§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog

Huxley remarked to student Henry Fairfield Osborn, twentieth-century American paleontologist and director of the American Museum of Natural History, back in the mid-seventies:about Charles Darwin, "You know I have to take care of him–in fact, I have always been Darwin's bull dog." Though he much pleased Darwin by striking out at the enemies of evolution, he also much displeased him by failing to be a 100% defender of the hypothesis of natural selection. Huxley was a defender of the idea that evolution had occurred, but not of natural selection as its explanation. Early in his career, he was not even a defender of the theory of evolution; he changed his mind and became a defender of it because of his own research, Darwin's proving that evolution had occurred, the bellwether guidance of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, and an eagerness to demolish Richard Owen. See Preface II, § 3. A Sort of Firm and § 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution.

Huxley's Defense of Darwin: 1860

On the last day of 1856, Huxley returned to his diary for a penultimate note in his downstairs study while his wife was giving birth. The following three years, he predicted, would be "Lehrjahre" for completing training in the various sciences he was interested in (histology, morphology, physiology, zoology, and geology). 1860 would then see him "well grounded and ready for any special pursuits" in these sciences. "In 1860 I may fairly look forward to fifteen or twenty years 'Meisterjahre,' and with the comprehensive views my training will have given me, I think it will be possible in that time to give a new and healthier direction to all Biological Science. To smite all humbug, however big; to give a nobler tone to science; to set an example of abstinence from petty personal controversies, and of toleration for everything but lying; to be indifferent as to whether the work is recognised as mine or not, so long as it is done:–are these my aims? 1860 will show"–December 31, 1856. The prophetic dating was exact: 1860 was a critical year in Huxley's career as a scientist and popularizer of science.

Professor Huxley Portrait by Maull and Polyblank, 1857

THH Professor, Jermyn St. School of Mines, 1854
Fullerian Professor to Royal Institution, 1855-58, 1865-68
Fellow, Zoological Society, Geological Society, 1856

Darwin is mentioned only occasionally in Huxley's early writings, in a Rattlesnake diary note and in a Westminster Review appraisal of Journal of a Naturalist, with commendation of that, of Theory on the Formation of Coral Reefs, and of Darwin as a top naturalist–Martineau, et al. (1854). A few years later, Huxley and Darwin started their friendship. 1859 opened with Huxley's lectures to working men on "Objects of Interest in the Collection of Fossils." Darwin noted that he would be content if he could convert Huxley to the idea of natural selection, on which he had been working for fifteen years, as the explanation of evolution. But Huxley doubted what would be a key feature of Darwin's hypothesis of natural selection. In the years before annus mirabilis, he found the Development Hypothesis useful "as an hypothesis merely"–Martineau, et al., and often expressed his disbelief in progressive development–Murchison, et al. (1854), Hooker, et al. (1854), Carpenter, et al. (1855). In the 1854 review of Hooker, Huxley expressed the funny hope that archeologists would come upon Palaeozoic pottery; his most substantial account of progressivism is On Certain Zoological Arguments Commonly Adduced in Favour of the Hypothesis of the Progressive Development of Animal Life in Time. (1855).

Darwin argued in favor of the proposition that Natura non facit saltum,, development being as gradual in biology as in geology. A letter of importance in shedding light on Huxley's views about Darwin's hypothesis is that to Lyell in the spring of 1859, six months before the publication of the Origin of Species. Huxley here expresses clearly his view against gradualism in evolution: new forms appear "at once in full perfection"– "I think transmutation may take place without transition.". The "absence of any real transitions" applies to the human species, for which the rocks do not necessarily hide an intermediate form between monkey and human being –June 25, 1859. The human species itself may have been a persistent type. In a letter of a generation later, Huxley returns to "saltus," commenting that he and Darwin had had many arguments on the topic–February 20, 1894.

