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Thomas Henry Huxley
(4 May 1825 - 29 Jun 1895)

English biologist known as the main advocate for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.


Thomas Henry Huxley Quotes on Nature (23 quotes)

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Responding to the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce's question whether he traced his descent from an ape on his mother's or his father's side:
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 possessing great means and influence and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
Letter to Dr. Dyster (9 Sep 1860), Huxley Papers, Imperial College of Science and Technology. Quoted in D.J. Foskett, 'Wilberforce and Huxley on Evolution' in a letter to Nature, 1953, 172, 920.
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A chemical compound once formed would persist for ever, if no alteration took place in surrounding conditions. But to the student of Life the aspect of nature is reversed. Here, incessant, and, so far as we know, spontaneous change is the rule, rest the exception—the anomaly to be accounted for. Living things have no inertia and tend to no equilibrium.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
From Address (22 Jul 1854) delivered at St. Martin’s Hall, published as a pamphlet (1854), 7, and collected in 'Educational Value of Natural History Sciences', Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (1870), 75.
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Any one who has studied the history of science knows that almost every great step therein has been made by the “anticipation of Nature,” that is, by the invention of hypotheses, which, though verifiable, often had very little foundation to start with; and, not unfrequently, in spite of a long career of usefulness, turned out to be wholly erroneous in the long run.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
In 'The Progress of Science 1837-1887' (1887), Collected Essays (1901), Vol. 1, 62.
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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 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 well 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.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
Letter to Charles Kingsley (23 Sep 1860). In L. Huxley, The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (1903), Vol. 1, 318.
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I ask any one who has adopted the calling of an engineer, how much time he lost when he left school, because he had to devote himself to pursuits which were absolutely novel and strange, and of which he had not obtained the remotest conception from his instructors? He had to familiarize himself with ideas of the course and powers of Nature, to which his attention had never been directed during his school-life, and to learn, for the first time, that a world of facts lies outside and beyond the world of words.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
From After-Dinner Speech (Apr 1869) delivered before the Liverpool Philomathic Society, 'Scientific Education', collected in Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (1870), 63. Previously published in Macmillan’s Magazine.
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If one of these people, in whom the chance-worship of our remoter ancestors thus strangely survives, should be within reach of the sea when a heavy gale is blowing, let him betake himself to the shore and watch the scene. Let him note the infinite variety of form and size of the tossing waves out at sea; or against the curves of their foam-crested breakers, as they dash against the rocks; let him listen to the roar and scream of the shingle as it is cast up and torn down the beach; or look at the flakes of foam as they drive hither and thither before the wind: or note the play of colours, which answers a gleam of sunshine as it falls upon their myriad bubbles. Surely here, if anywhere, he will say that chance is supreme, and bend the knee as one who has entered the very penetralia of his divinity. But the man of science knows that here, as everywhere, perfect order is manifested; that there is not a curve of the waves, not a note in the howling chorus, not a rainbow-glint on a bubble, which is other than a necessary consequence of the ascertained laws of nature; and that with a sufficient knowledge of the conditions, competent physico-mathematical skill could account for, and indeed predict, every one of these 'chance' events.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
In 'On the Reception of the Origin of Species'. In Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter (1888), Vol. 2, 200-1.
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In its earliest development knowledge is self-sown. Impressions force themselves upon men’s senses whether they will or not, and often against their will. The amount of interest in which these impressions awaken is determined by the coarser pains and pleasures which they carry in their train or by mere curiosity; and reason deals with the materials supplied to it as far as that interest carries it, and no further. Such common knowledge is rather brought than sought; and such ratiocination is little more than the working of a blind intellectual instinct. It is only when the mind passes beyond this condition that it begins to evolve science. When simple curiosity passes into the love of knowledge as such, and the gratification of the æsthetic sense of the beauty of completeness and accuracy seems more desirable that the easy indolence of ignorance; when the finding out of the causes of things becomes a source of joy, and he is accounted happy who is successful in the search, common knowledge passes into what our forefathers called natural history, whence there is but a step to that which used to be termed natural philosophy, and now passes by the name of physical science.
