§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis

As seen in § 13. Agnosticism, § 14. New Reformation, and § 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible, Huxley had soon after returning to England in 1850 written to friends and would later argue in articles against the historical accuracy of Biblical legends. For example, in an 1854 Westminster Review notice, he pointed out that "if Moses were ever really in possession of the laws of geology, they must have been written on the tablets which he broke and left behind on Sinai"–Murchison, et al. In November of 1867, Huxley lectured his hosts, clergymen at Sion College, on fundamental incompatibility between the scientific understanding and the Genesis account of the earth's development; the address exists only in a commentary (by J. H. Green?) in the Saturday Review, Professor Huxley on Science and the Clergy, and an attack upon it, James Reddie's On Geological Chronology, and the Cogency of the Arguments by which some Scientific Doctrines Are Supported.

Arriving in the United States nine years later, Huxley had as his primary mission giving the opening address at a new university; he admired tug boats, confessing that if he were not a man, he would like to be a tug; and admired the view of the New World's tall buildings, the evidence of interest in technology, "centres of intelligence" which contrasted with the first site of Old World cities: steeples. Among other adventures of his visit, he gave a series of lectures on evolution in New York City in September of 1876.

Mr. and Mrs. Huxley at year of visit to U. S., 1876

Newspaper reviews of his U. S. tour appeared wherever he went, to Buffalo, Nashville, Baltimore, New York City. He arrived in Nashville in early September, 1876, and was received enthusiastically by high school students and others he addressed, as reported in the Nashville Daily American and Christian Advocate, a writer in that journal noting that evolution may be an expression of God's system. After meeting his sister Lizzie and her family, Huxley and his wife went on to Baltimore for the Johns Hopkins inauguration address, his theme a common one to him and his admirers, the importance of having science in the college curriculum. The President of Johns Hopkins received a letter from a Presbyterian minister expressing regret that the University had not opened its meeting with a prayer and even more, that it had invited Huxley to give the inaugural speech. It would have been better to invite God, impossible to have invited both God and Huxley.

From there, the Huxleys proceeded to New York, Huxley giving three Lectures on Evolution at Chickering Hall. Again, his activities were well reported on in the newspapers. The New York Times ran eight articles on him, summaries of his lectures and editorial comment on them, for example in "The Reportorial Hypothesis" pointing out that no evidence actually exists proving that Professor Huxley is not a myth, and less humorously in "Professor Huxley's Lectures" and "Professor Huxley on the Bible" pointing out that no evidence exists proving that scripture is wrong.

That his critique of Milton was really an attack on Moses was the point of a cartoon in the New York Daily Graphic displaying Huxley assaulting Moses with a bauble of Milton–Huxley Eikonoklastes, the pious poetry for which sings:

Grand in the light the sacred records throw
    Old Moses stands, a hero of all time–
    Lawgiver, prophet: on his form sublime
Wrought with his art great Michael Angelo.
And Milton, whose blind eyes with clearer ray
    Grand visions saw, and fixed with mighty pen,
    Unwielded yet by hands of newer men,
The vision of Creation's primal day–
Stands ever, and shall stand while Time shall be,
    A shadow of that God of whom he spake.

The lectures were later published as American Addresses (1877). Thomas Morrow's "A Blow at the Root of Modern Infidelity" (1878) assailed "Huxleyism" as "the sum of all modern scientiric infidelity and scepticism." Huxley's placing "Lectures on Evolution" in the volume Science and Hebrew Tradition agrees with so much of the criticism of the lectures: that the important point was not the lengthy discussion of evolution, for example, of the horse, but the brief attack on the Miltonic, or Mosaic, hypothesis of creation. By also including in this volume his address to the British Association, The Rise and Progress of Palæontology (1881), he again, perhaps cunningly, signalled the intimate–intimately hostile–connection between science and scripture; On the Method of Zadig (1880) is one of Huxley's more dramatic narratives of the scientific method, abetted by The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science (1890).

