T. H. Huxley
Letters and Diary 1860

January 6, 1860

[To Hooker]

Some of these days I shall look up the ape question again and go over the rest of the organisation in the same way. But in order to get a thorough grip of the question I must examine into a good many points for myself. The results, when they do come out, will, I foresee, astonish the natives.

March 17, 1860

My dear Sir Charles–To use the only forcible expression, I "twig" your meaning perfectly, but I venture to think the parable does not apply. For the Geological Society is not, to my mind, a place of education for students, but a place of discussion for adepts; and the more it is applied to the former purpose the less competent it must become to fulfil the latter–its primary and most important object.

I am far from wishing to place any obstacle in the way of the intellectual advancement and development of women. On the contrary, I don't see how we are to make any permanent advancement while one-half of the race is sunk, as nine-tenths of women are, in mere ignorant parsonese superstitions; and to show you that my ideas are practical I have fully made up my mind, if I can carry out my own plans, to give my daughters the same training in physical science as their brother will get, so long as he is a boy. They, at any rate, shall not be got up as man-traps for the matrimonial market. If other people would do the like the next generation would see women fit to be the companions of men in all their pursuits–though I don't think that men have anything to fear from their competition. But you know as well as I do that other people won't do the like, and five-sixths of women will stop in the doll stage of evolution to be the stronghold of parsondom, the drag on civilisation, the degradation of every important pursuit with which they mix themselves–"intrigues" in politics, and "friponnes" in science.

If my claws and beak are good for anything they shall be kept from hindering the progress of any science I have to do with.–Ever yours faithfully,

T. H. Huxley.

September 9, 1860 [HP 15.117]

[To Frederick Dyster]

Has the rumour of the Oxford row reached Tenby? It was great fun. I had said that I could not see what difference it would make to my moral responsibility if I had had an ape for a grandfather, and saponacious Samuel thought it was a fine opportunity for chaffing a savan. However he performed the operation vulgarly and I determined to punish him – partly on that account and partly because he talked pretentious nonsense. So when I got up I spoke pretty much to the effect–that I had listened with great attention to the Lord Bishop's speech but had been unable to discover either a new fact or a new argument in it–except indeed the question raised as to my personal predilections in the matter of ancestry–that it would not have occurred to me to bring forward such a topic as that for discussion myself, but that I was quite ready to meet the Right Rev. prelate even on that ground. If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion–I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

Whereupon there was unextinguishable laughter among the people, and they listened to the rest of my argument with the greatest attention. Lubbock and Hooker spoke after me with great force and among us we shut up the bishop and his laity.

I happened to be in very good condition and said my say with perfect good temper and politeness–I assure you of this because all sorts of reports [have] been spread about, e.g. that I had said I would rather be an ape than a bishop, etc.

All the Oxford Dons were there and several hundred people in the room–so that I think Samuel will think twice before he tries a fall with men of science again.

If he had dealt with the subject fairly and moderately, I would not have treated him in this way–But the round-mouth, oily, special pleading of a man who is ignorant of the subject, presumed on his position and his lawyer faculty gave me a most unmitigated contempt for him. You can't think how pleased all his confrères were. I believe I was the most popular man in Oxford for full four and twenty hours afterwards.

September 19, 1860

[To Herbert Spencer]

My dear Spencer–You will forgive the delay which has occurred in forwarding your proofs when I tell you that we have lost our poor little son, our pet and hope. You who knew him well, and know how his mother's heart and mine were wrapped up in him, will understand how great is our affliction. He was attacked with a bad form of scarlet fever on Thursday night, and on Saturday night effusion on the brain set in suddenly and carried him off in a couple of hours. Jessie was taken ill on Friday, but has had the disease quite lightly, and is doing well. The baby has escaped. So end many hopes and plans–sadly enough, and yet not altogether bitterly. For as the little fellow was our greatest joy so is the recollection of him an enduring consolation. It is a heavy payment, but I would buy the four years of him again at the same price. My wife bears up bravely.

I have read your proofs at intervals, and you must not suppose they have troubled me. On the contrary they were at times the only things I could attend to. I agree in the spirit of the whole perfectly. On some matters of detail I had doubts which I am not at present clear-headed enough to think out.

The only thing I object to in toto is the illustration which I have marked at p. 24. It is physically impossible that a bird's air-cells should be distended with air during flight, unless the structure of the parts is in reality different from anything which anatomists at present know. Blowing into the trachea is not to the point. A bird cannot blow into its own trachea, and it has no mechanism for performing a corresponding action.

A bird's chest is essentially a pair of bellows in which the sternum during rest and the back during flight act as movable wall. The air cells may all be represented as soft-walled bags opening freely into the bellows–there being, so far as anatomists yet know, no valves or corresponding contrivances anywhere except at the glottis, which corresponds with the nozzle and air valve both, of our bellows. But the glottis is always opened when the chest is dilated at each inspiration. How then can the air in any air-cell be kept at a higher tension than the surrounding atmosphere?

Hunter experimented on the uses of the air sacs, I know, but I have not his work at hand. It may be that opening one of the air-cells interferes with flight, but I hold it very difficult to conceive that the interference can take place in the way you suppose. How on earth is a lark to sing for ten minutes together if the air-cells are to be kept distended all the while he is up in the air?

