§ 8. The Matter of Life: Protoplasm


Huxley was the major Victorian promoter of the methods and philosophy of scientific investigation and of its impact on culture. Just a few years after returning from the Rattlesnake voyage, in a long review, The Cell Theory (1853), Huxley the historian gives an account of the development of an understanding of the cell's structure and function by Theodor Schwann, Casper Friedrich Wolff, and others. He disagreed with the interpretation that there was some mysterious force activating cellular function, and instead supported the interpretation that cellular activity is the result of molecular, mechanistic causes. He also discussed the scientific method which relied as much on imagination as on observation and reasoning to arrive at a feasible conclusion. The next year's On the Present State of Knowledge as to the Structure and Functions of Nerve (1854), delivered to the Royal Institution, concludes its investigation of nerves with a comment on science having dispelled ignorance: the "mechanician has proved that the living body obeys the mechanical laws of ordinary matter."

In describing chalk, coal, and coral in their geological sites, Huxley of course also discusses these as biological objects. The first animal he used as a type for illustrating scientific principles was the lobster–A Lobster; or, the Study of Zoology (1861). Here we are given an extended definition of zoology, subsumed into morphology, distribution, and physiology, which "regards animal bodies as machines impelled by certain forces, and performing an amount of work which can be expressed in terms of the ordinary forces of nature. The final object of physiology is to deduce the facts of morphology, on the one hand, and those of distribution on the other, from the laws of the molecular forces of matter."

At a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in early October of 1862, Huxley stated to auditors a point he had made before and would make again and again, the dissociation of mentality from morphology: "the difference between man and the ape was psychical, not physical–was manifested by attributes of the mind, not by modifications of the body"–"On the Zoological Significance of the Brain and Limb Characters of the Gorilla, as Contrasted with Those of Man." But though he often returned to this point of dissociation, he also often returned to supporting its antithesis, as in "Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature."

On the Adviseableness of Improving Natural Knowledge (1866) contrasts a 17th century English culture afflicted by fire, plague, and piety to the new philosophy symbolized by founding of the Royal Society (of which he would be president). Among the other articles published in the late 'sixties was "On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature" in which Huxley informed his working man audience that they were organized molecules, their molecular structure having as one of its functions what we call the moral sense. A Presbyterian minister familiar with these subversive essays by a man who had already been dubbed "anti-Christ" invited Huxley to initiate lectures at an Edinburgh church. So it came about that in 1869, Huxley delivered to a Sunday gathering of Scotch Presbyterians a talk On the Physical Basis of Life. His friend Murchison was awe-stricken at Huxley's engaging in such a danger: January 20, 1869. William Lawrence, whom Huxley read as a boy, might have been equally impressed, though Lawrence had reduced mentality to physiology.

On the Physical Basis of Life (1868) proposes that all living things, including human beings, are unified in their sharing of protoplasm, which they build up and exhaust throughout their existence. He targets himself as an example of a living thing which is exhausting its fuel in the very acts of talking–and of thinking. A prelude to this is On the Identity of Structure of Plants and Animals (1851).

Huxley had been warned that he would be stoned if he delivered so subversive a discourse; but the audience greeted the bad news cordially. It seemed, a friend of Mrs. Huxley wrote to her, that the audience was so enraptured it had ceased to breathe; Huxley was so impressively earnest that they all felt "he was advocating the cause of truth." The issue of the periodical in which the essay appeared went into seven editions, which, according to John Morley, editor of the Fortnightly Review, had not happened in British publishing history for more than a century.

It was attacked first of all for what critics took as its materialism, its basic view that the universe consists of matter in motion and nothing else (no spirit, either divine or personal). One expression of materialism is monism, the emphasis on unity among living things rather than dualism, the emphasis of difference. Another is necessitarianism or determinism, that we are programmed by the cosmic past–though Huxley seemed to have a faith in determinism as pious as that of Jonanthan Edwards, he denied it: "Fact I know; and Law I know; but what is this Necessity, save an empty shadow of my mind's throwing?" (See letter to Kingsley–May 22, 1863). Another goes under the name of epiphenomenalism, that our thoughts are products of a machine called the brain. Several articles and books came out in the seventies attacking "On the Physical Basis of Life" for being a materialistic manifesto, though Huxley himself denied that he was a materialist, and often attacked materialism as he did two decades later in Address to the Royal Academy 1887. Accessible here are typical critiques of "On the Physical Basis of Life."

