Murphy’s Law: Thomas Henry Huxley
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) was a towering genius of the 19th Century. Born to a family of modest means, he would have scant education, yet become a man of great learning, whose scholarship would outshine the products of Oxford and Cambridge. At age 21 he set sail on a 4-year voyage aboard H.M.S. Rattlesnake as the surgeon’s assistant. The frigate was engaged in mapping the coasts of Australia and New Guinea. Here the young lad studied Nature (from plankton to dinosaurs) and described his findings in letters he sent back to the most eminent scientists of England, “with the same results as that obtained by Noah when he sent the ravens out of the ark.” Not chagrined by the lack of response, he continued to send off his research year after year. Upon his return, he found that he had been read and applauded by the scientists. They welcomed him home as their peer. His greatest find on the voyage was a primate named Henrietta Heathorn, a Sydney beauty, who would marry this tall, vibrant, handsome man who came from England dragging nets behind the ship.
In 1859 Charles Darwin gave Huxley an advance copy of the Origin of the Species for critical comment. Huxley, upon completing the small book, declared: “How exceedingly stupid not to have thought of that.” Soon he would be known as “Darwin’s bulldog” because he would champion the theory of evolution on behalf of science and the shy, retiring Darwin, who eschewed debate or public speaking. Huxley, a born orator, would debate the validity of evolution with all comers, including Gladstone, the Prime Minister. His greatest day however, may have been the occasion he trounced the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, in formal debate at the university. The bishop was known as “Soapy Sam” because he rubbed his hands together during public speaking. His Grace asked Huxley if he descended from an ape on his grandmother or grandfather’s side of the family. Huxley appeared to ignore the ad hominem, until near the conclusion of his remarks, when he suddenly turned and faced the pompous prelate, inspected him as he might a strange fossil, and then stated he would rather be the product of a guileless ape than one who “prostituted the gifts of culture and eloquence to the service of prejudice and falsehood.” The uproarious laughter from the audience was a sure sign that the ground held by religion had given way to science.
Thomas Huxley went into the temples of religion and found no one home. He coined the word “agnostic” to describe his own “lack of faith.””Agnosticism simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that for which he has no grounds for professing to believe.” He would quietly say he knew nothing about the alleged supernatural, and then a bit louder, “Neither do you.” He looked at religion as he did any other area of study, fearlessly, without prejudice or pre judgment. After he established the facts his conclusions were incisive. He would write, “The dogma of the infallibility of the Bible is no more self-evident than is that of the infallibility of the pope.” “Rome is the one great spiritual organization which is able to resist – and must, as a matter of life and death – the progress of science and modern civilization.” He hammered Protestantism with equal force, finding it without “a trace of any desire to set reason free. The most that can be discovered is a proposal to change masters. From being a slave to the papacy, the intellect was to become the serf of the Bible.” He did not exclude Islam, claiming, “Infidel is a term of reproach which Christians and Mohammedans, in their modesty, agree to apply to those who differ from them.”
In his later years he gained more and more respect, but he remained unimpressed. When Cambridge University awarded him an honorary doctorate, he reluctantly accepted, noting that now he was “a person of Respectability – I have done my best to avoid that misfortune but it is no use.” His essays on religion and morals may be found in the Secular Web’s Historical Library.
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“Thomas Henry Huxley” is copyright © 1999 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.
The electronic version is copyright © 1999 Internet Infidels with the written permission of John Patrick Michael Murphy.