At any rate twenty other illustrations will answer your purpose as well, so I would not select one which may be assailed by a carping fellow like–Yours very faithfully,

T. H. Huxley.

September 20, 1860


And the same child, our Noel, our first-born, after being for nearly four years our delight and our joy, was carried off by scarlet fever in forty-eight hours. This day week he and I had a great romp together. On Friday his restless head, with its bright blue eyes and tangled golden hair, tossed all day upon his pillow. On Saturday night the fifteenth, I carried him here into my study, and laid his cold still body here where I write. Here too on Sunday night came his mother and I to that holy leave-taking.

My boy is gone, but in a higher and better sense than was in my mind when I wrote four years ago what stands above [December 31, 1856]–I feel that my fancy has been fulfilled. I say heartily and without bitterness–Amen, so let it be.

September 23, 1860

[To Charles Kingsley]

My dear Kingsley –I cannot sufficiently thank you, both on my wife's account and my own, for your long and frank letter, and for all the hearty sympathy which it exhibits–and Mrs. Kingsley will, I hope, believe that we are no less sensible of her kind thought of us. To myself your letter was especially valuable, as it touched upon what I thought even more than upon what I said in my letter to you. My convictions, positive and negative, on all the matters of which you speak, are of long and slow growth and are firmly rooted. But the great blow which fell upon me seemed to stir them to their foundation, and had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me and them–and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is–Oh devil! truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

And now I feel that it is due to you to speak as frankly as you have done to me. An old and worthy friend of mine tried some three or four years ago to bring us together–because, as he said, you were the only man who would do me any good. Your letter leads me to think he was right, though not perhaps in the sense he attached to his own words.

To begin with the great doctrine you discuss. I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man's life is to say and to feel, "I believe such and such to be true." All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?

You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know–may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, about noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

It must be twenty years since, a boy, I read Hamilton's essay on the unconditioned, and from that time to this, ontological speculation has been a folly to me. When Mansel took up Hamilton's argument on the side of orthodoxy (!) I said he reminded me of nothing so much as the man who is sawing off the sign on which he is sitting, in Hogarth's picture. But this by the way.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Nor does the infinite difference between myself and the animals alter the case. I do not know whether the animals persist after they disappear or not. I do not even know whether the infinite difference between us and them may not be compensated by their persistence and my cessation after apparent death, just as the humble bulb of an annual lives, while the glorious flowers it has put forth die away.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind–that my own highest aspirations even–lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

There are, however, other arguments commonly brought forward in favour of the immortality of man, which are to my mind not only delusive but mischievous. The one is the notion that the moral government of the world is imperfect without a system of future rewards and punishments. The other is: that such a system is indispensable to practical morality. I believe that both these dogmas are very mischievous lies.

With respect to the first, I am no optimist, but I have the firmest belief that the Divine Government (if we may use such a phrase to express the sum of the "customs of matter") is wholly just. The more I know intimately of the lives of other men (to say nothing of my own), the more obvious it is to me that the wicked does not flourish nor is the righteous punished. But for this to be clear we must bear in mind what almost all forget, that the rewards of life are contingent upon obedience to the whole law–physical as well as moral–and that moral obedience will not atone for physical sin, or vice versa.

The ledger of the Almighty is strictly kept, and every one of us has the balance of his operations paid over to him at the end of every minute of his existence.

Life cannot exist without a certain conformity to the surrounding universe–that conformity involves a certain amount of happiness in excess of pain. In short, as we live we are paid for living.

And it is to be recollected in view of the apparent discrepancy between men's acts and their rewards that Nature is juster than we. She takes into account what a man brings with him into the world, which human justice cannot do. If I, born a bloodthirsty and savage brute, inheriting these qualities from others, kill you, my fellow-men will very justly hang me, but I shall not be visited with the horrible remorse which would be my real punishment if, my nature being higher, I had done the same thing.

The absolute justice of the system of things is as clear to me as any scientific fact. The gravitation of sin to sorrow is as certain as that of the earth to the sun, and more so–for experimental proof of the fact is within reach of us all–nay, is before us all in our own lives, if we had but the eyes to see it.

Not only, then, do I disbelieve in the need for compensation, but I believe that the seeking for rewards and punishments out of this life leads men to a ruinous ignorance of the fact that their inevitable rewards and punishments are here.

If the expectation of hell hereafter can keep me from evil-doing, surely a fortiori the certainty of hell now will do so? If a man could be firmly impressed with the belief that stealing damaged him as much as swallowing arsenic would do (and it does), would not the dissuasive force of that belief be greater than that of any based on mere future expectations?

And this leads me to my other point.

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, "If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality ? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time–before I had earned absolute destruction –and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. Sartor Resartus led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy's grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, "Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders."

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him.

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is–a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

I have spoken more openly and distinctly to you than I ever have to any human being except my wife.

If you can show me that I err in premises or conclusion, I am ready to give up these as I would any other theories. But at any rate you will do me the justice to believe that I have not reached my conclusions without the care befitting the momentous nature of the problems involved.

