§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution

"Men, my dear," Huxley informed Mrs. W. K. Clifford a few months before his death, "are very queer animals, a mixture of horse-nervousness, ass-stubbornness, and camel-malice–with an angel bobbing about unexpectedly..."–February 10, 1895.

Rarely has the ape been looked upon in any culture as a noble being. According to legends of its neighborhood, the orang-utan descended from human beings, its very name meaning old man of the woods. But for most cultures, the idea that human beings and apes share the same non-angelic ancestors was (and for most of the world still is at this time) a rarity, if not an obscene travesty. In Europe, it was not until the mid-18th century, especially in France, that naturalists brought up the subversive notion that human beings and apes might share the same primate ancestors, for example, Buffon in Histoire naturelle (1766). It was not until the mid-19th century that evidence was gathered and broadcast proving that shared ancestry. Most people agreed with Benjamin Disraeli, that if one had a choice of being angel or ape, one chose to be on the side of the angels. A small group of antomists and paleontologists set out to detail human evolution. At first, this small group consisted of T. H. Huxley. An example of Huxley's very early ideas on various types developing from a shared ancestor is given in November 9, 1851.

The Oxford Debate

One of the provocations animating Huxley's human evolution work was supplied by his mentor, challenger, and enemy, Professor Richard Owen. For example, Owen claimed that the bones of the skull and those of the spine were analogous, both expressions of a divine blueprint. With Professor Owen in the audience, in 1858, Huxley delivered the Croonian Lecture to the Royal Society. On The Theory of the Vertebrate Skull, which rejected Owen's application of Germanic anatomical idealism. The bones of the skull and those of the spinal column are not expressions of the same plan. Huxley had attacked this Okenite theory four years earlier: Brewster, et al.

Owen's Linnean Society paper of 1857, "On the Characters, Principles of Division and Primary Groups of the Class Mammalia," posited that certain cerebral featrures so distinctly distinguished human beings from other primates that human beings deserved their own sub-class, Archencephala. "As these statements did not agree with the opinions I had formed," Huxley reflected in Preface VII. "I set to work to reinvestigate the subject; and soon satisfied myself that the structures in question were not peculiar to Man, but were shared by him with all the higher and many of the lower apes." In the Origin of Species, Darwin noted that "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history," which brief remark harmonized with Huxley's growing understanding; and because Darwin was not an anatomist, Huxley felt no competition with him in pursuing anatomical parallels among the primates.

Huxley disliked Owen’s classification of human beings in the new sub-class Archencephala, but much liked revealing that Owen in "On the Characters, Principles of Division and Primary Groups of the Class Mammalia" had himself drawn human beings and apes as close relatives:

"Not being able to appreciate or conceive of the distinction between the psychical phenomena of a chimpanzee and of a Boschisman, or of an Aztec, with arrested brain-growth, as being of a natue so essential as to preclude a comparison between them, or as being other than a difference of degre, I cannot shut my eyes to the significance of that all-pervading similitude of structure – every tooth, every bone, strictly homologous–which makes the determination of the difference beween Homo and Pithecus the anatomist’s difficulty." This passage is quoted in Huxley’s "On the Relations of Man with the Lower Animals" (1861); Owen deleted the message from later publications of his essay..

In 1860, Huxley delivered six lectures on the relation of human beings to other animals: On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature. A lecture he gave in defense of the Origin, On Species and Races, and Their Origin which suggested that human and ape beings shared the same ancestry, did not elicit Professor Owen's respect. Owen wrote in the Edinburgh Rewiew (1860): "We gazed with amazement at the audacity of the hour's latest intellectual amusement."

In June of that year, the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting was held at Oxford. Listening to Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, attack the Origin of Species for being unscientific as well as blasphemous, Huxley got angry. When the Bishop turned to him to ask whether he had descended from an ape on his grandmother's or grandfather's side – to which joke he had been coached by Owen, who had invented it a decade before– Huxley stood up and responded that he would prefer to descend from an ape than from a human being who employed mischievous rhetoric as the Bishop had done.

To Julian Huxley (in a private conversation), this encounter was the most important event in intellectual history in the entire Victorian Age. It showed the world, as well as the large audience at Oxford, that scientists would no longer hide from ecclesiastical assault. The encounter between Huxley and Wilberforce was not well recorded, but a few observations exist, among them the Athenaeum report on Section D (July 1860)–Athenaeum Report on Oxford; Natural History–Zoology, from the Year Book of Facts (1861); and reports by John Green, A. G. Vernon-Harcourt, and W. H. Freemantle–Accounts of Oxford. Huxley's own sense of what happened is in letters to Dyster–September 9, 1860 and to Francis Darwin–June 27, 1891. Almost three decades after it happened, the encounter was revisited by Bishop Wilberforce's son, in a letter to the Times:–Professor Huxley and the Life and Letters of C. Darwin (November 29, 1887), to which Huxley replied the next day pointing out an error in the Bishop's understanding of reptilian poison apparatus and concluding without venom that who was the agent and who the patient of the Oxford operation remains a question–Bishop Wilberforce and Professor Huxley.

