Thomas Henry Huxley.

Life and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley online

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think it well to go on doing what I can, as if F. M. General
Death had forgotten me. That must account for my seeming
presumption in thinking I may some day " take up the threads "
of late evolutionary speculation. Ever yours very faithfully,


My wife joins with me in love and kind wishes to you both.

At the request of his friends, Huxley wrote for the
Nineteenth Century a brief appreciation of his old comrade
Tyndall the tribute of a friend to a friend and, difficult
task though it was, touched on the closing scene, if only
from a chivalrous desire to do justice to the long devotion
which accident had so cruelly wronged :

I am comforted (he writes to Sir J. Hooker on January 3)
by your liking the Tyndall article. You are quite right, I shiv-
ered over the episode of the " last words," but it struck me as
the best way of getting justice done to her, so I took a header.
I am glad to see by the newspaper comments that it does not
seem to have shocked other people's sense of decency.

The funeral took place on Saturday, December 9. There
was no storm nor fog to make the graveside perilous for
the survivors. In the Haslemere churchyard the winter sun
shone its brightest, and the moorland air was crisp with an
almost Alpine freshness as this lover of the mountains was
carried to his last resting-place. But though he took no
outward harm from that bright still morning, Huxley was


greatly shaken by the event: " I was very much used up,"
he writes to Sir M. Foster on his return home two days
later, ' to my shame be it said, far more than my wife ; '
and on December 30 to Sir John Donnelly :

Your kind letter deserved better than to have been left all
this time without response, but the fact is, I came to grief the
day after Christmas Day (no, we did not indulge in too much
champagne). Lost my voice, and collapsed generally, without
any particular reason, so I went to bed and stayed there as long
as I could stand it, and now I am picking up again. The fact
is, I suppose I had been running up a little account over poor
old Tyndall. One does not stand that sort of wear and tear so
well as one gets ancient.

On the same day he writes to Sir J. D. Hooker :


MY DEAR HOOKER You gave the geographers some uncom-
monly sane advice. I observe that the words about the " stu-
pendous ice-clad mountains "' you saw were hardly out of your

mouth when coolly asserts that the Antarctic continent is

a table-land ! " comparatively level country." It really is wrong
that men should be allowed to go about loose who fill you with
such a strong desire to kick them as that little man does.

I send herewith a spare copy of Nineteenth with my paper
about Tyndall. It is not exactly what I could wish, as I was
hurried over it, and knocked up into the bargain, but I have tried
to give a fair view of him. Tell me what you think of it.

I have been having a day or two on the sick list. Nothing
discernible the matter, only flopped, as I did in the spring. How-
ever, I am picking up again. The fact is, I have never any blood
pressure to spare, and a small thing humbugs the pump.

However, I have some kicks left in me, vide the preface to
the fourth vol. of Essays; do. No. V. when that appears in Feb-

Now, my dear old friend, take care of yourself in the coming
year '94. I'll stand by you as long as the fates will let me, and
you must be equally " Johnnie." With our love to Lady Hooker
and yourself Ever yours affectionately,



THE completion early in 1894 of the ninth volume of
Collected Essays was followed by a review of them in Nature
(February i), from the pen of Professor Ray Lankester,
emphasising the way in which the writer's personality ap-
pears throughout the writing :

There is probably no lover of apt discourse, of keen criti-
cism, or of scientific doctrine who will not welcome the issue
of Professor Huxley's Essays in the present convenient shape.
For my own part, I know of no writing which by its mere form,
even apart from the supreme interest of the matters with which
it mostly deals, gives me so much pleasure as that of the author
of these essays. In his case, more than that of his contempo-
raries, it is strictly true that the style is the man. Some authors
we may admire for the consummate skill with which they trans-
fer to the reader their thought without allowing him, even for a
moment, to be conscious of their personality. In Professor
Huxley's work, on the other hand, we never miss his fascinat-
ing presence ; now he is gravely shaking his head, now com-
pressing the lips with emphasis, and from time to time, with
a quiet twinkle of the eye, making unexpected apologies or pro-
testing that he is of a modest and peace-loving nature. At the
same time,' one becomes accustomed to a rare and delightful
phenomenon. Everything which has entered the author's brain
by eye or ear, whether of recondite philosophy, biological fact,
or political programme, comes out again to us clarified, sifted,
arranged, and vivified by its passage through the logical machine
of his strong individuality.

Of the artist in him it continues :

He deals with form not only as a mechanical engineer in
partibus (Huxley's own description of himself), but also as an




artist, a born lover of form, a character which others rec-
ognise in him though he does not himself set it down in his

The essay on ' Animal Automatism ' suggested a
reminiscence of Professor Lankester's as to the way in
which it was delivered, and this in turn led to Huxley's
own account of the incident in the letter given in Vol. I.

P- 444-

About the same time there is a letter acknowledging

Mr. Bateson's book On Variation, which is interesting as
touching on the latter-day habit of speculation apart from
fact which had begun to prevail in biology :

HODESLEA, Feb. 20, 1894.

MY DEAR MR. BATESON I have put off thanking you for the
volume On Variation which you have been so good as to send
me in the hope that I should be able to look into it before
doing so.

But as I find that impossible, beyond a hasty glance, at pres-
ent, I must content myself with saying how glad I am to see
from that glance that we are getting back from the region of
speculation into that of fact again.

There have been threatenings of late that the field of battle
of Evolution was being transferred to Nephelococcygia.

I see you are inclined to advocate the possibility of consider-
able " saltus "' on the part of Dame Nature in her variations.
I always took the same view, much to Mr. Darwin's disgust,
and we used often to debate it.

If you should come across my article in the Westminster
(1860) you will find a paragraph on that question near the end.
I am writing to Macmillan to send you the volume. Yours very
faithfully, T. H. HUXLEY.

By the way, have you ever considered this point, that the
variations of which breeders avail themselves are exactly those
which occur when the previously wild stocks are subjected to
exactly the same conditions?

The rest of the first half of the year is not eventful. As
illustrating the sort of communications which constantly
came to him, I quote from a letter to Sir J. Donnelly, of
January 1 1 :



I had a letter from a fellow yesterday morning who must
be a lunatic, to the effect that he had been reading my essays,
thought I was just the man to spend a month with, and was
coming down by the five o'clock train, attended by his seven
children and his mother-in-law!

Frost being over, there was lots of boiling water ready for
him, but he did not turn up !

Wife and servants expected nothing less than assassination.

Later he notes with dismay an invitation as a Privy
Councillor to a State evening party :

It is at 10.30 P.M., just the time this poor old septuagenarian
goes to bed.

My swellness is an awful burden, for as it is I am going to
dine with the Prime Minister on Saturday.

The banquet with the Prime Minister here alluded to
was the occasion of a brief note of apology to Lord Rose-
bery for having unintentionally kept him waiting:


DEAR LORD ROSEBERY I had hoped that my difficulties in
dealing with an overtight scabbard stud, as we sat down to
dinner on Saturday, had inconvenienced no one but myself, until
it flashed across my mind after I had parted from you that, as
you had observed them, it w^as only too probable that I had the
misfortune to keep you waiting.

I have been in a state of permanent blush ever since, and I
feel sure you will forgive me for troubling you with this apology
as the only remedy to which I can look for relief from that un-
wonted affliction. I am, dear Lord Rosebery, yours very faith-
fully, T. H. HUXLEY.

All through the spring he had been busy completing
the chapter on Sir Richard Owen's work, which he had
been asked to write by the biographer of his old opponent,
and on February 4 tells Sir J. D. 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.

39 6


He sent the MS. to Sir M. Foster on June 16; the
book itself appeared in December. The chapter in question
was restricted to a review of the immense amount of work,
most valuable on its positive side, done by Owen (compare
the letter of January 16, 1893) ; and the review in Nature
remarks of it that the criticism is ' so straightforward,
searching, and honest as to leave nothing further to be

Besides this piece of work, he had written early in the
year a few lines on the general character of the nineteenth
century, in reply to a request, addressed to ' the most
illustrious children of the century," for their opinion as to
what name will be given to it by an impartial posterity
the century of Comte, of Darwin or Renan, of Edison,
Pasteur, or Gladstone. He replied :

I conceive that the leading characteristic of the nineteenth
century has been the rapid growth of the scientific spirit, the
consequent application of scientific methods of investigation to
all the problems with which the human mind is occupied, and the
correlative rejection of traditional beliefs which have proved
their incompetence to bear such investigation.

The activity of the scientific spirit has been manifested in
every region of speculation and of practice.

Many of the eminent men you mention have been its effect-
ive organs in their several departments.

But the selection of any one of these, whatever his merits,
as an adequate representative of the power and majesty of the
scientific spirit of the age would be a grievous mistake.

Science reckons many prophets, but there is not even a
promise of a Messiah.

The unexampled increase in the expenditure of the
European states upon their armaments led the Arbitration
Alliance this year to issue a memorial urging the Govern-
ment to co-operate with other Governments in reducing
naval and military burdens. Huxley was asked to sign
this memorial, and replied to the secretary as follows :


DEAR SIR I have taken some time to consider the memorial
to which you have called my attention, and I regret that I do not
find myself able to sign it.


Not that I have the slightest doubt about the magnitude of
the evils which accrue from the steady increase of European
armaments; but because I think that this regrettable fact is
merely the superficial expression of social forces, the operation
of which cannot be sensibly affected by agreements between

In my opinion it is a delusion to attribute the growth of
armaments to the '' exactions of militarism." The " exactions
of industrialism," generated by international commercial com-
petition, may, I believe, claim a much larger share in prompting
that growth. Add to this the French thirst for revenge, the
most just determination of the German and Italian peoples to
assert their national unity; the Russian Panslavonic fanaticism
and desire for free access to. the western seas ; the Papacy stead-
ily fishing in the troubled waters for the means of recovering
its lost (I hope for ever lost) temporal possessions and spiritual
supremacy ; the ; ' sick man," kept alive only because each of
his doctors is afraid of the other becoming his heir.

When I think of the intensity of the perturbing agencies
which arise out of these and other conditions of modern Euro-
pean society, I confess that the attempt to counteract them by
asking Governments to agree to a maximum military expendi-
ture, does not appear to me to be worth making; indeed I think
it might do harm by leading people to suppose that the desires
of Governments are the chief agents in determining whether
peace or war shall obtain in Europe. I am, yours faithfully,


Later in the year, on August 8, took place the meeting
of the British Association at Oxford, noteworthy for the
presidential address delivered by Lord Salisbury, Chancellor
of the University, in which the doctrine of evolution was
' enunciated as a matter of course disputed by no reason-
able man," although accompanied by a description of the
working of the natural selection and variation which ap-
peared to the man of science a mere travesty of these doc-

Huxley had been persuaded to attend this meeting, the
more willingly, perhaps, since his reception at Oxford the
year before suggested that there would be a special piquancy
in the contrast between this and the last meeting of the
Association at Oxford in 1860. He was not disappointed.


Details apart, the cardinal situation was reversed. The
genius of the place had indeed altered. The representatives
of the party, whose prophet had once contemptuously come
here to anathematise the ' Origin," returned at length to
the same spot to admit if not altogether ungrudgingly
the greatness of the work accomplished by Darwin.

Once under promise to go, he could not escape without
the " few words " which he now found so tiring ; but he took
the part which assured him greatest freedom, as seconder
of the vote of thanks to the president for his address. The
study of an advance copy of the address raised an " almost
overwhelming temptation ' to criticise certain statements
contained in it ; but this would have been out of place in
seconding a vote of thanks ; and resisting the temptation,
he only ' conveyed criticism," as he writes to Professor
Lewis Campbell, " in the form of praise " : going so far as
to suggest " it might be that, in listening to the deeply
interesting address of the President, a thought had occasion-
ally entered his mind how rich and profitable might be the
discussion of that paper in Section D" (Biology). It was
not exactly an off-hand speech. Writing to Sir M. Foster
for any good report which might appear in an Oxford paper,
he says :

I have no notes of it. I wrote something on Tuesday night,
but this draft is no good, as it was metamorphosed two or three
times over on Wednesday.