Favorable criticism, as appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette in February of 1869–Huxley on the Physical Basis of Life, and in Vanity Fair in January of 1871–Men of the Day–was rare; this commentary features a famous, often-reproduced, cartoon, "A great Med'cine Man, among the Inqui-ring Redskins." In 1892, preparing "On the Physical Basis of Life" for inclusion in his Collected Essays, Huxley noted "I cannot say I have ever had to complain of lack of hostile criticism; but the preceding essay has come in for more than its fair share of that commodity." Mr. Storks, in Mallock's The New Republic, discourses eloquently on the physical basis of spiritual life. Less funny than this caricature are Mallock's "Cowardly Agnosticism" and Richard Hutton's hostile criticism in the Spectator (April, 1870), which analyzes the absurdity of a machine designing ethics–Professor Huxley as a Machine.

In a paper delivered before the Biological Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1869, a Reverend McCann noted that "The hypothesis that a material man may be evolved from a material atom, is materialism, without any possibility of escape" (Anti-Darwinism, with Professor Huxley's Reply ). F. G. Morris attacked the essay in Difficulties of Darwinism (1869), which contrasted Biblical "Words of the Wise" with Huxleyan "Words of the Wiseacre." TheWitness, edited by the pious geologist Hugh Miller, wondered why Edinburgh Christians had invited Huxley, "the advocate of the vilest and beastliest paradox ever vented in ancient or modern times amongst Pagans or Christians," and wondered also why the audience had not immediately formed a "Gorilla Emancipation Society"–The Philosophical Institution and Professor Huxley Dr. James Hutchinson Stirling, in a one-shilling pamphlet, As Regards Protoplasm in Relation to Professor Huxley's Essay on the Physical Basis of Life (1869) charged that Huxley had led us into materialism through physiology and then had failed to lead us out through philosophy. Rowland Hazard's "Animals Not Automata" was published in the U. S. Popular Science Monthly (1872).

In the course of the essay, Huxley eagerly differentiated his philosophy, agnosticism, from 19th century Positivism or Comtism, which Huxley disliked because it was arcane, unscientific, and ecclesiastical: "Catholicism minus Christianity." Huxley had paid attention to Auguste Comte in reviews of books by Harriet Martineau and Henry Lewes on this philosopher: Martineau, et al. (1854). The Positivist Richard Congreve put down Huxley and put up Comte in Mr. Huxley on M. Comte (1869), on which Huxley commented in a letter to Kingsley: April 12, 1869 and to which he publicly replied in The Scientific Aspects of Positivism. The Saturday Review, in its Professor Huxley on Comte(June 1869), found that the "brilliant" "On the Physical Basis of Life" "rejoiced our heart" though it had been mauled by "young lions" such as Mr. Congreve. The British Quarterly Review also praised Huxley's condemnation of Comtism and much else in its Review of Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews, an 1870 collection of Huxleyana to that date. Lay Sermons was a best seller: 15,000 copies of it were printed in 1870 alone. The writer of this review, in direct opposition to R. H. Hutton, complimented Huxley not only for his "healthy, vigorous, and earnest spirit," not only for his "reverence for nature," but also for "the profound humility of extreme knowledge" which characterized "On the Physical Basis of Life."

Huxley’s attack on materialism did not prevent critics from placing him in the clan of materialists; and his attack on positivism did not prevent Edward J. M. Collins, a teacher and novelist, from placing him into the decadent Positivist clan, along with Comte, Tyndall, and John Stuart Mill. The main ambition of these gentlemen is to replace traditional marriage with free love...

The Positivists


In 1870, the most productive of his productive career, Huxley was 45. Pictures of him as President of the British Association appeared in at least four periodicals of 1870-71:

"People of the Period"

Cartoon from The Period of THH as President of BA, Nov. 26, 1870
President, Ethnological Society, 1868
Principal of South London Working Men's College, 1868-80
President, Geological Society, 1869
Elected to London School Board, 1870

Huxley on Mountin' Kids Hornet, 1871
"Having anatomically gauged the capabilities of the knowledge-box to spell 'pap' fluently, and at the age of seven embark in surgery, music, and the study of natural phenomena, including, of course, itself."

Preface VI (1893) begins with an account of Rene Descartes, whom Huxley considered to be "the father of modern philosophy," whose "conceptions of scientific method and of the conditions and limits of certainty, are far more essentially and characteristically modern than those of any of his immediate predecessors and successors." His affection for the work of Rene Descartes is seen in On Descartes' "Discourse Touching the Method of Using One's Reason Rightly and of Seeking Scientific Truth" (1870), in which he states clearly enough, "we shall, sooner or later, arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness, just as we have arrived at a mechanical equivalent of heat." He recognized that in this universe there is more than matter, force, and necessary laws; there is thought. Since our knowledge is only that of mental impressions, we have to consider materialism as a sort of "shorthand idealism," permitting us to describe natural phenomena but not to conclude that only that which we can describe actually exists.

