Thomas huxley: Fossils, persistence, and the argument from design


Philosophy & Religious Studies

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Journal of the History of Biology

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In struggling to free science from theological implications, Huxley let his own philosophical beliefs influence his interpretation of the data. However, he was certainly not unique in this respect. Like the creationists he despised, he made many important contributions to the issue of progression in the fossil record and its relationship to evolutionary theory. Certainly other factors were involved as well. Undoubtedly, just the sheer inertia of ideas played a role. He was committed to a theory of type and was heavily influenced by von Baer, who argued that one could not rate the different types as being higher or lower than the others. By the mid-1850s his animosity toward Owen had become extreme and he tried to discredit the man whenever possible; yet, as I have pointed out, he also was more than willing to cite Owen's early work when it suited his needs. But I believe the crucial factor in Huxley's eventually accepting progression was that he finally disassociated it from the idea of divine plan. This happened gradually through the 1860s and 1870s, as more and more fossil finds provided support for Darwin's theory. In evaluating this new evidence that supported gradualism, Huxley also realized that progression was an intrinsic part of Darwin's theory: The hypothesis of evolution supposes that at any given period in the past we should meet with a state of things more or less similar to the present, but less similar in proportion as we go back in time... if we traced back the animal world and the vegetable world we should find preceding what now exist animals and plants not identical with them, but like them, only increasing their differences as we go back in time, and at the same time becoming simpler and simpler until finally we should arrive at that gelatinous mass which, so far as our present knowledge goes, is the common foundation of all life. In concluding his first lecture to the Americans, he told them: "The hypothesis of evolution supposes that in all this vast progression there would be no breach of continuity, no point at which we could say 'This is a natural process,' and 'This is not a natural process.'"85 Finally for Huxley, progression was no longer linked to Divine Plan. © 1993 Kluwer Academic Publishers.