One who was present and aware of the whole situation
once described how he marked the eyes of another interested
member of the audience, who knew that Huxley was to
speak, but not what he meant to say, turning anxiously
whenever the president reached a critical phrase in the ad-
dress, to see how he would take it. But the expression of
his face told nothing; only those who knew him well could
infer a suppressed impatience from a little twitching of his

Of this occasion Professor Henry F. Osborn, one of his
old pupils, writes in his " Memorial Tribute to Thomas H.
Huxley" (Transactions of the N. Y. Acad. Soc. vol. xv.) :


Huxley's last public appearance was at the meeting of the
British Association at Oxford. He had been very urgently in-
vited to attend, for, exactly a quarter of a century before, the
Association had met at Oxford, and Huxley had had his famous
encounter with Bishop Wilberforce. It was felt that the anni-
versary would be an historic one, and incomplete without his
presence, and so it proved to be. Huxley's especial duty was to
second the vote of thanks for the Marquis of Salisbury's address
one of the invariable formalities of the opening meetings of
the Association. The meeting proved to be the greatest one in
the history of the Association. The Sheldonian Theatre was
packed with one of the most distinguished scientific audiences
ever brought together, and the address of the Marquis was
worthy of the occasion. The whole tenor of it was unknown in
science. Passing from the unsolved problems of astronomy,
chemistry, and physics, he came to biology. With delicate irony
he spoke of the " comforting word, evolution," and passing to
the Weismannian controversy, implied that the diametrically
opposed views so frequently expressed nowadays threw the
whole process of evolution into doubt. It was only too evident
that the Marquis himself found no comfort in evolution, and
even entertained a suspicion as to its probability. It was well
worth the whole journey to Oxford to watch Huxley during this
portion of the address. In his red doctor-of-laws gown, placed
upon his shoulders by the very body of men who had once re-
ferred to him as " a Mr. Huxley," he sank deeper into his chair
upon the very front of the platform and restlessly tapped his
foot. His situation was an unenviable one. He had to thank
an ex-Prime Minister of England and present Chancellor of
Oxford University for an address, the sentiments of which were
directly against those he himself had been maintaining for
twenty-five years. He said afterwards that when the proofs of
the Marquis's address were put into his hands the day before,
he realised that he had before him a most delicate and difficult
task. Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson) one of the most
distinguished living physicists, first moved the vote of thanks,
but his reception was nothing to the tremendous applause which
greeted Huxley in the heart of that University whose cardinal
principles he had so long been opposing. Considerable anxiety
had been felt by his friends lest his voice should fail to fill the
theatre, for it had signally failed during his Romanes Lecture
delivered in Oxford the year before, but when Huxley arose he
reminded you of a venerable gladiator returning to the arena


after years of absence. He raised his figure and his voice to
its full height, and, with one foot turned over the edge of the
step, veiled an unmistakable and vigorous protest in the most
gracious and dignified speech of thanks.

Throughout the subsequent special sessions of this meeting
Huxley could not appear. He gave the impression of being
aged but not infirm, and no one realised that he had spoken his
last word as champion of the law of evolution.

Such criticism of the address as he actually expressed
reappears in the leading article, " Past and Present," which
he wrote for Nature to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary
of its foundation (Nov. i, 1894).

The essence of the criticism is that with whatever demon-
strations of hostility to parts of the Darwinian theory Lord
Salisbury covered the retreat of his party from their ancient
positions, he admitted the validity of the main points for
which Darwin contended.