Although as indicated in this letter to Lyell, and in his essays on persistence of type, Huxley was never to be a 100% supporter of natural selection Huxley looked forward to Darwin's forthcoming book as initiating a new "epoch in science"–September 5, 1858. Upon reading the Origin two months later, emphasized the importance of the chapter on the incompleteness of the fossil record. He trusted Darwin would not be disgusted or annoyed "by the considerable abuse and misrepresentation which, unless I greatly mistake is in store for you. Depend upon it, you have earned the lasting gratitude of all thoughtful men. And as to the curs which will bark and yelp, you must recollect that some of your friends, at any rate, are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often and justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead. I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness."–November 23, 1859. The letter much comforted timid Darwin.

Huxley's first defenses of Darwinism appeared in December, Time and Life: Mr. Darwin's "Origin of Species" in Macmillan's Magazine and The Darwinian Hypothesis in The Times . "Of course," Huxley wrote, "as a scientific review the thing is worth nothing, but I earnestly hope it may have made some of the educated mob, who derive their ideas from the Times, reflect. And whatever they do, they shall respect Darwin & be d––d to them"–December 31, 1859. Darwin wrote to Huxley wondering who the author could be, a literary man, a German scholar, an attentive reader, a profound naturalist: "he writes and thinks with quite uncommon force and clearness; and what is even still rarer, his writing is seasoned with most pleasant wit." To Darwin, only one man could have done it: T. H. Huxley.

Huxley's third review of Darwin's controversial hypothesis was given in a February, 1860, an evening discourse at the Royal Institution. On Species and Races, and Their Origin examines the validity of the Darwinian hypothesis in explaining physiological and morphological distinctions among species. It is a strongly polemical piece, opposing the noble scientist to the "little Canutes," critics who ludicrously stumble over each other. A patriotic and pious note is struck as Huxley derives the health of England from its commercial success, that based on its scientific advancement. Will England play a part in promoting a better society? "That depends on how you the public deal with Science; cherish her, venerate her, follow her methods faithfully and implicitly in their application to all branches of human thought and the future of this people will be greater than its past."

In one neat aphorism he ties together veneration of science, intellectual freedom, and patriotism: "Reverence is the handmaid of knowledge ... free discussion is the life of truth and of true unity in a nation." Darwin, who was in the audience, was not pleased: "I must confess that as an Exposition of the doctrine the Lecture seems to me an entire failure... He gave no just idea of natural selection."

Huxley's fourth review of Darwin's book, The Origin of Species appeared in the April 1860 issue of the Westminster Review. Coining the word "Darwinism" as it is still used today in this review (it had been used before with regard to the work of Erasmus Darwin), he finds natural selection as the best explanation available of evolution, but imperfect because its analog, artificial selection or breeding, had not yet produced a species and because Darwin had insisted too much on gradualism, disregarding too much the probability of saltation.

Owen. increasingly frustrated and intemperate, attacked Huxley in a review of the Origin that appeared in the April 1860 Edinburgh Review. Of all the notices of the Origin– and there were over 200–this one galled the Darwinists the most, impelling even gentle Darwin himself to describe it as "false and malignant." Though the review was unsigned, everyone knew it was Owen's production, primarily from the fact that it contained many favorable allusions to Professor Owen. At one point, Owen describes Owen as one of the "advanced physiological minds." The author passes over Darwin as unoriginal and unimportant, expresses his approval of the Law of Irrelative Repetition; and then turns to Huxley's paper, "On Species and Races": the sort of thing that led France to her downfall. "We gazed with amazement at the audacity of the hour's latest intellectual amusement."

Oxford University in June of 1860 was host to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There a debate took place between Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and an acolyte of Richard Owen, Huxley defending evolutionary theory and attacking adherence to scripture as a scientific document.