Huxley had delivered to the Metaphysical Society a paper that saw publication only as a small private pamphlet for the Society's metaphysicians: Has a Frog a Soul. He had this in mind when he was invited to give a talk to the Belfast meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, its president the chemist and close friend, John Tyndall. On August 24, 1870, Huxley delivered another talk on human beings as machines, an extension of his reflections in the frog paper: On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and Its History (1874). As he had argued before, in this address Huxley defines free will as the freedom to perform automatic actions without external restraint, and removed his philosophy from that of other -isms: "I really have no claim to rank myself among fatalistic, materialistic, or atheistic philosophers. Not among fatalists, for I take the conception of necessity to have a logical, and not a physical foundation; not among materialists, for I am utterly incapable of conceiving the existence of matter if there is no mind in which to picture that existence; not among atheists, for the problem of the ultimate cause of existence is one which seems to me to be hopelessly out of reach of my poor powers." "The great fact" insisted upon by Descartes was that "no likeness of external things is, or can be, transmitted to the mind by the sensory organs; on the contrary, that, between the external cause of a sensation and the sensation, there is interposed a mode of motion of nervous matter, of which the state of consciousness is no likeness, but a mere symbol, is of the profoundest importance. It is the physiological foundation of the doctrine of the relativity of knowledge, and a more or less complete idealism is a necessary consequence of it." He wrote to his wife about his and Tyndall's contributions at Belfast–August 20, 1874.


This talk on automatism was, in Huxley's view, "a complete success, ... the people listening as still as mice"– August 25, 1870; it was also notorious, but less so than the Belfast address delivered by Tyndall. The 1874 Belfast Addresses by Huxley and Tyndall received several notices in Punch, among them:

Wanted. The Philosopher
An 1874 squib on attempt to use protoplasm as bridge between human and ape beings Fig.: Spare Pains
British Automata; Or, Hopelessly Unconscious
Parody of Huxley's automatism address (September 1874)
Dogmatists on Dogma
Comment on Roman Catholic reconciliation with modern science (November 1874)
The Fine Old Atom-Molecule
December 1874 song, a precis of materialistic evolution Fig.: Monkey flute

Darwin did not approve of Huxley's paper; in 1882, he wrote "That on automatism is wonderfully interesting; more is the pity, say I, for if I were as well armed as Huxley I would challenge him to a duel on this subject. But I am a deal too wise to do anything of the kind, for he would run me through the body half a dozen times with his sharp and polished rapier before I knew where I was."

The London Presbyterian College did not approve of advancing materialistic Darwinism. A lecture delivered there by Professor Watts and published in 1875, inquired, "Young men of Great Britain and Ireland! will you identify yourselves with a science falsely so-called, which would identify you with brutes, and, repressing the noblest aspirations of your nature, would turn our world into a Sodom, and lay upon your brightest hopes the blight of an external night?" Talks such as those by Huxley and Tyndall at Belfast were open proclamations of war against Christianity, against all religion, against all morality. Watts praised Huxley as a literary stylist. The Irish Church Society's Journal (1875) had no praise for anything in Huxley's essay: anyone differing from the Professor on matters of religion "is ipso facto a pigmy, an ecclesiastical drummer, and a number of other foolish and contemptible things.... Such are the dignified amenities of science." Despite his claim otherwise, Huxley is an atheist. Huxley's lecture had been "universally read," the critic complained. Huxley sent a copy of it to Ernst Haeckel in the hope of converting that materialist to anti-materialism–January 20, 1869.

President BAAS
Portrait from a photograph by Elliot and Fry: Steel Engraving in Nature, 1874. based on Illustrated London News, 1870

By 1875, protoplasm and automatism had become almost as well known as the hippocampus minor had been in the 'sixties–§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution. Disraeli said that in London society young men casually prattled about it. It was attacked by Lord Blachford, in his Contemporary Review article "Professor Huxley's Hypothesis that Animals Are Automata." It was time, one anti-Darwinian decided, to compile a scientific catechism from the Revelation of Professor Huxley; he did so in one of the most unrestrained tracts of the period, the title of which gives its attitude: Protoplasm, Powheads, and Porwiggles; and the Evolution of the Horse from the Rhinoceros; illustrating Professor Huxley's Scientific Mode of Getting up the Creation and Upsetting Moses. (1875). This comical travesty, Protoplasm, Powheads, Porwiggles, attacks Huxley for advocating materialism and evolutionary theory, for transmuting the "glory of God into protoplasm," and for assaulting Moses and the scriptures. The anonymous writer and poet (half the piece is in verse) condemns Aberdeen for having elected Huxley as its Rector, Huxley being merely a preacher of lay sermons, a "Harlequin of Science." "Great is protoplasm. There is no life but protoplasm, and Huxley is its prophet," observed the novelist and critic Samuel Butler in Luck and Cunning.