The essence of this great work (the Origin of Species) may
be stated summarily this : it affirms the mutability of species and
the descent of living forms, separated by differences of more
than varietal value, from one stock. That is to say, it propounds
the doctrine of evolution as far as biology is concerned. So far,
we have merely a re-statement of a doctrine which, in its most
general form, is as old as scientific speculation. So far, we have
the two theses which were declared to be scientifically absurd
and theologically damnable by the Bishop of Oxford in 1860.

It is also of these two fundamental doctrines that, at the
meeting of the British Association in 1894, the Chancellor of the
University of Oxford spoke as follows :

' Another lasting and unquestioned effect has resulted from
Darwin's work. He has, as a matter of fact, disposed of the
doctrine of the immutability of species. . . ."

' Few now are found to doubt that animals separated by
differences far exceeding those that distinguished what we know
as species have yet descended from common ancestors."

Undoubtedly, every one conversant with the state of bio-
logical science is aware that general opinion has long had good
reason for making the volte face thus indicated. It is also mere
justice to Darwin to say that this " lasting and unquestioned ' !
revolution is, in a very real sense, his work. And yet it is also
true that, if all the conceptions promulgated in the Origin of


Species which are peculiarly Darwinian were swept away, the
theory of the evolution of animals and plants would not be in
the slightest degree shaken.

The strain of this single effort was considerable : " I am
frightfully tired," he wrote on August n, "but the game
was worth the candle."

Letters to Sir J. D. Hooker and to Professor Lewis
Campbell contain his own account of the affair. The refer-
ence in the latter to the priests is in reply to Professor
Campbell's story of one of Jowett's last sayings. They had
been talking of the collective power of the priesthood to
resist the introduction of new ideas ; a long pause ensued,
and the old man seemed to have slipped off into a doze,
when he suddenly broke the silence by saying, " The priests
will always be too many for you."


MY DEAR HOOKER I wish, as everybody wished, you had
been with us on Wednesday evening at Oxford when we settled
accounts for 1860, and got a receipt in full from the Chancellor
of the University, President of the Association, and representa-
tive of ecclesiastical conservatism and orthodoxy.

I was officially asked to second the vote of thanks for the
address, and got a copy of it the night before luckily for it
was a kittle business. . . .

It was very queer to sit there and hear the doctrines you and
I were damned for advocating thirty-four years ago at Oxford,
enunciated as matters of course disputed by no reasonable
man ! in the Sheldonian Theatre by the Chancellor. . . .

Of course there is not much left of me, and it will take a
fortnight's quiet at Eastbourne (whither we return on Tuesday
next) to get right. But it was a pleasant last flare-up in the
socket !

With our love to you both Ever yours affectionately,


HODESLEA, Aug. 18, 1894.

MY DEAR CAMPBELL I am setting you a good example. You
and I are really too old friends to go on wasting ink in honorary

I had a very difficult task at Oxford. The old Adam, of
course, prompted the tearing of the address to pieces, which


would have been a very easy job, especially the latter half of
it. But as that procedure would not have harmonised well with
the function of a seconder of a vote of thanks, and as, moreover,
Lord S. was very just and good in his expressions about Dar-
win, I had to convey criticism in the shape of praise.

It was very curious to me to sit there and hear the Chancellor
of the University accept, as a matter of course, the doctrines
for which the Bishop of Oxford coarsely anathematised us
thirty- four years earlier. E pur si muove !

I am not afraid of the priests in the long-run. Scientific
method is the white ant which will slowly but surely destroy
their fortifications. And the importance of scientific method in
modern practical life always growing and increasing is the
guarantee for the gradual emancipation of the ignorant upper
and lower classes, the former of whom especially are the strength
of the priests.

My wife had a very bad attack of her old enemy some weeks
ago, and she thought she would not be able to go to Oxford.
However, she picked up in the wonderful elastic way she has,
and I believe was less done-up than I when \ve left on the
Friday morning. I was glad the wife was there, as the meeting

Online LibraryThomas Henry HuxleyLife and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley → online text (page 35 of 49)