Worthy of note is the fact that while Huxley was engaging in dissecting theological myths he was also engaged in dissecting the epipubis of the order Canidae: On the Epipubis in the Dog and Fox appeared in Nature about the same time as the essay on Zadig appeared in The Nineteenth Century. To Huxley and to his admirers, the scientific method he employed applied with the same truthworthiness to scriptural canon as to canine morphology.

A Trio of Myths

Henry's Father
Photograph by Henry Huxley, c. 1881
Portrait by John Collier, 1883
THH President, Royal Society, 1883-86
Trustee, British Museum, 1882-85
Senator of London University, 1883-95

In 1885, Huxley was entering the ripe age of 60, the age at which he had said scientists should be strangled, and though strangulation wasn't in the cards, the equally dismal prospect of retirement was. In the winter vacation of 1884-85, in Italy, Huxley suffered from irritability and depression, desiring to rise and slay the whole brood of Roman Catholic idolators, as he wrote to a friend–January 25, 1885. In the summer of 1885, he still suffered from the blue devils, a condition enhanced by retirement as Professor of Biology at the Royal School of Mines and as President of the Royal Society. "He is very ill and looks like a man quite spent," wrote Matthew Arnold. "I have a real affection for him though we seldom meet and it brought tears into my eyes to see him." Italy's warm weather had helped him no more than had strychine amd quinine, but when after the poor summer of 1885 he read an essay that appeared in the November edition of the Nineteenth Century , William Ewart Gladstone's Dawn of Creation and of Worship, Huxley was instantly cured of his depression, and the term "Gladstonian dose" became commonplace in the household.

Gladstone had specified that Genesis was an empirically truthful revelation because its four-fold order of animate creation was supported by modern paleontology. Although Huxley wasn't mentioned in this article, he took if gleefully as an attack upon him, answering it in the December 1885 The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of Nature, the first in a series of exchanges with Gladstone and others that impressed not only the Victorian readers of the periodicals, but readers since then, including H. L. Mencken, who focused on Huxley's essays as the best examples of polemical literature.

Gladstone's reply to "Interpreters of Genesis and Interpreters of Nature" appeared the next month: Proem to Genesis: A Plea for a Fair Trial. Upon reading this January 1886 plea for a fair child, Huxley wrote to his friend John Skelton that the flow of bile aroused by it had improved his own health. "I need not tell you that I am entirely crushed by his reply–still the worm will turn and there is a faint squeak (as of a rat in the mouth of a terrier) about to be heard in the next Nineteenth ." The "faint squeak" was entitled Mr. Gladstone and Genesis. Huxley often reported to his friends on "polishing off" the G.O.M., dissecting him as "an anatomico-psychological exercise," going about his house embarrassing his wife with his blasphemies and improving his own anatomico-psychological condition: December 4, 1885 to Spencer, December 6, 1885 to Farre, December 26, 1885 to Foster, January 13, 1886 to Farrer, January 15, 1886 to Knowles, January 16, 1886 to Prestwich, January 21, 1886 to Skelton, and February 19, 1886 to Poulton.

Huxley's preference that theologians adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible received poetic treatment in his Notebook:

Benevolent maunderers stand up and say
That black and white are but extremes of grey;
Stir up the black creed with the white,
The grey they make will be just right.

In 1886, though not specifically directed at Gladstone, The Nineteenth Century published Huxley's The Evolution of Theology: An Anthropological Study, a detailed account of similarities in dogma, ritual, and ethics between the religion of the South Sea culture Huxley had visited during the Rattlesnake cruise (see Papuan talisman of orang-utan jaw bracelet) and the Hebraic culture he visited over strange seas of thought throughout his life. To Foster in April 1883, he noted that the real story of the Exodus was that of Pharoah pursuing Israelite pawnbrokers. To the publisher James Knowles, he wrote that he had a talent to castrate his wild cat essays and that he himself found the essay on the evolution of theology "very interesting." January 15, 1886 and January 20, 1886 to Knowles: Huxley wants the reader of "Evolution of Theology" "to have an aperçu of the whole process from Samuel of Israel to Samuel of Oxford." R. H. Hutton wrote a long and intelligent criticism of this essay: Professor Huxley on the Evolution of Theology (1886). and in the 1895 Professor Huxley's Creed reviews Collected Essays, beds his attack on agnosticism in "The Evolution of Theology." To Huxley, the sharpness of his criticism was satisfactory proof that he wasn't dead yet.