Darwin was delighted by the review in The Times and excited by a scientist insulting a bishop in a public forum. "From all that I hear from several quarters, it seems that Oxford did the subject great good. It is of enormous importance the showing the world that a few first-rate men are not afraid of expressing their opinion. I see daily more and more plainly that my unaided book would have done absolutely nothing." Professor Marsh told Huxley, years later, that when he had referred to Huxley, Darwin had replied "with more than usual earnestness, 'Huxley is the king of men.' A few days later I mentioned this to Huxley, and he was deeply moved by it. His reply I shall never forget. 'Now you can understand why we who know Darwin all have such an affection for him, and when his enemies revile the noble man, why my right are was so heavy in his defense." When Huxley was particularly low in funds, Darwin contributed to a charitable donation for him, to which Huxley gave thanks and in his letter of gratitude– April 23, 1873 [missing letter]–he would keep Darwin's letter "for my children that their children may know what manner of man their father's friend was and why he loved him." Darwin in his autobiography noted that scientific interests had destroyed his affection for Milton and Shakespeare and art in general; Huxley, however, as he wrote to Darwin on April 18, 1864, didn't fear caring too much for science.

Darwin was as ambivalent about his bulldog as the bulldog was about natural selection. In his autobiography, Darwin mentions his great friend and defender T. H. Huxley only once, and then as a clever wit. Far less knowledgeable than Huxley on embryology, anatomy, and paleontology, Darwin often tinged his praise with a bit of hostility, as for example, in a letter to Joseph Hooker, on June 28, 1873, Darwin commented that Huxley made him "understand several points far clearer than I ever did before. It is quite unfair that any one should be so sharp as he is" and in a letter to Huxley accused Huxley of being "so terribly sharp-sighted and so confoundedly honest! But to the day of my death I will always maintain that you have been too sharp-sighted on hybridism; and the chapter on the subject in my book I should like you to read; not that, as I fear, it will produce any effect, and be hanged to you." Huxley continued to find natural selection untrustworthy because of the lack of "experimental verification"–November 25, 1891 and April 29, 1892. See § 5. A Hidden Bond: Evolution


In a letter of particular importance, Huxley identified for Hooker the critical "desideratum for the species question": "the determination of the law of variation." Darwin's view was an advance on Lamarck's because Darwin recognized variation apart from "what are ordinarily understood as external conditions." And then Huxley asks, "Why does not somebody go to work experimentally, and get at the law of variation for some one species or plant?," which was what Gregor Mendel, of whom Huxley knew nothing, was doing–September 4, 1861.

Darwin being often disappointed by bulldog antics which at times bit at natural selection as well as at traditional anti-evolutionary targets, Huxley would write consolation letters, as he did after giving a lecture in January 1862 at Edinburgh On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals. A fundamentalist periodical, the Witness, attacked Huxley's lecture as being anti-scriptural, debasing, blasphemous, a "foul outrage." Instead of protesting by exiting the hall, the Edinburgh audience had seemed prepared to establish a "gorilla Emancipation Society"–The Philosophical Institution and Professor Huxley (sel.). In one of his letters on this to Darwin, Huxley exclaimed "Three cheers for the progress of liberal opinion!!"–January 13, 1862, and in another, after noting his satisfaction at being attacked by the Witness, said that he had no doubt that some day a physiologist would produce a new species of pigeons, and then predicted: "By about this time I expect to have shot past you, and to find you pitching into me for being more Darwinian than yourself. However, you have set me going, and must just take the consequences, for I warn you that I will stop at no point so long as clear reasoning will carry me further"–January 20, 1862. In the spring, in another letter to Darwin, Huxley wondered how come auditors would take his presentations as being "dead against" Darwin's views–May 6, 1862. See § 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution.

He gave Darwin an agenda of his business–July 2, 1863. See also letters on natural selection to Lyell–August 17, 1862 and to Kingsley–April 30, 1863. Huxley expressed his hope that Hooker would not think his attacks in Criticisms on "The Origin of Species" (1864) on Darwin's critics "too heretical"–October 6, 1864 Darwin himself much liked it–October 5, 1864; see also Mr. Darwin's Critics. (1871). Huxley did express his differing on the purpose of animate features, Darwin finding everything present to be of use, Huxley thinking that aesthetic appeal was as important as utilitarian function–see § 12. Unity in Diversity.

