T H Huxley

“Of moral purpose I see no trace in Nature. That is an article of exclusively human manufacture – and very much to our credit,” said T H Huxley, scientist, educator, and supporter of Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution and natural selection. Huxley coined the word “agnostic” to describe his position on knowledge and religious belief – that one cannot, and should not claim to, know things for which one there is no evidence.

Many people say we simply do not have the knowledge to answer some deep questions with any certainty. They call themselves “agnostics”. This is a fairly new word in the English language and was coined by T H Huxley to express his view that “it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.” and that one should adopt an “agnostic” (literally “without knowledge”) position on things which one cannot know (which would include most religious beliefs). Huxley lost his religious faith as a young man, denied that Christianity had a monopoly on morality, and thought that agnosticism was an honest and honourable way of looking at the world:

“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other considerations…do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.   That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if any man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face…”

Huxley was a scientist and educator, and saw that doubt or agnosticism was the starting point for progress in human knowledge; he said he was “inclined to think that not far from the invention of fire must rank the invention of doubt.”   Largely self-educated and very hard-working, Huxley began his scientific career as a doctor, studied marine life on his voyages as a naval surgeon, and on his return to England, became a science lecturer. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1851. As a scientist he saw the importance of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – his ideas on human evolution struck Huxley “like a flash of light on a dark night.”  Darwin sent him an advance copy, and when Huxley first read it, his reaction was, “How exceedingly stupid not to have thought of that.”   Like many of the best ideas, evolution by natural selection seemed obvious once someone had thought of it.

But it was not obvious to everyone, and Huxley was much more combative than  Darwin in defending it from the attacks of conservative thinkers and those who thought Darwin’s ideas heretical (he was sometimes called “Darwin’s Bulldog”). One of his most famous defences took place in a debate with Bishop Wilberforce at Oxford University in 1860. When the bishop sarcastically asked Huxley if he was descended from an ape “on his grandmother’s side of the family or on his grandfather’s”, Huxley replied: “If 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 and influence, and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into scientific discussion?”- I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”

Huxley played an important part in the transformation of the Royal School of Mines, which gave him his first lecturing post, into Imperial College, which specialised in educating scientists and engineers, and in creating the University of London. Huxley wanted to see science brought together with industry and used to solve human problems such as overpopulation and hunger. He was also interested in elementary education, and was elected to the London School Board, where he worked to give ordinary people a decent education. He began the first proper training courses for science teachers.

He was happily married and had many children and grandchildren, amongst them Julian Huxley, who wrote, “He was a great example to me.” When he was dying, his family intercepted letters form religious people saying they were glad he was dying and that he would be going to Hell. He was buried without religious ceremony.