Thomas Henry Huxley

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Thomas Henry Huxley


British Anatomist, Paleontologist and Zoologist

T. H. Huxley was a major figure behind the propagation of Darwin's theory of evolution and a noted advocate of science education. Huxley contributed to the growing study of the classification of organisms by studying fossils. He was instrumental in shifting the emphasis in paleontology away from geology (the study of the rocks in which fossils were found) to biology and the study of the structure of the fossil itself.

Huxley had little formal education as a youth. Instead, he taught himself by reading scientific and religious works, studying nature, and doing experiments on his own. In 1841 he became an apprentice to his physician brother-in-law, and the next year was awarded a scholarship to London's Charing Cross Hospital, allowing him to gain intensive study of anatomy and physiology as well as the scientific method. After graduating in 1845, Huxley enlisted in the Royal Navy and was eventually assigned to the HMS Rattlesnake, as ship's surgeon, for a survey trip to Australia. Though it was not his job to do so, Huxley spent much of his time on the journey studying the zoology of the ocean by collecting specimens and dissecting them. He became fascinated by the tiny plankton that swarmed the sea and was able to clear up the somewhat muddled classification system other scientists used on these animals. Some of Huxley's findings were published back in London and he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society. Eventually, he left the navy and entered the British scientific world. In 1854 he was appointed professor of natural history at the School of Mines and started his study of paleontology and geology. From a working class family himself, Huxley wanted to extend the opportunity of an education to others who would not normally have access to one. In 1885 he began his so-called workingman's lectures in science for the general public. He gave popular talks on biology and other aspects of science to enthusiastic crowds.

Huxley was involved in several important scientific feuds in his career. The first was with Richard Owen (1804-1892), the established head of the British Natural Science community. The argument was over whether the newly discovered dinosaurs were closer to mammals, as Owen argued, or reptiles as Huxley did (we now know that Huxley was right). Owen and Huxley also fought over the relationship between man and the primates. Owen said that the similarities between humans and apes were only superficial, while Huxley argued that the two were closely related due to evolution. Huxley defended Charles Darwin (1809-1882) with such zealousness that he was dubbed "Darwin's Bulldog." By the time Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, he and Huxley were already friends. Darwin sent him an advance copy and Huxley was immediately taken with the elegance of the work and became convinced that organic evolution was a reality. As a major early defender of Darwin, Huxley gained wide renown for his famous (1805-1873) encounter with Oxford bishop Samuel Wilberforce. In a public debate in 1860 Wilberforce asked Huxley through which side of his family he was related to the apes. Huxley replied that he would rather be related to an ape than a man who introduced ridicule into a scientific discussion.

Though a supporter of Darwin and evolution in general, Huxley was not initially convinced that Darwin's idea of natural selection as the agent of evolution was supportable. As an empiricist (someone who requires verifiable facts before accepting a theory) Huxley was troubled by the lack of fossil evidence to prove Darwin's idea. He wanted to be able to do experiments or otherwise check to see if natural selection worked. Traveling to America in the 1870s, he met with paleontologist O. C. Marsh (1831-1899), who had put together an impressive fossil collection showing the progression of extinct to modern horses. This was the proof Huxley needed. He proclaimed Darwin's theory to be vindicated by physical evidence and accepted it completely.

Huxley added his voice to the debate about the social aspect of evolutionary theory. Many were troubled by Darwinian evolution because it suggested that life was without direction and thus meaningless. Huxley countered these evolutionary pessimists by saying that if there was no direction or purpose given to life by God, then man must take the initiative and give himself purpose and a reason to live. His optimistic view—and distrust of religious dogmatism—led him to coin the word "Agnostic" in 1870 to describe someone who might believe in God, but who saw no proof for His existence.


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Thomas Henry Huxley

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