Huxley, Agnosticism, and the X-Club

In assessing the “climate of opinion” in Victorian Britain, and more specifically the context of the evolution debates and narratives of conflict between science and religion that bolstered them, I have been engaging with a number of articles and books about prominent nineteenth-century dramatis personae, including Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, Alfred Russel Wallace, William Whewell, John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, and others.

Several articles on Huxley and his X-Club are worth mentioning. Bernard Lightman’s “Huxley and Scientific Agnosticism: the Strange History of a Failed Rhetorical Strategy” (2002) challenges the traditional interpretation that Huxley invented the term “agnostic” in 1869. In 1889 Huxley published a trilogy of essays on the history of agnosticism in the periodical The Nineteenth Century, arguing that he first coined the term in 1869. His friends at the X-Club, however, were surprised at the fact. Lightman finds it strange that Huxley’s inner circle of friends were unaware of the origins of its coinage. “If the members were so open about their religious heterdoxy,” writes Lightman, “and if agnosticism was an important weapon in the attempt to challenge the power of the Anglican establishment, then why did [some of its members] first learn that Huxley had coined the term ‘agnostic’ twenty years after the fact?”

According to Lightman, Huxley’s relationship with the term is far more complicated than traditional accounts. “Not only was he reluctant to identify himself unambiguously as an agnostic in public until 1883, his restricted rhetorical use of agnostic concepts during the 1870s and 1880s was also compromised when other unbelievers, with different agendas, sought to capitalize on the polemical advantages of referring to themselves as agnostics.” Indeed, “Huxley found that he could not control the public meaning of ‘agnosticism’ and that consequently its value as a rhetorical weapon was limited.” By 1889, Huxley realized he need to take control of his neologism by revealing that he was solely responsible for its creation. As such, “historian have been fooled by Huxley’s self-serving reconstruction in 1889 of the history of agnosticism.”

In 1889 Huxley claimed he initially paraded the term at the Metaphysical Society. But this is not reflected, Lightman points out, in the papers he delivered to its members. In papers presented in 1869, 1870, and in 1876, “none of them use the terms ‘agnostic’ or ‘agnosticism.'” Even more glaring, few journals used the new term in discussion of Huxley’s work. Indeed, in the pages of periodical reviews, such as Blackwood Magazine, Contemporary Review, and Scribner’s Monthly, “Huxley was seldom seen as the chief threat to religious orthodoxy.” It was not until 1873, in an article published by St George Mivart in the Fortnightly Review, when Huxley was identified, not as the inventor of the term, but as a prominent leader of the “agnostic philosophy.”

But it was Richard Holt Hutton, theologian, journalist, and editor of the The Spectator, who gave the term its widest circulation. In an article on “Pope Huxley” in the 1870 issue of The Spectator, Hutton referred to as “a great and severe Agnostic.” Interestingly enough, he did not assert that Huxely was responsible for coining the term.

Circulation of the term increased from 1879 to 1883. Yet none of Huxley’s published work during this time contain references to his coinage. It was James Knowles, editor of the Nineteenth Century, who was “partly responsible for the increased currency of the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘agnosticism’ in this period, as well as throughout the rest of the decade and into the next.” Other authors who discussed agnosticism directly at this time were Bertha Lathbury (1880), J.H. Clapperton (1880), Louis Greg (1882), Rev. Prebendary W. Anderson (1881), B. Thomas (1881), J. Henry Shorthouse (1882), G. Matheson (1883), and others. But in none of these articles is Huxley credited with the term. Indeed, in a Catholic journal, The Month (1882), it is Spencer, not Huxley, who is treated as the “typical representative of atheistical agnosticism.”

Finally in 1882 an article in the pages of Notes and Queries James A.H. Murray credits Huxley with coining the term in 1869. Late in 1883, Huxley was forced “out of the closet” by Charles Albert Watts when the latter published a private letter from Huxley in his periodical Agnostic Annual. On 17 November 1883 the Academy carried a story on Huxley’s contribution to Agnostic Annual. Huxley quickly wrote to the Academy that he made no such contribution and that in fact Watts had played a trick on him. This was apparently newsworthy, as The New York Times entered the show with its own story on the Watts-Huxley debacle in 10 December 1883.

From 1884 to 1888 agnosticism became a hot topic of debate. While in 1884 J. Murray’s A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles noted Huxley’s role as its inventor, “Huxley’s relationship to agnosticism was overshadowed…by the spectacle of two unbelievers [namely, Frederic Harrison and Herbert Spencer] engaged in bitter controversy in the pages of Nineteenth Century.” Other journal gladly became involved in the debate. The debate raged on in 1887 and 1888, when Francis Darwin’s Life and Letter of Charles Darwin (1887) brought to the fight Darwin’s own religious beliefs—or lack there of. During this time “renegade secularists were equally taken by the lure of agnosticism,” including C.A. Watts, William Steward Ross, Richard Bithell, Frederick James Gould, and Samiel Laing. In the work of these men, “Spencer, not Huxley, was the master…as they were inspired by Spencer’s vision of an Unknowable deity.”

From 1884 to 1888, Huxley was still reticent to take full credit of the term. What finally caused his intervention in the controversy, writes Lightman, was accusations of materialism. “Huxley defended himself by saying that earlier in life he could not find a label which suited him, so he ‘invented’ one, calling himself ‘Agnostic.'” But by the time he published his trilogy in 1889, it was a “belated attempt to regain control.” Others were to “endow it with the meanings which he could not accept.”

Ruth Barton’s “‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X-Club and Royal Society Politics 1864-85” (1990) and “‘Huxley, Lubbock, and Half a Dozen Others’: Professionals and Gentlemen in the Formation of the X-Club, 1851-1864” (1998) demonstrates how the X-Club was more than “just friends” fraternizing. Founded in 1864, the X-Club was a private, informal society where members could engage in frank discussion about literature, politics, and science over dinner. Moreover, they could plot together on how to achieve common goals, such as the advancement of research, the infiltration and control of important scientific institutions and societies, and the bid to undermine the cultural authority of the Anglican clergy. “The club was for serious research, against aristocratic patronage of science, for a naturalistic world view, and against the commercialization of science.”

In the first paper, Barton analyzes the “politicking which brought X-Club members to position of power and status in the Royal Society.” The Royal Society was full of “disciplinary rivalries, class interests, institutional interconnections and research priorities.” The X-Club represented the most dominant interest group of the Royal Society in the mid-Victorian period. Members were “energetic and ambitious reformers of science,” which included Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), William Spottiswoode (1825-1883), John Tyndall (1820-1893), Edward Frankland (1825-1899), Thomas Archer Hirst (1830-1892), George Busk (1807-1886), John Lubbock (1834-1913), and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Everyone of these figures, except for Spencer, was active in the Royal Society. Darwinian in orientation, “its members were engaged in developing and propagating naturalistic account of physical and human phenomena. They opposed all suggestion that there were supernatural interventions in the natural order and any attempts to constrain scientific investigation within theologically determined boundaries.” They were, as Frank Turner put it, “scientific naturalists.”

The influence of this “small coterie in the affairs of the Royal Society” is revealed in the minutes of X-Club meetings and letters between members. For instance, “personal friendship and disciplinary alliance both played significant parts in the procedures of suggesting, nominating and voting which preceded the award” for the Royal Medal. They also played a substantive role in the election of Royal Society Council members, including changing it Presidents. Indeed, according to Barton, “the X-Club devoted enormous energy to gaining power.” Because the Royal Society represented science, members of the X-Club did all they could to espouse a redefinition of science within a naturalistic worldview.