In this final state of knowledge the phenomena of nature are regarded as one continuous series of causes and effects; and the ultimate object of science is to trace out that series, from the term which is nearest to us, to that which is at the farthest limit accessible to our means of investigation.
The course of nature as it is, as it has been, and as it will be, is the object of scientific inquiry; whatever lies beyond, above, or below this is outside science. But the philosopher need not despair at the limitation on his field of labor; in relation to the human mind Nature is boundless; and, though nowhere inaccessible, she is everywhere unfathomable.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
The Crayfish: an Introduction to the Study of Zoölogy (1880), 2-3. Excerpted in Popular Science (Apr 1880), 16, 789-790.
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Is man a peculiar organism? Does he originate in a wholly different way from a dog, bird, frog, or fish? and does he thereby justify those who assert that he has no place in nature, and no real relationship with the lower world of animal life? Or does he develop from a similar embryo, and undergo the same slow and gradual progressive modifications? The answer is not for an instant doubtful, and has not been doubtful for the last thirty years. The mode of man’s origin and the earlier stages of his development are undoubtedly identical with those of the animals standing directly below him in the scale; without the slightest doubt, he stands in this respect nearer the ape than the ape does to the dog. (1863)
— Thomas Henry Huxley
As quoted in Ernst Haeckel and E. Ray Lankester (trans.) as epigraph for Chap. 12, The History of Creation (1886), Vol. 1, 364.
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It is an error to imagine that evolution signifies a constant tendency to increased perfection. That process undoubtedly involves a constant remodeling of the organism in adaptation to new conditions; but it depends on the nature of those conditions whether the direction of the modifications effected shall be upward or downward.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
'The Struggle for Existence in Human Society' (1888). In Collected Essays (1894), Vol. 9, 199.
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Man’s Place in Nature.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
From the title of Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863).
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Not only is the state of nature hostile to the state of art of the garden; but the principle of the horticultural process, by which the latter is created and maintained, is antithetic to that of the cosmic process. The characteristic feature of the latter is the intense and unceasing competition of the struggle for existence. The characteristic of the former is the elimination of that struggle, by the removal of the conditions which give rise to it. The tendency of the cosmic process is to bring about the adjustment of the forms of plant life to the current conditions; the tendency of the horticultural process is the adjustment of the conditions to the needs of the forms of plant life which the gardener desires to raise.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
'Evolution and Ethics-Prolegomena' (1894). In Collected Essays (1894), Vol. 9, 13.
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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.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
Letter to Charles Kingsley (23 Sep 1860). In L. Huxley, The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (1903), Vol. 1, 316.
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Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game of chess. Don't you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn upon the father who allowed his son, or the state which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight?
Yet, it is a very plain and elementary truth that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well the highest stakes are paid with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated—without haste, but without remorse.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
Address to the South London Working Men’s College. 'A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It', in David Masson, (ed.), Macmillan’s Magazine (Mar 1868), 17, 369. Also in 'A Liberal Education and Where to Find it' (1868). In Collected Essays (1893), Vol. 3, 82.
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That which lies before the human race is a constant struggle to maintain and improve, in opposition to State of Nature, the State of Art of an organized polity; in which, and by which, man may develop a worthy civilization
— Thomas Henry Huxley
'Prolegomena', Evolution and Ethics, and Other Essays (1897), 45.
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The chess-board is the world; the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just and patient. But we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the slightest allowance for ignorance.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
'A Liberal Education', Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (1870). Collected in Science & Education: Essays (1893), 82.
