June 1860, and his most protracted controversy was with W. E Gladstone in the pages of the Nineteenth Century, from 1885 to 1891. Neither of these defenders of the faith was a match for Huxley.


Huxley hammered away at the inconsistencies in, and the lack of evidence for, the biblical cosmology, the creation stories, and the belief in demons, spirits, and miraculous occurrences that Christianity requires. The subject of miracles was of deep interest to him; miracles could not be rejected as impossible, he thought, because they are logically conceivable. Hence Hume's a priori reasoning against them was mistaken. Yet one can say that the occurrence of an alleged miracle, being antecedently a most improbable event, needs strong supporting evidence. But in each recorded case, evidence of this kind was lacking. In several essays Huxley discussed particular biblical reports of miracles and found them unconvincing.


Although he rejected supernaturalism, Huxley was prepared to accept a Spinozistic conception of God as being identical with nature in its infinite complexity. "The God so conceived is one that only a very great fool would deny, even in his heart. Physical science is as little Atheistic as it is Materialistic" (Collected Essays, Vol. IX, p. 140). Once, in a letter to Charles Kingsley, he said that he believed in "the Divine Government" of the universe. The phrase expressed his conviction that the cosmic process is rational rather than random, that the reign of law is universal, and that the order of nature has existed "throughout all duration." Yet the governing principles of the universe appear to be amoral, since what happens to men is "accompanied by pleasures and pains, the incidence of which, in the majority of cases, has not the slightest reference to moral desert" (Collected Essays, Vol. IX, p. 202).


Toward the close of his life Huxley thought a good deal about the foundations of morality. He was dissatisfied with the attempts of Darwin and Herbert Spencer to harmonize man's moral sentiments and the theory of evolution. It was not that he doubted the evolutionary origin of those sentiments; what he doubted was whether Darwin or Spencer had appreciated the extent to which morality and nature are at war with each other. This was the theme with which he startled the Victorian world in his famous Romanes lecture, "Evolution and Ethics" (Collected Essays, Vol. IX, pp. 46116), on May 18, 1893.

Its central contention is that "ethical nature, while born of cosmic nature, is necessarily at enmity with its parent." For a dominant feature of the natural world is "the intense and unceasing competition of the struggle for existence." Thomas Hobbes's depiction of nature as the war of all against all is correct. In this world, ruthless and predatory action is "best" for the individual. But in human society, "ape and tiger methods" are precisely what man's moral sense condemns. Hence, the practice of that which is morally best involves a repudiation of "the gladiatorial theory of existence" portrayed by Darwinism: "Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it." Accordingly, man although himself a product of evolution, has an obligation to subjugate the amoral or immoral aspects of evolution to moral ends. Yet Huxley's grounds for this conclusion are by no means clear. His only recourse was to fall back on a kind of ethical intuitionism which is hardly compatible with his other views.

The philosophical garment that Huxley wove is coarsely textured and has a number of loose ends. Thus his radical phenomenalism is not carefully interwoven with his evolutionism, and his agnosticism seems unconnected with his Spinozistic affirmations. Yet his grasp of philosophical issues was remarkable for a man who was also a leading scientist, educator, and public figure of his time.

See also Agnosticism; Animal Mind; Berkeley, George; Consciousness; Darwin, Charles Robert; Darwinism; Descartes, René; Evolution; Evolutionary Ethics; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Materialism; Miracles; Natural Law; Phenomenalism.


works by huxley

Man's Place in Nature. London: Williams and Norgate, 1863.

Hume. New York: Harper, 1879.

Collected Essays. 9 vols. London: Williams and Norgate, 18931895.

Scientific Memoirs. 5 vols. London: Macmillan, 18981903.

Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley. 2nd ed. 3 vols. Edited by Leonard Huxley. London: Macmillan, 1903.

With Julian Huxley. Evolution and Ethics, 18931943. London: Pilot Press, 1947; 1969.

The Essence of T. H. Huxley: Selections from His Writings;. Edited by Cyril Bibby. London, Melbourne: Macmillan; New York, St. Martin's, 1967.

On the Origin of Species: Or, The Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1968.

Autobiography and Essays. Edited by Brander Matthews. New York and Chicago: Gregg, 1969.

Darwiniana. Hildesheim, New York: G. Olms, 1970.

T. H. Huxley on Education. Edited by Cyril Bibby. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Scientific Papers and Correspondence of Thomas Henry Huxley, c. 18431895 from the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London. Reading, Berkshire, U.K.; Woodbridge, CT: Research Publications, 1990.

Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews. Boston: Elibron Classics, 2003.

works on huxley

Bibby, Cyril. T. H. Huxley: Scientist, Humanist, Educator. London: Watts, 1959.

Collie, Michael. Huxley at Work: With the Scientific Correspondence of T.H. Huxley and the Rev. Dr. George Gordon of Birnie, near Elgin. Basingstoke, Hampshire, U.K.: Macmillan Press, 1991.

Darwin, Charles, and Thomas Henry Huxley. Autobiographies [of] Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley. Edited by Gavin De Beer. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Davis, J. R. A. Thomas Henry Huxley. London and New York, 1907.

Desmond, Adrian J. Huxley: The Devil's Disciple. London: M. Joseph; New York: Viking Penguin, 1994.

Di Gregorio, Mario A. T. H. Huxley's Place in Natural Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

Irvine, William. Thomas Henry Huxley. London: Longmans, Green, 1960.

Jensen, J. Vernon. Thomas Henry Huxley: Communicating for Science. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1991.

Mitchell, P. Chalmers. Thomas Henry Huxley. New York: Putnam, 1900.

Paradis, James G. T. H. Huxley: Man's Place in Nature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Peterson, Houston. Huxley, Prophet of Science. New York: Longmans, Green, 1932.

T. A. Goudge (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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