Darwin’s Bulldog Thomas Henry Huxley

Thomas Henry HuxleyLast year I highlighted Bartolomeo Cristofori for the birthday post. He was the inventor of the piano, and so I discussed how it was different from the harpsicode and the clavichord. It’s quite interesting. If you haven’t read it, I recommend checking it out.

On this day in 1825, the great biologist Thomas Henry Huxley was born. He was a comparative anatomist—someone who looks at similarities and differences in species. What has long fascinated me is how people like Huxley were able to classify different species so accurately. When we started doing genetic work, it didn’t much upset what we already knew about species’ relationships.

Huxley was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” because of his public support for evolution. He was a prominent part of the 1860 Oxford evolution debate. So prominent, in fact, that it is often referred to as the Huxley–Wilberforce debate. Wilberforce was Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, arguing for the Bible. In the most famous exchange, Wilberforce asked Huxley if he descended from monkeys on his mother’s side or his father’s. According to Isabella Sidgwick some time afterward, “He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous.” Booyah!

What is perhaps most interesting about Huxley is that he was skeptical of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution. Note that natural selection is what is important about Darwin’s work; the idea of species’ evolution was not new to him. But Huxley’s skepticism was scientifically based. He was an empiricist and rather typical in not accepting anything until it was fully proven. And just like now, the religious zealots who would not accept evolution under any circumstances grabbed onto his doubts.

It is clear that Huxley and the others won this debate. And indeed, in the United Kingdom they did where roughly 80% of the people accept evolution through natural selection. But in the United States that number is only 40%. That is so embarrassing. Check out this graph:

Views on Evolution

And now we have people like Ken Ham who dress up their religious dogma in the clothes of science. But they don’t do science. Their entire effort is meant to stop debate—to stop science. And I’m not at all convinced that they won’t be successful. Certainly we need Huxley today more than ever.

Happy birthday Thomas Henry Huxley!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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