Professor Huxley and the Duke of Argyll

The Nineteenth Century April 1891

Duke of Argyll

[685] Few sentences, written in a characteristic tone, at the close of his reply to Mr. Gladstone in the current number of this Review devoted by Professor Huxley to an intimation that for ‘cogent reasons’ he declines to answer my criticism on his previous assertions about geology and the deluge. This result is entirely satisfactory to me. I quite understand what these cogent reasons really are. It has been proved that in his attack upon ‘Christian theology’ he has been betrayed into assertions which cannot be defended. Very wisely, therefore, he declines the task. He says that my paper can ‘be judged by every instructed and clear-headed reader.’ This also is true, and was proved to be true, as a matter of fact. Before publication it was submitted to, and judged by, several men quite as ‘instructed and clear-headed’ as Professor Huxley; and since its publication letters have reached me from some of the most distant parts of the world whch have been written by men of like qualifications, and these do not indicate either the judgment of the Professor, or the feelings by which that judgment is obviously inspired. Meanwhile, I only desire to point out the fact, first, that a teacher of great eminence in science has made a broad and confident assertion that Quaternary geology has established a certain negative conclusion as to any possible submergence which can have caused a deluge, or can account the universal human tradition of such an event; and, secondly, that when challenged to defend this assertion, and when confronted by an array of admitted facts which are subversive of it, he refuses to reply. Even this, however, is not so bad as the alternative he adopts. Like certain combatants of the Celestial Empire he throws a malodorous missile at his opponent–and retires. If Professor Huxley is satisfied with this method of conducting a scientific controversy, I have no cause to remonstrate.

His Chinese missile, however, remains to be dealt with. Therefore, nottwithstanding its unpleasant fumes, I proceed to handle it as representing the ostensible excuse for his turning aside in the day of battle. But, since I have no reason to expect the readers of this Review to know anything of the personal dispute with [686] Professor Huxley into which I was drawn three years ago, and which he has now thought it worth his while to revive for the purpose of covering his retreat, I am compelled to enter into a few words of explanation.

In the earliest and perhaps the most charming of all the works of Darwin–The Voyage of a Naturalist in the ‘Beagle’–he propounded, as is well known, a theory on the origin and growth of the coral islands, atolls, fringing and barrier reefs, which are so common over certain areas in the Pacific. This theory was set forth and expounded with such ingenuity of argument and supported with such an array of facts, that it speedily became almost universally accepted by the scientific world. For the best part of half a century it held its place as one of the most splendid generalisations of modem science, and one of the most striking discoveries of its illustrious author. It became an acknowledged doctrine, an accepted creed. One of its great peculiarities was its alleged certainty. The reasoning on which’ it was based seemed so closely knit that it afforded no loophole for escape. It was not merely a theory as to one possible origin for the coral islands and atolls. It was set forth as the only possible origin for those remarkable oceanic spots of land, and Darwin himself expressly said that he defied any other explanation to be given of the peculiarities of their position and structure. The imposing grandeur, and at the same time the simplicity, of the conception of a great continent slowly sinking into oceanic depths and presenting its mountain surfaces and its mountain tops in successive stages to the attachment of the coral-building larvae, until at last its highest peaks became ringed round by an atoll–all this was most attractive to the imagination. It allured and seemed to satisfy. And then the growing authority of Darwin, built upon this and many other achievements, put a final seal upon the conception, as not a theory, but a fact. With a charming and a charmed simplicity we all delighted in the idea of seeing in the lovely coral islands of the Pacific the palm-tree‘d buoys which were anchored over the submerged ranges of one of the long lost continents of the globe.

At last, and not many years ago, visitors to the Pacific, becoming more numerous, began to report a few facts which they had themselves observed as to the structure of at least some of the coral islands there. One of these reports happened to attract my own attention at the time it appeared, as testifying to certain facts which, if clearly ascertained, were absolutely incompatible with the received Darwinian theory. For it must be remembered that in science it is quite possible that one single well-established fact may be of such a character as to break up, not only a whole mountain of hypothesis, but a whole chain of apparently conclusive reasoning, when that reasoning has been founded on imperfect observation. Not having myself any independent knowledge of the facts, I was content to [687] watch the intimations which came from time to time as these new facts were confirmed in respect to one island after another, and I was surprised to see that they attracted comparatively little attention among somnolent believers in a glorious dream. I have some reason to know that this slumber was not quite so universal as it seemed to be. There were some men–perhaps many–who never were quite satisfied with the dream, and nourished a secret scepticism in their hearts. Then came the now celebrated papers of Dr. John Murray, not only assailing the theory of Darwin, but supplying a new and rival explanation of all the phenomena–an explanation which appeared to me to be much more probable, because much more consistent with the analogies of nature. But whether his substituted explanation was complete or not, there was at least one conclusion which seemed to me to be proved to demonstration–namely, that the submergence of pre-existing land was certainly not the only cause by which corals could be built up either into fringing or into barrier reefs, or into atoll islands. On the contrary, Dr. Murray‘s facts proved that the very opposite cause–namely, the elevation of oceanic floors, and not the submergence of elevated lands–was capable of originating coral reefs, and had almost certainly done so in many cases. Numerous coral islands which have been uplifted were seen to be founded on deep-sea deposits. But if this were true Darwin‘s theory was gone. That theory essentially consisted in an exclusive claim; and it did, and does now, seem strange to me that this should not have been at once and universally admitted. I attributed this to the well-known slowness of even the scientific world to confess a great delusion, and to a special indisposition in England to admit that a fatal breach bad been made in any doctrine so long accepted under the authority of Charles Darwin. It was under these circumstances that I contributed to this Review in September 1887 a paper setting forth Darwin‘s theory in all its apparent glory, and showing how it had then come to be overthrown. The paper was entitled ‘A Great Lesson,’ because, although it is a very old lesson in the history of science, it is a lesson ever needing to be learnt anew–that we should be awake to the retarding effect of a superstitious dependence on the authority of great men, and to the constant liability of even the greatest observers to found fallacious generalisations on a few selected facts.

