Happy Birthday Thomas Huxley!

Today is the 185th birthday of Thomas Henry Huxley, pioneer in animal systematics and comparative anatomy. He was known as Darwin's Bulldog for his spirited, passionate, often sarcastic and witty defence of the latter's theory of evolution by natural selection, which the reader may be familiar with. In fact, of all Darwin's contemporary defenders, Huxley is widely considered to be the hottest.

Please form one line, no pushing.

Huxley was trained as a physician and, like Darwin, he got his scientific start on a mission with the British navy.  The HMS Rattlesnake was commissioned to survey a swathe of the coast of northern Australia, from the site of present-day Darwin* to Sydney, as well as the parts of the coast of Papua New Guinea and many of the smaller islands that fall in between. Huxley was a physician by trade, and was hired as a surgeon's mate; a job that traditionally involved scientific duties as well as medical ones. In between his medical duties, bouts of the depression that he struggled with all his life and nautical adventures (including the discovery of Barbara Thompson, who had been shipwrecked, rescued by the Kaureg natives and had lived as one of them on Prince of Whales Island for the past five years), Huxley wrote a number of papers on invertebrate sea life (notably jellyfish) which were read at the Linnean and Royal Societies. On his return to England, he found that he was already a well-scientist. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at only 25 years old.

Huxley was one of the few Charles Darwin told of his work on evolution before he published. Although Huxley was never quite convinced of the truth of natural selection (due to what he perceived as a paucity of empirical evidence), he saw the truth of Darwin's 'descent with modification' immediately. While reading On the Origin of Species he was said to have exclaimed "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!" He was soon defending Darwin's ideas with such enthusiasm and vitriol that he earned the nickname 'Darwin's Bulldog'. His activities in this vein reached a climax at the famous Oxford evolution debate with Bishop Sam Wilberforce. This was a bit of a circus: it featured a few exchanges of insults, at least one fainting woman and Capt. Robert FitzRoy, formerly of the Beagle, holding a Bible over his head shouting "The Book! The Book!". Both sides claimed victory.

Huxley is one of those thinkers whose influence seems to show up wherever we look. He wrote the first book on the topic of human evolution: Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature, correctly placing us with the great apes; his influence helped make pure biology classes a staple in universities; he invented the word 'agnostic' to describe his own beliefs and he was an early opponent 'social Darwinism', the odious political philosophy. His grandchildren include Julian Huxley, an evolutionary biologist of the highest quality, the still extant Andrew Huxley, Nobel-prize-winning physiologist and one-time president of the Royal Society, and Aldous Huxley, who was an extremely good novelist before he went completely around the twist.

Happy Birthday, Hux!

*Yes, it's named after that Darwin.

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