T. H. Huxley
Letters and Diary 1887

January 18, 1887

My dear Spencer–I see that your proofs have been in my hands longer than I thought for. But you may have seen that I have been "starring" at the Mansion House.

This was not exactly one of those bits of over-easiness to pressure with which you reproach me–but the resultant of a composition of pressures, one of which was the conviction that the "Institute " might be made into something very useful and greatly wanted–if only the projectors could be made to believe that they had always intended to do that which your humble servant wants done–that is the establishment of a sort of Royal Society for the improvement of industrial knowledge and an industrial university–by voluntary association.

I hope my virtue may be its own reward. For except being knocked up for a day or two by the unwonted effort, I doubt whether there will be any other. The thing has fallen flat as a pancake, and I greatly doubt whether any good will come of it. Except a fine in the shape of a subscription, I hope to escape further punishment for my efforts to be of use.

I am immensely tickled with your review of your own book. That is something most originally Spencerian. I have hardly any suggestions to make, except in what you say about the Rattlesnake work and my position on board.

Her proper business was the survey of the so-called "inner passage" between the Barrier Reef and the east coast of Australia; the New Guinea work was a hors d'œuvre, and dealt with only a small part of the southern coast.

Macgillivray was naturalist–I was actually Assistant-Surgeon and nothing else. But I was recommended to Stanley by Sir John Richardson, my senior officer at Haslar, on account of my scientific proclivities. But scientific work was no part of my duty. How odd it is to look back through the vista of years! Reading your account of me, I had the sensation of studying a fly in amber. I had utterly forgotten the particular circumstance that brought us together. Considering what wilful tykes we both are (you particularly), I think it is a great credit to both of us that we are firmer friends now than we were then. Your kindly words have given me much pleasure.

This is a deuce of a long letter to inflict upon you, but there is more coming. The other day a Miss––, a very good, busy woman of whom I and my wife have known a little for some years, sent me a proposal of the committee of a body calling itself the London Liberty League (I think) that I should accept the position of one of three honorary something or others, you and Mrs. Fawcett being the other two.

Now you may be sure that I should be glad enough to be associated with you in anything; but considering the innumerable battles we have fought over education, vaccination, and so on, it seemed to me that if the programme of the League were wide enough to take us both for figure-heads, it must be so elastic as to verge upon infinite extensibility; and that one or other of us would be in a false position.

So I wrote to Miss to that effect, and the matter then dropped.

Misrepresentation is so rife in this world that it struck me I had better tell you exactly what happened.

On the whole, your account of your own condition is encouraging; not going back is next door to going forward. Anyhow, you have contrived to do a lot of writing.

We are all pretty flourishing, and if my wife does not get worn out with cooks falling ill and other domestic worries, I shall be content.

Now this really is the end.

February 1, 1887

[To M. Henri Gadeau de Kerville]

Dear Sir–Accept my best thanks for your interesting "causeries," which seem to me to give a very clear view of the present state of the evolution doctrine as applied to biology.

There is a statement on p. 87 "Après sa mort Lamarck fut complètement oublié," which may be true for France but certainly is not so for England. From 1830 onwards for more than forty years Lyell's "Principles of Geology" was one of the most widely read scientific books in this country, and it contains an elaborate criticism of Lamarck's views. Moreover, they were largely debated during the controversies which arose out of the publication of the "Vestiges of Creation" in 1844 or thereabouts. We are certainly not guilty of any neglect of Lamarck on this side of the Channel.

If I may make another criticism it is that, to my mind, atheism is, on purely philosophical grounds, untenable. That there is no evidence of the existence of such a being as the God of the theologians is true enough; but strictly scientific reasoning can take us no further. Where we know nothing we can neither affirm nor deny with propriety.

February 20, 1887

4 Marlborough Place

My dear Donnelly–Mr. Law's suggestion gives admirable definition to the motions that were floating in my mind when I wrote in my letter to the Times, that I imagined the Institute would be a "place in which the fullest stores of industrial knowledge would be made accessible to the public." A man of business who wants to know anything about the prospects of trade with, say, Boorioboola-gha (vide Bleak House) ought to be able to look into the Institute and find there somebody, who will at once fish out for him among the documents in the place all that is known about Boorioboola.

But a Commerical Intelligence Department is not all that is wanted, vide valuable letter aforesaid.

I hope your appetite for the breakfast was none the worse for last night's doings–mine was rather improved, but I am dog-tired.–Ever yours very faithfully, T. H. Huxley.

March 7, 1887

4 Marlborough Place, London, N.W.

My dear Skelton–Wretch that I am, I see that I have never had the grace to thank you for Maitland of Lethington which reached me I do not choose to remember how long ago, and with I read straight off with lively satisfaction.

There is a paragraph in your preface, which I meant to have charged you with having plagarised from an article of mine, which had not yet appeared when I got your book. In that Hermitage of yours, you are up to any Codesicobuddhistotelepathic dodge!