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The child asks, “What is the moon, and why does it shine?” “What is this water and where does it run?” “What is this wind?” “What makes the waves of the sea?” “Where does this animal live, and what is the use of this plant?” And if not snubbed and stunted by being told not to ask foolish questions, there is no limit to the intellectual craving of a young child; nor any bounds to the slow, but solid, accretion of knowledge and development of the thinking faculty in this way. To all such questions, answers which are necessarily incomplete, though true as far as they go, may be given by any teacher whose ideas represent real knowledge and not mere book learning; and a panoramic view of Nature, accompanied by a strong infusion of the scientific habit of mind, may thus be placed within the reach of every child of nine or ten.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
In 'Scientific Education', Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (1870), 71. https://books.google.com/books?id=13cJAAAAIAAJ Thomas Henry Huxley - 1870
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The investigation of nature is an infinite pasture-ground where all may graze, and where the more bite, the longer the grass grows, the sweeter is its flavor, and the more it nourishes.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
From Address to the Members of the Midland Institute, 'Administrative Nihilism', printed in The Fortnightly (1871), New Series 10, 540.
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The mathematician starts with a few propositions, the proof of which is so obvious that they are called self-evident, and the rest of his work consists of subtle deductions from them. The teaching of languages, at any rate as ordinarily practised, is of the same general nature authority and tradition furnish the data, and the mental operations are deductive.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
In 'Scientific Education: Notes of an After-Dinner Speech' (Delivered to Liverpool Philomathic Society, Apr 1869), published in Macmillan’s Magazine (Jun 1869), 20, No. 116, 177. Collected in Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (1871), Chap 4, 66.
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The question of questions for mankind—the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other—is the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature and of his relations to the universe of things.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
'On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals' (1863). In Collected Essays (1894). Vol. 7, 77.
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There is no absurdity in theology so great that you cannot parallel it by a greater absurdity in Nature.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
Letter to Charles Kingsley (5 May 1863). In L. Huxley, The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (1903), Vol. 1, 347.
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There is no field of biological inquiry in which the influence of the Origin of Species is not traceable; the foremost men of science in every country are either avowed champions of its leading doctrines, or at any rate abstain from opposing them; a host of young and ardent investigators seek for and find inspiration and guidance in Mr. Darwin’s great work; and the general doctrine of Evolution, to one side of which it gives expression, finds in the phenomena of biology a firm base of operations whence it may conduct its conquest of the whole realm of nature.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
From Lecture (19 Mar 1880) delivered at the Royal Institute 'The Coming of Age of The Origin of Species', printed in John Michels (ed.), Science (3 Jul 1880), 1, 15.
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True Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which “are not dreamt of in our philosophy.” The theological “gnosis” would have us believe that the world is a conjurer’s house; the anti-theological “gnosis” talks as if it were a “dirt-pie,” made by the two blind children, Law and Force. Agnosticism simply says that we know nothing of what may be behind phenomena.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
In Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (1913), Vol. 3, 98, footnote 3.
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[The teaching of Nature] is harsh and wasteful in its operation. Ignorance is visited as sharply as wilful disobedience—incapacity meets with the same punishment as crime. Nature’s discipline is not even a word and a blow, and the blow first; but the blow without the word. It is left to you to find out why your ears are boxed.
The object of what we commonly call education—that education in which man intervenes, and which I shall distinguish as artificial education—is to make good these defects in Nature’s methods; to prepare the child to receive Nature’s education, neither incapably, nor ignorantly, nor with wilful disobedience; and to understand the preliminary symptoms of her displeasure, without waiting for the box on the ear. In short, all artificial education ought to he an anticipation of natural education. And a liberal education is an artificial education, which has not only prepared a man to escape the great evils of disobedience to natural laws, but has trained him to appreciate and to seize upon the rewards, which Nature scatters with as free a hand as her penalties.
— Thomas Henry Huxley
From Inaugural Address as Principal, South London Working Men’s College, in 'A Liberal Education; and Where to Find it', Macmillan's Magazine (Mar 1868), 17, 370.
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See also:
  • 4 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Huxley's birth.
  • Thomas Henry Huxley - Autobiography
  • Thomas Henry Huxley - context of quote “Investigation of nature is an infinite pasture-ground ” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Thomas Henry Huxley - context of quote “Investigation of nature is an infinite pasture-ground ” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Thomas Henry Huxley: The Evolution of a Scientist, by Sherrie L. Lyons. - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for Thomas Huxley.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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