When members of the X-Club succeeded in gaining Spottiswoode the Presidency, his most memorable act was the push to have Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey. “They were successful, and on Tuesday 25 April 1882, Spottiswoode, Lubbock, Hooker, Huxley, the Duke of Argyll, the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Derby, and the American Ambassador, accompanied by Alfred Russel Wallace and Dean Farrar of Westminster, were pall-bearers in the Abbey funeral.” This was immensely symbolic, and Darwin was “presented as a middle-class saint.” “It was an irony of which they seemed unaware,” write Barton, “that the greatest symbolic achievement of the X-Club was not the separation of theology from science, but the conflation of science, church and state in Darwin’s burial in Westminster Abbey.”

In the second paper, Barton rehearses some of the material found in the previews paper. What is new, and deeply intriguing, is her emphasis that X-Club members formed “alliances…beyond professional science.” They formed alliances with “germanizing theologians, Christian socialists, humanitarian ethnologists, and liberals associated with John Stuart Mill aligned “Science” with liberal forms in theology and in social policy.” Indeed, “commitments to naturalistic explanation and to melioristic social reform linked them to these groups.”

Several books in this area I have been recently paging through include Paul White’s Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (2003). This is more than another biography of Huxley. It is an account of the way that a particular cultural identity—the Victorian ‘man of science’—was constructed through processes of negotiation and collaboration between naturalists such as Huxley and their families, colleagues, friends, and adversaries. Through a close reading of private correspondences, White builds up a portrait of Huxley and his relationships, with his wife, fellow men of science, educational reformers, clergymen, and so on. White provocatively depicts Huxley as a defender of high culture, even as an elitist.

Another is Martin Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (2004). Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian is among several recently published books on Wallace, and this book acts as an important synthesis, a thematic study bringing together aspects of Wallace’s career. Why Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, became “elusive” is difficult to say. Perhaps it is because Wallace is “difficult to pigeonhole…into any neat category. Many labels have been applied to him: field naturalist, biological theorist, socialist, spiritualist, theist, land nationalizationist, philosopher and ethicist.” In finding a more satisfactory answer, Fichman examines Wallace’s range of social contacts (including North American psychologist William James), his marginal annotations in his books, as well as his copious publications (he continued to publish in his old age, including three books written in his eighties). According to Fichman, Wallace was actively marginalized by a circle of practitioners who wielded great influence in scientific affairs from the 1860s and who promoted a naturalistic model of science. That circle were members of the X-Club.

More recently, Nicolaas A. Rupke’s Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin (2009) tells an engaging tale of how Richard Owen, a brilliant anatomist and early chum of Charles Darwin, became the talented, twisted, vindictive, and ultimate loser of the Darwinian Revolution. Owen is somewhat of a tragic figure in narratives of science. All good stories need an evil person to balance the virtues and fortunes of a hero, and unfortunately Owen took up (or portrayed as taking up) the role. Rupke’s Richard Owen, however, problematizes this simplistic narrative.

Rupke situates Owen’s work within the social, institutional, and political context, and how it affected and constrained both his work and its reception. Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge from Rupke’s study is how Owen’s reputation had been systematically distorted and degraded by Darwin, his scientific followers, and several generations of historians. This theme becomes prominent in Owen’s bitter conflict with Huxley, who “in spite of Owen’s generosity…began chipping away at his patron’s work and reputation,” using as much duplicity, malice, and dishonesty as possible.

In these works, and others, we get a better sense of the “climate of opinion” of these nineteenth-century debates. If there was ever conflict between science and religion, it was neither created by science nor religion. Rather, it was clearly orchestrated by “men of science” the likes of Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, William Spottiswoode, John Tyndall, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, George Busk, John Lubbock, and Herbert Spencer. Such imagined conflict is still fabricated today, from something of a reincarnated X-Club, in the Brights Movement, which membership includes biologists Richard Dawkins and Richard J. Roberts, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel Dennett, stage magicians and James Randi and Penn & Teller, among others.