Anecdotes of Huxley

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Huxley was more than one of the greatest scientists of the last century; he was a man of literary ability. By his popular lectures and clear expositions he probably did more than any other man of the century to popularize the many and important discoveries of the scientific world. At first there was much opposition to him, owing to a lack of information on the part of the public as to the import of the doctrine of evolution. Ex-President Gilman of Johns Hopkins University tells what a storm of protest was raised in America when Huxley was invited to deliver the opening address at the founding of the new university. Huxley is not even now regarded as an orthodox man, but much of the former prejudice has given way.

John Fiske, who in so many ways can be regarded as the American Huxley, has published a magazine article giving his impressions of Huxley. In this article he gives two versions of a famous Huxley anecdote. Here is one:

"It was at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860, soon after the publication of Darwin's epoch-making book, and while people in general were wagging their heads at it, that the subject came up before a hostile and fashionable audience. Samuel Wilberforce, the plausible and self-complacent Bishop of Oxford, commonly known as 'Soapy Sam,' launched out in a rash speech, conspicuous for its ignorant mis-statements, and highly seasoned with appeals to the prejudices of the audience, upon whose lack of intelligence the speaker relied. Near him sat Huxley, already known as a man of science, and known to look favorably upon Darwinism, but more or less youthful withal, only five-and-thirty, so that the bishop anticipated sport in badgering him. At the close of his speech he suddenly turned upon Huxley and begged to be informed if the learned gentleman was really willing to be regarded as the descendant of a monkey. Eager self-confidence had blinded the bishop to the tactical blunder in thus inviting a retort. Huxley was instantly upon his feet with a speech demolishing the bishop's card house of mistakes; and at the close he observed that since a question of personal preferences had been very improperly brought into a discussion of a scientific theory, he felt free to confess that if the alternatives were descent, on the one hand from a respectable monkey, or on the other from a bishop of the English church who would stoop to such misrepresentations and sophisms as the audience had lately listened to, he would declare in favor of the monkey!... It is curious to read that in the ensuing buzz of excitement a lady fainted, and had to be carried from the room; but the audience were in general quite alive to the bishop's blunder in manners and tactics, and, with the genuine English love of fair play, they loudly applauded Huxley. From that time forth it was recognized that he was not the sort of man to be browbeaten. As for Bishop Wilberforce, he carried with him from the affray no bitterness, but was always afterwards most courteous to his castigator."

Huxley was a great reader of history, poetry, metaphysics, and fiction, but this is not what made him a great scientist. Original men make books, they do not need to read them. Yet Huxley loved to read. He even in his old age studied Greek to read Aristotle and the New Testament in the original. But Huxley loved things even more than books. He had little respect for mere bookish knowledge. "A rash clergyman once, without further equipment in natural science than desultory reading, attacked the Darwinian theory in some sundry magazine articles, in which he made himself uncommonly merry at Huxley's expense. This was intended to draw the great man's fire, and as the batteries remained silent the author proceeded to write to Huxley, calling his attention to the articles, and at the same time, with mock modesty, asking advice as to the further study of these deep questions. Huxley's answer was brief and to the point: 'Take a cockroach and dissect it.'"

Huxley was fond of children and their ways. His son, Leonard, tells us that Julian, the grandchild of Huxley was a child made up of a combination of cherub and pickle. Huxley had been in his garden watering with a hose. The little four-year-old was with him. Huxley came in and said: "I like that chap! I like the way he looks you straight in the face and disobeys you. I told him not to go on the wet grass again. He just looked up boldly straight at me, as much as to say, 'What do you mean by ordering me about?' and deliberately walked on to the grass." In the spring the approval was not so decided. "I like that chap; he looks you straight in the face. But there's a falling off in one respect since last August—he now does what he is told."

When Julian, the grandchild, was learning to read and write, he became interested in Water-Babies, a story that has delighted so many children. In it he found a reference to his grandfather as one who knew much about water-babies. So he wrote to his grandfather:

Dear Grandpater, have you seen a water baby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Can I see it some day?

Your loving

This is the answer to the letter:

March 24, 1892.

My Dear Julian:

I never could make out about that water-baby. I have seen babies in water and babies in bottles; but the baby in the water was not in the bottle and the baby in the bottle was not in the water.

Ever your loving

Huxley was also fond of cats and dogs and pets of all kind. His son tells us that once he found his father in an uncomfortable seat, while the cat had the best chair. He defended himself by saying that he could not turn the beast away. In 1893 a man, who was writing on the Pets of Celebrities, wrote to him for information concerning his personal likings. Huxley sent him this letter:

A long series of cats has reigned over my household for the last forty years or thereabouts; but I am sorry to say that I have no pictorial or other record of their physical and moral excellencies.

The present occupant of the throne is a large young gray tabby, Oliver by name. Not that in any sense he is a protector, for I doubt whether he has the heart to kill a mouse. However, I saw him catch and eat the first butterfly of the season, and trust that the germ of courage thus manifest may develop, with age, into efficient mousing.

As to sagacity, I should say that his judgment respecting the warmest place and the softest cushion in the room is infallible, his punctuality at meal-time is admirable, and his pertinacity in jumping on people's shoulders till they give him some of the best of what is going indicates great firmness.