Sense and Sensation

In 1865, Huxley gave lectures in elementary physiology, the lecture theater packed full. The book Lessons in Elementary Physiology was first published in 1866; second edition, 1868, reprinted five times; third edition, 1872, reprinted fourteen times; the fourth edition, 1885, reprinted eight times. Over 205,000 copies of Physiology were sold from 1866 to 1915. His lecture On Elementary Education in Physiology was delivered to a meeting of the Domestic Economy Congress at Birmingham and printed in the year before Hume (1877). A connection between physiology and theology was made by a priest who after reading Lessons asked Huxley if the sacrament were voided like other food– Huxley gently informed him that it would be digested like other food:–February 3, 1892. Automatism as a philosophical view related to physiology was much on his mind in the 70's; in addition to his physiology books, these years also saw his essay Bishop Berkeley on the Metaphysics of Sensation (1871), and in 1879 he gave an evening lecture at the Royal Institution On Sensation and the Structure of the Sensiferous Organs.

Alphonse Legros oil sketch, 1879, year of publication of The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study of Zoology and Hume

When Hume became the major item for Collected Essays VI, it was accompanied by these two essays on "sensation" and by the preface, which was written in 1894. The book traces Hume's life in sections on his literary and political writings and on the history of England in his later years and his philosophy. A central theme is the discussion of epistemology. Basic to philosophical discussion is an understanding of what one means by knowledge and of how one acquires it; and this understanding, according to Huxley, comes not from a study of the Bible or of Plato, but of the human brain.

In the essays noted and in Hume, he posits that psychology depends upon physiology–"Surely no one who is cognisant of the facts of the case, nowadays, doubts that the roots of psychology lie in the physiology of the nervous system"; and philosophy depends on psychology; therefore, to complete the circle, the physiologist makes the best philosopher. The sensations, perceptions of relations among ideas, all the material which make up knowledge, as Huxley had said in his earlier essays, are produced by bodily changes. "Our knowledge is limited to facts of consciousness." Materialism in relating not the nature of things out there, but to the nature of understanding inside, can have no effect on religious or ethical tenets, a point he had made earlier, as in "On the Physical Basis of Life."

The language of materialism is successful in helping us understand nature and achieve such desiderata as technological and medical advance; but that achievement does not prove that nature consists only of matter in motion. The achievement is made possible "by a happy chance." His frequent condemnation of materialism is typified by this comment in a letter in early 1861, which thanks Hooker for the good word about On the Zoological Relations of Man to the Lower Animals, an article opening the Natural History Review , and goes on to state: "I am glad you liked what I said in the opening of my article. I wish not to be in any way confounded with the cynics who delight in degrading man, or with the common run of materialists, who think mind is any the lower for being a function of matter. I dislike them even more than I do the pietists"–January 6, 1861.

The abiding interest Huxley had in such matters is indicated in relevant letters spanning three decades–to Kingsley, May 22, 1863; to Lady Welby–April 8, 1884; to Foster– August 26, 1884; to Sinclair–July 21, 1890; to McClure–March 17, 1891; to G-S–October 31,1894. In the letter to Lady Welby, he explained: "Most of us are idolators, and ascribe divine powers to the abstractions 'Force,' 'Gravity,' 'Vitality,' which our own brains have created. I do not know anything about 'inert' things in nature. If we reduce the world to matter and motion, the matter is not 'inert,' inasmuch as the same amount of motion affects different kinds of matter in different ways. ... I am not at all clear that a living being is comparable to a machine running down"; and in the letter to G-S he discussed materialistic atoms and materialistic bigots, yet again defining "qualities of things" as "mental states."

Merry Meeting
"A Merry Meeting at the Royal Intitution, Albemarle Street," from Punch July 11, 1885.
Linnean Medal
By M. K. Wright after photograph by A. Bassano, THH at 66, recipient of Linnean Society medal, 1891.

Huxley often associated physiological process with thought, and as often dissociated them. It was confusing to readers and an annoyance to critics that while "thought" could be considered an activity resulting from the effects of sensation upon bodily structures, "senses" were unconnected to sensation. For example, in the following quote, from Wilfred Ward's Thomas Henry Huxley-A Reminiscence (1896), he separated mental phenomena from sensation: "No man in his senses supposes that the sense of beauty, or the religious feelings, or the sense of moral obligation, are to be accounted for in terms of sensation, or come to us through sensation." Critics found it hard to accommodate this view with that of "On the Physical Basis of Life": "the thoughts to which I am now giving utterance, and your thoughts regarding them, are the expression of molecular changes in that matter of life which is the source of our other vital phænomena."

The Great Agnostic
Photograph by Mayall, 1893, the year of publication of Collected Essays, vol. 1



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden