Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest

By Adrian Desmond | Go to book overview
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The Apostle Paul of the New Teaching

'MY GOOD & KIND agent for the propagation of the Gospel', Darwin called him, 'ie the Devil's gospel'. Thomas Henry Huxley became Darwin's Rottweiler, instantly recognizable by his deep-set dark eyes and lashing tongue. Where Darwin held back, Huxley lunged at his limping prey. It was he, not Darwin, who enraptured and outraged audiences in the 1860s with talk of our ape ancestors and cave men. Listeners were agog in a prim, evangelical age. These were terrifying, tantalizing images. 'It is not the bishops and archbishops I am afraid of', Samuel Butler once said. 'Men like Huxley ... are my natural enemies'. 1 No-one stirred passions like Thomas Henry Huxley.

Huxley was one of the founders of the sceptical, scientific twentieth century. We owe to him that enduring military metaphor, the 'war' of science against theology. He coined the word 'agnostic' and contributed to the West's existential crisis. All of this makes him look so modern that we want to snatch him from his age. Today his agnostic stand seems obvious. But yesterday it was an immensely daring, motivated, ideological position. That plodding zoological autocrat, Richard Owen, called him a pervert with 'some, perhaps congenital, defect of mind' for denying Divine will in Nature. 2 Who can realize the prissy, patronage-based, undemocratic, sermon-dominated, Anglican-controlled, different society Huxley faced, and faced squarely?

He remains a saint to some, a sinner to others. He had a huge, multi‐ talented intellect and seemed to run ten lives simultaneously. 'Brilliant' was George Eliot's word for him, but even she wondered where this agent provocateur would strike next. He had a stiletto of a pen. 'Cutting up monkeys was his forte, and cutting up men was his foible', the Pall Mall Gazette noted. The alternative, for Huxley, was 'to lie still & let the devil have his own way. And I will be torn to pieces before I am forty

-xiii-

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