Thomas Henry Huxley

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Huxley, complete with beard.
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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.
—Thomas Henry Huxley, responding to the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce[1]:381

Sir Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) was a prominent English biologist, coiner of the term agnostic, and a staunch defender of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. While he was initially an opponent of any evolutionary change at all, upon reading The Origin of Species, he remarked: "how stupid of me not to have thought of that."[2] His vocal advocacy of the theory later earned him the title of 'Darwin's Bulldog'. His debate with Samuel Wilberforce at the Oxford University Museum is widely recognised a landmark in gaining wider acceptance for the theory of evolution among the public.

On evolution[edit]

Huxley made many notable contributions to evolutionary biology, including writing an entire book on human evolution 10 years before Darwin popped out his seminal masterpiece The Descent of Man. Huxley's masterpiece was titled Man's Place in Nature, and was published in 1863. Huxley had a huge dispute with Richard Owen, who was the preeminent paleontologist and anatomist of his day, Owen absolutely despised evolutionary theory, and was not above misrepresenting, and sometimes even outright fabricating, data to oppose evolutionary theory; in essence he was the first creation "scientist".[3] Specifically, Owen alleged that there was a key difference in the structure of the brain that separated humans from other apes. He went as far as to assert that this supposed "difference" necessitated placing men in an entirely different subclass of mammals than other primates, this supposed "difference" being that apes supposedly lacked a hippocampus minor in their brains, a claim which Huxley tore to shreds, and which led to Owen permanently losing his credibility as a scientist.[4]


Whilst Huxley was a supporter of Darwin's ideas on evolution, he had doubts about accepting a strict gradualist model of evolution. Huxley felt that evolution could be either gradual or saltational. He wrote that "Nature does make jumps now and then, and a recognition of the fact is of no small importance in disposing of many minor objections to the doctrine of transmutation."[5]

On the evolution of morality[edit]

Huxley was one of the first biologists (after Darwin's work was published) to refute religion as the basis for morality. Furthermore, he asserted that ethical conduct is a social construct (e.g., taught and learned through generation), and not an evolutionary one (e.g., an ingrained behavior that is part of a human's DNA). This assertion, which Darwin did not agree with, painted humanity as a species of savage brutes (it is possible humans could be, according to this idea, "amoral" beings rather than outright monsters) who must overcome their urges.[6] Recent studies by ethologists, such as Frans de Waal, are beginning to refute the latter claim, finding that altruistic behavior appears to be inherited and can be seen in many different animal species.[7]


Huxley was the first to theorize an evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs, based off of shared anatomical characteristics between them.[note 1] Specifically, he concluded this when comparing the skeletons of the theropods Compsognathis and Archaeopteryx, when he noticed that they look almost identical to each other, the only difference being that the Archaeopteryx fossil contained feathers and the Compsognathis fossil did not.[8] Keep in mind that this was back in a time when scientists were extraordinarily superficial when conducting phylogenetics: they relied mostly on superficial features rather than fundamental traits to classify organisms. This was something that, rather unsurprisingly, Owen encouraged, because it served to hide the truth of evolutionary relationships from the layman.[9]

However, Huxley did fuck up from time to time, as when he incorrectly identified the ancestry of mammals as having come from amphibians rather than reptiles on the basis of their pelvises.[10] Another feather in his cap, however, could be the fact that he correctly inferred that the common ancestor of all therian mammals possessed an epipubis bone, and it was only with the rise of placental mammals and our associated relatively long gestation periods that we lost those bones in the first place to help make room for the womb to expand.[11]


Perhaps a blemish on Huxley's record are his "contributions" to "physical anthropology", aka scientific racism. He classified mankind into nine separate races, based almost entirely on appearance and minor anatomic characteristics, with each of the nine separate "races" of mankind, according to Huxley, divided into four separate supercategories:

  • Negroid
    • Bushmen 1
    • Negroes 2
    • Negroes 3
  • Mongoloid
    • Mongoloid A
    • Mongoloid B
    • Mongoloid C
    • Esquimaux
  • Australoid
    • Melanchroi
    • Polynesians
  • Xanthocroi (or "Caucasian")

Physical anthropology was a subject that fascinated the Victorians, so perhaps one can excuse Huxley for his contribution to scientific racism based off of the time he lived in; after all, we are all products of our time. In the paper, however, Huxley didn't classify any "race" of mankind as inherently superior to any other, something that reflects well on him considering the time period, but he did classify the races of men into so-called "primitive" and "civilized" peoples.[12]


TH Huxley coined the term "agnosticism" in 1869, reasoning that he didn't believe himself to be an atheist, because he couldn't say for certain that there was no God, but he wasn't a theist either. To solve this conundrum, he came up with the concept of agnosticism, which posits that it is impossible to know for certain whether a god exists or not. While the concept of agnosticism can be found as far back as 5th century BCE India,[13] it was Huxley who first came up with a name for the concept of agnosticism.[14]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Also known as "synapomorphies"; see our article on cladistics for more information about this.


  1. The Oxford Essential Quotations Dictionary, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (1998) Berkley Books. ISBN 0425163873.
  2. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)
  3. A satirical lampoon of the dispute between Huxley and Owen
  4. The Cerebral Structure of Man and Apes
  5. The Origins of T. H. Huxley's Saltationism: History in Darwin's Shadow by Sherrie L. Lyons
  6. Evolution And Ethics by TH Huxley
  7. Biological altruism from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  8. On the Theory of the Vertebrate Skull Proceedings of the Royal Society (1859)
  9. "Pterosaurs are Terrible Lizards" by AronRa (2013)
  10. "On the Characters of the Pelvis in the Mammalia, and the Conclusions Respecting the Origin of Mammals Which May Be Based on Them" Proceedings of the Royal Society (1879)
  11. "On the Epipubis in the Dog and Fox" Proceedings of the Royal Society of London
  12. On the Geographical Distribution of the Chief Modifications of Mankind, Journal of the Ethnological Society of London (1870), Scientific Memoirs III
  13. "Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life". a part of the Digha Nikaya translated in 1997 by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Archived from the original on February 9, 2014. "If you ask me if there exists another world (after death), ... I don't think so. I don't think in that way. I don't think otherwise. I don't think not. I don't think not not." 
  14. The Huxley File Guide #13: Agnosticism