Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/January 1901/An Address Given Before the Department of Anthropology of the British Association, 1878

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 58 January 1901 (1901)
An Address Given Before the Department of Anthropology of the British Association, 1878 by Thomas Henry Huxley
1408218Popular Science Monthly Volume 58 January 1901 — An Address Given Before the Department of Anthropology of the British Association, 18781901Thomas Henry Huxley



[Huxley's address at the Dublin meeting of the British Association gives an admirable account of the condition of anthropological science twenty-two years ago. It has not been republished in the 'Collected Essays,' but like everything that Huxley wrote it is worth reading at the present time.]

WHEN I undertook, with the greatest possible pleasure, to act as a lieutenant of my friend, the president of this section, I steadfastly purposed to confine myself to the modest and useful duties of that position. For reasons, with which it is not worth while to trouble you, I did not propose to follow the custom which has grown up in the Association of delivering an address upon the occasion of taking the chair of a section or department. In clear memory of the admirable addresses which you have had the privilege of hearing from Professor Flower, and just now from Dr. McDonnell, I can not doubt that that practice is a very good one; though I would venture to say, to use a term of philosophy, that it looks very much better from an objective than from a subjective point of view. But I found that my resolution, like a great many good resolutions that I have made in the course of my life, came to very little, and that it was thought desirable that I should address you in some way. But I must beg of you to understand that this is no formal address. I have simply announced it as a few introductory remarks, and I must ask you to forgive whatever of crudity and imperfection there may be in the mode of expression of what I have to say, although naturally I shall do my best to take care that there is neither crudity nor inaccuracy in the substance of it. It has occurred to me that I might address myself to a point in connection with the business of this department which forces itself more or less upon the attention of everybody, and which, unless the bellicose instincts of human nature are less marked on this side of St. George's Channel than on the other, may possibly have something to do with the large audiences we are always accustomed to see in the anthropological department. In the geological section I have no doubt it will be pointed out to you, or, at any rate, such knowledge may crop up incidentally, that there are on the earth's surface what are called loci of disturbance, where, for long ages, cataclysms and outbursts of lava and the like take place. Then everything subsides into quietude; but a similar disturbance is set up elsewhere. In Antrim, at the middle of the tertiary epoch, there was a great center of physical disturbance. We all know that at the present time the earth's crust, at any rate, is quiet in Antrim, while the great centers of local disturbance are in Sicily, in Southern Italy, in the Andes and elsewhere. My experience of the British Association does not extend quite over a geological epoch, but it does go back rather longer than I care to think about; and when I first knew the British Association, the locus of disturbance in it was the geological section. All sorts of terrible things about the antiquity of the earth, and I know not what else, were being said there, which gave rise to terrible apprehensions. The whole world, it was thought, was coming to an end, just as I have no doubt that, if there were any human inhabitants of Antrim in the middle of the tertiary epoch, when those great lava streams burst out, they would not have had the smallest question that the whole universe was going to pieces. Well, the universe has not gone to pieces. Antrim is, geologically speaking, a very quiet place now, as well cultivated a place as one need see, and yielding abundance of excellent produce; and so, if we turn to the geological section, nothing can be milder than the proceedings of that admirable body. All the difficulties that they seemed to have encountered at first have died away, and statements that were the horrible paradoxes of that generation are now the commonplaces of school boys. At present the locus of disturbance is to be found in the biological section, and more particularly in the anthropological department of that section. History repeats itself, and precisely the same apprehensions which were expressed by the aborigines of the geological section, in long far back time, are at present expressed by those who attend our deliberations. The world is coming to an end, the basis of morality is being shaken, and I don't know what is not to happen if certain conclusions which appear probable are to be verified. Well, now, whoever may be here thirty years hence—I certainly shall not be—but, depend upon it, whoever may be speaking at the meeting of this department of the British Association thirty years hence will find, exactly as the members of the geological section have found, on looking back thirty years, that the very paradoxes and horrible conclusions, things that are now thought to be going to shake the foundations of the world, will by that time have become parts of every-day knowledge and will be taught in our schools as accepted truth, and nobody will be one whit the worse.

