The life of Victorian scientist Thomas Henry Huxley, told in five great pieces of trivia
1. He was known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ for good reason. The most famous moment of Huxley’s career was a debate about evolution that took place at the University of Oxford in 1860. Although others took part in the debate, it has gone down in history as essentially a clash between the pro-evolution Huxley and the anti-evolution Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (who was known as ‘Soapy Sam’ after a comment made by Benjamin Disraeli that the Bishop’s manner was ‘unctuous’). Interestingly, Huxley almost never took part in the debate: he had planned to leave Oxford the day before it took place. Then, a chance meeting with Robert Chambers – who had written an early book on evolution, fifteen years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published – convinced him to stay in Oxford for the debate. Thanks to this tough-minded championing of Darwin’s work Huxley was given the name ‘Darwin’s bulldog’.
2. He coined the word ‘agnostic’. As Huxley himself said, ‘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 that 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.’ Of course, many would dispute Huxley’s definitions here (atheism is defined simply as lack of belief, and says nothing about knowledge), but the word has stuck. (Although ‘agnostic’ is often viewed as a halfway house between theism and atheism, the two are in fact separate.)
3. Born in 1825, Huxley was largely self-taught. He came from a middle-class family, but one that was struggling financially, especially when the school at which Huxley’s father taught closed down. Young Thomas Huxley left school when just ten years old, but was determined not to fall behind and so taught himself Latin, a little Greek, and German – this last proving especially useful later on, when Charles Darwin would call upon Huxley’s services and ask him to translate German scientific works into English for him.
4. He wrote a popular essay about a piece of chalk. Published in 1868, ‘On a Piece of Chalk’ was an extended essay on the geological past of Britain, using a piece of chalk as the primary focus. You can read it here.
5. He was the grandfather of novelist Aldous Huxley. Fittingly, T. H. Huxley’s grandson, the twentieth-century novelist Aldous Huxley, would describe himself as ‘agnostic’ – the very word his grandfather had coined. He would also teach H. G. Wells, author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Wells’s scientific education would prove invaluable in helping him to pen some of the first classic works of science fiction in English – we’ve compiled the best of Wells’s science fiction novels in an earlier post. Huxley died in 1895, having had his three score years and ten. Another grandson was Julian Huxley, who followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and became an evolutionary biologist.
If you enjoyed these T. H. Huxley facts, do take a look at our interesting Charles Darwin facts, in which we reveal that Darwin was neither the first person to propose a theory of evolution, nor the first to suggest the idea of natural selection.
Image: T. H. Huxley aged about 55, by Lock & Whitfield c. 1880; Wikimedia Commons.