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Banner for Rewriting the Book of Nature: Charles Darwin and the Rise of Evolutionary Theory banner with a portrait of Charles Darwin, circa 1830, Image B05050 from the Images from the History of Medicine (IHM).

Darwin’s Champions

Darwin’s Campaigners

Cartoon rendering of Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), Image B029016 from Images from the History of Medicine (IHM).
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), in Vanity Fair, January 28, 1871. “Men of the Day #19”

On the Origin of Species was a publishing sensation. The book promptly sold out its first edition. Supporters enthusiastically rallied to the cause, even while detractors tagged it as atheistic, subversive, and even nonsensical. The writing, carefully argued and beautifully crafted, was enormously persuasive, and Darwin quickly acquired a vocal cadre of explicators and popularizers—an international army of scientists who defended and contributed to evolutionary theory.

Chief among these was Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), an English zoologist, anatomist, and paleontologist. Huxley became known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his forceful exposition of evolutionary theory and vociferous attacks on Darwin’s critics. Self-taught, he established his scientific credentials by signing on as naturalist aboard H.M.S. Rattlesnake in a voyage of discovery to Australia and New Guinea, from 1846 to 1850. As a respected invertebrate zoologist, he obtained a position at the Royal School of Mines in 1854, while not yet 30, and became an expert anatomist. And so, he won the first debates on Darwinism, on anatomical grounds: Richard Owen (1804-1892), the expert naturalist at the British Museum, had denied fundamental structural similarities between the brains of apes and humans. Huxley could demonstrate them. As a polemicist, Huxley had few equals. Through his popular science lectures, Huxley worked to make a naturalistic view—Darwin’s view—central to British intellectual life. One lecture, “The Physical Basis of Life,” coined the work “protoplasm” and maintained that life was nothing more than the play of molecular forces, thus pushing a physiological counterpart to Darwin’s natural history. When Huxley’s lecture was published in the Fortnightly Review, a leading British periodical, it caused a great sensation. Huxley was unalterably opposed to the British religious establishment, and in a position to make his views known. Though calling himself an “agnostic” (another word that he coined, meaning “not knowing” about religious matters), he solidified the link between Darwin and atheism in the public mind.