And I write this the more readily to you, because it is clear to me that if that great and powerful instrument for good or evil, the Church of England, is to be saved from being shivered into fragments by the advancing tide of science–an event I should be very sorry to witness, but which will infallibly occur if men like Samuel of Oxford are to have the guidance of her destinies–it must be by the efforts of men who, like yourself, see your way to the combination of the practice of the Church with the spirit of science. Understand that all the younger men of science whom I know intimately are essentially of my way of thinking. (I know not a scoffer or an irreligious or an immoral man among them, but they all regard orthodoxy as you do Brahmanism.) Understand that this new school of the prophets is the only one that can work miracles, the only one that can constantly appeal to nature for evidence that it is right, and you will comprehend that it is of no use to try to barricade us with shovel hats and aprons, or to talk about our doctrines being "shocking."

I don't profess to understand the logic of yourself, Maurice, and the rest of your school, but I have always said I would swear by your truthfulness and sincerity, and that good must come of your efforts. The more plain this was to me, however, the more obvious the necessity to let you see where the men of science are driving, and it has often been in my mind to write to you before.

If I have spoken too plainly anywhere, or too abruptly, pardon me, and do the like to me.

My wife thanks you very much for your volume of sermons.–Ever yours very faithfully,

T. H. Huxley.

October 4, 1860 [HP 19.191]

[To Charles Kingsley]

I should like very much to write such an article as you suggest, but I am very doubtful about undertaking it for Fraser. Anything I could say would go to the root of praying altogether, for inasmuch as the whole universe is governed, so far as I can see, in the same way, and the moral world is as much governed by laws as the physical–whatever militates against asking for one sort of blessing seems to me to tell with the same force against asking for any other.

Not that I mean for a moment to say that prayer is illogical for if the whole universe is ruled by fixed laws it is just as logically absurd for me to ask you to answer this letter as to ask the Almighty to alter the weather. The whole argument is an "old foe with a new face," the freedom and necessity question over again.

If I were to write about the question I should have to develop all this side of the problem, and then having shown that logic, as always happens when it is carried to extremes leaves us bombinantes in vacuo, I should appeal to experience to show that prayers of this sort are not answered, and to science to prove that if they were they would do a great deal of harm.

But you know this would never do for the atmosphere of Fraser. It would be much better suited for an article in my favourite organ, the wicked Westminster.

However, to say truth, I do not see how I am to undertake anything fresh just at present. I have promised an article for Macmillan ages ago; and Masson scowls at me whenever we meet. I am afraid to go through the Albany lest Cook should demand certain reviews of books which have been long in my hands. I am just completing a long memoir for the Linnean Society; a monograph on certain fossil reptiles must be finished before the new year. My lectures have begun, and there is a certain "Manual" looming in the background. And to crown all, these late events [the death of his brother] have given me such a wrench that I feel I must be prudent.

December 19, 1860

My dear Hooker–What with one thing and another, I have almost forgotten to answer your note–and first, as to the business matter. . . . Next as to my own private affairs, the youngster is "a swelling wisibly," and my wife is getting on better than I hoped, though not quite so well as I could have wished. The boy's advent is a great blessing to her in all ways. For myself I hardly know yet whether it is pleasure or pain. The ground has gone from under my feet once, and I hardly know how to rest on anything again. Irrational, you will say, but nevertheless natural. And finally as to your resolutions, my holy pilgrim, they will be kept about as long as the resolutions of other anchorites who are thrown into the busy world, or I won't say that, for assuredly you will take the world "as coolly as you can," and so shall I. But that coolness amounts to the red heat of properly constructed mortals.

It is no use having any false modesty about the matter. You and I, if we last ten years longer, and you by a long while first, will be the representatives of our respective lines in this country. In that capacity we shall have certain duties to perform to ourselves, to the outside world, and to science. We shall have to swallow praise which is no great pleasure, and to stand multitudinous basting and irritations, which will involve a good deal of unquestionable pain. Don't flatter yourself that there is any moral chloroform by which either you or I can render ourselves insensible or acquire the habit of doing things coolly. It is assuredly of no great use to tear one's self to pieces before one is fifty. But the alternative, for men constructed on the high pressure tubular boiler principle, like ourselves, is to lie still and let the devil have his own way. And I will be torn to pieces before I am forty sooner than see that.

I have been privately trading on my misfortunes in order to get a little peace and quietness for a few months. If I can help it I don't mean to do any dining out this winter, and I have cut down Societies to the minimum of the Geological, from which I cannot get away.

But it won't do to keep this up too long. By and by one must drift into the stream again, and then there is nothing for it but to pull like mad unless we want to be run down by every collier.

I am going to do one sensible thing, however, viz. to rush down to Llanberis with Busk between Christmas Day and New Year's Day and get my lungs full of hill-air for the coming session.

I was at Down on Saturday and saw Darwin. He seems fairly well, and his daughter was up and looks better than I expected to see her.–Ever yours faithfully,

T. H. Huxley.

Letters of 1861
Letters of 1859

Letter Index



1.   THH Publications
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1.   Letter Index
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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