When talking about the meaning of modernity, there is a tendency to focus on the interplay between the products of the modern age and the psychological conditions those products give rise to: factories and nervous exhaustion, atomic bombs and existential anxiety, eight dozen different kinds of cereal and world-weary ennui. These products are all very tangible and easy to trace, and the wheels of historical analysis hum along in the cataloguing of them; however, underlying them all is something more significant still, a professional structure based upon placing the reins of power in the hands of a hyper-educated scientific elite who can guide the forces of production, innovation, education, and government via a core set of secular principles.
For five decades, the campaign to build such a professional substructure was waged by a small group of brilliant naturalists known as the X Club, and they were led by perhaps the nineteenth century’s most gifted communicator, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895). Today we know him primarily as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” the man who brilliantly waged the acrimonious public war for the acceptance of evolution that allowed Darwin himself to remain above the fray. And as secularists, we probably also know of his famous 1860 debate with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in which he declared that he’d rather be descended from apes than to be a man who squandered his talents in attempting to suppress the progress of truth. It is one of a handful of truly definitive moments in the history of secularism, and I suspect it will always remain in the canon of tales we tell about how we as freethinkers came to be who we now are.
The Wilberforce debate, the defense of Darwin—these were all but parts of a massively productive life, small but important vectors that, when summed, produce the distinctive thrust of Huxley’s mission to rebuild Britain as a modern nation guided by its best and most experienced minds.
That mission had its origins deep in Huxley’s past. The son of a skilled though financially unlucky teacher, Huxley’s youth was one of poverty and slim but measurable respectability. He knew instinctively that if there was a way out of the industrial-age squalor spreading across the countryside, it would involve the steady honing of his mind. He developed a punishing schedule of study for himself that included history, politics, languages, mathematics, and scientific experimentation.
He stayed up late into the night devouring knowledge as he crafted himself into a consummate polymath. It was hard work made harder by the uncertainty of its efficacy. The only way for one such as Huxley to follow science was to make it somehow pay, but science was not at the time a paying profession. It was rather the domain of sons of important personages who could count on some diffuse years at university followed by a lifetime as a well-supported gentleman naturalist. As the son of nobody in particular, Huxley knew that path was not open to him and settled on medicine as the best way to earn money while engaging in scientific research.
Barred by wealth and birth from the most prestigious learning institutions, Huxley did what many promising young men did and turned to the small for-profit medical schools springing up all over London to churn out doctors who might serve the teeming slums. These schools were hotbeds for radicalism and religious dissent, where theories about the body as a spiritual vessel and the history of the earth as indicative of a benevolent master’s design were routinely scoffed at during extensive drinking sessions. The privileges of the Church of England, the monopoly of the royal schools on medical thought and patronage, the increasing evidence for the pure materiality of the human body—these were the topics earnestly debated by the young medical men. Huxley, though more a late-night crammer than a debauched rowdy, drank in the new atmosphere.
The teachers and students at these medical schools were challenging the old order and demanding that medicine be opened to men of ability rather than simply men of good birth. What you demonstrably knew, rather than who you knew or what version of god you worshipped, should be the only determination of medical standing, this generation demanded, and it would be Huxley’s task to take that purely medical concern and make it the rallying cry of every profession and government office in the land.
High principles aside, however, it was nice to eat from time to time, and that required cash. Huxley had heard that work as a naval doctor’s assistant paid well and provided unique opportunities to explore new areas that contained never-before-documented forms of life, and so he signed up at age twenty as assistant surgeon aboard the HMS Rattlesnake, a ship tasked with taking soundings and drawing up accurate maps throughout the Australia and New Zealand regions. Though his title was that of a doctor, his main occupation was dredging the exotic waters and microscopically analyzing the life he found there. For four years, his life was devoted to jellyfish and other oceanic invertebrates, attempting to find new connections that rewrote the links between species.
Returning home at last after four years at sea, Huxley had some scientific fame as a result of the papers he had been sending back to England from the Rattlesnake, but as of yet he had no steady source of income. He was already one of England’s most promising naturalists, but there simply did not exist the structure to support him in a manner that would allow his talents full play. For years, he scraped by on writing and cataloguing fees, feted by the intellectual establishment without being given a chair or directorship that would allow him to actually buy decent clothes or marry the woman he loved.
In the meantime, he was developing a cutting aversion to the paleontology of Richard Owen, who claimed that the progress of animals seen in the geological record was evidence of a divine plan toward perfection culminating in man. Spitting fire against any attempts to insert divinity into the biological past, and boiling in fury against an establishment that allowed such inanities to go unchecked while real researchers wasted away in poverty, Huxley was at the end of his rope in 1854 when finally a teaching position opened up that proved the wedge into establishment respectability not only for him but for a whole generation of researchers whom he would drag along behind him into the shrines of government and influence.
Now began the years of furious juggling as Huxley attempted to balance numerous teaching responsibilities with exceedingly popular public lecture series, with new programs for rewriting British education along meritocratic and research-oriented lines, and with the ongoing attempt to promote the ideas in articles and debates of Charles Darwin as to the validity of evolution. Audiences turned up in droves as he explained how the struggle for existence brought living creatures from the protoplasmal ooze to the House of Lords. It was a radical message for radical times. His most vociferous adherents included the workers who showed up to his public talks to learn from the lips of the master how dominant species rose and fell and how those on top at the moment might succumb in their turn to smarter, better adapted individuals rising through the ranks. To the industrial urban masses chafing under the dominance of lords and financiers, it was a heady message. And it gave Huxley a notoriety and a base from which to launch his assaults against enshrined privilege.
Accused of atheism for his support of Darwinian evolution and his lambasting of Owensesque divine plans, Huxley crafted a momentous label to encapsulate his position: agnostic. Whatever we think of that term now, it served a very definite role for Huxley in the mid-nineteenth century, in allowing him to make unfettered questioning the moral imperative of a new age. There are mysteries right here and now that we could answer, Huxley maintained, if we gave ourselves the freedom to investigate them to the full extent of our human genius. The agnostic, by Huxley’s definition, is the person with the intellectual courage and moral rigor to devote himself to such investigations. For an age growing increasingly weary of Victorian restriction, it was a powerful and positive label that permitted intellectual flowering without inviting social self-destruction. By Huxley’s later years, when he was having the time of his life roasting William Gladstone for his biblical literalism, agnosticism in the Huxleyan sense was a widely accepted plank of British intellectual life, a mainstay of respectable scientists and philosophers even as more radical thinkers pushed against its self-imposed limitations.
In between championing Darwin and popularizing agnosticism, Huxley achieved one of the great goals of his career in the creation of a school devoted to the training of new science teachers at South Kensington in 1871. As opposed to the grand old institutions of British learning—where a student from the thirteenth century, as Huxley so justly observed, could walk in the front door and feel entirely at home in the curriculum—this new institution was to be centered on the laboratory, on firing a new generation of teachers with a respect and enthusiasm for firsthand research and investigation that they would then go on to spread throughout the country. Huxley set a grueling pace for himself as for his students, but the result was an emerging class of highly skilled researchers who could lecture in every corner of the nation upon the importance of scientific methodologies.
The man who spent a decade and a half of his youth trying to find a way to do science while simultaneously not starving had at last constructed an institution that would ensure the nation would never again undervalue its best minds. In articles, he spurred a competitive national pride by detailing the achievements of Germany in publicly supporting technical and scientific education and employing that new base of talent to craft a mighty industrial and economic machine. Meanwhile, in private, he and the members of his small but powerful X Club (which included some of the greatest naturalists of their time) infiltrated the Royal Society and any other educational or scientific institution that had been ruled too long by the seniority of blood instead of the aristocracy of intellect.
These, the original X-Men, saw to it that Darwinism was enshrined as the new scientific orthodoxy and that poor but promising scientists (a word also coined at this time) could easily find financial support. The government sought their advice in updating the educational system of the country and in creating new attitudes toward technology and industrial research, to such an extant that Thomas Huxley, the man who had insulted a bishop in public and preached the revolution of evolution to the London throng, ended his days as a venerable Privy Councilor to Queen Victoria herself.
Huxley’s life was full in ways we can hardly conceive of now. As an author, his collected works come to a million words that display a rare mastery in the use of regular English to explore complicated historic and scientific themes while also founding a scientific journal, Nature, that still reigns as the world’s preeminent research periodical. As a scientist, he made headway in the categorization of the invertebrates and was the first to propose the descent of birds from dinosaurs. As a lecturer, he brought science to the people and made it relevant to their lives in a way that nobody had bothered to before and transformed scientific debates into must-see events. As an administrator, he not only gave a new generation the tools to inspire a nation’s youth to see themselves as professional scientific investigators but demonstrated what devotion to professional rigor could accomplish in a way that made it impossible to return to the doddering nepotism of Britain’s storied past.
More than a bulldog for the advancement of one man’s brilliant insights, he was a dragon who delighted in razing the hodge-podge structures of the old order to the ground to build something competent, measurable, and reliable in their place. Beneath the feet of every certificated government expert making policy based on accumulated data, there is the foundation that Huxley built: firm but flexible, a secure spot from which to build a new world.
FURTHER READING: Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863) is a classic of mid-nineteenth-century biology and broached the topic of evolution as it applies to humanity eight years before Darwin worked up the courage to do so, but if you’re looking for something less involved, his worker talks as recorded by those present and published in variously authorized forms including the widely available Darwiniana volume are a great example of his simple, persuasive style. For more about his life, Adrian Desmond’s Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest (1997) is a masterfully written account that gives full justice to all aspects of Huxley’s absurdly intellectually robust life.