04 May 2007

Happy Darwin's Bulldog Day!

Today is the 182nd birthday Thomas Henry Huxley, the man known as "Darwin's Bulldog" and one of my personal heroes. I've been taken to task a few times for my hero-worship, because it's certainly true that not everyone out there is a big T.H. Huxley fan. He was very much a product of his time and his culture (Victorian England), and almost any historical figure starts showing flaws when viewed from a modern perspective. So yes, he did have a running feud with the Salvation Army because he didn't like the idea of handouts to people who didn't work for them, but I would argue that any such non-PC idiosyncrasies are more than counterbalanced by the good he did. There are two things for which I particularly admire Huxley. First, every one of us out there who considers ourself to be a scientist owes the man an enormous debt of gratitude, because in many ways he was the first professional scientist. Pre-Victorian scientists were largely independently wealthy aristocrats and clergymen that indulged in "natural philosophy" as a hobby, while Huxley was a "common" Londoner who relied on science as a career. More importantly, he was famous as a teacher, educating a generation of students in the newly-emerging fields of biology and geology (and in the intersection of those two fields, paleontology). The second thing I admire about Huxley is his eloquence. There have been many great scientists, but many of them have been terrible at communicating their research to the rest of the world. To be able to explain one's ideas in a way that both instructs and engages is a very rare gift, and it was a skill that Huxley had in spades. He was able to take a commonplace object, such as a crayfish or a piece of chalk, and use use these as means of introducing much larger-scale topics; he was so good at this that his lectures were regularly packed to the gills not just by fellow scientists, but by the general public as well. I have read the transcripts of some of his lectures, as well as some of his essays, and even now, almost two centuries after the fact, they remain works of stunning rhetorical beauty. Of course, his golden tongue is best remembered for its defense of Darwin's then-new theory of evolution by natural selection. Huxley was far and away the most successful promoter, defender, and teacher of evolution of his time, and it is doubtful that natural selection would not have become recognized as the fundamental theory of biology as quickly as it did if not for his efforts. So, Happy Birthday, T.H. Huxley; here's hoping that there are a few more out there like you...

5 comments:

932 said...

nice post!!!

Michael said...

The unfortunate part, as I understand it, is that he was the first to pit science and the church against each other publicly on the topic of evolution. Good for a highly entertaining way to publicize this topic in a live debate, bad for the next hundred years of science and sacred being misrepresented as having anything in common.

John said...

Actually, I would argue that far from blurring the line between science and religion, Huxley wanted to draw a strong distinction between the two, a distinction that had not previously existed. Before the Victorian era, science - particularly British science - was not just an aristocratic pursuit, but one that was closely associated with the clergy (for example, William Buckland, the man who named the first dinosaur, was an Anglican reverend). The primacy of the Anglican church was being threatened on many fronts during the Industrial Revolution, and secularization of science was viewed as one of these. Churchmen saw "amoral" evolution as indicative of this trend, and they were only too eager to rail against it in a last-ditch effort at maintaining their scientific authority. Huxley always maintained that religion and science were fundamentally unrelated, perhaps best demonstrated by his coining of the word 'agnostic' to describe his world view. Effectively, he was saying that he was a scientist, a person who relied on evidence before drawing conclusions, and as such could not assess the existence of God, a being that by its nature is fundamentally unknowable and that must be accepted or rejected on blind faith. I'm no philosopher, but as I understand his biography, it doesn't seem as though Huxley harbored any delusions about science and religion having anything in common.

Michael said...

I knew you could set me straight! I feel better about Huxley already.

John said...

No problem, anything to defend a figure I've always admired. Just glad to see you're using your work day productively...