LIFE-STORIES OF FAMOUS MEN
THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY
ISSUED FOR THE RATIONALIST PRESS ASSOCIATION, LIMITED
LIFE-STORIES OF FAMOUS MEN
THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY
A CHARACTER SKETCH
LEONARD HUXLEY, LL.D.
LONDON: WATTS & CO., 17 JOHNSON'S COURT, FLEET STREET, E.C.4 1920
I. INTRODUCTORY 1 II. EARLY DAYS 2 III. MEDICAL TRAINING 13 IV. VOYAGE OF THE "RATTLESNAKE" AND ITS SEQUEL 17 V. LEHRJAHRE 23 VI. VERACITY AND AGNOSTICISM 29 VII. CONTROVERSY AND THE BATTLE OF THE "ORIGIN" 37 VIII. PUBLIC SPEAKING AND LECTURES 43 IX. POPULAR EDUCATION 51 X. EDUCATION; ESPECIALLY OF TEACHERS AND WOMEN 60 XI. METHODS OF WORK 65 XII. SCIENCE AND ETHICS 72 XIII. MORALITY AND THE CHURCH 80 XIV. LIFE AND FRIENDSHIPS 84 XV. CHARLES DARWIN 92 XVI. HOOKER, FORBES, TYNDALL, SPENCER 100 XVII. IN THE FAMILY CIRCLE 111 XVIII. SOME LETTERS AND TABLE-TALK 117
PORTRAIT FROM A PHOTOGRAPH BY ELLIOTT AND FRY Frontispiece
FROM A DAGUERROTYPE MADE IN 1846 To face p.20
PORTRAIT FROM A PHOTOGRAPH BY MAULL AND POLYBLANK, 1857 To face p.44
PORTRAIT FROM A PHOTOGRAPH BY DOWNEY, 1890 To face p.102
The object of a full-dress biography is to present as complete a picture as may be of a man and his work, the influence of his character upon his achievement, the struggle with opposing influences to carry out some guiding purpose or great idea. With abundant documents at hand the individual development, the action of events upon character, and of character upon events, can be shown in the spontaneous freedom of letters, as well as in considered publications. But this little book is not a full-dress biography, although it may induce readers to turn to the larger Life and Letters, in which (or in the Aphorisms and Reflections of T.H. Huxley) facts and quotations can be turned up by means of the index; it is designed rather as a character sketch, to show not so much the work done as what manner of man Huxley was, and the spirit in which he undertook that work. It will not be a history of his scientific investigations or his philosophical researches; it will be personal, while from the personal side illustrating his attitude towards his scientific and philosophical thought.
Thomas Henry Huxley was born ten years after Waterloo, while the country was still in the backwash of the long-drawn Napoleonic wars. It was a time of material reconstruction and expansion, while social reconstruction lagged sadly and angrily behind. The year of his birth saw the first railway opened in England; it was seven years before electoral reform began, with its well-meant but dispiriting sequel in the new Poor Law. The defeat of the political and aggressive cause which had imposed itself upon the revolutionary inspiration of freedom strengthened the old orthodoxies here. Questioning voices were raised at their proper peril.
Thomas Henry was the seventh child of George Huxley and Rachel Withers, his wife. He was born on May 4, 1825, at half-past nine in the morning, according to the entry in the family Bible, at Ealing, where his father was senior assistant-master in the well-known school of Dr. Nicholas, of Wadham College, Oxford. The good doctor, who had succeeded his father-in-law here in 1791, was enough of a public character to have his name parodied by Thackeray as Dr. Tickleus.
"I am not aware," writes Huxley playfully in an autobiographical sketch,
that any portents preceded my arrival in this world; but in my childhood I remember hearing a traditional account of the manner in which I lost the chance of an endowment of great practical value. The windows of my mother's room were open, in consequence of the unusual warmth of the weather. For the same reason, probably, a neighbouring bee-hive had swarmed, and the new colony, pitching on the window-sill, was making its way into the room when the horrified nurse shut down the sash. If that well-meaning woman had only abstained from her ill-timed interference, the swarm might have settled on my lips, and I should have been endowed with that mellifluous eloquence which, in this country, leads far more surely than worth, capacity, or honest work, to the highest places in Church and State. But the opportunity was lost, and I have been obliged to content myself through life with saying what I mean in the plainest of plain language, than which, I suppose, there is no habit more ruinous to a man's prospects of advancement.
The fact that he received the name of the doubting apostle was by no means one of those superhuman coincidences in which some naive people see portents. In later years my father used to make humorous play with its appropriateness, but in plain fact he was named after his grandfather, Thomas Huxley. I have not traced the origin of the Henry.
Both parents were of dark complexion, and all the children were dark-haired and dark-eyed. The father was tall, and, I believe, well set-up: a miniature shows him with abundant, brown, curling hair brushed high above a good forehead, giving the effect, so fashionable in 1830, of a high-peaked head. The features are well cut and regular; the nose rather long and inclined to be aquiline; the cheeks well covered; the eyes, under somewhat arched brows, expressive and interesting. Outwardly, there is a certain resemblance traceable between the miniature and a daguerrotype of Huxley at nineteen; but the debt, physical and mental, owed to either parent is thus recorded:—
Physically, I am the son of my mother so completely—even down to peculiar movements of the hands, which made their appearance in me as I reached the age she had when I noticed them—that I can hardly find any trace of my father in myself, except an inborn faculty for drawing, which, unfortunately in my case, has never been cultivated; a hot temper, and that amount of tenacity of purpose which unfriendly observers sometimes call obstinacy.
My mother was a slender brunette, of an emotional and energetic temperament, and possessed of the most piercing black eyes I ever saw in a woman's head. With no more education than other women of the middle classes in her day, she had an excellent mental capacity. Her most distinguishing characteristic, however, was rapidity of thought. If one ventured to suggest that she had not taken much time to arrive at any conclusion, she would say: "I cannot help it; things flash across me." That peculiarity has been passed on to me in full strength; it has often stood me in good stead; it has sometimes played me sad tricks, and it has always been a danger. But, after all, if my time were to come over again, there is nothing I would less willingly part with than my inheritance of mother-wit.
Restless, talkative, untiring to the day of her death, she was at sixty-six "as active and energetic as a young woman." To her he was devoted.
As a child my love for her was a passion. I have lain awake for hours crying because I had a morbid fear of her death; her approbation was my greatest reward, her displeasure my greatest punishment.
About his childhood, he writes,
I have next to nothing to say. In after years my mother, looking at me almost reproachfully, would sometimes say, "Ah! you were such a pretty boy!" whence I had no difficulty in concluding that I had not fulfilled my early promise in the matter of looks. In fact, I have a distinct recollection of certain curls of which I was vain, and of a conviction that I closely resembled that handsome, courtly gentleman, Sir Herbert Oakley, who was vicar of our parish, and who was as a god to us country folk because he was occasionally visited by the then Prince George of Cambridge. I remember turning my pinafore wrong side forwards in order to represent a surplice, and preaching to my mother's maids in the kitchen as nearly as possible in Sir Herbert's manner one Sunday morning, when the rest of the family were at church. That is the earliest indication of the strong clerical affinities which my friend Mr. Herbert Spencer has always ascribed to me, though I fancy they have, for the most part, remained in a latent state.
He was not a precocious child, nor pushed forward by early instruction. His native talent for drawing, had it been cultivated, might have brought him into the front rank of artists; but on the perverse principle, then common, that training is either useless to native capacity or ruins it, he remained untaught, and his vigorous draughtsmanship, invaluable as it was in his scientific career, never reached its full technical perfection. But the sketches which he delighted to make on his travels reveal the artist's eye, if not his trained hand.
His regular schooling was of the scantiest. For two years, from the age of eight to ten, he was at the Ealing school. It was a semi-public school of the old unreformed type. What did a little boy learn there? The rudiments of Latin, of arithmetic, and divinity may be regarded as certain. Greek is improbable, and, in fact, I think my father had no school foundation to build upon when he took up Greek at the age of fifty-five in order to read in the original precisely what Aristotle had written, and not what he was said to have written, about his dissection of the heart.
For the rest, his experience of such a school, before Dr. Arnold's reforming spirit had made itself felt over the country, is eloquent testimony to the need of it.
