Open main menu
This page needs to be proofread.

It was amongst the members of the last class that Huxley found most material ready to his hand in the seas of the tropics. It included organisms of the most varied kind, with nothing more in common than that their parts were more or less distributed round a centre. Huxley sent home “ communication after communication to the Linnean Society,” then a somewhat somnolent body, “ with the same result as that obtained by Noah when he sent the raven out of the ark ” (Essays, i. 13). His important paper, On the Anatomy and the Affinities of the Family of Medusae, met with a better fate. It was communicated by the bishop of Norwich to the Royal Society, and printed by it in the Philosophical Transactions in 1849. Huxley united, with the Medusæ, the Hydroid and Sertularian polyps, to form a class to which he subsequently gave the name of Hydrozoa. This alone was no inconsiderable feat for a young surgeon who had only had the training of the medical school. But the ground on which it was done has led to far-reaching theoretical developments. Huxley realized that something more than superficial characters were necessary in determining the affinities of animal organisms. He found that all the members of the class consisted of two membranes enclosing a central cavity or stomach. This is characteristic of what are now called the Coelenterata. All animals higher than these have been termed Coelomata; they possess a distinct body-cavity in addition to the stomach. Huxley went further than this, and the most profound suggestion in his paper is the comparison of the two layers with those which appear in the germ of the higher animals. The consequences which have flowed from this prophetic generalization of the ectoderm and endoderm are familiar to every student of evolution. The conclusion was the more remarkable as at the time he was not merely free from any evolutionary belief, but actually rejected it. The value of Huxley's work was immediately recognized. On returning to England in 1850 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the following year, at the age of twenty-six, he not merely received the Royal medal, but was elected on the council. With absolutely no aid from any one he had placed himself in the front rank of English scientific men. He secured the friendship of Sir J. D. Hooker and John Tyndall, who remained his lifelong friends. The Admiralty retained him as a nominal assistant-surgeon, in order that he might work up the observations he had made during the voyage of the “ Rattlesnake.” He was thus enabled to produce various important memoirs, especially those on certain Ascidians, in which he solved the problem of Appendicularia—an organism whose place in the animal kingdom Johannes Müller had found himself wholly unable to assign—and on the morphology of the Cephalous Mollusca.

Richard Owen, then the leading comparative anatomist in Great Britain, was a disciple of Cuvier, and adopted largely from him the deductive explanation of anatomical fact from idealistic conceptions. He superadded the evolutionary theories of Oken, which were equally idealistic, but were altogether repugnant to Cuvier. Huxley would have none of either. Imbued with the methods of von Baer and Johannes Müller, his methods were purely inductive. He would not hazard any statement beyond what the facts revealed. He retained, however, as has been done by his successors, the use of archetypes, though they no longer represented fundamental “ ideas ” but generalizations of the essential points of structure common to the individuals of each class. He had not wholly freed himself, however, from archetypal trammels. “ The doctrine,” he says, “ that every natural group is organized after a definite archetype . . . seems to me as important for zoology as the doctrine of definite proportions for chemistry.” This was in 1853. He further stated: “ There is no progression from a lower to a higher type, but merely a more or less complete evolution of one type ” (Phil. Trans., 1853, p. 63). As Chalmers Mitchell points out, this statement is of great historical interest. Huxley definitely uses the word “ evolution,” and admits its existence within the great groups. He had not, however, rid himself of the notion that the archetype was a property inherent in the group. Herbert Spencer, whose acquaintance he made in 1852, was unable to convert him to evolution in its widest sense (Life, i. 168). He could not bring himself to acceptance of the theory—owing, no doubt, to his rooted aversion from fi priori reasoning—without a mechanical conception of its mode of operation. In his first interview with Darwin, which seems to have been about the same time, he expressed his belief “ in the sharpness of the lines of demarcation between natural groups,” and was received with a humorous smile (Life, i. 169).

The naval medical service exists for practical purposes. It is not surprising, therefore, that after his three years' nominal employment Huxley was ordered on active service. Though without private means of any kind, he resigned. The navy, however, retains the credit of having started his scientific career as well as that of Hooker and Darwin. Huxley was now thrown on his own resources, the immediate prospects of which were slender enough. As a matter of fact, he had not to wait many months. His friend, Edward Forbes, was appointed to the chair of natural history in Edinburgh, and in July 1854 he succeeded him as lecturer at the School of Mines and as naturalist to the Geological Survey in the following year. The latter post he hesitated at first to accept, as he “ did not care for fossils ” (Essays, i. 1 5). In 1855 he married Miss H. A. Heathorn, whose acquaintance he had made in Sydney. They were engaged when Huxley could offer nothing but the future promise of his ability. The confidence of his devoted helpmate was not misplaced, and her affection sustained him to the end, after she had seen him the recipient of every honour which English science could bestow. His most important research belonging to this period was the Croonian Lecture delivered before the Royal Society in 1858 on “ The Theory of the Vertebrate Skull.” In this he completely and finally demolished, by applying as before the inductive method, the idealistic, if in some degree evolutionary, views of its origin which Owen had derived from Goethe and Oken. This finally disposed of the “ archetype,” and may be said once for all to have liberated the English anatomical school from the deductive method.

In 1859 The Origin of Species was published. This was a momentous event in the history of science, and not least for Huxley. Hitherto he had turned a deaf ear to evolution. “ I took my stand,” he says, “ upon two grounds: firstly, that . . . the evidence in favour of transmutation was wholly insufficient; and secondly, that no suggestion respecting the causes of the transmutation assumed, which had been made, was in any way adequate to explain the phenomena ” (Life, i. 168). Huxley had studied Lamarck “ attentively,” but to no purpose. Sir Charles Lyell “ was the chief agent in smoothing the road for Darwin. For consistent uniformitarianism postulates evolution as much in the organic as in the inorganic world ” (l.c.); and Huxley found in Darwin what he had failed to find in Lamarck, an intelligible hypothesis good enough as a working basis. Yet with the transparent candour which was characteristic of him, he never to the end of his life concealed the fact that he thought it wanting in rigorous proof. Darwin, however, was a naturalist; Huxley was not. He says: “ I am afraid there is very little of the genuine naturalist in me. I never collected anything, and species-work was always a burden to me; what I cared for was the architectural and engineering part of the business ” (Essays, i. 7). But the solution of the problem of organic evolution must work upwards from the initial stages, and it is precisely for the study of these that “ species-work ” is necessary. Darwin, by observing the peculiarities in the distribution of the plants which he had collected in the Galapagos, was started on the path that led to his theory. Anatomical research had only so far led to transcendental hypothesis, though in Huxley's hands it had cleared the decks of that lumber. He quotes with approval Darwin's remark that “ no one has a right to examine the question of species who has not minutely described many ” (Essays, ii. 283). The rigorous proof which Huxley demanded was the production of species sterile to one another by selective breeding (Life, i. 193). But this was a misconception of the question. Sterility is a physiological character, and the specific differences which the theory undertook to account for are