May 4, 1825 (a Wednesday)

T. H. Huxley

On this date, the English physician and biologist Thomas Henry Huxley was born in Ealing (then a village in Middlesex).  He received his medical degree from Charing Cross School of Medicine, becoming a physiologist, and was awarded many other honorary degrees. Huxley spent his youth exploring science, especially zoology and anatomy, lecturing on natural history, and writing for scientific publications.

Huxley earned the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog” when he debated Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in Oxford in 1860. When Wilberforce asked him which side of his family contained the ape, Huxley famously replied that he would prefer to descend from an ape than a human being who used his intellect “for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into grave scientific discussion.” Thereafter, Huxley devoted his time to the defense of science over religion.

Darwin danced around human evolution in On the Origin of Species in 1859, not addressing the topic until 1871 in The Descent of Man. Yet Huxley wrote about human and primate paleontology in Man’s Place in Nature in 1863. He examined the similarities between humans and apes and noted that greater anatomical differences separate gorillas and chimpanzees from the lower apes than separate gorillas from people. He also mused:

Is [the philosopher or poet] bound to howl and grovel on all fours because . . . he was once an egg, which no ordinary power of discrimination could distinguish from that of a Dog? . . . Is mother-love vile because a hen shows it, or fidelity base because dogs possess it?

Huxley coined the term “agnostic” (although George Jacob Holyoake also claimed that honor). Huxley defined agnosticism as a method, “the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle . . . the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him.” Huxley elaborated: “In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without any other consideration. And negatively, in matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable” (from his essay Agnosticism).  In his Essays on Controversial Questions (1889), he wrote:

Skepticism is the highest duty and blind faith the one unpardonable sin.

Huxley was president of the Royal Society of London, and was elected to the London School Board in 1870, where he championed a number of common-sense reforms.  His other essays included Agnosticism and Christianity (1889).  Huxley, appropriately, received the Darwin Medal in 1894.

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