It is about the value of practical discipline to historians. Half of them know nothing of life, and still less of government and the ways of men.

I am quite useless, but have vitality enough to kick and scratch a little when prodded.

I am at present engaged on a series of experiments on the thickness of skin of that wonderful little wind-bag –. The way that second rate amateur poses as a man of science, having authority as a sort of papistical Scotch dominie, bred a minister, but stickit, really "rouses my corruption." What a good phrase that is! I am cursed with a lot of it, and any fool can strike ile.–Ever yours very faithfully,

T. H. Huxley.

Please remember me very kindly to Mrs. Skelton.

June 16, 1887

4 Marlborough Place

My dear Bishop of Ripon–I shall be very glad if I can be of any use to you now and always. But it is not an easy task to put into half-a-dozen sentences, up to the level of your vigorous English, a statement that shall be unassailable from the point of view of a scientific fault-finder–which shall be intelligible to the general public and yet accurate.

I have made several attempts and enclose the final result. I think the substance is all right, and though the form might certainly be improved, I leave that to you. When I get to a certain point of tinkering my phrases I have to put them aside for a day or two.

Will you allow me to suggest that it might be better not to name any living man? The temple of modern science has been the work of many labourers not only in our own but in other countries. Some have been more busy in shaping and laying the stones, some in keeping off the Sanballats, some prophetwise in indicating the course of the science of the future. It would be hard to say who has done best service. As regards Dr. Joule, for example, no doubt he did more than any one to give the doctrine of the conservation of energy precise expression, but Mayer and others run him hard.

Of deceased Englishmen who belong to the first half of the Victorian epoch, I should say that Faraday, Lyell, and Darwin had exerted the greatest influence, and all three were models of the highest and best class of physical philosophers.

As for me, in part from force of circumstance and in part from a conviction I could be of must use in that way, I have played the part of something between maid-of-all-work and gladiator-general for Science, and deserve no such prominence as your kindness has assigned to me.–With our united kind regards to Mrs. Carpenter and yourself, ever yours very faithfully, T. H. Huxley.

June 29, 1887

4 Marlborough Place

[To Sir Henry Roscoe]

My dear Roscoe–I have scrawled a variety of comments on the paper you sent me. Deal with them as you think fit.

Ever since I was on the London School Board I have seen that the key of the position is in the Sectarian Training Colleges and that wretched imposture, the pupil teacher system. As to the former Delendae sunt no truce or pact to be made with them, either Church or Dissenting. Half the time of their students is occupied with grinding into their minds their tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee theological idiocies, and the other half in cramming them with boluses of other things to be duly spat out on examination day. Whatever is done do not let us be deluded by any promises of theirs to hook on science or technical teaching to their present work.

I am greatly disgusted that I cannot come to Tyndall's dinner to-night–but my brother-in-law's death would have stopped me (the funeral to-day)–even if my doctor had not forbidden me to leave my bed. He says I have some pleuritic effusion on one side and must mind my P's and Q's.–Ever yours very faithfully, T. H. Huxley.

September 16, 1887

Hotel Righi Vaudois, Glion

[To Sir Edward Frankland]

We left Arolla about ten days ago, and after staying a day at St. Maurice in consequence of my wife's indisposition, came on here where your letter just received has followed me. I am happy to say I am quite set up again, and as I can manage my 1500 or 2000 feet as well as ever, I may be pretty clear that my pleurisy has not left my lung sticking anywhere.

I will take your enquiries seriatim. (1) The faith of your small boyhood is justified. Eels do wander overland, especially in the wet stormy nights they prefer for migration. But so far as I know this is the habit only of good-sized, downwardly-moving eels. I am not aware that the minute fry take to the land on their journey upwards.

(2) Male eels are now well known. I have gone over the evidence myself and examined many. But the reproductive organs of both sexes remain undeveloped in fresh water–just the contrary of salmon, in which they remain undeveloped in salt water.

(3) So far as I know, no eel with fully-developed reproductive organs has yet been seen. Their matrimonial operations go on in the sea where they spend their honeymoon, and we only know the result in the shape of the myriads of thread-like eel-lets, which migrate up in the well-known "eel-fare."

(4) On general principles of eel-life I think it is possible that the Inspector's theory may be correct. But your story about the roach is a poser. They certainly do not take to walking abroad. It reminds me of the story of the Irish milk-woman who was confronted with a stickleback found in the milk. "Sure, then, it must have been bad for the poor cow when that came through her teat."

Surely the Inspector cannot have overlooked such a crucial fact as the presence of other fish in the reservoirs?

We shall be here another week, and then move slowly back to London. I am loth to leave this place, which is very beautiful with splendid air and charming walks in all directions–two or three thousand feet up if you like.