Among the many letters to Darwin in the 'sixties, these are also relevant: the revolution, he advised Darwin, is not to be made with "rose-water"–January 15, 1865; Darwinism is winning in Germany–May 29, 1865; and though pangenesis is not valid, Darwin ought to publish his hypothesis anyway– June 1, 1865 and July 16, 1865. Pangenesis was the word Darwin invented for his idea, expressed both in the Origin of Species and more clearly in the forthcoming Descent of Man that acquired characteristics may be inherited. On September 12, 1868, Huxley wrote to Darwin that Darwinismus had triumphed so well that Huxley couldn't stand it and was prepared to go into opposition. His opposition to pangenesis was expressed in his Encyclopedia Britannica article Biology, in which Huxley anticipates Weissman by observing that though lambs had been de-tailed for centuries and Jewish men de-prepuced for millennia, both still required proper excision. In his Evolution in Biology. (the first Britannica article on that subject), he refers to natural selection only once.

In a letter of late 1874, Huxley advised Darwin that he "ought to be like one of the blessed gods of Elysium, and let the inferior deities do battle with the infernal powers." By this time, Huxley conceded that Darwin's gradualism might account for the evolutionary process as well as, or better than, saltation: On the Recent Work of the Challenger (1874) generalizes on his commitment to evolutionary theory: "Satisfactory evidence now exists that some animals in the existing world have been derived by a process of gradual modification from pre-existing forms"–a point repeated in the later review of Challenger reports: The First Volume of the Publications of the "Challenger".

In November of 1877, Cambridge University conferred an LL. D. on Darwin; in his toast (Darwin himself was not present), Huxley pointed out that very few scientists could match Darwin's achievements, his "admirable minute anatomical research" on cirripedes, his "brilliant and far-reaching" work on coral reefs, his Origin of Species, its doctrine, whether true or false, "the starting-point of the Biology of his present and our future"– Toast to Darwin (1880). In his letter to Darwin recounting this affair, Huxley happily noted that he had taken care to apply "only a little touch of the whip at starting"–November 21, 1877.


Alphonse Legros oil sketch, 1879, year of publication of The Crayfish and Hume. In a talk at Sion College a decade earlier, Huxley had dubbed himself "Minister"–see James Reddie, On Geological Chronology. From 1878-79, THH was President of the Queckett Microscopical Society.

And in May of 1880, two years before Darwin's death, Huxley thanked Darwin for the good word on The Coming of Age of "The Origin of Species" and informed him about a series of lectures he was giving to the Royal Institution on the topic of the dog, a representative not only of the profundity of human affection, but also of the mammalia–May 10, 1880. Huxley saw the development of canines as making a strong case for "Darwinismus" by revealing "a regular gradual progression." Small dogs developed from jackals, big ones from wolves. "On Dogs and the Problems connected with them" was one of many Huxley papers never published, though the Proceedings of the Royal Society and Nature published On the Epipubis in the Dog and Fox and the Proceedings of the Zoological Society published "On the Cranial and Dental Characters of the Canidae."

Butler's Mum

Defamation of Samuel Butler, SOB, for his having defamed Darwin Fig. in letter of February 3, 1880
Pope Darwin
Huxley's caricature of Darwin as The Pope of Science blessing a German supplicant naturalist, from THH letter to Darwin in 1868

In 1882, George Romanes wrote one of hundreds of tributes to Darwin. In a commentary on Romanes' memorial, Huxley noted that Buffon and Lamarck were equal to Darwin in "genius and fertility"–May 9, 1882, and gave a more pious recognition of Darwin in a letter to St. George Mivart– November 12, 1885. See Charles Darwin (1882), The Darwin Memorial (1885)–illustration of his speaking at the unveiling of Darwin statue, BMNH Memorial (1885); and On the Reception of the Origin of Species (1887), written for Francis Darwin's life of his father.

