Darwin’s Bulldog

In all the controversy aroused by the publication of Darwin’s theory during the last century one man towered head and shoulders above his contemporaries. That man was Thomas Henry Huxley.

As Dr. Cyril Bibby so convincingly shows (T. H. Huxley, Watts 25s.), Huxley had clearly appreciated several years before the publication of the Origin of Species that varieties of structure within a group had come about by modification of an original type, though he had no conception, yet, of evolution as a widely embracing principle.

Darwin’s idea of natural selection provided a conceivable mechanism for such evolution and Huxley accepted it “subject to the production of proof that physiological species may be produced by selective breeding.” In those days, Mendel’s work had not provided the understanding of the laws of inheritance. “Darwin is obliged to speak,” Huxley said, “of variation as if it were spontaneous or a matter of chance.”

Having satisfied himself that Darwin’s idea merited support—Huxley threw his abilities and inexhaustible energy into “smiting the Amalekites,” i.e., demolishing its opponents, chiefly churchmen and statesmen as well as a few obstinate scientists.

The dispute which will always be most notorious was that with the Bishop of Oxford, Dr. S. Wilberforce (“Soapy Sam”) at the meeting of the British Association, in the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford. This specious prelate took it into his head to taunt Huxley in person, inviting him to inform the gathering whether he claimed descent from an ape on his maternal or paternal grandparents’ side, said Huxley:

If then, the question is put to me, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

This sort of crushing rejoinder was an ingur of what was in store for a succession of opponents, from Richard Owen, the anatomist who unsuccessfully disputed Huxley’s proof that the Great Apes had more in common with man they had with the monkeys, to William Gladstone, the Grand Old Man of Liberalism—who took time off nfrom Parliamentary duties to try to refute Darwin and Evolution by claiming that the Genesis story was supported by scientific research.

Those interested to read the details of these and other debates cannot do better than consult Dr. Bibby’s work. Huxley’s was a virtuoso performance. When one gets the slightest inkling of the amount of blind ignorant prejudice, intense personal hatred, and violent hostility that any opposition to orthodox religious views elicited in those days, his achievement increases in stature.

Huxley was the gladiator—”Darwin’s Bulldog” they called him—who did not hesitate when circumstances were favourable to draw the consistent conclusions from Darwinism that petrified the Victorians. He went to Edinburgh, of all places, and bluntly told an audience that “he had no doubt of the origin of man from the same stock as the apes,” when Darwin was cautiously writing that perhaps “light would be thrown on this subject.”

To us, in slightly more enlightened days, the question naturally arises, “How on earth did he manage it? ” How was it possible for him to occupy the most important teaching posts and eventually administrative control of the College of Science? How could he maintain his position successfully as Chairman of the first London School Board and practically direct its first efforts, a minority of one in a group of professional churchmen?

First, there can be no doubt of his consummate professional ability. If not the first biologist, he was undoubtedly the first biological teacher of his own or or any other age. A host of his students from H. G. Wells to Ray Lankester, agree that he was the best teacher they ever heard.

Secondly, by his adroitness in knowing exactly what to say, and when and how to say it. Probably his invention of the word “agnostic” was a “fig-leaf for materialism” as Lenin called it. It enabled him to get the ear of audiences, and the Press, to put the case.

But, perhaps most of all, there was his transparent sincerity and integrity, which even his wildest opponents could not question.

Yes, undoubtedly, he knew that his lectures to working men would bring the response they did. Working people flocked to hear him, Marx and Engels among them. A brilliant expositor, in complete command of his subject, his speeches sprinkled with witty asides, T. H. Huxley packed the halls of the towns of England (and Scotland and U.S.A.) for years.

And how he revelled in it! Working Men’s Institutes all over the country vied for his attention. The mere list of his offices and appointments is staggering even today. This was the man who in his speech when receiving the Darwin medal could say:

”I am sincerely of the opinion that the views which were propounded by Mr. Darwin 34 years ago may be understood hereafter as constituting an epoch in the intellectual history of the human race. They will modify the whole of our thought and opinions, our most intimate convictions. But I do not know, and I do not think anybody knows whether the particular views which he held will be hereafter fortified by the experience of the ages which come after us.”

This was the man who wrote after his experiences as a boy in the East End of London that he “used to wonder sometimes why these people did not sally forth and get a few hours’ eating and drinking and plunder to their heart’s content before the police could stop and hang a few of them.” Later in life he said, “I remain true to my plebeian order” and, “if I am to be remembered I would rather it should be as a man who did his best to help the people.”

Dr. Bibby is to be congratulated on a superb piece of documentation.