Laelaps

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With all my running around this weekend I completely forgot that yesterday was the 183rd anniversary of T.H. Huxley’s birth. Unfortunately, however, Huxley is generally regarded as “Darwin’s Bulldog” and little else, his other accomplishments and role in the formation of professional science often overshadowed by a debate that never actually happened. While Huxley certainly did use his “beak and claws” to defend evolution, his view of how and when evolution occurred would seem unfamiliar to us today. His career has become something of a historical footnote, his support of evolution widely cited but his disagreements with Darwin virtually unknown, but the truth about Huxley is far more interesting than the caricature that is so often trotted out.

I am no Huxley scholar, but as I have learned more about his ideas and seemingly endless arguments with the anatomist Sir Richard Owen the thoughts and assertions of the real Huxley stand in sharp contrast to the cardboard version of him that we often pay lip-service to. In terms of when evolution occurred, for instance, Huxley thought that the majority of evolutionary change (the origin of birds, mammals, reptiles, etc.) occurred so far back in geologic time that there might not be strata old enough that would preserve the true transitional forms. Silurian mammals and Cambrian birds could certainly turn up under this system, and the fact that they had not owed to the rarity of the rocks and the young age of the geological sciences. From what I understand this view had much to do with the cyclical nature of time and appearance of life on earth that Lyell illustrated in his Principles of Geology, although I admit that I need to learn a bit more to connect the ideas of Lyell & Huxley more concretely.

Since that earlier time in which the earliest representatives of later types evolved many forms had “persisted,” and the story of evolution could still be teased out through creatures that represented the older forms. Indeed, it may come as something of a shock that Huxley did not think that dinosaurs evolved into birds (as is commonly repeated), but held that some dinosaurs like Compsagnathus and Hypsilophodon preserved important anatomical points that related them to birds and pointed to a common ancestor lost in the abyss of Deep Time. The extinct Moas of New Zealand would better represent the first birds than Archaeopteryx, although Richard Owen roped-in the same giant birds in support of his ideas involving the degeneration of forms from earlier ancestors. Although one can hardly write a history of Archaeopteryx without mentioning Huxley, the urvogel was not nearly as important as flightless birds and small bipedal dinosaurs, a fact that contradicts popular histories like that in Pat Shipman’s book Taking Wing.

What’s more, Huxley’s papers on Archaeopteryx and the relationship of reptiles to birds had as much to do with his continuing debates with Owen as the science itself. As an anatomist, Huxley reveled in any error his could find in Owen’s work, Huxley’s papers being just as useful in chronicling the arguments between the two naturalists as the exchange of scientific ideas. Huxley’s greatest victory against Owen being won during the great “hippocampus debate.” Owen insisted that only humans possessed a structure of the brain then called the hippocampus minor, but Huxley demonstrated that the structure was present in apes as well (thus closing the gap between apes and humans that Owen tried so hard to widen). This was very embarrassing for Owen and only fueled the ill-will shared between the men.

There is much more that could be said about Huxley, and fortunately some historians have produced a number of volumes about his work and impact on not only evolution and the formation of professionalized science. Archetypes and Ancestors is as good a place as any to start, although I’m sure the biography Huxley is much more in-depth (I haven’t read it, but I like Adrian Desmond’s work and am fairly certain it will make for a good read when I get to it). After that, there’s no excuse not to read the words of Huxley himself, Man’s Place in Nature being his most influential book.

Whatever we do, though, we should stop blindly accepting the corroding textbook cardboard that is peddled in so many books and television programs. Science historians have been digging for the truth about figures like Huxley and Owen for years, yet their excellent work is often ignored; Owen remains a villain, Huxley a hero, Cuvier a despised catastrophist, Lyell the hero of modern geology, and so on. Paying lip service to naturalists of centuries past is all too common, even among modern scientists, and there is no excuse to perpetuate myths when the realities are so much more interesting.

Comments

  1. #1 Shirakawasuna
    May 5, 2008

    Great post. As there seems to be a decent amount of ‘textbook cardboard’, do you have any recommendations for a cognitive historical shortcut like some good historians that consistently do good work? Going to the source is always a good method, but sometimes I’d much rather read a collectiona and analysis than the primary sources!

  2. #2 Laelaps
    May 5, 2008

    Shira; I listed the books at the end of the post just for that reason. I’ve found Adrian Desmond (author of both Huxley and Ancestors & Archetypes to be consistently good, although Peter Bowler is another fine historian that has written extensively about evolution. Be sure to check out the work of Ronald Numbers (particularly in The Creationists), too. Martin Rudwick has done more about paleontology as a science, but his books are definitely worth looking at, too (although they’re usually quite long).

    Although some people might have qualms about some of his work (i.e. accusing Teilhard de Chardin of being involved in the “Piltdown Man” forgery, which has not been substantiated), Stephen Jay Gould’s essays often offer a more in-depth look at particular books and figures. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle is great, and most (if not all) of his essay collections contain some work involving going back to the source material in an effort to combat scientific “legends.” Like I said, some people would have reservations about calling him a “historian of science,” but his work has definitely inspired me to collect as much original material as I can and enjoy what is found in yellowing, dusty 19th century books.