The second of the controversies on the Old Testament concerned the deluge. In 1863, Huxley had contributed scientific facts about the deluge to the author of the article "Noah" in the Dictionary of the Bible; he returned to this in the 1890 The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science and devoted a whole essay to it: Hasisadra's Adventure (July 1891).claiming it was highly improbable that the flood as a universal event, or even as a localized event, had ever happened.

The controversy helped him maintain not so much peace of mind as control, since his beloved daughter Marian, an artist responsible for the two pencil sketches of her family noted above (in 1875) was to contract an illness that would kill her in 1887. In 1890, he wrote in a letter to Clarke on the myths of Genesis: "my sole part is to get the people who persist in regarding them as statements of act to understand that they are fools." The three Genesis myths–April 15, 1889 and September 29, 1890–that Huxley intended to focus on were those of creation, the fall, and the deluge. He didn't get to the fall.

In 1892, from his new home Hodeslea, he wrote letters to the editor on the myths. An exchange of views among Huxley and two Bible defenders during the first two months of 1892 was reprinted as a booklet by The Times, though the editor, targeting Huxley for demolition, cut important passages from his letters: see The Bible and Modern Criticism. for this exchange.

Huxley's home in Eastbourne (1890)
Hodeslea Study
Water-color by Reginald Barrett

In October of 1893, Huxley, having selected these and the other essays alluded to, wrote a preface to that volume, describing Creation and the Deluge and Moses famed as author of scripture as "mere legends" and severely condemning the "Rabbinical invention" of infallibility. "The truth is that the pretension to infallibility has done endless mischief." This Preface IV (to which he refers in the short paragraph comprising Preface I) was written from the comfort of his new home, Hodeslea. It is eminently quotable in passages destroying inspiration, infallibility, demonology, and scriptural mythology, all of which he found not just unscientific, but immoral. "It is becoming, if it has not become, impossible for men of clear intellect and adequate instruction to believe, and it has ceased, or is ceasing, to be possible for such men honestly to say they believe, that the universe came into being in the fashion described in the first chapter of Genesis; or to accept, as a literal truth, the story of the making of woman, with the account of the catastrophe which followed hard upon it, in the second chapter; or to admit that the earth was repeopled with terrestrial inhabitants by migration from Armenia or Kurdistan, little more than 4,000 years ago, which is implied in the eighth chapter; or finally, to shape their conduct in accordance with the conviction that the world is haunted by innumerable demons, who take possession of men and may be driven out of them by exorcistic adjurations, which pervades the Gospels. ...

"Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it. It lies at the root of the deep-seated, sometimes disguised, but never absent, antagonism of all the varieties of ecclesiasticism to the freedom of thought and to the spirit of scientific investigation. For those who look upon ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil; and hold veracity, not merely in act, but in thought, to be the one condition of true progress, whether moral or intellectual, it is clear that the biblical idol must go the way of all other idols."

A better, though facetious and sarcastic, account of the true meaning of Exodus he shared with his friend Michael Foster–November 1883: the "real reason" why Pharaoh pursued the Jews is detailed "in a recently discovered papyrus" which describes the absconding of Israelite pawnbrokers with pledges.

A small question in Victorian times, as it remains a small question today, concerned life on other planets; and if such life exists, how that would fit into the traditional scriptural scenario; Huxley addressed this in Westminster Review articles of 1854–e. g., Hooker, et al. and Brewster, et al. An appropriate conclusion to this guide is a letter by Huxley in 1890, that his sole point is to get the people who persist in regarding the myths of Genesis "as statements of fact to understand that they are fools. The process is laborious, and not yet very fruitful of the desired conviction:"–September 14, 1890.

For related guides, see § 13. Agnosticism, § 14. New Reformation, § 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible, § 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden