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.