Though my way of life [he writes] has made me acquainted with all sorts and conditions of men, from the highest to the lowest, I deliberately affirm that the society I fell into at school was the worst I have ever known. We boys were average lads, with much the same inherent capacity for good and evil as any others; but the people who were set over us cared about as much for our intellectual and moral welfare as if they were baby-farmers. We were left to the operation of the struggle for existence among ourselves; bullying was the least of the ill practices current among us.
One bright spot in these recollections was the licking of an intolerable bully, a certain wild-cat element in him making up for lack of weight. But, alas for justice, "I—the victor—had a black eye, while he—the vanquished—had none, so that I got into disgrace and he did not." A dozen years later he ran across this lad in Sydney, acting as an ostler, a transported convict who had, moreover, undergone more than one colonial conviction.
This brief school career was ended by the break-up of the Ealing establishment. After Dr. Nicholas's death, his sons tried to carry on the school; but the numbers fell off, and George Huxley, about 1835, returned to his native town of Coventry as manager of the Coventry Savings Bank, while his daughters eked out the slender family resources by keeping school.
Meantime, it does not seem that the boy Tom, as he was generally called, received much regular instruction. On the other hand, he learned a great deal for himself. He had an inquiring mind, and a singularly early turn for metaphysical speculation. He read everything he could lay hands on in his father's library. We catch a glimpse of him at twelve, lighting his candle before dawn, and, with blanket pinned round his shoulders, sitting up in bed to read Hutton's Geology. We see him discussing all manner of questions with his parents and friends; and, indeed, his eager and inquiring mind made it possible for him to have friends considerably older than himself. One of these was his brother-in-law, Dr. Cooke of Coventry, who married his sister Ellen in 1839. Through Dr. Cooke he became, as a boy, interested in human anatomy, with results that deeply affected his career for good and for evil.
The extraordinary attraction [he writes] I felt towards the intricacies of living structure proved nearly fatal to me at the outset. I was a mere boy—I think between thirteen and fourteen years of age—when I was taken by some older student friends of mine to the first post-mortem examination I ever attended. All my life I have been most unfortunately sensitive to the disagreeables which attend anatomical pursuits, but on this occasion my curiosity overpowered all other feelings, and I spent two or three hours in gratifying it. I did not cut myself, and none of the ordinary symptoms of dissection-poison supervened; but poisoned I was somehow, and I remember sinking into a strange state of apathy. By way of a last chance, I was sent to the care of some good, kind people, friends of my father's, who lived in a farmhouse in the heart of Warwickshire. I remember staggering from my bed to the window, on the bright spring morning after my arrival, and throwing open the casement. Life seemed to come back on the wings of the breeze, and to this day the faint odour of wood-smoke, like that which floated across the farmyard in the early morning, is as good to me as the "sweet south upon a bed of violets." I soon recovered; but for years I suffered from occasional paroxysms of internal pain, and from that time my constant friend, hypochondriacal dyspepsia, commenced his half-century of co-tenancy of my fleshly tabernacle.
In this life-long recurrence of suffering he was like his great friend and leader, Darwin. Each worked to his utmost under a severe handicap, which, it must be remembered, in Darwin's case, was by far the more constant and more disabling, though, happily, an ample fortune absolved him from the troubles of pecuniary stress.
Years afterwards, one of these "good, kind friends" calls up the picture of "Tom Huxley looking so thin and ill, and pretending to make hay with one hand, while in the other he held a German book."
How did he come thus early to teach himself German, a study which was to have undreamed-of consequences in his future? He learned it so well that, while still a young man, he could read it—rare faculty—almost as swiftly as English; and he was one of the swiftest readers I have known. Thus equipped, he had the advantage of being one of the few English men of science who made it a practice to follow German research at first hand, and turn its light upon their own work.
The learning of German was one half of the debt he owed to Carlyle, the other being an intense hatred of shams of every sort and kind. He had begun to read the fiery-tongued prophet in his earliest teens, and caught his inspiration at once. Sartor Resartus was for many years his Enchiridion (he says), while the translations from the German, the references to German literature and philosophy, fired him to read the originals.
As to other languages, his testimonials in 1842 record that he reads French with facility, and has a fair knowledge of Latin. Thus he took the Suites a Buffon with him on the Rattlesnake as a reference book in zoology. As to Latin, he was not content with a knowledge of its use in natural science. Beyond the minimum knowledge needful to interpret, or to confer, the "barbarous binomials" of scientific nomenclature, he was led on to read early scientific works published in Latin; and in philosophy, something of Spinoza; and later, massive tomes of the Fathers, whether to barb his exquisite irony in dissecting St. George Mivart's exposition of the orthodox Catholic view of Evolution, or in the course of his studies in Biblical criticism. Of Greek, mention has already been made. He employed his late beginnings of the language not only to follow Aristotle's work as an anatomist, but to aid his studies in Greek philosophy and New Testament criticism, and to enjoy Homer in the original. In middle life, too, he dipped sufficiently into Norwegian and Danish to grapple with some original scientific papers. When he was fifteen, Italian as well as German is set down by him in his list of things to be learnt, though for some time the pressure of preparing for the London matriculation barred the way; and on the voyage of the Rattlesnake he spent many hours making out Dante with the aid of a dictionary. No doubt, also, he must have read some Italian poetry with his wife during their engagement and early married days, for she had a fair acquaintance with Italian, as well as equalling his knowledge of German. When he was past sixty and ill-health, cutting short his old activities, had sent him to seek rest and change in Italy, he took up Italian again, and plunged into the authorities on the very interesting prehistoric archaeology of Italy.
To return to his early development. There is extant a fragmentary little journal of his, begun when he was fifteen, and kept irregularly for a couple of years. Here the early bent of his mind is clearly revealed; it prefigures the leading characteristics of his mature intellect. He jots down any striking thought or saying he comes across in the course of his reading; he makes practical experiments to test his theories; above all, his insatiable curiosity to find out the "why" and "how" of things makes him speculate on their causes, and discuss with his friends the right and wrong of existing institutions.
This curiosity to make out how things work is common to most healthy boys; to probe deep into the reasoned "why" is rare. It makes the practical mechanic into the man of science. Possessing both these qualities as he did, it is easy to understand his own description of his early ambitions:—
As I grew older, my great desire was to be a mechanical engineer, but the fates were against this; and, while very young, I commenced the study of medicine under a medical brother-in-law. But, though the Institute of Mechanical Engineers would certainly not own me, I am not sure that I have not all along been a sort of mechanical engineer in partibus infidelium. I am now occasionally horrified to think how little I ever knew or cared about medicine as the art of healing. The only part of my professional course which really and deeply interested me was physiology, which is the mechanical engineering of living machines; and, notwithstanding that natural science has been my proper business, I am afraid there is very little of the genuine naturalist in me. I never collected anything, and species work was always a burden to me; what I cared for was the architectural and engineering part of the business, the working out the wonderful unity of plan in the thousands and thousands of diverse living constructions, and the modifications of similar apparatuses to serve diverse ends.
One or two typical extracts may be given from the Journal, which opens with a quotation from Novalis: "Philosophy can bake no bread; but it can prove for us God, freedom, and immortality. Which, now, is more practical, Philosophy or Economy?" Later comes a quotation from Lessing, which involved a cardinal principle that he claimed for himself, and demanded of his pupils: accept no authority without verifying it for yourself:—
I hate all people who want to found sects. It is not error, but sects—it is not error, but sectarian error, nay, and even sectarian truth, which causes the unhappiness of mankind.
Electricity interests him specially; among other experiments, while theorizing upon them, he makes a galvanic battery "in view of experiment to get crystallized carbon: got it deposited, but not crystallized."
He is a young Radical in his opposition to anything like injustice, though frankly admitting that youth is not infallible. One of his boyish speculations was as to what would become of things if their qualities were taken away. While on this quest, he got hold of Sir William Hamilton's Logic, and read it to such good effect that when, years afterwards, he sat down to the greater philosophers, he found that he already had a clear notion of where the key of metaphysics lay. The following extract from the Journal shows that he already had a characteristic point of view:—
Had a long talk with my mother and father about the right to make Dissenters pay church rates, and whether there ought to be any Establishment. I maintain that there ought not in both cases—I wonder what will be my opinion ten years hence? I think now that it is against all laws of justice to force men to support a church with whose opinions they cannot conscientiously agree. The argument that the rate is so small is very fallacious. It is as much a sacrifice of principle to do a little wrong as to do a great one.
His friend, George Anderson May, with whom the boy of fifteen has "a long argument on the nature of the soul and the difference between it and matter," was then a man of six and twenty, in business at Hinckley.
I maintained that it could not be proved that matter is essentially, as to its base, different from soul. Mr. M. wittily said soul was the perspiration of matter.
We cannot find the absolute basis of matter; we only know it by its properties; neither know we the soul in any other way. Cogito ergo sum is the only thing that we certainly know.
Why may not soul and matter be of the same substance (i.e., basis whereon to fix qualities; for we cannot suppose a quality to exist per se, it must have a something to qualify), but with different qualities?
Hamilton's analysis of the Absolute, once learned, was never forgotten. It was a philosophic touchstone, understood by the boy, applied by the man. With the Absolute, an entity stripped of perceptible qualities, an "hypostatized negation," he could have no traffic. The Cartesian motto of thought as the essence of existence became another fixed point for him, and his last questioning phrase half suggests the line of reasoning which, as he afterwards put it, asserts that, philosophically speaking, materialism is but spiritualism turned inside out.
At fifteen and a-half he began his medical training. Engineering, it seems, was not within his parents' purview; the boy was thoughtful and scientific; medicine was then the only avenue for science, and medicine loomed large on their horizon, for two of their daughters had married doctors. Of these, Dr. Cooke had already begun to give him instruction in anatomy; it looked as though destiny had marked out his career.
In those days, the future doctor began by being apprenticed to a regular practitioner; he picked up a great deal from compounding medicines, watching out-patients in the surgery, and attending simple cases, especially if he had a capable man to work under. At the same time he prepared for his future examinations, and got ready to walk the hospitals.
This apprenticeship was a strongly formative period in Huxley's life. He was bound to Dr. Chandler, of Rotherhithe, and joined him in this quarter of poverty and struggle on January 7, 1841. The little journal shows him busy with all the subjects of the London Matriculation: History ancient and modern, Greek, Latin, English Grammar, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, with German also and Physiology, besides experimental work in natural science, philosophical analysis, and a copious course of Carlyle.
But this book-work was the least of the influences acting upon him. Dr. Chandler had charge of the parish doctoring, and the boy's experiences among the poor in the dock region of the East End left an ineffaceable mark. It was a grim, living commentary on his Carlyle. For the rest of his life the cause of the poor appealed vividly to him, because he had at least seen something of the way in which the poor lived. People who were suffering from nothing but slow starvation would come to him for medical aid. One scene above all was burnt into his memory: a sick girl in a wretched garret, the boy visitor saying as gently as he could that her sole need was better food, and the sister of the starved child who turned upon him with a kind of choking passion, and, pulling from her pocket a few pence and half-pence and holding them out, cried: "That is all I get for six-and-thirty hours' work, and you talk about giving her proper food."
When, after a full year, he left Rotherhithe for the north of London, to be apprenticed—as his elder brother, James, had already been apprenticed—to his other medical brother-in-law, Dr. Scott, he saw more of this teeming, squalid life in the filthy courts and alleys through which he used to pass on his way to the library of the College of Surgeons.
What, in later life, he tried to do to better this state of things was not the usual philanthropic work, but the endeavour to bring intellectual light to the ignorant toilers, to strip away make-believe, and provide some machinery by which to catch and utilize capacity.
Great was the change from the surroundings of Rotherhithe to the home atmosphere of the Scotts. He was now with his favourite sister Eliza, his senior by twelve years, who was a second mother to him. Her sympathy and encouragement did much for him; her belief in the future of "her boy" was redoubled upon his first public success when, at the age of seventeen, he won the second prize, the silver medal of the Apothecaries' Company, in a competitive examination in botany. "For a young hand," he tells us, "I worked really hard from eight or nine in the morning until twelve at night, besides a long, hot summer's walk over to Chelsea, two or three times a week, to hear Lindley. A great part of the time—i.e., June and July—I worked till sunrise. The result was a sort of ophthalmia, which kept me from reading at night for months afterwards."
The lively and amusing description of the examination and its sequel is given in full in the Life; suffice it to say that when four o'clock came and only two competitors were left writing hard, and not half through the paper, they were allowed to go on by general consent. By eight o'clock the seventeen-year-old came to an end; the older man went on until nine. This was John Ellerton Stocks, afterwards M.D. and a distinguished traveller and botanist in India. To him fell the first prize; the boy, to his own astonishment and the wild delight of his sister, won the second.
In October, 1812, a couple of months after this success, both he and his brother James entered Charing Cross Hospital as free scholars. Here he worked very hard—when it pleased him—took up all sorts of pursuits and dropped them again, and read everything he could lay hands upon, including novels. The one instructor by whom he was really impressed, and for whom he did his utmost, was Wharton Jones, lecturer on physiology. "He was extremely kind and helpful to the youngster, who, I am afraid, took up more of his time than he had any right to do." Wharton Jones assuredly was one of those born teachers who love to give time and all to a keen and promising pupil. It is good to know that the bread he cast upon the waters returned to him after many days. Wharton Jones, too, was responsible for the publication of the young man's first scientific paper, in the Medical Gazette of 1845. Investigating things for himself, the student of nineteen had found a hitherto undiscovered membrane in the root of the human hair, which received the name of Huxley's layer.
No doubt his work was, as he confesses, not systematically spread over his various subjects; and his energy was fitful, though it was energy that struck his contemporaries, who gave the name of the "Sign of the Head and Microscope" to the familiar silhouette of him as he sat before a window poring over his dissections, while they swarmed out into the quadrangle after lectures.
He achieved brilliant successes as a student. In 1843 he won the first prize in Chemistry, with a note that his "extraordinary diligence and success in the pursuit of this branch of science do him infinite honour," as well as the first prize in Anatomy and Physiology. He was only twenty when, in 1845, he went up for his M.B. at London University, and won a gold medal in his favourite subjects of Anatomy and Physiology, being second in that section.
Early in 1846, being still too young to qualify at the College of Surgeons, yet confronted by the imperative necessity for earning his own bread, he applied, at the suggestion of his fellow-student, Lyon Playfair, for service as a naval surgeon, passed the necessary examination, and went to Haslar. His official chief, old John Richardson, of Arctic fame, silently kept an eye upon him, and, failing to get him one of the coveted resident appointments, kept him, all unaware and ill-content, at Haslar till something worthy of his scientific abilities should turn up. Seven months passed; then came the chance of sailing on the surveying and exploring ship Rattlesnake, under Captain Owen Stanley, R.N., brother of the more famous Dean, who was in want of an assistant-surgeon with a turn for science.
THE VOYAGE OF THE RATTLESNAKE, AND ITS SEQUEL
The three friends, Darwin, Hooker, and Huxley, were alike in this, that each in his turn began his career with a great voyage of scientific discovery in one of H.M. ships. Darwin was twenty-two when the Beagle sailed for the Straits of Magellan; Hooker, also, was twenty-two when he sailed for the Antarctic with Ross on the Erebus; Huxley was but twenty-one when he set forth with Owen Stanley for Australian waters to survey the Great Barrier Reef and New Guinea. Each found in the years of distant travel a withdrawal from the distracting bustle of ordinary life, which enabled him to concentrate upon original work and to reflect deeply, unhampered by current doctrines; each came back, not only deeply impressed by the elemental problems of life, but "salted" with the sea and the discipline of the sea.
It was good to live under sharp discipline; to be down on the realities of existence by living on bare necessaries; to find how extremely well worth living life seemed to be when one woke up from a night's rest on a soft plank, with the sky for canopy, and cocoa and weevily biscuit the sole prospect for breakfast; and, more especially, to learn to work for the sake of what I got for myself out of it, even if it all went to the bottom and I along with it.
Huxley was not so well situated as either Darwin, the well-to-do amateur who was naturalist to the expedition, or Hooker, the son of a distinguished botanist, receiving many privileges from his father's friend, Captain Ross, while officially he was but an assistant-surgeon and second naturalist. Huxley had neither friends nor influence beyond the simple recommendation of "old John" Richardson. Macgillivray, the naturalist, and the Captain himself had scientific interests, but not so the other officers, who disliked seeing the decks messed by the contents of the tow-net. Yet they were "as good fellows as sailors ought to be, and generally are," though they did not understand why he should be so zealous in pursuit of the objects which his friends the middies christened "Buffons," after his volume of the Suites a Buffon. As assistant-surgeon he messed with the middies, but his good spirits and fun and freedom from any assumption of superiority made the boys his good comrades.
From the first he was very busy, glorying in the prospect of being able to give himself up to his favourite pursuits, without thereby neglecting the proper duties of life. A twenty-eight gun frigate was anything but a floating palace. The Rattlesnake was badly fitted out, and always leaky; the lower deck gave a head-space of four feet ten, which was cramping to a man of five feet eleven; but he had the run of the commodious chart-room, as arranged for a surveying ship, and would have had the run of the library if Captain Stanley's requisition for books had not been "overlooked" by a parsimonious Admiralty. His tiny cabin was light enough to work in on a dull day; but as for the possibility of making a scientific collection, it was but seven feet by six, by five feet six inches high, and infested with cockroaches to boot.
His work took shape in a mass of drawings and descriptions from the dissection of the perishable marine organisms of the tropical seas, and, yet more important, in the new classification he established upon anatomical grounds. His first papers were sent to the Linnean Society by Captain Stanley; the later and more important he sent himself to Edward Forbes, the most interested and helpful of the biologists to whom he had been introduced before he left England. To his angry disappointment, no news of them, no acknowledgment even, reached him on the other side of the world; it was not till he returned, after the four years of his voyage, that he found they had been published by the Royal Society, and had established his reputation as a first-rate investigator. But, though with much difficulty the scientific authorities enabled him to secure the promised Government grant for his book, and a temporary billet ashore while he worked at it, he was only able to publish his Oceanic Hydrozoa; a vast quantity of his researches remained unpublished, and subsequent investigators, going over the same ground, won the credit for them.
The other scientific interest strongly aroused on the voyage was anthropology. The cruise of the Rattlesnake provided one of the last opportunities of visiting tribes who had never before seen a white man. The young surgeon made a point of getting into touch with these primitive people at Cape York, and in the islands off New Guinea. He made a preliminary exploration through the uncharted bush of Queensland with the ill-fated Kennedy, and all but accompanied him on his disastrous journey to Cape York, when of all the party only two were rescued, through the devotion of the faithful native guide. He exchanged names, and therefore affinities, with a friendly native of the Louisiades, and learned much at first hand as to their physical and mental characteristics, which stimulated his subsequent anthropological work.
The Australian voyage, then, provided a magnificent field for original research and original thought: the unknown naval surgeon returned from it to find himself recognized as one of the coming men. Contact with the larger world had broadened his outlook; the touch of naval discipline concentrated his powers. But Australia gave him another gift. He met at Sydney his future wife. The young couple fell in love almost at first sight, and became engaged. They were of the same age, 22; they hoped to get married when he was promoted to the rank of full surgeon; they were destined to wait seven-and-a-half years before she returned home to fulfil his early jesting prophecy of making her a Frau Professorin. Here, again, was stern disciplining on the part of destiny. For the first years they were able to meet during the intervals between the long surveying cruises of the ship; they cheated the months of separation by keeping journals for each other. But for nearly five years they were parted by twelve thousand miles of sea, and, worse, by slow sailing ships, when letters would take five months or more to receive an answer, which by that time might be entirely at cross purposes with the changed aspect of affairs. The possibilities of estrangement were incalculable. Their lives were developing on entirely different lines. He had been admitted to the inmost circle of men of science as an intellectual peer; he was elected F.R.S. when he was barely twenty-six, and received the Royal Medal the following year, as well as being chosen to serve on the Council of the Society; he wrote; he lectured at the Royal Institution. And yet, with all the support of the leaders in science, he could not find any post wherein to earn his bread and butter. He stood for professorships at Toronto, at Sydney, at Aberdeen, Cork and King's College, London. The Admiralty, in March, 1854, even refused further leave for the publication of the scientific work to do which he had been sent out. He took the bull by the horns, and, rather than return to the hopeless routine of a naval surgeon, let the Admiralty fulfil their threat to deprive him of his appointment, and the slender pay which was his only certain support. His scientific friends besought him to hold on; something must come in his way, and a brilliant career was before him; but was he justified, he asked himself again and again, in pursuing the glorious phantom, so miserably paid at the best, instead of taking up some business career, perhaps in Australia, and ending the cruel delay which bore so hardly upon the woman he loved? Yet would not this be a desertion of his manifest duty, his intellectual duty to himself and to Science? He knew full well that there was only one course which could bring him either hope or peace, and yet, between the two calls upon him, he never knew which course he would ultimately follow.
For her there was no such mental development. Assuredly she kept up her literary pursuits, her study of German, in which they had found common ground of interest, for she had spent two years at school in Germany; but she was cribbed and cabined by the ups and downs of early colonial life, and the fluctuating ventures upon which her father delighted to embark; there was, naturally, no possibility of her moving in the stimulating intellectual society which was his, and hope deferred wore upon her as the laurels of scientific success were consistently followed by failure in all solid prospects. Yet neither possible misunderstandings, nor actual disappointments, had power to shake the foundations of their mutual trust, and the inspiration of the ideal which each built on the other's so different character; the one more compact of fire, the other more of noble patience, different, but alike in a largeness of soul and freedom from pettiness, which made their forty years of united life something out of the common. She believed in him; in the darkest season of disappointment she bade him remember that a man should pursue those things for which he is most fitted, let them be what they will. Her "noble and self-sacrificing" words brought him comfort, and banished "the spectre of a wasted life that had passed before him—a vision of that servant who hid his talent in a napkin and buried it."
At last the gleams of promise, which had begun to gather, broke through the clouds. On the sudden death of Professor Jamieson, his good friend Edward Forbes was called away in the spring of 1854 to take the Edinburgh professorship. At a few days' notice Huxley was lecturing as Forbes's substitute at the Royal School of Mines. In July he was appointed permanently, with a salary for his course of L100 a year. A few days later his income was doubled. Forbes had held two lectureships; the man who had accepted the other drew back, and it was given to Huxley. In August he was "entrusted with the Coast Survey Investigations under the Geological Survey," becoming the regular Naturalist to the Survey the following year, with pay of L200, afterwards increased to L400, rising to L600. The way was clear; the Heathorn family had already determined to come home. Miss Heathorn had been very ill; she was still far from strong, and, indeed, one gloomy doctor only gave her six months to live. The lover defied him: "I shall marry her all the same;" but the gloomy doctor was alone in his opinion, and, indeed, she lived till she was nearly eighty-nine. The marriage, which was to bring so much active happiness in a life of much struggle and stress, was celebrated on July 1, 1855. They had become engaged at twenty-two; they had waited and striven for eight years; they were rewarded by forty years of mutual love and support.
The award of the Royal Medal was felt by Huxley to be a turning-point. It was something which convinced the "practical" people who used to scoff at his "dreamy" notions, and brought them to urge him on a more "dreamy" course than ever he dreamed of. "However," he remarks, "I take very much my own course now, even as I have done before—Huxley all over." Without being blinded by any vanity, he saw in the award and the general estimate in which it was held a finger-post showing as clearly as anything can what was the true career lying open before him. Ambitious in the current sense of worldly success he was not. The praise of men stirred a haunting mistrust of their judgment and his own worthiness. Honours he valued as evidences of power; but no more. What possessed him was, as he confessed in a letter meant only for the eye of his future wife, "an enormous longing after the highest and best in all shapes—a longing which haunts me and is the demon which ever impels me to work, and will let me have no rest unless I am doing his behests." With the sense of power stirring within him, he refused to be beholden to any man. Patronage he abhorred in an ago of patronage. He was ready to accept a helping hand from any one who thought him capable of forwarding the great cause in ever so small a way; but on no other terms. If the time had come to speak out on any matter, he was resolved to let no merely personal influence restrain him. He cared only for the praise or blame of the understanding few. Whatever the popular judgment, he knew there was a work to be done and that he had power to do it; and this was his personal ambition—to do that work in the world, and to do it without cant and humbug and self-seeking. Such were the aims that, newly returned to England, he confides to the sister who had ever prophesied great things of "her boy"; and in the end he made good the works spoken so boldly, yet surely in no mere spirit of boasting. He "left his mark somewhere, clear and distinct," without taint of the insincerities which he had an almost morbid dread of discovering in any act of his own.
It was not every one who could dare to range so far and wide as Huxley did from the original line of investigation he had taken up. Friends warned him against what appeared to be a scattering of his energies. If he devoted himself to that morphology of the Invertebrates in which his new and illuminating conceptions had promptly earned the Royal Medal, he would easily be the first in his field. But what he did was in great part of set purpose. He was no mere collector of specimens, no mere describer of species. He sought the living processes which determined natural groups; the theories he formed needed verification in various directions. These excursions from the primary line of research were of great value in broadening the basis of his knowledge. He also deliberately set aside the years 1854-60 as a period in which to make himself master of the branches of science cognate to his own, so that he should be ready for any special pursuits in any of them. For he did not know what was to be his task after the work that had fallen to him, not of his own choice, at the School of Mines. He was to ground himself in each department by monographic work, and by 1860 might fairly look forward to fifteen or twenty years of "Meisterjahre," when, with the comprehensive views arising from such training, it should be possible to give a new and healthier direction to all biological science. Meanwhile, opportunities must be seized at the risk of a reputation for desultoriness.
But the irony of circumstances diverted much of his energy into yet more diverse fields. When Sir Henry de la Beche first offered him the posts of Palaeontologist and Lecturer on Natural History vacated by Professor Forbes, he says:—
I refused the former point blank, and accepted the latter only provisionally, telling Sir Henry that I did not care for fossils, and that I should give up Natural History as soon as I could get a physiological post. But I held the office for thirty-one years, and a large part of my work has been palaeontological.
Palaeontology was his business, and he became a Master in it also, with the result that he forged himself a mighty weapon for use in the struggle over the Origin of Species.
In one of his later Essays he compares the study of human physiology to the Atlantic Ocean:—
Like the Atlantic between the Old and the New Worlds, its waves wash the shores of the two worlds of matter and of mind; its tributary streams flow from both; through its waters, as yet unfurrowed by the keel of any Columbus, lies the road, if such there be, from the one to the other; far away from that North-West Passage of mere speculation in which so many brave souls have been helplessly frozen up.
Such was the spirit in which, after his long day's work, he added to his labours in physical science a search in another, and to his notion a cognate province of thought and speculation. Many a sleepless night in these years the candle was lighted beside his bed, and for a couple of hours after midnight he would devour works on philosophy—English, German, and French, and occasionally Latin. To a mind at once constructive and intensely critical of unsound construction he added a quality possessed by few professed philosophers—a large knowledge of the workings of life, of the human thinking machine, in addition to various other branches of physical science. As he put it, the laboratory is the forecourt to the temple of philosophy. For the method of the laboratory is but the strict application of the one sound and fruitful mode of reasoning—the method of verification by experiment. Evidence must be tested before being trusted. The first duty of such a method is to question in order to find good reason; Goethe's "taetige Skepsis," a scepticism or questioning which seeks to overcome itself by finding good standing-ground beyond. Authority as such is nothing till verified anew. The creeds of ancient sages, the dogmas of more modern date, must equally bear the light of widening knowledge and the tests that prove the gold or clay of their foundations, the stability of the successive steps by which they proceed.
In all this reading Huxley found nothing to shake what he had learnt long before from Hamilton—the limits set to human knowledge and the impossibility of attaining to the ultimate reality behind the phenomena presented to our cognition. The problems of philosophy, set forth with unsurpassed clearness for all who will read in our great English writers, were not solved by soaring into intellectual mists. To those who declared they had attained this ultimate knowledge by their own inner light or through an alleged revelation in historical experience, the question remained to be put: How do you verify your assertion? Is the historical evidence on which you build trustworthy? And if in certain departments this evidence is clearly untenable, what guarantee have you that in other departments evidence of similar character is tenable? The fine-spun abstractions of the Platonists and their kin, unchecked by a natural science which had not yet the appliances necessary for its growth; the orthodoxies of the various churches, so singularly differentiated in the course of development from the simplicity of their nominal founder—these were based upon assumptions for which the seeker after reasoned evidence could find no valid support. Ten years before he coined the word "Agnostic" to label his attitude towards the unproved, whether likely or unlikely, in contradistinction to the Gnostics, who professed to "know" from within apart from external proof, Huxley described the Agnostic position he had already reached—the position of suspending judgment where actual proof is not possible; the attitude of mind which regards the words "I believe" as a momentous assertion, not to be uttered on incomplete grounds. Writing to Charles Kingsley in 1860, he says:—
I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it; but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.
Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man's life is to say and to feel, "I believe such and such to be true." All the greatest rewards, and all the heaviest penalties of existence, cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is of no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse square, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.
From such a point of view intellectual veracity takes on a moral aspect; indeed, it is a pillar of morality. Disregard of it has led to incalculable social wrong and individual suffering, oppressions and persecutions, unprogressive obscurantism, joined with perverted ideals and intellectual arrest. "Ecrasez l'infame," cried the reforming Voltaire; his "infamous" was very much this perverting influence, exaggerated and armed with power, which had made the great organization of the Roman Church in his time a monstrous instrument of autocratic tradition, cruel, rapacious, blindly intolerant, jealous of light and liberty. In England the growth of political liberty had deprived the darkest lights of the Church of almost all power for active interference in the administration of the State, though the pressure of traditionalism exercised itself less crudely, if scarce less surely, in the Universities, the Press, religious opinion, and the army of conventional respectability. So strong was it in social influence that a man, openly professing to make a guide of his reason instead of his parson, was liable to be pushed outside the pale.
VERACITY AND AGNOSTICISM
One of the most ticklish of all subjects to handle at this period was the position of the human species in zoological classification. "It was a burning question in the sense that those who touched it were almost certain to burn their fingers severely." In the fifties Sir William Lawrence had been well-nigh ostracized for his book On Man, "which now might be read in a Sunday-school without surprising anybody." When Huxley submitted the proofs of Man's Place in Nature to "a competent anatomist, and good friend of his," asking him, if he could, to point out any errors of fact, the friend—it was Lawrence himself—declared he could find none, but gave an earnest warning as to the consequences of publication. Here was one of the cases where Huxley's firm resolution applied—to speak out if necessary, regardless of consequences; indeed, he felt sure that all the evil things prophesied would not be so painful to him as the giving up that which he had resolved to do upon grounds which he conceived to be right. As he wrote later (in 1876):—
It seemed to me that a man of science has no raison d'etre at all unless he is willing to face much greater risks than these for the sake of that which he believes to be true; and further, that to a man of science such risks do not count for much—they are by no means so serious as they are to a man of letters, for example.
The book was published, and the friend's forecast was amply justified.
The Boreas of criticism blew his hardest blasts of misrepresentation and ridicule for some years, and I was even as one of the wicked. Indeed, it surprises me at times to think how any one who had sunk so low could since have emerged into, at any rate, relative respectability. Personally, like the non-corvine personages in the Ingoldsby legend, I did not feel "one penny the worse." Translated into several languages, the book reached a wider public than I had ever hoped for; being largely helped, I imagine, by the Ernulphine advertisements to which I referred. It has had the honour of being freely utilized without acknowledgment by writers of repute; and, finally, it achieved the fate, which is the euthanasia of a scientific work, of being enclosed among the rubble of the foundations of later knowledge, and forgotten.
To my observation, human nature has not sensibly changed during the last thirty years. I doubt not that there are truths as plainly obvious, and as generally denied, as those contained in Man's Place in Nature, now awaiting enunciation. If there is a young man of the present generation who has taken as much trouble as I did to assure himself that they are truths, let him come out with them, without troubling his head about the barking of the dogs of St. Ernulphus. Veritas praevalebit—some day; and even if she does not prevail in his time, he himself will be all the better and wiser for having tried to help her. And let him recollect that such great reward is full payment for all his labour and pains.
To speak out thus was one side of his passion for veracity. When it was a matter of demonstrable truth, he refused to be intimidated by great names. Already, in his Croonian lecture of 1858, "On the Theory of the Vertebrate Skull," he had challenged, and by direct morphological investigation overthrown, the theory of Oken, adopted and enlarged upon by Owen, that the adult skull is a modified vertebral column. Again, the great name of Owen, that jealous king of the anatomical world, had in 1857 supported the assertion, so contrary to the investigations of Huxley himself and of other anatomists, that certain anatomical features of the brain are peculiar to the genus Homo, and are a ground for placing that genus separately from all other mammals—in a division, Archencephala, apart from and superior to the rest. Huxley thereupon re-investigated the whole question, and soon satisfied himself that these structures were not peculiar to man, but are common to all the higher and many of the lower apes. This led him to study the whole question of the structural relations of man to the next lower existing forms. Without embarking on controversy, he embodied his conclusions in his teaching.
Thus, in 1860, he was well prepared to follow up Darwin's words in the Origin of Species, "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history," and to furnish proofs in the field of Development and Vertebrate Anatomy, which were not among Darwin's many specialities.
When Owen, at the Oxford meeting of the British Association, repeated his former assertions, he publicly took up the challenge. On the technical side, a series of dissections undertaken by himself, Rolleston, and Flower displayed the structures for all to see; on the popular side, Huxley delivered in 1860 a course of public lectures which were the basis of his book, Man's Place in Nature, above mentioned.
Here the principle is actively exemplified: speak out fearlessly at the right moment to strike down that which is demonstrably false. It is the counterpart to the other aspect of veracity which will not say "I believe" to an unverified assertion. These two aspects of the same principle, as has been seen, developed hand in hand in his early career; but it was the active challenge to ill-based authority which, by its courage, not to say audacity, first attracted public notice and public abuse. The other, the apparently negative aspect, came into general notice only after 1869. Its very reserves, however, resting on a statement of reasons for finding the testimony to certain doctrines insufficient, had long provoked assaults from the upholders of these doctrines, which made no less call upon his courage and endurance. As a philosophic position, however, it was not formally and publicly defined until, in the debates of the Metaphysical Society founded in that year, he invented for himself the label of Agnostic. The Society was composed of distinguished men, representing almost every shade of opinion and intellectual occupation; University professors, statesmen, lawyers, bishops and deans, a Cardinal, a poet; men of science and men of letters; Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Unitarians, Positivists, Freethinkers.
The story is told in his article on "Agnosticism," written in 1889 (Collected Essays, v, 237). After describing how it came about that his mind "steadily gravitated towards the conclusions of Hume and Kant," so well stated by the latter as follows:—
The greatest and perhaps the sole use of all philosophy of pure reason is, after all, merely negative, since it serves not as an organon for the enlargement (of knowledge), but as a discipline for its delimitation; and, instead of discovering truth, has only the modest merit of preventing error—
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected the less ready was the answer, until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis"—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion....
This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists, long since deceased, but of green and pious memory, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness; most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and, however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag of a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "Agnostic." It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "Gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society to show that I, too, had a tail like the other foxes. To my great satisfaction, the term took; and when the Spectator had stood godfather to it, any suspicion in the minds of respectable people that a knowledge of its parentage might have awakened was, of course, completely lulled.
Of his share in the debates the late Prof. Henry Sidgwick gives the following account:—
There were several members of the Society with whose philosophical views I had, on the whole, more sympathy; but there was certainly no one to whom I found it more pleasant and more instructive to listen. Indeed, I soon came to the conclusion that there was only one other member of our Society who could be placed on a par with him as a debater, on the subjects discussed at our meetings; and that was, curiously enough, a man of the most diametrically opposed opinion—W. G. Ward, the well-known advocate of Ultramontanism. Ward was by training, and perhaps by nature, more of a dialectician; but your father was unrivalled in the clearness, precision, succinctness, and point of his statements, in his complete and ready grasp of his own system of philosophical thought, and the quickness and versatility with which his thought at once assumed the right attitude of defence against any argument coming from any quarter. I used to think that while others of us could perhaps find, on the spur of the moment, an answer more or less effective to some unexpected attack, your father seemed always able to find the answer—I mean the answer that it was reasonable to give, consistently with his general view, and much the same answer that he would have given if he had been allowed the fullest time for deliberation.
The general tone of the Metaphysical Society was one of extreme consideration for the feelings of opponents, and your father's speaking formed no exception to the general harmony. At the same time, I seemed to remember him as the most combative of all the speakers who took a leading part in the debates. His habit of never wasting words, and the edge naturally given to his remarks by his genius for clear and effective statement, partly account for this impression; still, I used to think that he liked fighting, and occasionally liked to give play to his sarcastic humour—though always strictly within the limits imposed by courtesy. I remember that on one occasion, when I had read to the Society an essay on "The Incoherence of Empiricism," I looked forward with some little anxiety to his criticisms; and when they came I felt that my anxiety had not been superfluous; he "went for" the weak points of my argument in half-a-dozen trenchant sentences, of which I shall not forget the impression. It was hard hitting, though perfectly courteous and fair.
The paper to be read at each meeting of the Society was printed and circulated in advance, so that all might be prepared with their arguments. Discussion followed the dinner at which the members met. Of these papers Huxley contributed three, the titles of which sufficiently indicate the fundamental points on which his criticism played, questioning current axioms in its search for trustworthy evidence of their validity. The first (1869) was on "The Views of Hume, Kant, and Whately on the Logical Basis of the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul," showing that these thinkers agreed in holding that no such basis is given by reasoning apart, for instance, from revelation. The argument is summarized in the essay on Hume (Coll. Ess., vi, 201; 1878).
The second was "Has a Frog a Soul? and if so, of what Nature is that Soul?" (1870), a physiological discussion as to the seat of those purposive actions of which the animal is capable after it has lost ordinary volition and consciousness by the removal of the front part of its brain. Are these things attributes of the soul, and are they resident not even in the brain, but in the spinal marrow? If metaphysics starts from psychology, psychology itself depends greatly upon physiology; current theories need reconsideration. This paper was the starting-point for his larger essay on "Animals as Automata," delivered as an address before the British Association in 1874.
The third paper (1876) was on "The Evidence of the Miracle of the Resurrection," as to which he, so to say, moved the previous question, arguing that there was no valid evidence of actual death having taken place. The paper was the result of an invitation on the part of some of his metaphysical opponents. As he rejected the miraculous, they asked him to write on a definite miracle, and explain his reasons for not accepting it. He chose this subject because, in the first place, it was a cardinal instance; and, in the second, that as it was a miracle not worked by Christ himself, a discussion of its genuineness could not possibly suggest personal fraud and so inflict gratuitous pain upon believers in it. The question of the fundamentals of Christian evidences had long been in his mind; it was no new subject to him when in the eighties, debarred by his health from physiological researches, he extended his work on Biblical studies.
If the Metaphysical Society effected nothing else, it brought about a personal rapprochement between the representatives of opposing schools of thought. It became clear to the older school that the new thinkers had by no means failed, as they suspected, to examine the older doctrines. Theirs was not dishonest doubt, but a strong demand for better evidence. If the Society itself "died of too much love," it may well have contributed to the greater amenity of public discussion as the years passed, and the diminution of the former rabid denunciations which waned as the new doctrines spread, and were even absorbed and digested by their former antagonists.
CONTROVERSY AND THE BATTLE OF THE "ORIGIN"
The piercing clearness of mind described by Prof. Sidgwick, which could not express itself otherwise than trenchantly and drove straight at the heart of the subject, gave Huxley the popular reputation of being above all things a controversialist. Naturally enough, the public knew little and cared less for the unspectacular researches among the Invertebrates, which had won such high scientific fame. They were only stirred when the results of study in geology, in fossil forms and simian anatomy, clashed with long-established popular conceptions. There was also a gladiatorial delight in watching controversy not simply abstract, but fanned by personal conviction, which marked the champions above all as good fighters.
It must be noted, however, that, vigorous as he was in carrying war into the enemy's country, on two occasions only did Huxley set forth without being first personally attacked. One was his review of the Vestiges of Creation, when he was irritated by the writer's "prodigious ignorance and thoroughly unscientific habit of mind."