It was in urging this lesson that I used some emphatic language as to the slowness and reluctance which had been shown, as regards the origin of coral islands, in seeing and admitting the liberation of science from a false hypothesis, and in hailing the appearance of a new explanation which was really quite as grand in its bearing upon the wonderful work of Nature in the building up of so many of the loveliest habitations of men. But my language was wholly impersonal. I neither spoke of, nor at, anyone in particular. Yet I was [688] immediately assailed by a whole troop of indignant professors, of whom Mr. Huxley was the most irate, as having attacked the character of scientific men, and as having accused them of intentional suppression scientific truth. I repudiated this interpretation of my language in a letter published in Nature of the 17th of November, 1887. In that letter, however, I went farther, and in answer to a challenge Professor Huxley I gave, as an example of the discouragement thrown in the way of all assaults on any Darwinian teaching, the fact that Dr. John Murray has been prevented by his official chief, Sir Wyville Thomson, from an earlier publication of his paper on coral reefs, from a fear that the staff and the work of the Challenger Expedition might be injured in England by so open an attack on the great idol of the scientific world. And this was in spite of the fact that Sir Wyville Thomson was himself not a Darwinian, and was more than disposed to accept Dr. Murray‘s counter theory. Professor Huxley now returns to this matter after all interval of three years and a half, and puts it forward as a pretext for declining to defend certain disproved assertions of his own, on a wholly separate subject, with which no theory of Darwin has the smallest connection. He says that my statement as to the delay in the publication of Dr. Murray‘s views rests on my personal authority alone, and that the postponement was ascribed by me to some ‘person unnamed: This assertion is unfounded. in my letter to Nature, I gave Sir Wyville Thomson’s name, and I added that I had seen one of his letters to Dr. Murray insisting on the delay. If Professor’ Huxley wishes to know the truth more fully, I refer him to Dr. John Murray himself.

I have not yet done, however, with the Chinese missile of Professor Huxley. In the course of our dispute in 1887 1 was enabled to quote some very strong language used by Professor Huxley against some of the most distinguished members of the French Institute, published in Darwin‘s Life (vol. ii. 186). it is well known that Darwinism does not enjoy on the continent of Europe, or especially in France, the worship which has long prevailed in England. A preferential tenderness for the memory of Lamarck may have something to do with this. Nevertheless, the French Institute is one of the most illustrious scientific bodies in the world; and if Professor Huxley is to stand up for the doctrine that Scientific men are never susceptible of prejudice–never swayed by preconceptions–always exempt from the impositions of authority–he had better apologise for speaking of ‘the ill will of powerful members of that body producing for a long time the effect of a conspiracy of silence.’ But this is not all. When in December 1887 1 quoted this language as infinitely more personal and more offensive to scientific men than anything at which I had even hinted, Professor Huxley rejoined in a letter of which I took no notice at the time, and to which I should never have referred again had not my opponent on Quaternary geology thought [689] proper to rake up a subject so irrelevant. It was published in Nature of the 9th of February, 1888. It denied the accuracy of the above quotation, because–he says–what he meant was that, ‘though the members of the Institute did not enter into a conspiracy of silence, the notorious antagonism of some of them to evolution produced much the same result as if they had done so.’ The distinction is not very obvious, because I suppose nobody ever does use the phrase ‘conspiracy of silence’ in its literal signification. I certainly never used it in this literal sense, or in any other sense than as referring to that kind of silence which men observe when they discourage and avoid discussion where some favourite dogma is in danger. But, allowing to Professor Huxley all the benefit of this refinement in contradiction, we find him repeating and aggravating his offence against French scientific men in the very next sentence of the same letter. It runs as follows :

The ‘effect’ of the known repugnance to Mr. Darwin‘s views of some of the most prominent members of the Institute, to which I refer, is the effect upon the younger generation of French naturalists. Considering the influence of the Institute upon scientific appointments, the chances of a candidate known to be an evolutionist would have been small indeed; and prudence dictated silence.

Here we have an accusation against a very illustrious scientific body which is tremendous indeed. It is an accusation, not merely of a half-unconscious conspiracy to be silent, but of a more than half conscious conspiracy to persecute. I hope this accusation is unjust. But whether it is just or unjust–true or rather reckless–it does not come well from. a scientific man who sets up such lofty claims to immunity from criticism as those on which he founded his indignant rebuke of my paper.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University