September 21, 1887

Hotel Right Vaudois, Glion, Switzerland

My dear Hooker–I saw in the Times yesterday the announcement of Mr. Symond's death. I suppose the deliverance from so painful a malady as heart-disease is hardly to be lamented in one sense; but these increasing gaps in one's intimate circle are very saddening and we feel for Lady Hooker and you. My wife has been greatly depressed in hearing of Mrs. Carpenter's fatal disorder. One cannot go away for a few weeks without finding someone gone on one's return.

I got no good at the Maderaner Thal, so we migrated to our old quarters at Arolla, and there I picked up in no time, and in a fortnight could walk as well as ever. So if there are any adhesions they are pretty well stretched by this time.

I have been at the Gentians again, and worked out the development of the flower in G. purpurea and G. compestris. The results are very pretty. They both start from a thalamifloral condition, then become corollifloral, G. purpurea at first resembling G. lutea and G. campestris, an Ophelia, and then specialise to the Ptychantha and Stephanantha forms respectively.

In G. campestris there is another very curious thing. The anthers are at first introrse, but just before the bud opens they assume this position [sketch] and then turn right over and become extrorse. In G. purpurea this does not happen, but the anthers are made to open outwards by their union on the inner side of the slits of dehiscence.

There are several other curious bits of morphology that have turned up, but I reserve them for our meeting.

Beyond pottering away at my Gentians and doing a little with that extraordinary Cynanchum I have been splendidly idle. After three weeks of the ascetic life of Arolla, we came here to acclimatise ourselves to lower levels and to fatten up. I go straight through the table d'hote at each meal, and know not indigestion.

My wife has fared not so well, but she is all right again now. We go home by easy stages, and expect to be in Marborough Place on Tuesday.

With all our best wishes to Lady Hooker and yourself–Ever yours, T. H. Huxley.

September 30, 1887

[To Unknown Correspondent]

I have just returned to England after two months' absence, and in the course of clearing off a vast accumulation of letters, I have come upon yours.

The Duke of Argyll has been making capital out of the same circumstances as those referred to by the Bishop. I believe that the interpretation put upon the facts by both is wholly misleading and erroneous.

It is quite preposterous to suppose that the men of science of this or any other country have the slightest disposition to support any view which may have been enunciated by one of their colleagues, however distinguished, if good grounds are shown for believing it to be erroneous.

When Mr. Murray arrived at his conclusions I have no doubt he was advised to make his ground sure before he attacked a generalisation which appeared so well founded as that of Mr. Darwin respecting coral reefs.

If he had consulted me I should have given him that advice myself, for his own sake. And whoever advised him, in that sense, in my opinion did wisely.

But the theologians cannot get it out of their heads, that as they have creeds, to which they must stick at all hazards, so have the men of science. There is no more ridiculous delusion. We, at any rate, hold ourselves morally bound to "try all things and hold fast to that which is good"; and among public benefactors, we reckon him who explodes old error, as next in rank to him who discovers new truth.

You are at liberty to make any use you please of this letter.

November 5, 1887

[To a clerical correspondent]

Let me assure you that it is not my way to set my face against being convinced by evidence.

I really cannot hold myself to be responsible for the translation of the Revised Version of the O.T. If I had given a translation of the passage to which you refer on my own authority, any mistake would be mine, and I should be bound to acknowledge it. As I did not, I have nothing to admit. I have every respect for your and Mr. –'s authority as Hebraists, but I have noticed that Hebrew scholars are apt to hold very divergent views, and before admitting either your or Mr. –'s interpretation, I should like to see the question fully discussed.

If, when the discussion is concluded, the balance of authority is against the revised version, I will carefully consider how far the needful alterations may affect the substance of the one passage in my reply to Mr. Gladstone which is affected by it.

At present I am by no means clear that it will make much difference, and in no case will the main lines of my argument be affected. The statements I have made are public property. If you think they are in any way erroneous I must ask you to take upon yourself the same amount of responsibility as I have done, and submit your objections to the same ordeal.

There is nothing like this test for reducing things to their true proportions, and if you try it, you will probably discover, not without some discomfort, that you really had no reason to ascribe wilful blindness to those who do not agree with you.

December 29, 1887

4 Marlborough Place

[To Hooker]

Where is the fullest information about distribution of Coniferæ? Of course I have looked at Genera Pl. and De Candolle.

I have been trying to make out whether structure or climate or paleontology throw any light on their distribution–and am drawing complete blank. Why the deuce are there no Conifers but Podocarpus and Widringtonias in all Africa south of the Sahara? And why the double deuce are abou;three-quarters of the genera huddle together in Japan and N. China?

I am puzzling over this group because the paleontological record is comparatively so good.

I am beginning to suspect that present distribution is an affair rather of denudation than migration.

Sequoia! Taxodium! Widringtonia! Araucaria! all in Europe, in Mesozoic and Tertiary.

Letters of 1886
Letters of 1888

Letter Index



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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