  3. #3 Shirakawasuna
    May 5, 2008

    Excellent, thanks for the new reading list! I wasn’t sure if your citations constituted a good summary of your recommendations.

    I am personally a bit confused as to how much I should trust Gould’s work. On one hand, he put out a massive number of citations which mostly check out and has some very good arguments. On the other, he seems to alternatingly read like a very biased advocate for a particular position and then as a more detached and thorough writer, with only context and writing style to help me tell which is which. It all gets a bit confusing and so far my only guess as to what to do is to read up on every subject he’s commented on and thoroughly go through his citations and criticisms. How do you deal with deciphering when Gould was advocate versus a more independent writer, if you agree with that characterization? (this is a question for anyone)

  4. #4 Laelaps
    May 6, 2008

    I don’t know enough about Gould’s style to tell you when he’s going to do what, and I’m having a difficult time coming up with a good example of a more biased argument off the top of my head. He was something of an apologist for Richard Goldschmidt and “hopeful monsters,” and while the concept has merit some thought that he ascribed more to Goldschmidt than was really due him. Other books like The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox involve more direct critiques of some of his intellectual opponents (in this case E.O. Wilson).

    (Oh, I had forgotten Edward Larson from the previous list. He has written some excellent books on the Scopes Trial and the Galapagos Islands.)

    It sounds like you at least have a feel for when “something is up” with Gould’s essays, though, in which case I would say look at the source material (if possible) or see what others say on that topic. Unfortunately it does require an investment of time as well as some money as most of these books are not readily available unless you live near a massive library, but it is worth it.

  5. #5 Shirakawasuna
    May 6, 2008

    Luckily, I am near massive libraries :). The best clue for when Gould is trying to stack the deck for me is when he starts making rhetorical comparisons and makes it *really* obvious. The thing he likes is shiny and awesome, the think he doesn’t is simplistic and lame.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  6. #6 altın çilek
    March 26, 2011

    I don’t know enough about Gould’s style to tell you when he’s going to do what, and I’m having a difficult time coming up with a good example of a more biased argument off the top of my head.

  7. #7 altın çilek
    March 26, 2011

    rhetorical comparisons and makes it *really* obvious. The thing he likes is shiny and awesome, the think he doesn’t is simplistic and lame.

  8. #8 altın çilek
    March 29, 2011

    some very good arguments. On the other, he seems to alternatingly read like a very biased advocate for a particular position and then as a more detached and thorough writer, with only context and writing style to help me tell which is which. It all gets a bit confusing and so far my only guess as to what to do is to read up on every subject he’s commented on and thoroughly go through his citations and criticisms.

  9. #9 altın çilek
    March 29, 2011

    Luckily, I am near massive libraries :). The best clue for when Gould is trying to stack the deck for me is when he starts making rhetorical comparisons and makes it *really* obvious. The thing he likes is shiny and awesome, the think he doesn’t is simplistic and lame.

  10. #10 canlı maç izle
    March 30, 2011

    I agree with altın çiçek first comment “I don’t know enough about Gould’s style to tell you when he’s going to do what, and I’m having a difficult time coming up with a good example of a more biased argument off the top of my head. “

  11. #11 altın çilek
    March 31, 2011

    Luckily, I am near massive libraries :). The best clue for when Gould is trying to stack the deck for me is when he starts making rhetorical comparisons and makes it *really* obvious. The thing he likes is shiny and awesome, the think he doesn’t is simplistic and lame.

  12. #12 capsiplex
    April 3, 2011

    On the other, he seems to alternatingly read like a very biased advocate for a particular position and then as a more detached and thorough writer, with only context and writing style to help me tell which is which. It all gets a bit confusing and so far my only guess as to what to do is to read up on every subject he’s commented on and thoroughly go through his citations and criticisms.

  13. #13 altın çilek
    April 3, 2011

    Luckily, I am near massive libraries :). The best clue for when Gould is trying to stack the deck for me is when he starts making rhetorical comparisons and makes it *really* obvious. The thing he likes is shiny and awesome, the think he doesn’t is simplistic and lame.

  14. #14 izlanda yosun hapı
    July 20, 2011

    rhetorical comparisons and makes it *really* obvious. The thing he likes is shiny and awesome, the think he doesn’t is simplistic and lame.

  15. #15 cam balkon fiyatları
    July 25, 2011

    tahnk tou arhetorical comparisons and makes it *really* obvious. The thing he likes is shiny and awesome, the think he doesn’t is simplistic and lame.

  16. #16 ozoderm
    August 2, 2011

    Great post. As there seems to be a decent amount of ‘textbook cardboard’, do you have any recommendations for a cognitive historical shortcut like some good historians that consistently do good work? Going to the source is always a good method, but sometimes I’d much rather read a collectiona and analysis than the primary sources!

  17. #17 clavis panax
    November 16, 2011

    Luckily, I am near massive libraries :). The best clue for when Gould is trying to stack the deck for me is when he starts making rhetorical comparisons and makes it *really* obvious. The thing he likes is shiny and awesome, the think he doesn’t is simplistic and lame….