More than ten decades after it happened, the event took its place in the BBC film Darwin's Bulldog, the Oxford debate segment of which is offered in this project as Darwin's Bulldog.

The Darwinists were convinced that Professor Owen made a more serious mistake in claiming that certain cerebral features so distinguished the human species from apes that the human species deserved its own sub-class. Huxley, soon joined by colleagues, began a program of serious comparative anatomy which resulted in demonstrating that the features, named the posterior cornu, the third lobe, and the hippocampus minor, existed in the brains of apes and of monkeys, as well as in the brains of Professors Owen and Huxley. Early in 1861, Huxley was planning to "look up the ape question again," and to do so would require careful and comprehensive examination. "The results, when they do come out, will, I foresee, astonish the natives"–January 6, 1861.

In March 1861, Owen published The Gorilla and the Negro in which he again put forward his Archencephalic propositions; Huxley, writing to Hooker that he was sufficiently disgusted to wind up the controversy with Owen–April 18, 1861 and April 27, 1861– attacked Owen's paper and its deceptive illustrations in Man and the Apes (Huxley letters to the Athenaeum, publ. March 30 and September 21, 1861). But then Owen repeated his thesis at the Zoology Section of the British Association, his lecture published in the Medical Times and Gazette on October 11, 1862–On the Zoological Significance of the Brain and Limb Characters of the Gorilla, as Contrasted with Those of Man; to which Huxley replied a couple of weeks later in the same journal–The Brain of Man and Apes. For Huxley's opinion on the Negro's place in nature, see § 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race.

With friend
Bearded THH and his blackboard drawing of bearded gorilla
THH Secretary, Geological Society, 1862; and Fellow, Ethnological Society, 1863

Our Place in Nature

The details of the controversy between Owen (who as mentor to Bishop Wilberforce supplied him with paleontological information and also the joke about parental apes) and Huxley inspired several Punch illustrations, such as Monkeyana (1861), which specifies the hippocampus minor and other features Owen had brought forth as absolutely unique to human beings; and "The Lion of the Season." "Alarmed Flunkey. 'Mr. G-G-G-O-O-O-RILLA!'" May 1861. Charles Kingsley designed a similar, though less poetic and cheerful, narrative on a BAAS meeting of the following year: Lord Dundreary (1861), and upon the October 1862 exchange between Owen and Huxley, Punch returned to the fray with "The Gorilla's Dilemma" (1862), about which Huxley wrote to Hooker that the poem, produced by Sir Philip Egerton, revealed Owen's "perfect success in damning himself"–April 30, 1862.

In 1861 and 1862, Huxley lectured to audiences ranging from working men to his peers on anatomical consanguinity between human beings and other animals. He much enjoyed lecturing to working men, writing to his wife on March 22, 1861: "My working men stick by me wonderfully, the house being fuller than ever last night. By next Friday evening they will all be convinced that they are monkeys. . . . Said lecture, let me inform you, was very good. Lyell came and was rather astonished at the magnitude and attentiveness of the audience."

In 1862, he addressed the Philosophical Institute of Edinburgh on this subject, and while his audience cordially received the news that they are monkeys, the Witness did not find this blasphemous attack on scripture anything more than "the vilest and beastliest paradox ever vented in ancient or modern times amongst Pagans or Christians"–The Philosophical Institution and Professor Huxley. That Edinburgh audience should have signalled its approval by forming a Gorilla Emancipation Society. Huxley's letter to Darwin, January 20, 1862, comments on this attack: "I was quite uneasy at getting no attack from the Witness, thinking I must have overestimated the impression that I had made, and the favourableness of the reception of what I said. But the raving of the Witness is clear testimony that my notion was correct." To the Royal Institution, he lectured On Fossil Remains of Man (1862) and for his peers produced On the Brain of Ateles Paniscus (1861).

Gibbon Hands
Huxley's drawing of a gibbon's hands

The achievement of the Darwinian revolution was hearty enough to provoke Huxley into defining the event at Edinburgh as "a grand vindication" of secular success–January 16, 1862, and into exclaiming, "Three cheers for the progress of liberal opinion!!"–January 13, 1862.

A letter Huxley wrote to Darwin gives a detailed agenda of the busy professional life he led–July 2, 1863. See also letter to Lyell–March 23, 1863. In this year was published Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature. The first of its three chapters, On the Natural History of the Man-Like Apes, consists of a historical survey of what investigators centuries ago had thought of relations among primates. On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals proceeds next to reveal parallels between embryological development in human beings and other vertebrates and this anatomical investigation is followed by a paleontological investigation, On Some Fossil Remains of Man, which is based on Huxley's 1862 lecture to the Royal Institution.

