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Thomas Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, was the great communicator

Posted in Bible, Biology, Education, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Religion, Science on Monday, 13 February 2012

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This edited article about T H Huxley originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 639 published on 13 April 1974.

T H Huxley, picture, image, illustration

Thomas Huxley defending Darwin in the lecture hall of Oxford’s New University Museum in June, 1860 by C L Doughty

“Soapy Sam” was going to be the star attraction, and his many admirers were sure that he would demolish Charles Darwin for ever. “Soapy” was more respectfully known as Samuel Wilberforce and was the Bishop of Oxford. He had got his nickname because he was too glib by half, but he was an orator in a thousand.

Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, had caused an uproar. In Victorian times, the story of the Creation at the beginning of the Book of Genesis was believed literally, and many accepted the theory that the world was created at 9 a.m. on 23 October, 4,004 B.C. Suddenly this quiet naturalist had come forward with his theory of evolution: all forms of life must have evolved from earlier forms.

Darwin had written of natural selection, the survival of the fittest. While many species had vanished from the earth, variations of those same species had enabled others to survive. Today, Darwin’s ideas have been modified slightly, because more is known about heredity, but basically his views still hold. And the one that caught the startled public’s attention was that man and the monkey had a common ancestor.

Darwin was not there to challenge “Soapy” that June day in 1860, but he had his champion, Thomas Henry Huxley, as great a scientist as Darwin and better able to cope with the hurly-burly of public debate. He was to become known as Darwin’s Bulldog. Like Darwin, he had travelled to the tropics when he was young aboard a naval vessel, and his life had been transformed by what he had seen and learnt of the animal and vegetable kingdoms.

The crowd in the great hall of the New University Museum at Oxford was thickening faster for the battle royal to come. It was the annual meeting of the British Association and was to be the most important ever held.

Things started quietly enough as several speakers made points for and against Darwin; in fact the atmosphere was becoming so unexciting that many began to feel they were there under false pretences. But there on the platform, amongst other distinguished men, were the Bishop and Huxley, the latter black-haired, bewhiskered and with eyes that blazed intelligence. After his travels and early struggles, Huxley had rapidly become one of the most famous biologists of the day, and a superb public speaker who could explain science to ordinary people as well as experts. He felt it his duty to lecture to uneducated workers before there was such a thing as state education. It made him precious little money, but gave him immense satisfaction. The Origin of Species had electrified him, for it suddenly explained the gaps in his own immense knowledge. Now he sat brooding on the platform, with hundreds of eyes focused upon him.

Speaking at this moment was a very odd-looking cleric, who proceeded to draw a cross on one corner of a blackboard and then another diagonally opposite it. “Let this point A be the man, let that point B be the maunkey,” he intoned, “maunkey” being his way of pronouncing monkey. At once the hall exploded with mirth. “Maunkey, maunkey!” chanted the rows of undergraduates and the wretched man fled.

Now it was Wilberforce’s turn. Foolishly, he had not done his homework, for he started making vague generalisations, calling Darwin’s a “casual theory” and demanding proofs. Huxley sat silent. He had not intended to speak, but at the very climax of the Bishop’s fine flow of words he changed his mind. “Soapy Sam’s” exact words are disputed, but he seems to have said – looking hard at Huxley – “Is it through your grandmother or your grandfather that you claim to be descended from the apes?”

Huxley slapped his knee, turned to his neighbour, and said: “The Lord hath delivered him into my hands.”

He then got up and began to speak. At first he held himself back merely explaining certain points, such as that when he talked about descent he meant descent through thousands of generations, provocative enough for those who believed in 4,004 B.C. Then – again the exact words are disputed – he aimed his heavy artillery at “Soapy”. “I would certainly prefer,” he admitted, “to be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who sold the gifts of culture and eloquence to the service of prejudice and falsehood.”

A mighty roar rent the air. While the clergy shouted “Apologise! Apologise!” the undergraduates howled and laughed with joy. One lady present was so overcome with emotion that she fainted and had to be carried away in a state of collapse.

The roar was heard around the nation and the world, and went on for the rest of the century. Today, unbelievers and nearly all believers accept the Bible’s story of the Creation as a beautiful mythical parable, but a century ago many thought of Huxley and Darwin, both respectable family men, as the agents of the Devil. So bitter was the feeling that when Huxley lay dying in 1895, his wife and family were subjected to poison pen letters rejoicing that he would soon be in Hell.

Huxley found time to write innumerable papers and books during his long career. Typical was one called The Crayfish, which is usually regarded as a perfect example of a scientific work. His most famous book was Evidence of Man’s Place in Nature, which carried on where Darwin’s The Origin of Species left off and created a sensation, for in it was the relationship of Man and Ape spelt out for all to see.

One of the reasons for his ability to get scientific facts across to ordinary people was his habit of first reading to his wife everything he had written. She was an intelligent woman, but a non-scientist. They founded a remarkable dynasty, the most famous of their many descendants being two of their grandchildren, Sir Julian Huxley, the great biologist, who, like his grandfather, has a genius for transmitting knowledge, and Aldous Huxley, a very fine writer and realist. All the Huxleys have followed T.H.’s lead and have refused to divide the world into scientists and the rest. T.H. said: “Science and literature are not two things, but two sides of the same thing.”

Huxley’s main hobbies were work, mountaineering and being a splendid father. Ordinary people idolised him for his lectures, which were blunt, clear and exciting. Cab drivers often refused to take his money. He found time to help pilot state education, which arrived in the 1870s, and he promoted new teaching methods for young scientists. Instead of lectures which were nothing but talk, he let his students loose on specimens and every listener was expected to argue with him if he disagreed with him. He once said about Julian, then a little boy, “I like that chap. I like the way he looks you straight in the face and disobeys you.”

Despite overwork and ill-health, Huxley lived to be 70. He had fought hard all his life, but never lost the respect of his opponents, whom he always treated politely except when, like the notorious “Soapy Sam,” they asked for trouble and got it. Such was Huxley’s good sense and good nature, however, that the two men later met on a number of occasions and treated each other courteously. So it was that the great battle between science and the Church was not as bloody as it might have been, and that when Huxley died many bishops mourned him as profoundly as his fellow scientists. If he were alive today he would almost certainly be a major television personality, the man to put over difficult scientific facts to millions, as he once did to thousands.

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