Obituary (1888) was a chief subject to justify his insomnia. Re-reading the Origin did not change Huxley's mind about the weakness of Darwin's literary style or hypothesis. In a letter of February 14, 1888, Huxley alluded to his composing the obituary, which was slow going for him, and on Darwin's style, informed Foster: "I have been reading the Origin slowly again; for the n th time, with the view of picking out the essentials of the argument, for the obituary notice. Nothing entertains me more than to hear people call it easy reading. Exposition was not Darwin's forte– and his English is sometimes wonderful. But there is a marvellous dumb sagacity about him–like that of a sort of miraculous dog–and he gets to the truth by ways as dark as those of the Heathen Chinee." Other comments on Darwin and the obituary are to be found in letters to Hooker–March 9, 1888. A little later, he informed Hooker: "Darwin has left the causes of variation and the question whether it is limited or directed by external circumstances perfectly open"–March 23, 1888; see also May 4, 1888, in which Huxley notes that he intended to include reference to Erasmus Darwin, whom he saw as a precursor of Charles, a recognition he also bestowed upon Lamarck–February 1, 1887. Huxley was in 1888 awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, an honor which inspired him to crow and flap his wings.

In this year, Professor Schurman's Ethical Import of Darwinism suggested that Huxley presupposed design; Huxley's answer, in a letter to Romanes, was that he had not presupposed any design– January 5, 1888. In yet another letter to Hooker, looking back to the period of his bulldog labors for Darwin, he exclaimed "What times those days were!"–January 11, 1892.

Huxley did not fully accept natural selection as a competent explanation of evolution. He disagreed with Darwin on the tempo of evolution, on the analogy between artificial selection and natural selection, on hybridism, and on Darwin's hypothesis of Pangenesis, that development of features in a parent would be passed on to its offspring. But to calm his friend's anxiety, Huxley often reassured Darwin that he really was a champion of natural selection, as he did in the letter of January 20, 1862, referred to above. In 1893, Huxley was invited to return to Oxford to give the Romanes lecture. He chose Evolution and Ethics as his subject, and because he drew a distinction between the natural world's cosmic process and the human world's ethical process, many people thought that he had converted from Darwinism to Christianity. See § 21. Jungle Versus Garden.

To Francis Darwin, Huxley wrote a letter–June 27, 1891, which was included in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. Toward the end of his life, he still felt that experimental proof for Darwin's hypothesis was lacking–April 29, 1891. In 1885, Huxley delivered the address at the unveiling of the Darwin statue at the British Museum: BMNH Memorial; and in 1893, the Royal Society awarded Huxley its Darwin Medal. In his acceptance speech– Address to the Royal Society 1893, he said that he had occupied himself by "standing and waiting," that he had been "naturally adverse" to fighting, which confessions probably brought his audience into laughter if not into vigorous cheering, and that he remained convinced as he had been since 1859 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 system of our thought and opinion, our most intimate convictions. But I do not know, 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..."

As late as 1894 Huxley returned to the saltus disagreement, writing to Mr. Bateson that he agreed "much to Mr. Darwin's disgust" with the understanding that Dame Nature did jump in her variations–February 20, 1894. The correspondence with Bateson was in February; in August, the B. A. met at Oxford. Huxley listened patiently to a BAAS address given in August was pleased at the thorough acceptance of evolutionary theory, the immutability of species having been discarded. The B. A. meeting coincided with Huxley's writing on the history of Darwinism, the paper published in November– Past and Present (Nature, November 1, 1894).

For achievements by Darwin and others, Huxley's Notebook prognosis of "The Four Stages of Public Opinion" from the novelty being "absurd and subversive" to being "absolute truth" to being "a wretched failure" and finally to achieving the status of being "a mixture of truth and error."

Whether the script-writer of the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers (1932) knew the history of Darwinism or not, he reminds Darwinian aficionados of the conflict on natural selection by having a sporting match between Darwin College and Huxley College.

Horse Feathers
Groucho Marx as President of Huxley College, football foe of Darwin College

Huxley's defense of Darwin is the main thesis of the BBC film Darwin's Bulldog.



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