A friend had forecast that the book Man's Place in Nature would be condemned. A favorable review appeared in the Reader, a journal which Huxley directed. The population of Victorian readers so liked this book's access to the fairy land of science that it sold as well as penny-dreadful crime stories. It was quickly translated into German as Stellung des Menchen and into Russian (before the Origin was so translated). Huxley at first was "astonished to find how little abuse the book has met," but later in his life, writing Preface VII, reflected that the forecast that the book would be condemned had been justified: "The Boreas of criticism blew his hardest blasts of misrepresentation and ridicule for some years; and I was even as one of the wicked. Indeed, it surprises me, at times, to think how any one who had sunk so low could since have emerged into, at any rate, relative respectability."

Eminent Huxley
From Ernest Edwards, Portraits of Men of Eminence, 1863.

Cardinal Wiseman sermonized against this "solitary cranium" which was to topple scripture by endowing men with the "matured intelligence" and endowing women with the "ripened graces" of baboons. Attacks appeared across the ocean in the Atlantic Monthly (an article written by Professor Agassiz) and at home in the Morning Advertiser and the Athenaeum, which compared Charles Lyell's attempt to move the human species back in time to Huxley's aim to degrade human beings by parading before us "gibbering, grovelling apes" as ancestors. Under Huxley's ministration, our "pride of ancestry" vanished–Review of Man's Place (Athenaeum 1863). The Anthropological Society , on the other hand, criticized Huxley for having thrown a sop to Cerberus by constructing a rigid distinction between human beings and apes on the basis of language, and later, in supporting Owen against Huxley, observed that "the contest still rages. It has spread, like a cattle-plague, throughout England On the Relations of Man to the Inferior Animals (Anthropological Society, 1863). Carter Blake, the author of this also wrote an attack in the Edinburgh ReviewProfessor Huxley on Man's Place in Nature.–Huxley emerging as inferior to Richard Owen as an anatomist and inferior to almost anyone else for being a proponent of "absolute materialism" and "atheism." A favorable account was rendered by Huxley's friend Frederick Dyster in a journal Huxley had helped found, The Reader: Frederick Dyster, Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature. By Thomas H. Huxley, F.R.S. and the review that appeared in the New York Times on July 13, 1863, also approved Huxley's "careful and honest inquiry"–New Publications.

The conflict also inspired Punch (P1- P5 below) humorists and others to entertain their readers with squibs and other fun–

Figure in "Am I a Man and a Brother?," 1861; Huxley's comment on this: April 16, 1861..
"The Lion of the Season."
"Alarmed Flunkey. 'Mr. G-G-G-O-O-O-RILLA!"
The Missing Link
October 18, 1862.
"The Gorilla's Dilemma"
October, 1862.
The Cambridge Duet
Punch, 1865; accompanied by
"The British Association"
Huxley and Owen with fossil audience, Sept. 1865.
A Sad Case (1863)
dramatic narration of Owen and Huxley brought to court for violation of public decency; scripted into a Melbourne play.
Water-Babies (1863)
contains a picture of Professors Owen and Huxley examining a salamandrine chimney-sweeper.
Exeter Change
Satire by "Snug the Joiner" on BAAS meeting at Exeter, 1869, targets Darwin, Huxley, and Hooker.
Professor Foxley
"The Hippocampus Minor and its relation to the Mosaic Cosmogony," menu item from Jenkins' Lord Bantam, 1873.

Neanderthal, et al.

The discovery of the Neanderthal fossils involved Huxley as an interpreter, his view being that Neanderthal was neither another hominid species nor a missing link, and wrote about the creature in On Some Fossil Remains of Man, Letter on the Human Remains Found in the Shell-Mounds (1863), Further Remarks upon the Human Remains from the Neanderthal (1864), Notes on the Human Remains from Keiss (1864), On Two Widely Contrasted Forms of the Human Cranium (1867). Relaxing at the Athenaeum Club, he rendered a doodle of Neanderthal that foreshadows Stevenson's Mr. Hyde: "Homo Hercules Columarum"– Huxley at Athenaeum Club, July 1864 . In 1870, Huxley became a member of the Anthropological Institute–1870. Huxley thanked Darwin for sending the new publication, Descent of Man, noting that he hoped from sexual selection to find a "practical hint for improvement of gutter-babies"–February 20, 1871. For the 1874 edition, Huxley contributed Notes on the Resemblances and Differences in the Structure and the Development of the Brain in Man and the Apes.

Speculation about where and what the ape-man was excited lay readers as well as professors. Huxley lightly recognized this speculation in a doodle:

"Eohippus + Eohomo"
Doodle, probably by THH, of primitive man riding primitive horse.