If it had any influence on me at all [he writes], it set me against Evolution; and the only review I ever have qualms of conscience about, on the ground of needless savagery, is one I wrote on the Vestiges while under that influence (1854).
The other was his controversy in 1885-6 with Mr. Gladstone, over the account of the creation in Genesis. But, at least, this was a reply to Mr. Gladstone's attack upon M. Reville and his applications of scientific methods to the problem.
Nevertheless, in this and the similar controversies on Biblical subjects, his chief aim was not simply to confute his adversary. To demolish once more the legend of the Flood, or the literal truth of the Creation myth, in which a multitude of scholars and critics and educated people generally had ceased to believe, was not an otiose slaying of the slain. It made people think of the wider questions involved. To riddle the story of the Gadarene swine was to make a breach in the whole demonology of the New Testament and its claims to superior knowledge of the spiritual world.
It may be noted in passing that, however hard he hit in these controversies, he never descended to anything which would merely wound and offend cherished convictions. His own feelings forbade ribaldry, and abuse disgusted him, on whichever side employed. He declined to admit that rightful freedom of discussion is attacked when a man is prevented from coarsely and brutally insulting his neighbours' honest beliefs. And this apart from the question of bad policy, inasmuch as abuse stultifies argument. But if prosecutions for blasphemy are permitted, it would be but just to penalize some of the anti-scientific blasphemers for their coarse and unmannerly attacks on opinions worthy of all respect.
For the rest, as he humorously remarks, when he began in early days to push his researches into the history and origin of the world and its life, he invariably ran up against a sign-board with the notice, "No Thoroughfare—By Order—Moses." Geology and Biology were shut in by a ring-fence; the universe beyond was a Forbidden Land, guarded by the Lamas of ecclesiastical authority.
The first great clash with this authority, which focussed attention upon the scientific struggle for freedom of thought, was that which followed the publication of the Origin of Species at the end of 1859, and culminated in the debate with the Bishop of Oxford at the Oxford meeting of the British Association in 1860. A fierce but more limited struggle for freedom of criticism within the pale of the Church was to follow the publication of Essays and Reviews (1860) and Bishop Colenso's examination of the Pentateuch in 1862 and onwards.
The first of these episodes was to have the widest consequences on thought at large. Huxley early had an opportunity of commending the book to the public. The reviewer of the Times, knowing nothing about the subject, was advised to entrust the work to him, adding only the opening paragraphs himself. But it was his retort to the Bishop of Oxford six months later which publicly proclaimed how boldly the challenge of authority was to be taken up. The story is well known; how the Bishop came down on the last day of the Association meeting to "smash Darwin." Crowds gathered to hear the great orator, who was also reputed to carry scientific weight as having taken a high mathematical degree. He knew nothing directly of the subject, but apparently had been coached up, somewhat inadequately, by Owen, his guest at Cuddesdon, who did not put in an appearance at the meeting that day, but whose hand was also apparent in the Bishop's Quarterly article that was published a few days later.
After several merely rhetorical speakers had been cut short by the chairman, Henslow, who ruled that scientific discussion alone was in order, the Bishop rose in response to calls from the audience, and "spoke for full half-an-hour with inimitable spirit, emptiness, and unfairness," wrote Hooker.
He ridiculed Darwin badly and Huxley savagely; but all in such dulcet tones, so persuasive a manner, and in such well-turned periods, that I, who had been inclined to blame the President for allowing a discussion that could serve no scientific purpose, now forgave him from the bottom of my heart.... In a light, scoffing tone, florid and fluent, he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.
Here the Bishop left the vantage ground of any pretence to scientific discussion, and descended to tasteless personalities. Here was the opportunity for an equally personal retort, which would show an audience, for the most part neither of a mind nor of a mood to follow closely argued reasonings, that personalities were not argument, and that ridicule is a two-edged weapon. As he spoke these words Huxley turned to Sir Benjamin Brodie, who was sitting next him, and whispered: "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands."
The Bishop sat down; but Huxley, though directly attacked, did not rise until the meeting called for him. Then he "slowly and deliberately arose; a slight, tall figure, stern and pale, very quiet and very grave." He began with a general statement in defence of Darwin's theory. "I am here only in the interests of science, and I have not heard anything which can prejudice the case of my august client." Darwin's theory was an explanation of phenomena in Natural History, as the undulatory theory was of the phenomena of light. No one objected to the latter because an undulation of light had never been arrested and measured. Darwin offered an explanation of facts, and his book was full of new facts, all bearing on his theory. Without asserting that every part of that theory had been confirmed, he maintained that it was the best explanation of the origin of species which had yet been offered. As to the psychological distinction between men and animals, and the question of the Creation: "You say that development drives out the Creator; but you assert that God made you: and yet you know that you yourself were originally a little piece of matter no bigger than the end of this gold pencil-case." Nobody could say at what moment of the history of his development man became consciously intelligent. The whole question was not so much one of a transmutation or transition of species as of the production of forms which became permanent. The Ancon sheep was not produced gradually; it originated in the birth of the original parent of the whole stock, which had been kept up by a rigid system of artificial selection.
But if the question were to be treated, not as a matter for the calm investigation of science, but as a matter of sentiment, and if he were asked whether he would choose to be descended from the poor animal of low intelligence and stooping gait who grins and chatters as we pass, or from a man endowed with great ability and a splendid position, who should use these gifts to discredit and crush humble seekers after truth, he must hesitate what answer to make.
The actual words were not taken down at the time; they were finely eloquent, and gained effect from the clear, deliberate utterance; but the nearest approach to them was recorded in a letter of J.R. Green, the future historian, written immediately after the meeting:—
I asserted—and I repeat—that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man—a man of restless and versatile intellect—who, not content with (an equivocal) success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.
[Footnote 1: Referring to this letter afterwards, my father felt certain that he had never used the word "equivocal." In this he was borne out by Prof. Victor Carus and Prof. Farrar, who were present.]
The effect was electrical. When he first rose to speak he had been coldly received—no more than a cheer of encouragement from his immediate friends. As he made his points the applause grew. When he finished one half of the audience burst into a storm of cheers; the other was thunderstruck by the sacrilegious recoil of the Bishop's weapon upon his own head: a lady fainted, and had to be carried out. As soon as calm was restored Hooker leapt to his feet, though he hated public speaking yet more than his friend, and drove home the main scientific arguments with his own experience on the botanical side. The Bishop, be it recorded, bore no malice. Orator and wit as he was, he no doubt appreciated a debater whose skill in fence matched his own.
PUBLIC SPEAKING AND LECTURES
For Huxley, one result of the affair was that he became universally known, and not merely as he had been known to his immediate circle, as the most vigorous defender of Darwin—"Darwin's bulldog," as he playfully called himself. Another result was that he changed his idea as to the practical value of the art of public speaking. Walking away from the meeting with that other hater of speech-making, Hooker, he declared that he would thenceforth carefully cultivate it, and try to leave off hating it. The former resolution he carried out faithfully, with the result that he became one of the best speakers of his generation; in the latter he never quite succeeded. The nervous horror before making a public address seldom wholly left him; he used to say that when he stepped on the platform at the Royal Institution and heard the door click behind him, he knew what it must be like to be a condemned man stepping out to the gallows. Happily, no sign of nervousness ever showed itself; he gave the appearance of being equally master of himself and of his subject. His voice was not strong, but he had early learnt the lesson of clear enunciation. There were two letters he received when he began lecturing, and which he kept by him as a perpetual reminder, labelled "Good Advice." One was from a "working man" of his Monday evening audience in Jermyn Street, in 1855; the other, undated, from Mr. Jodrell, a great benefactor of science, who had heard him at the Royal Institution. These warned him against his habits of lecturing in a colloquial tone, which might suit a knot of students gathered round his table, but not a large audience; of running his words, especially technical terms, together, and of pouring out unfamiliar matter at breakneck speed. These early faults were so glaring that one institute in St. John's Wood, after hearing him, petitioned "not to have that young man again." He worked hard to cure himself, and the later audiences who flocked to his lectures could never have guessed at his early failings. The flow was as clear and even as the arrangement of the matter was lucid; the voice was not loud, but so distinct that it carried to the furthest benches. No syllable was slurred, no point hurried over. All this made for the lucid and comprehensible; well-chosen language and fine utterance shaped a perfect vehicle of thought. But it was the lucidity of the thought itself, thus expressed, that gave his lectures their quality. A clever and accomplished lady once, in intimate conversation, asked Mrs. Huxley what the reason could be that every one praised her husband so highly as a lecturer. "I can't understand it. He just lets the subject explain itself, and that's all." Profound, if unintended, compliment. It was his power of seeing things clearly, stripped of their non-essentials, that enabled him to make others see them clearly also. Nor did he forget the saying of that prince of popular expositors, Faraday, who, when asked, "How much may a popular lecturer suppose his audience knows?" replied emphatically, "Nothing." This same faculty, no doubt, was that which enabled him to write such admirable elementary text-books—a task which he regarded as one of the most difficult possible.
A notable description of his public lecturing in the seventies and early eighties is given by G. W. Smalley, correspondent of the New York Tribune, in his "London Letters":—
I used always to admire the simple and businesslike way in which Huxley made his entry on great occasions. He hated anything like display, and would have none of it. At the Royal Institution, more than almost anywhere else, the lecturer, on whom the concentric circles of spectators in their steep amphitheatre look down, focuses the gaze. Huxley never seemed aware that anybody was looking at him. From self-consciousness he was, here as elsewhere, singularly free, as from self-assertion. He walked in through the door on the left as if he were entering his own laboratory. In these days he bore scarcely a mark of age. He was in the full vigour of manhood, and looked the man he was.... With a firm step and easy bearing he took his place, apparently without a thought of the people who were cheering him. To him it was an anniversary. He looked, and he probably was, the master. Surrounded as he was by the celebrities of science and the ornaments of London drawing-rooms, there was none who had quite the same kind of intellectual ascendancy which belonged to him. The square forehead, the square jaw, the tense lines of the mouth, the deep, flashing dark eyes, the impression of something more than strength he gave you, an impression of sincerity, of solid force, of immovability, yet with the gentleness arising from the serene consciousness of his strength—all this belonged to Huxley, and to him alone. The first glance magnetized his audience. The eyes were those of one accustomed to command, of one having authority, and not fearing on occasion to use it. The hair swept carelessly away from the broad forehead and grew rather long behind, yet the length did not suggest, as it often does, effeminacy. He was masculine in everything—look, gesture, speech. Sparing of gesture, sparing of emphasis, careless of mere rhetorical or oratorical art, he had, nevertheless, the secret of the highest art of all, whether in oratory or whatever else—he had simplicity. The force was in the thought and the diction, and he needed no other. The voice was rather deep, low, but quite audible; at times sonorous, and always full.... His manner here, in the presence of this select and rather limited audience—for the theatre of the Royal Institution holds, I think, less than a thousand people—was exactly the same as before a great company whom he addressed at Liverpool, as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. I remember going late to that and having to sit far back, yet hearing every word easily; and there, too, the feeling was the same—that he had mastered his audience, taken possession of them, and held them to the end in an unrelaxing grip, as a great actor at his best does. There was nothing of the actor about him, except that he knew how to stand still; but masterful he ever was.
Equally perfect of their kind were his class lectures, which made a deep and lasting impression on his students. In the words of Jeffery Parker, afterwards his assistant:—
His lectures were like his writings, luminously clear, without the faintest disposition to descend to the level of his audience; eloquent, but with no trace of the empty rhetoric which so often does duty for that quality; full of a high seriousness, but with no suspicion of pedantry; lightened by an occasional epigram or flashes of caustic humour, but with none of the small jocularity in which it is such a temptation to a lecturer to indulge. As one listened to him one felt that comparative anatomy was worthy of the devotion of a life, and that to solve a morphological problem was as fine a thing as to win a battle. He was an admirable draughtsman, and his blackboard illustrations were always a great feature of his lectures, especially when, to show the relation of two animal types, he would, by a few rapid strokes and smudges, evolve the one into the other before our eyes. He seemed to have a real affection for some of the specimens illustrating his lectures, and would handle them in a peculiarly loving manner. When he was lecturing on man, for instance, he would sometimes throw his arm over the shoulder of the skeleton beside him and take its hand, as if its silent companionship were an inspiration. To me, his lectures before his small class at Jermyn Street or South Kensington were almost more impressive than the discourses at the Royal Institution, where, for an hour and a-half, he poured forth a stream of dignified, earnest, sincere words in perfect literary form, and without the assistance of a note.
It was no wonder that he was clear and exact in his class lectures, for he based what he had to say on his own experiment and observation, and was at pains to verify experimentally the observations of others which came within his field. Without verification he would not rely upon them. Indeed, he was so careful to give nothing at second hand that one of his scientific friends gently reproached him for wasting his time in re-investigating matters already worked over by competent observers. "Poor ——," he remarked afterwards, "if that is his own practice, his work will never live." Of his most important public addresses, two may be noted as especial tours de force. On each occasion it was specially necessary to speak by the book, but at the last moment it was impossible to use the carefully prepared notes. One was the address on the complex and difficult subject of "Animals as Automata," at the Belfast meeting of the British Association in 1874, when the atmosphere was electrical after a Presidential address by John Tyndall which set theologians in an uproar. Years afterwards he described the incident to Sir E. Ray Lankester:—
I knew that I was treading on very dangerous ground, so I wrote out uncommonly full and careful notes, and had them in my hand when I stepped on to the platform.
Then I suddenly became aware of the bigness of the audience, and the conviction came upon me that, if I looked at my notes, not one half would hear me. It was a bad ten seconds, but I made my election and turned the notes face downwards on the desk.
To this day I do not exactly know how the thing managed to roll itself out; but it did, as you say, for the best part of an hour and a-half.
There's a story pour vous encourager if you are ever in a like fix.
The other was his address at the opening of the John Hopkins University at Baltimore in 1876. Late on the preceding afternoon he returned very tired from an expedition to Washington, to find that a formal dinner and reception awaited him in the evening. He snatched an hour or two of rest, when a New York reporter arrived demanding the text of the address, which had to be sent to New York for simultaneous publication with the Baltimore papers. Now the address was not written out; it was to be delivered from notes only. From these notes, then, he delivered it in extenso to the reporter, who took it down in shorthand, and promised to let him have a copy to lecture from next morning. But the fair copy did not come till the last moment. To his horror he found this was written out upon "flimsy," from which it would be impossible to read properly. Again he turned it down on the desk and boldly trusted to memory. This second version was taken down verbatim by the Baltimore reporters in their turn. What if it did not tally with the New York version? As a matter of fact, it was almost identical, save for a few curious discrepancies, apparent contradictions between professed eye-witnesses which the ingenious critic might perfectly well use to prove that both accounts were fictitious, and that the pretended original was never delivered under the conditions alleged.
Mention has been made of his lectures to working men. Of these his assistant and successor, Professor G.B. Howes, wrote:—
Great as were his class lectures, his working-men's were greater. Huxley was a great believer in the distillatio per ascensum of scientific knowledge and culture, and spared no pains in approaching the artisan and so-called "working classes." He gave the workmen of his best. The substance of his Man's Place in Nature, one of the most successful and popular of his writings, and of his Crayfish, perhaps the most perfect zoological treatise ever published, was first communicated to them. In one of the last conversations I had with him, I asked his views on the desirability of discontinuing the workmen's lectures at Jermyn Street, since the development of working men's colleges and institutes is regarded by some to have rendered their continuance unnecessary. He replied, almost with indignation: "With our central position and resources, we ought to be in a position to give the workmen that which they cannot get elsewhere"; adding that he would deeply deplore any such discontinuance.
He had begun these in 1855, the second year of his appointment at the Royal School of Mines. On February 27 of that year he wrote to his friend Dr. Dyster:—
I enclose a prospectus of some People's Lectures (Popular Lectures I hold to be an abomination unto the Lord) I am about to give here. I want the working classes to understand that Science and her ways are great facts for them—that physical virtue is the base of all other, and that they are to be clean and temperate and all the rest, not because fellows in black with white ties tell them so, but because these are plain and patent laws of nature which they must obey "under penalties."