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Thomas Henry Huxley

May 8, 2012

Feature: Darwin’s spin-doctor, or opportunistic and ruthless self-publicist? – by Keith Williams

Cartoon engraving of Huxley, 1870. Wellcome Library

Cartoon engraving of Huxley, 1870. Wellcome Library

The acceptance of evolution and the development of Darwinism during the 19th century have been attributed largely to the activities and influence of Thomas Henry Huxley. This view holds that without Huxley’s pugnacious defence and vociferous promotion of Darwin and his view of evolution, On the Origin of Species might well have had no greater an impact or influence than the ideas of previous writers on evolution. This version of events, however, de-emphasises the importance of the roles played by other contemporary Darwin supporters such as the botanist Joseph Hooker, the geologist Charles Lyell and the American botanist Asa Gray, and ignores the considerable benefits that accrued to Huxley directly as a result of his championing of Darwin and Darwinism. Undoubtedly, if Origin made Darwin, then the defence and propagation of Origin made Huxley.

Indeed, that so much of the success of Darwinism in the 19th century has been ascribed to Huxley is testimony to Huxley’s own great ability as a self-publicist, and is a theme which was then reinforced, and embellished, by later biographies of him that were little more than hagiographies. Certainly, by the time that Huxley wrote his autobiography in 1890, he had achieved such a position of power and influence in the scientific community that others contradicted his version of past events at their peril. Such rewriting of history has led to significant obfuscation about Huxley’s part in the acceptance of Darwinism.

Undoubtedly, Huxley was not a very likeable man. He was arrogant, volatile, patently ambitious and a bully with a chip on his shoulder, who appeared to believe that the world owed a living to someone whose demonstrable scientific brilliance had resulted in his election as an FRS at the age of 26. Once he had achieved permanent positions, at the School of Mines and at the Royal Institution, he used the platform to build a position of power and influence within English science by attacking the work and character of well-established and influential figures such as Richard Owen, whose patronage Huxley had previously successfully sought. Huxley appears to have designated Owen as his chief rival, and by 1856 had instigated what has been called “the nastiest 30-year feud in Victoria’s reign”, taking any and every opportunity to enhance his own reputation, and influence within English science, at the expense of Owen. Such behaviour quickly earned Huxley a reputation as one of the most ferocious pugilists of English science.

Although Huxley became one of Darwin’s scientific circle, and seemed to regard Darwin as a role model, Darwin was wary of getting too close to him, not least because of his concern about Huxley’s penchant for character assassination, but also because Huxley differed significantly from him on important issues regarding evolution. Such aspects led Darwin to conceal his working hypotheses and manuscripts on species development from Huxley until shortly before publication, and underlay Darwin’s refusal in 1856 to sponsor Huxley for membership of the prestigious Athenaeum Club. Even so, Darwin appears to have recognised at an early stage that Huxley was a man he’d rather have on his side than against him and, exhibiting an undeniably Machiavellian streak, used Huxley (who thus might be accorded the sobriquet of ‘Mr Darwin’s Poodle’ in addition to that of the self-proclaimed ‘Mr Darwin’s Bulldog’) to attack his detractors while himself appearing to remain above the fray. Certainly, the role of aggressor was one that Darwin’s other major supporters, lacking Huxley’s belligerence, were happy to leave to him.

Huxley showing the shape of a gorilla skull. Wellcome Library

Huxley showing the shape of a gorilla skull. Wellcome Library

It was the publication of a highly negative review of Origin in the prestigious journal Athenaeum in November 1859 that gave Huxley his great opportunity, for this led a furious Darwin to canvass his active support. In the following six months, Huxley rapidly created a public profile for himself in the defence and promotion of the book, and as the main advocate of the new ideas. During this time, culminating in the famous British Association meeting at Oxford in June 1860, he produced three major reviews of the book, and gave numerous talks on the subject, albeit most to learned audiences. But it was the Oxford public debate with Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, that brought Huxley before the public eye for the first time and demonstrated to him the advantages of appealing to a more general audience than was usual for scientists, and of gaining influence through popular acclaim. Over the course of the 1860s Huxley was to take full advantage of his assumed position as the leader of the Darwinites to expand and strengthen his own power base. This was achieved through his increasing output of talks, lectures and writing, especially to the popular audience, through his membership of committees of learned societies and Royal Commissions, through a tyrannical control of his acolytes, and through the development of his own network of patronage and institutional power.

However, Huxley’s contribution to Darwinism was more ambivalent than the above account suggests, for he seems to have adopted something of a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach to evolution, championing it to the popular audience, but disdaining it to the academic audience. The problem for Huxley was

that he had a number of reservations about Origin, referring to the theory as merely a “working hypothesis”, and in consequence it is unclear to what extent some of his activities actually helped the acceptance and development of Darwinism. His Royal Institution lecture in February 1860 in support of Origin was held by both Darwin and Joseph Hooker to be a failure, Hooker writing that Huxley had managed to damage Darwin’s theory during his lecture. Two months later, in his essay in the Westminster Review, Huxley hardly advanced the cause when he wrote that as a professional naturalist he was unable to accept fully the principle of natural selection. Interestingly, Huxley did not lecture on Darwin’s theory in his classes at the School of Mines and elsewhere, and even as late as 1874 he was ambivalent about it, telling his classes that “all hypotheses [like Darwin’s, were to be]… carefully kept in the background”. Such lack of success with the specialist audience was in marked contrast to Huxley’s achievements in popularising Darwinism.

This was also in marked contrast to the achievements of Darwin’s other supporters. It was Charles Lyell and Hooker who persuaded Darwin to write Origin, it was Lyell who persuaded John Murray to publish the book, and it was Lyell, who had been proofreading the book, who gave the book advance publicity when he openly praised it in a public lecture at the British Society meeting in Aberdeen in September 1859. Hooker also was extremely active, although his efforts did not attract the publicity accorded Huxley. Hooker was active in getting editors of botanical magazines to feature favourable reviews of the book, promulgating Darwinism through official correspondence, and preaching the merits of Darwin’s theory to other botanists and to influential persons such as Members of Parliament. He also undertook botanical investigations that would lead ultimately to substantiating Darwin’s theories. In 1864 the award of the Royal Society’s Copley Medal to Darwin had a great deal to do with the efforts expended by Hooker, although Huxley claimed much of the credit. Hooker also made a major contribution to the debate at Oxford in 1860, although the public perception of this encounter, subsequently rehashed and embellished, in the likes of Leonard Huxley’s myth-perpetuating biography of his father, has been that of Huxley “taking on” Wilberforce. Again, in the USA, Asa Gray was no less active in promoting Darwinism to the American audience, not only writing important reviews of Origin and defending Darwinism but also arranging for the American publication of the book.

Even so, it is Huxley who achieved the greatest prominence, and is linked most closely with Darwin and Darwinism, unsurprisingly given that after Oxford his greatest appeal was to the popular audience. Like any successful self-publicist, Huxley took, or has been given, most of the credit for what had been achieved, even though in his role as Darwin’s spin-doctor he did not always best serve the interests of the cause he was supposed to be promoting. Indeed, Darwinism was a phenomenon that Huxley used to his own best advantage to gain for himself, and his acolytes, academic eminence in English science. He rose from being a controversial outsider, sparring with the scientific establishment, to be seen as representing, by 1870, the embodiment of science, which enabled him, in effect, to control the direction of English science.

Keith Williams is a Research Associate at the Department of History, University of York.

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