§ 5. A Hidden Bond: Evolution

Plague on Both Houses

Huxley wrote nothing about evolution during his juvenile and sailor days. Unlike Darwin, who during his Beagle voyage uncovered fossil and other evidence implying evolution, Huxley's scientific interest concentrated on investigating the anatomy of marine invertebrates, though his discovery of unity between germ-layers of diverse invertebrates and vertebrates would contribute to evolutionary theory as his ethnological studies failed to contribute to theories on that matter. Upon his return to England in 1850, his energies were fully directed at continuing his research on marine invertebrates and at finding a job.

Fellow of the Royal Society
THH at 26, 1851

There was very little commentary for or against evolutionary theory while Huxley was growing up. When he was five years old, there appeared the first volume of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology; in 1831, the British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded; in 1844, when Huxley was nineteen, the reading public was entranced by an anonymous best-seller, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, that presented a vast evolutionary panorama, showing, "with abundant clearness" as its anonymous author claims, "that there has been a progress of animal life upon the globe." Lamarck had also subscribed to progressivism, a belief Herbert Spencer adopted, though Huxley disliked it.

Huxley’s essays often relate directly or covertly to development of species. He published many other essays in these pre-Origin years from 1850 to 1859; for example, in Upon Animal Individuality (1851), he defined the essence of an individual, such as a butterfly, that in its growth could go through several different stages and he explored embryological connections between echinoderm and annelid larvae; see his note on this subject in the letter dated November 9, 1851. Another paper of 1851 striking out for coherence among living things is On the Identity of Structure of Plants and Animals. In The Cell Theory (1853), he traces the history of discovery of the cell from, in the course of which survey he downgrades the importance of the cell and within the cell, of the nucleus – separate cells, he said, were imaginary. A decade later, however, in Lessons in Elementary Physiology and in The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study of Zoology, he rose to recognize the critical importance of the cell.

On the Common Plan of Animal Forms (1854) traces homologies such as a human arm, a bird's wing, and a horse's foreleg to posit a prototype or archetype of a vertebrate ancestor from which the possessors of these features developed. There was "a period in the development of each when insect, cuttlefish, and vertebrate were indistinguishable and had a Common Plan." Species are paralleled to cognates in modern European languages that developed from Indo-Germanic roots.

1854 also saw his review of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The overt message of this review, for the savagery of which he apologized later, was that the author of the book often made mistakes (such as approving the idea of spontaneous generation). (An equally savage review is of a book by one Robert Hunt–Hunt &c.) More covert was Huxley's disagreement with the thesis of Vestiges, Huxley, influenced by Lyell, finding no evidence in the fossil record or in embryology of development from simple to more complex forms of life. Explaining the complexity of early animals, such as the trilobite, remains a problem today. Other attacks on progressive development appear in Westminster Review articles: Murchison, et al., Hooker, et al., Carpenter, et al..

Doodle of Hal and Nettie on honeymoon boat, 1855

In a letter to a German scientist, Huxley mentioned "the value of development as the criterion of morphological views"– January 30, 1859'; and another letter of these pre—Origin days concludes with "I do not suppose my own personal contributions to science will ever be anything very grand, but I shall be well content if I have reason to believe that I have done something to stir up others"– April 22, 1859.

An important letter shedding light on Huxley's views about evolution is that to Lyell in the spring of 1859, wherein Huxley 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. For more detailed guidance respecting Huxley's disapproval of critical aspects of natural selection, see § 4. Darwin's Bulldog.

Tempted to call a plague upon both houses, those of the evolutionists and the anti-evolutionists, Huxley contributed early to evolutionary theory by hypothesizing single proto-ancestor for several different groups. But he attacked the idea of progression again in a lecture to the Royal Institution, On Certain Zoological Arguments Commonly Adduced in Favour of the Hypothesis of the Progressive Development of Animal Life in Time (1855). This lecture made Darwin nervous, a condition enhanced when Huxley told Darwin that he himself believed that sharp lines cut off natural groupings. And the next year, in On Natural History, as Knowledge, Discipline, and Power (1856) Huxley argued against the "utilitarian" theory of evolution, for example that a bird's beautiful plumage is the result of adaptation to its environment, rejecting "mere utilitarian contrivance" and favoring an esthetic reason for development, living nature being not a "mechanism" but a "poem."