Fossils of an "oak ape," Dryopithecus, which may have brachiated a million years ago, were to Lyell and others so consanguineous with human that medical students would probably have had difficulty telling the two apart. Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Lyell both pointed to Borneo, the land of the orang-utan, as a likely site for this mysterious ape-man; and in 1891, a French physician and paleontologist, Eugene Dubois, went to a likely site in Sumatra and dug up some bones which he named Pithecanthropus erectus, and which Huxley doodled:

"Pithecanthropus erectus"
Doodle of Dubois find; in letter to Joseph Hooker– February 14, 1895

According to Arthur Keith, Huxley's The Structure and Classification of the Mammalia (1864), "gave one of the fullest expositions of the anatomy and relationships of the higher primates ever given." Huxley's talent as an anatomist rendered careful craniometric descriptions and analyses of the skulls of apes and human beings, including Neanderthals. In 1864, he invented craniometric analysis of anthropoid skulls.

One day, Huxley, spotting Thomas Carlyle on the street, walked over to shake hands with the man he had admired; Carlyle said, or snapped, "You're Huxley, are you? You're the man that's trying to persuade us all that we're the children of apes; while I am saying that the great thing we've really got to do is to make ourselves as much unlike apes as possible." But attitudes towards evolution and even human evolution were changing rapidly. The Daily Telegraph editorialized that Wilberforce had said that the Church, having been in danger, was now resrtored from such attacks. It was not so. "While these Waddlestone performers, Dr. Wilberforce and Mr. Disraeli, are singing in duet a hallelujah to themselves, the whole country, or at least so much as does not stand by in sheer indifference or alien dissent, is moved by controversies over which these men have lost their hold."

In the last few years of his life, Huxley returned to the issue of human evolution, as for example in a letter to his grandson Julian, commenting on Water-Babies, the author of which, Charles Kingsley, he had first publicly admired four decades earlier in Kingsley, et al.Letter to Julian (March 24, 1892); in a letter to Edward Clodd on the viability of Man's Place in NatureNovember 18, 1892; and in the letter of February 14, 1895 cited. Water-Babies offers a cartoon of Professors Owen and Huxley observing the salamandrine chimney-sweeper Tom.

THH and JH
THH with grandson Julian. Photo by Kent and Lacey, 1895.

Last Lustrum

But the most important of these very late scrutinies of human evolution is the preface he wrote for the forthcoming edition of Volume VII of his Collected Essays: Preface VII (1893). This preface begins with his justifying the re-printing of Man's Place in Nature, which appeared thirty-two years before this edition. What had been novel in 1861 was well-established in 1893. He then reflects upon what he did to learn about all biological sciences, physiology, comparative anatomy, zoology, paleontology, and ethnology. The most serious of the problems which came to his attention was that of the classification of the human species. Sir William Lawrence had been ostracized early in the century for his On Man, "which now might be read in a Sunday-school without surprising anybody." It might, he hopes, still be useful as a historical survey, though he purposefully omited the story about his long debate with Richard Owen on the structure of the brain. Attending the B. A. meeting at Oxford in August of 1894, Huxley was so much pleased by the cordial reception given to evolutionary theory that he performed decently in response to the Oxford President's speech. Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn related the event in his memorial tribute–Osborn Account.

In his Lectures on the he Elements of Comparative Anatomy (1878), Huxley had returned to criticizing Richard Owen for bad taxonomy, revealed especially in the fictional Archencephala; but Huxley was so collegiate fifteen years later, on setting up a memorial to Richard Owen, that a Rev. Owen asked him to "write a concluding chapter for the biography of his grandfather–containing a 'critical' estimate of him and his work!!!"–as Huxley exclaimed to Hooker–October 1, 1893 and again to Hooker: "I am toiling over my chapter about Owen, and I believe his ghost in Hades is grinning over my difficulties. The thing that strikes me most is, how he and I and all the things we fought about belong to antiquity. It is almost impertinent to trouble the modern world with such antiquarian business"–February 4, 1894. He decided not to narrate the controversy in the chapter he wrote for Owen's Position in the History of Anatomical Science (1894); he foretold that his cordial treatment of Owen would bring him sainthood–January 22, 1893. Huxley returned to Owen in the last year of his life, pointing out in a letter to Nature that Owen had never been a Professor of the Royal School of Mines–Palæontology at the Royal School of Mines.

Huxley summarizes on Man's Place in Nature: "It has had the honour of being freely utilized, without acknowledgment, by writers of repute; and, finally, it achieved the fate, which is the euthanasia of a scientific work, of being inclosed among the rubble of the foundations of later knowledge and forgotten"–Preface VII.

For the publication of a 1904 edition of Man's Place, J. A. Hill and Co. used as its frontispiece THH-1891.

See § 4. Darwin's Bulldog and § 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution.



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