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Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863) has been considered the most important of Thomas Huxley’s Darwinian writings. Despite warnings from friends that publishing an argument in support of evolution could ruin his career, it in fact did the opposite. This book did much to facilitate the general acceptance of Darwinism in Huxley’s day. Huxley demonstrates that humans are a part of the natural order of things and not radically separate from other animals. Anyone interested in the history of the Darwinian ...
Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863) has been considered the most important of Thomas Huxley’s Darwinian writings. Despite warnings from friends that publishing an argument in support of evolution could ruin his career, it in fact did the opposite. This book did much to facilitate the general acceptance of Darwinism in Huxley’s day. Huxley demonstrates that humans are a part of the natural order of things and not radically separate from other animals. Anyone interested in the history of the Darwinian revolution or in early anthropology can benefit by reading this book.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) came from a modest background. He was born on May 4, 1825, in Ealing (then a village, now a borough of London, England), to George and Rachel Huxley. He was very studious, even at an early age, having discussions with his brother-in-law (who was in the medical profession) about human anatomy and science. He taught himself German in order to read the scientific writings of the Continent. Throughout his life, many told Huxley to focus more on science than philosophy. Nonetheless, he always maintained an interest in metaphysics because of his desire to understand the ultimate causes of things.However, despite his talent, he needed to support himself through school, and did so by joining the British Navy, and soon afterwards, in 1846, he was given the position of assistant surgeon on the Rattlesnake, a surveying ship. During this voyage, he met and became engaged to Henrietta Anne Heathorn in Sydney, Australia. His future wife would provide him with much-needed support throughout his life.
The voyage on the Rattlesnake also gave Huxley the opportunity to establish himself as a comparative anatomist, and, upon his return to England in 1850, he found himself fairly well known and praised for his work as a naturalist. This initial work also laid a foundation that prepared him to eventually write Man's Place in Nature. At that time, however, naturalists had to fund their own activities, which were considered a hobby of the leisured class. Huxley needed a livelihood, especially if he was to get married. He had some initial difficulty in finding a job, and it wasn't until 1854 that he was appointed Professor of Natural History and Paleontology in the Royal School of Mines. Now that Huxley had the means to support a family, Miss Heathorn arrived in England the same year and, in 1855, they married. Huxley devoted the rest of his life to science—both furthering human knowledge and educating people about what science has taught us about the world. Education, in particular, was one of his primary concerns, and he gave many public lectures on varied topics. In fact, Man's Place in Nature was largely prepared from a series of lectures he gave on the subject in the early 1860s. Many years of his life were also taken up by public work such as serving as both secretary and, later, president of the Royal Society, president of the Geological Society, president of the Ethnological Society, Lord Rector of Aberdeen University, as well as board member the School Board of London, to name just a few of the positions he held. By the mid-1880s, keeping up with his demanding workload began to take its toll on his health. Despite taking time off to recuperate when he felt especially poor, he would return to his grueling workload as soon as he felt able. An attack of influenza followed by bronchitis in the last winter of his life weakened him even further. Just when he believed he had overcome the worst of his illness, Huxley died of heart failure on June 29, 1895.
To fully understand the context in which Huxley wrote Man's Place in Nature, one must be familiar with his famous dispute with Richard Owen (1804–1892), which Huxley briefly discusses in the book. The disputes between these two scientists go back to the early 1850s, but the particular one of interest to us began near the end of that decade. Owen had published a paper in 1858 about the Linnaean system, which is a scheme that biologists use to classify organisms. This classification scheme was commonly accepted in Huxley and Owen's time, and still is, in basic form, largely accepted today. What Owen argued in this paper, however, is that the Linnaean system required a complete overhaul. Whereas the Linnaean system placed humans and great apes in the order of primates, Owen believed that the lack of certain brain structures in great apes when compared to human brain structure provided enough grounds to place apes and humans entirely separate orders. The only problem with Owen's argument is that by the time he had submitted this paper, it had already been shown that the great apes do possess those structures. Although Owen might not have been aware of these results when he published his paper, he continued to make the same assertions in later years. Huxley, unable to bear the spread of false claims dressed up as fact, set out to publicly prove Owen wrong. Despite the evidence presented to him, Owen continued to hold his position. This debate, which grew quite heated at times, drove Huxley to collect as much data as he could about the comparative anatomy between humans and great apes, and to give lectures about his discoveries. He found that the students who attended were quite eager to learn about how similar humans are to the apes. These many notes formed the basis of the book you now hold in your hands.
In refuting Owen's claim that humans are fundamentally different from apes, Man's Place in Nature strongly defended Darwinism. Huxley believed that the many similarities between humans and apes provided enough grounds to maintain the standard Linnaean classification of humans as a member of the primate order. It is precisely this maintenance of the Linnaean classification scheme that was a point in favor of Darwinian thought, for it showed consistency between the two. Although Darwin's evolutionary theory seemed to undermine much of what was accepted at the time, Huxley's argument that it did not challenge a well-accepted framework for classifying organisms enabled the theory to be more easily accepted by the scientific community.
This is far from the only contribution that Huxley made to Darwinian thought. The debate between Huxley and Owen itself is relevant to the eventual acceptance of Darwinism. Since Huxley was a supporter of Darwin's theory of evolution, Owen initially became an opponent. The fact that this early opponent of Darwinism (who was otherwise well regarded) was revealed to be resorting to intellectual dishonesty in order to hold his position (not only ignoring the lack of evidence for his claims, but also ignoring the available evidence against them) led many to reject Owen's claims in favor of Darwin's theories. Huxley contributed to this outcome by continually refuting Owen's claims, and this, along with his writings such as Man's Place in Nature, in part earned him the epithet "Darwin's bulldog.
Unlike Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man, Huxley's Man's Place in Nature did not generate much controversy. In fact, the book received a fair bit of praise. Nevertheless, Huxley's work had its critics, although the criticisms were aimed at the scientific issues he raised in the book rather than at the social or theological issues as had been done with Darwin's works. Moreover, not all critics of the book were opposed to Huxley's views on the relationship between humans and apes. In fact, one anonymous reviewer was in full agreement with Huxley's position against Owen, yet maintained that Huxley had actually taken a step toward undermining this position by emphasizing some of the differences between humans and apes. This reviewer was referring to Huxley's assertion in a footnote in chapter 2 that articulate speech, which humans possess but apes don't, is of primary significance to intellectual capacity. According to the reviewer, Huxley used articulate speech in the same way that Owen had been using brain structures, i. e. , as an emphasis of difference. Other critical reviewers not surprisingly sided with Owen on the debate, and attacked Huxley from that position. The book did not generate the great controversy that might have been expected, but it was not fully accepted in Huxley's time either. It wasn't until the twentieth century, when evolutionary theory became more widely accepted, in particular by anthropologists, that Man's Place in Nature would gain greater acceptance and praise.
A possible reason why Huxley's book did not generate controversy is that he only provisionally accepted Darwinism. Despite being known as "Darwin's bulldog," Huxley did not completely embrace Darwin's theory of natural selection. Unlike what is often said of many of his contemporaries, however, this was not because of any ideological bias against an evolutionary account. Rather, Huxley was aware that while evolution by natural selection was a very reasonable account of the origin of species, and had much to recommend it in this regard, the evidence was not conclusive. In particular, he draws attention to the fact that selection has not been observed to produce different species (at least, not in Huxley's time—speciation has been observed in the lab in the twentieth century). While he suggests that Darwinism could offer a possible account of the many similarities between humans and apes, it is those similarities that give grounds for classifying both humans and great apes as primates, not a reliance on natural selection. And so it could well be that what prevented the same degree of controversy that was generated by Darwin's book about humans was the very fact that Huxley's claims went no further than the evidence that was available at the time.
One final aspect of Huxley's thought is worth noting here. Mentioned only in passing in Man's Place in Nature, but discussed in greater detail in his Evolution and Ethics (first delivered in the Romanes Lecture in 1893), are his views on the relation between moral prescriptions and the natural world. Social Darwinists, such as Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), argued that because "competition" led to "progress" in the natural world (this is an interpretation of Darwinism that reads human values into nature), then for society to progress at all, there should be unrestricted competition between people. This view has been used to support capitalist economics, and nationalists have applied the same idea to argue for competition between nations. Many of those who disagreed with these sorts of prescriptions for human social behavior have often been led to reject the evolutionary view of nature altogether. For his part, Huxley rejected the claim that moral lessons can be gained from nature at all, which was a basic premise of these various Social Darwinists. So while accepting that the natural world was vicious, Huxley did not believe that this means that humans should be, or are even allowed to be, cruel toward each other. If anything, Huxley argued, we should rise above this. Nor does having a place in nature with other living things diminish the worth of our lives, another fear of those who oppose Darwinism. Toward the end of chapter 2, Huxley states that, just as a mountain can still be majestically tall despite being formed of rock that once lined the ocean floor, the fact that humans share a common ancestry with other animals takes nothing away from the value of poetry or philosophy, or from the value of a mother's love for her children. This is a lesson just as important to remember today as it was in Huxley's time.
Selman Halabi is a candidate for a Ph. D. in philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He studies the history and philosophy of science, and his current research focuses on the role that social values play in the sciences.
Posted October 20, 2010
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