"On Natural History" also criticized Cuvier's talent at reconstructing an entire animal from a single piece. A criticism of this paper by Hugh Falconer On Prof. Huxley's attempted refutation of Cuvier's Laws of Correlation, in the Reconstruction of extinct Vertebrate Forms appeared in June 1856 This first published criticism of his work provoked his response, On the Method of Palæontology (1856). Huxley's later commitment to the theory of evolution is adumbrated in observations such as that of his Rattlesnake exploration tracing differences among adults in different species to common embryological sources; and in notes such as his remark that the members of each living group of 200,000 species of fauna and flora show specified similarities developed from a hypothesized original form. Critical responses to Huxley's work on evolution focused on human evolution, and therefore will be noted in § 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution; see also § 4. Darwin's Bulldog.

In the 1850s, Huxley had become friendly with several eminent men of science, among them Richard Owen, the top anatomist and paleontologist of mid-century England. At first, Huxley admired Professor Owen for his scientific work, for his wit, and for his help in advancing Huxley's prospects; but soon he lost that admiration, finding Owen an untrustworthy mentor–and one afternoon was tempted to knock Owen into the gutter–and equally untrustworthy scientist. For example, Huxley disagreed with Owen on anatomical matters, such as whether a certain marine invertebrate did or did not have an anus, on physiological matters, such as the sexual reproduction of aphids, and on taxonomic matters, such as the proper classification of a now obsolete taxon, Radiata, which included animals as diverse as jellyfish and starfish.

In 1854, Huxley dissected a marine invertebrate in whom he could find no anus. In his response to Huxley's investigation, Owen turned to a risible scolding of the ungrateful and sassy young man for whom he had written testimonials: "Mr. Huxley has been unable to find this vent, and describes the anal end of the intestine as imperforate. There may be blindness somewhere, but I think not at the termination of the intestine of Terebratulida." This Owenite wise-crack drew praise from W. B. Carpenter, who asked newly-married Huxley if he had seen the new edition of Owen’s Lectures. Carpenter cheerfully found Owen's metaphor the smartest thing the anatomist had ever said, advised Huxley to shoot Owen, and volunteered to be second in a duel. In degrading Cuvier's reconstruction program, Huxley also covertly degraded the reconstruction program of "The British Cuvier," Richard Owen. Hostility to Owen may have been as significant in stimulating Huxley's career as friendship with Darwin.

In November of 1856, Huxley wrote to Dyster: "There is going to be a set-to at the Geological on Wednesday. The great O. versus the Jermyn St. Pet on the methods of Palæontology." The set-to occurred in On the Method of Palæontology. Huxley waxed hyperbolic about Owen’s lack of achievement in Radiata taxonomy, finding his duty to be the unraveling of Owen's mischievous and retrograde classification. At the end of 1856, Owen, invited to lecture on fossil mammals at the School of Mines, had instructed The Medical Directory to list him as "Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Palæontology" at this institution. Since Huxley was the Professor of General Natural History and Owen had not been appointed by anyone to any position, Huxley wrote an objection to Owen's appointing himself to that post. Huxley had conflicted with Owen on alteration of generations, parthenogenesis, anal anatomy, and taxonomy. He had been, perhaps without sufficient reason, disgusted with Owen’s slowness in boosting his application for grants and especially with Owen’s theft of a title.

For example, to turn to an issue higher than a Terebratulide anus, to Owen the Divine Mind had archetypal plans before the appearance of any life and "foreknew all its modifications." To Huxley, such metaphysics in science is a form of superstition, an impediment to empiricism, to scientific progress itself. Huxley did not care for the Owen archetype displaying skull bones and vertebral bones as parallel manifestations of a shared divine model. The brooding anti-archetypal sentiment burst out in On The Theory of the Vertebrate Skull-June 17, 1858. Huxley, who reported to his sister Lizzie what he is and where he is – March 27, 1858, as Fullerian Professor of the Royal Institutution had himself used the term archetype.

Professor Huxley
Portrait by Maull and Polyblank, 1857

To Owen's idea that the skull consists of bones homologous with those of the vertebral column, Huxley traced the embryological development of vertebral column and skull as evidence that Owen was wrong. Owen’s anatomical interests had not included embryology. To think that any single principle, such as that of Platonic "vegetative repetition," has directed generation of both skull and spinal column is "to introduce the phraseology and mode of thought of an obsolete and scholastic realism into biology."

Huxley often commented in epistolary fashion on Owen, from the early 'fifties upon his return to England throughout his life: see, for example, letters to Lizzie– November 21, 1850 and March 5, 1852; letters to Darwin: see, for example, April 18, 1864; to Hooker, see for example, on Huxley's being asked to write a chapter for a biography of Owen, October 1, 1893.

Among Huxley's many contributions to biological research are his revelations that birds evolved from reptiles– January 21, 1869 and § 6. Frankensteinosaurus: Reptile to Bird–and human beings from ape-like ancestors–§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution which offers items pertinent to his working out the theory of human evolution, the items consisting of essays, letters, pictures (including doodles he sketched), and textual and pictorial (especially cartoon) responses to his presentations.

Advocate of Evolution

Of his several audiences, the peer scientists of the Royal Society, the intelligentsia of the Royal Institution, and working-men, Huxley liked the last group best. His commitment to giving lectures to working men is confirmed in his letter to his physician and Christian Socialist friend Frederick Dyster, on his endeavoring to talk sense in these lectures so that they will "make people see what grandeur there is in biological science"– December 1856. He wrote to Joseph Hooker "The English nations will not take science from above, so it must get it from below. We the doctors, who know what is good for it if we cannot get it to take pills must administer our services per derriere"– October 6, 1864.

A critical event in the history not just of evolutionary theory or science but of emancipation from tradition occurred at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Oxford in June of 1860, when Huxley (and Hooker) clashed with Bishop Wilberforce (and Professor Owen) on evolutionary science, especially the alleged descent of human beings from ape-like ancestors. For Huxley's own account of what happened at that meeting, see September 9, 1860, and § 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution.

In 1863, Huxley delivered six lectures to working men Six Lectures to Working Men "On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature". This work remains Huxley's longest and most comprehensive discussion of evolution: from development of the horse and richness of extinct organic life to over-population and the struggle for existence – giving as an example of the struggle a funny and instructive tracking of quantity of honey available, which would depend on the number of apiaries, which would depend on the number of field mice that feed on the nests, and the number of mice would depend on the number of cats in the neighborhood and the number of cats on the number of spinsters who keep them, so that spinsterhood is a requisite for honey production (a vision that Walt Kelly cartooned in a comic strip a century later.

1863 was most important in intellectual history, not just for anthropology, in that Huxley then published Man's Place in Nature, which consisted of three lectures, the first time any one had developed proof that apes and human beings are so related that it is fair to conclude the two groups descended from one ancestor. In letters to Charles Kingsley, with whom he had become a pen-pal after the death of Noel Huxley in September of 1860, Huxley again expressed his suspicions of natural selection as a valid hypothesis, and also went into accompanying religious and philosophical issues (§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog).

In the 1859 On the Persistent Types of Animal Life and in a paper five years later, Huxley again returned to the Lyellian anti-progress thesis. Huxley's first popular discourse on geology was delivered as an 1862 anniversary address to the Geological Society: Geological Contemporaneity and Persistent Types of Life This focuses on "two laws of inestimable importance: the first, that one and the same area of the earth's surface has been successively occupied by very different kinds of living beings; the second, that the order of succession established in one locality holds good, approximately, in all." He undertook a tour of Ireland, to exhume "carboniferous corpses," identifying and four new kinds of Labyrinthodonts, proving Lyell's thesis that advanced vertebrate animals (salamanders) existed before the fishes of the Carboniferous–November 27, 1865.

As he had claimed in several other pieces, here again he emphasizes the non-progressive view of persistence of types of life. this essay summarized in Preface VII. Huxley invited Darwin to chuckle with him because some people actually thought the address against Darwin's views. Darwin was more likely to have a fit than a chuckle. See also Preface II and Preface VIII. Huxley never found evidence adequate to prove that a species has evolved from a variety, and he disagreed with Spencer on whether external conditions can modify the inner machinery so as to create "functional modifications" which will then be transmitted–March 22, 1886 and June 4, 1886'.

Pope Darwin
Caricature of The Pope of Science blessing a German supplicant naturalist of the "Church Scientific," from letter to Darwin, 1868.

Though to 1865, Huxley had no trust in a creationist hypothesis, his view of animate development or transmutation was ambivalent on the basic issue of evolution from a common ancestor. On the one hand, he constantly returned to his hypothesis that types existent today were not substantially different from their extinct ancestors. His devotion to the idea of persistent types continued throughout his life, as exemplified by a remark on the possible existence of "Pliocene Man" in a letter of August 12, 1890. Persistent Man riding persistent Horse is seen in his doodle "Eohippus + Eohomo"– Huxley didn’t know that the discovery of a five-toed equine make this doodle not fantastic but a good example of retroactive prophecy. He also imagined something deeply fantastic: a Homo ooliticus contemporary of dinosaurs.

On the other hand, seeing no inconsistency here, he posited prototypes from which extant features developed, as in On the Common Plan of Animal Forms (1854) and in his 1857 Westminster Review notice that "the most widely different organisms are connected by a hidden bond," their features modifications of something which existed before.

Darwin liked Huxley's commitment to evolution in "Catalogue of the Collection of Fossils in the Museum of Practical Geology" (1865)–see Scheme for a Museum (January 25, 1868). But Huxley's embrace of evolution as a theory (which is different from natural selection as a hypothetical explanation of the process) was inspired by the Origin and by the Descendenz Theorie of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, to whom Huxley wrote January 23, 1867 [missing letter?] and whose book he reviewed in 1869: "The Geneology of Animals." It was not until reading Ernst Haeckel's Generelle Morphologie that Huxley definitely accepted the basic evolutionary scenario that all members of a phylum (Haeckel's word) evolved from a single ancestor, and that all of these ancestors evolved from a single inchoate organism, the picture of this in Haeckel's book and in biological textbooks today being that of a geneological tree–Huxley's "genetic classification." It was clear to him now that fossils were remnants of ancestors, his first contribution to such a tree being that of birds evolving from reptiles–see § 6. Frankensteinosaurus: Reptile to Bird.

In the years before 1865 or so, Huxley, like Lyell, could not find in the fossil record evidence of evolution. But his change, his full commitment to evolution, when it finally emerged, became a a guiding principle of his research and theorizing – though not of his teaching, for he purposefully avoided lecturing to his classes on evolultion. Haeckel's theory stimulated Huxley's to use evolution as the tool for analyzing the development of living beings, as in these papers, scanning a period of twenty years:

In the first of these, he noted: "Those who hold the doctrine of Evolution (and I am one of them) conceive that there are grounds for believing that the world, with all that is in it and on it, did not come into existence in the condition in which we now see it, nor in anything approaching that condition." In his paper on amphibians, delivered to the Zoological Society in January, 1876, he claimed that Crossopterygians linked fish and amphibians.

In May of 1880, Huxley wrote to Darwin 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 published On the Epipubis in the Dog and Fox (1880). and the Proceedings of the Zoological Society published "On the Cranial and Dental Characters of the Canidae."

For such evolution to occur a long time was needed. But the Scotch mathematician Sir William Thomson, who might be remembered for his work on the laws of thermodynamics, had concluded from investigation of the sun's heat and the earth's heat that the earth could not be as old as the Darwinists wanted it to be, could not be older than 100 million years (a follower of his posited 15 million). Thomson claimed that there was too much unwarranted speculation in British popular geology about the earth's age and development.

As President of the Geological Society, in Geological Reform (1869), Huxley rebutted this criticism by examining each of the three systems of "geological thought": Catastrophism, Uniformitarianism, and Evolutionism. Catastrophism, as in the Mosaic cosmogony and in cosmogonies held by geologists of the eighteenth century and by some members of the Geological Society seems to be in critical opposition to Uniformitarianism, as that was developed by Hutton and Lyell, but according to Huxley, they are not necessarily antagonistic, both of them being expressions of geological evolution. Evolution rejects the arbitrary assumptions of both, and takes from both the systems that make sense. Evolution "embraces, in one stupendous analogy, the growth of a solar system from molecular chaos, the shaping of the earth from the nebulous cub-hood of its youth, through innumerable changes and immeasurable ages, to its present form; and the development of a living being from the shapeless mass of protoplasm we term a germ." If W. Thomson's physics gives less time to the earth, then biologists will abide by the new clock. (Thomson also firmly believed that a flying machine was technologically impossible.)

To John Tyndall, this address was more important than any other delivered to the British Association. Reviews of "Geological Reform" appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette and North British Review, among other periodicals. The Pall Mall Gazette published a warm appraisal of this discourse, thanking Sir W. Thomson for having inspired Huxley to do (May 3 it–Mathematics versus Geology, 1869). "His address derives peculiar value, not from its crushing refutation of Sir W. Thomson's conclusion, but because it explains the present position of geological inquiry. Let us listen to the geological Attorney General." And then the article proceeds to give a clear and suitable summary of the talk. "We have to thank Sir W. Thomson for having afforded a text for one of the most able addresses ever delivered by a President of the Geological Society."

P. G. Tait's Geological Time of the North British Review, however, criticized the "satiety of what we are inclined to look upon as mere exuberant superfluities of metaphor, 'attorney general,' 'getting up the case,' 'not guilty'.... Professor Huxley is far too acute and sensible a man to use such language except when it is required to mask defects in his case, and, it may be, to tickle the ears of some not particularly scientific audience." This long review is in the present library not only because it attacked Huxley for allegedly hiding his ignorant, irrational, and inconsistent report on geological reform, but also because it is a comprehensive survey explaining why a large party of Victorian geologists, astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians accepted the theory that the earth is not more than a few million years old.

The address was important enough for Huxley to revise and expand it under the title Palæontology and the Doctrine of Evolution (1870). Here he again discusses the persistence of types, such as the representation in the Miocene of all mammalian orders and in the Mesozoic of almost all reptilian orders. But he doesn't emphasize this persistence. New discoveries suggested that he ought to soften "the somewhat Brutus-like severity with which, in 1862, I dealt with a doctrine, for the truth of which I should have been glad enough to be able to find a good foundation." This foundation for progression was supplied by paleontological uncovering of vertebrate evolution. "I may say that the hypothesis of evolution explains the facts of Miocene, Pliocene, and Recent distribution, and that no other supposition even pretends to account for them. It is, indeed, a conceivable supposition that every species of Rhinoceros and every species of Hyæna, in the long succession of forms between the Miocene and the present species, was separately constructed out of dust, or out of nothing, by supernatural power; but until I receive distinct evidence of the fact, I refuse to run the risk of insulting any sane man by supposing that he seriously holds such a notion."

Huxley contributed a small piece to Nature detailing a point he had made in the talk: Kant's View of Space (January 1870); in a later letter argued that his address on geological reform was a testimony to Kant's work not having been "overlooked," and here again said that uniformitarianism was now "a creed outworn"–A Glimpse through the Corridors of Time (Nature, 1882). The productive year 1870 also brought forth On the Relations of Penicillium, Torula, and Bacterium, On the Progress of Paleontology, and his presidential address to the British Association at Liverpool, Biogenesis and Abiogenesis. The talk opened, as Huxley's talks often opened, with a broad view of the state of things, namely, from the elevation of his presidential position, he surveyed the terrain of the scientific world. His report from this watch-tower was that the "multitudinous divisions of the noble army of the improvers of natural knowledge" was marching to capture the "strongholds of ignorance." And then he focused on the theme: recognition of the germ theory as contributing to the elimination of disease.

Food putrefies and ordinary water turns turbid with living matter. In three years (1863, 1864, and 1869), scarlet fever killed 90,000 children. The historical survey discusses the antique belief in spontaneous generation, for which concept Huxley invented "abiogenesis." Abiogenesis was strong, "But the great tragedy of Science–the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact–which is so constantly being enacted under the eyes of philosophers, was played, almost immediately, for the benefit of Buffon and Needham." The new idea by these investigators, by Harvey, Redi, Pasteur and others, was that of "biogenesis," life rising from life. Scientific work, then, suggests that for scarlet fever and other diseases, "the long-suffered massacre of our innocents will come to an end." This presidential delivery and remarks Huxley made about the condition suffered by poor Liverpoolians was reported on in Liverpool Address (Nature, September 1870) and John Timbs' The Year Book of Facts (1871): Professor Huxley, F.R.S..

In a letter to Nature, Dr. Bastian and Spontaneous Generation (October 1870), Huxley attacked a biologist who still believed in the viability of spontaneous generation a proposition Huxley had attacked much earlier in his review of Vestiges of Creation. and reviewed in the historical survey, "Address to the British Association at Liverpool." In this review, Huxley relates the achievement of Louis Pasteur, with whom he would be aligned in Nature: Prof. Huxley and M. Pasteur on Hydrophobia. (July 4, 1889).

"The Battlefield of Science and the Church"
THH placard reads "Biogenesis and Genesis" and Battlefield Close-up

His Lectures on Evolution, delivered in New York City in September of 1876, was reported extensively in newspapers, particularly because in addition to presenting evidence supporing the theory of evolution, it also argued that the scheme of creation in Milton (and therefore in Moses) was bunk. The Boston GlobeProfessor Protoplasm; the New York Tribune– Science and Religion Once More and Professor Huxley's First Lecture; the New York TimesNew York Times Reviews; and a dozen other papers reported on these lectures and Huxley's other offerings during his U. S. trip; among the most memorable depictions is that of the New York Daily Graphic's Huxley Ikonoklastes. He delivered a lecture in Buffalo, Impressions of America, and in Nashville, Testimony of the Rocks, these as well as the New York lectures appearing in a booklet published by The Tribune and introduced by an editorial, Prof. Huxley in America.

THH, Clark Medal
photograph by Lock and Whitfield, c. 1876.

For a discussion of this comprehensive and influential lecture and its effects, see § 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis. See also On the Border Territory between the Animal and the Vegetable Kingdoms (1876) and from Science, Professor Huxley on Evolution (1881). Huxley found Marsh's collection of fossil vertebrates the best in the world–August 19, 1876.

In 1884, he scrutinized evolution in The Rede Lecture, and two years later, forty years after winning a prize in a botany contest, he returned to botany in researching gentians–September 16, 1886 and conifers–December 29, 1887.

Romanes THH
Photogravure after photograph by W. & D. Downey, 1893
Darwin Medal
London Stereoscopic Company of THH recipient of Darwin Medal of the Royal Society, 1894



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