The considerations which I think it desirable to put before you, in order to show the foundations of this conviction at which I have very confidently arrived, are of two kinds. The first is a reason based entirely upon philosophical considerations, namely, this—that the region of pure physical science, and the region of those questions which specially interest ordinary humanity, are apart, and that the conclusions reached in the one have no direct effect in the other. If you acquaint yourself with the history of philosophy, and with the endless variations of human opinion therein recorded, you will find that there is not a single one of those speculative difficulties which at the present time torment many minds as being the direct product of scientific thought, which is not as old as the times of Greek philosophy, and which did not then exist as strongly and as clearly as such difficulties exist now, though they arose out of arguments based upon merely philosophical ideas. Whoever admits these two things—as everybody who looks about him must do—whoever takes into account the existence of evil in this world and the law of causation—has before him all the difficulties that can be raised by any form of scientific speculation. And these two difficulties have been occupying the minds of men ever since man began to think. The other consideration I have to put before you is that, whatever may be the results at which physical science, as applied to man shall arrive, those results are inevitable— I mean that they arise out of the necessary progress of scientific thought as applied to man. You all, I hope, had the opportunity of hearing the excellent address which was given by our president yesterday, in which he traced out the marvellous progress of our knowledge of the higher animals which has been effected since the time of Linnaeus. It is no exaggeration to say that at this present time the merest tyro knows a thousand times as much on the subject as is contained in the work of Linnaeus, which was then the standard authority. Now how has that been brought about? If you consider what zoology, or the study of animals, signifies, you will see that it means an endeavor to ascertain all that can be studied, all the answers that can be given respecting any animal under four possible points of view. The first of these embraces considerations of structure. An animal has a certain structure and a certain mode of development, which means that it passes through a series of stages to that structure. In the second place, every animal exhibits a great number of active powers, the knowledge of which constitutes its physiology; and under those active powers we have, as physiologists, not only to include such matters as have been referred to by Dr. McDonnell in his observations, but to take into account other kinds of activity. I see it announced that the zoological section of to-day is to have a highly interesting paper by Sir John Lubbock on the habits of ants. Ants have a policy, and exhibit a certain amount of intelligence, and all these matters are proper subjects for the study of the zoologist as far as he deals with the ant. There is yet a third point of view in which you may regard every animal. It has a distribution. Not only is it to be found somewhere on the earth's surface, but paleontology tells us, if we go back in time, that the great majority of animals have had a past history—that they occurred in epochs of the world's history far removed from the present. And when we have acquired all that knowledge which we may enumerate under the heads of anatomy, physiology and distribution, there remains still the problem of problems to the zoologist, which is the study of the causes of those phenomena, in order that we may know how they came about. All these different forms of knowledge and inquiry are legitimate subjects for science, there being no subject which is an illegitimate subject for scientific inquiry, except such as involves a contradiction in terms, or is itself absurd. Indeed, I don't know that I ought to go quite so far as this at present, for undoubtedly there are many benighted persons who have been in the habit of calling by no less hard names conceptions which the president of this meeting tells us must be regarded with much respect. If we have four dimensions of space we may have forty dimensions, and that would be a long way beyond that which is conceivable by ordinary powers of imagination. I should, therefore, not like to draw too closely the limits as to what may be contradiction to the best-established principles. Now, let us turn to a proposition which no one can possibly deny—namely, that there is a distinct sense in which man is an animal. There is not the smallest doubt of that proposition. If anybody entertains a misgiving on that point he has simply to walk through the museum close by, in order to see that man has a structure and a framework which may be compared, point for point and bone for bone, with those of the lower animals. There is not the smallest doubt, moreover, that, as to the manner of his becoming, man is developed, step by step, in exactly the same way as they are. There is not the smallest doubt that his activities—not only his mere bodily functions, but his other functions—are just as much the subjects of scientific study as are those of ants and bees. What we call the phenomena of intelligence, for example (as to what else there may be in them, the anthropologist makes no assertion)—are phenomena following a definite causal order just as capable of scientific examination, and of being reduced to definite law, as are all those phenomena which we call physical. Just as ants form a polity and a social state, and just as these are the proper and legitimate study of the zoologist, so far as he deals with ants, so do men organize themselves into a social state. And though the province of politics is of course outside that of anthropology, yet the consideration of a man, so far as his instincts lead him to construct a social economy, is a legitimate and proper part of anthropology, precisely in the same way as the study of the social state of ants is a legitimate object of zoology. So with regard to other and more subtle phenomena. It has often been disputed whether in animals there is any trace of the religious sentiment. That is a legitimate subject of dispute and of inquiry; and if it were possible for my friend, Sir John Lubbock, to point out to you that ants manifest such sentiments, he would have made a very great and interesting discovery, and no one could doubt that the ascertainment of such a fact was completely within the province of zoology. Anthropology has nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of religion—it holds itself absolutely and entirely aloof from such questions—but the natural history of religion, and the origin and the growth of the religions entertained by the different kinds of the human race, are within its proper and legitimate province. I now go a step farther, and pass to the distribution of man. Here, of course, the anthropologist is in his special region. He endeavors to ascertain how various modifications of the human stock are arranged upon the earth's surface. He looks back to the past, and inquires how far the remains of man can be traced. It is just as legitimate to ascertain how far the human race goes back in time as it is to ascertain how far the horse goes back in time; the kind of evidence that is good in the one case is good in the other; and the conclusions that are forced on us in the one case are forced on us in the other also. Finally, we come to the question of the causes of all these phenomena, which, if permissible in the case of other animals, is permissible in the animal man. Whatever evidence, whatever chain of reasoning justifies us in concluding that the horse, for example, has come into existence in a certain fashion in time, the same evidence and the same canons of logic justify us to precisely the same extent in drawing the same kind of conclusions with regard to man. And it is the business of the anthropologist to be as severe in his criticism of those matters in respect to the origin of man as it is the business of the paleontologist to be strict in regard to the origin of the horse; but for the scientific man there is neither more nor less reason for dealing critically with the one case than with the other. Whatever evidence is satisfactory in one case is satisfactory in the other; and if any one should travel outside the lines of scientific evidence and endeavor either to support or oppose conclusions which are based upon distinctly scientific grounds, by considerations which are not in any way based upon scientific logic or scientific truth—whether that mode of advocacy was in favor of a given position, or whether it was against it, I, occupying the chair of the section, should, most undoubtedly, feel myself called upon to call him to order, and tell him that he was introducing topics with which we had no concern whatever.

I have occupied your attention for a considerable time, yet there is still one other point respecting which I should like to say a few words, because some very striking reflections arise out of it. The British Association met in Dublin twenty-one years ago, and I have taken the pains to look up what was done in regard to our subject at that period. At that time there was no anthropological department. That study had not yet differentiated itself from zoology, or anatomy, or physiology so as to claim for itself a distinct place. Moreover, without reverting needlessly to the remarks which I placed before you some time ago, it was a very volcanic subject, and people rather liked to leave it alone. It was not until a long time subsequently that the present organization of this section of the Association was brought about; but it is a curious fact that although truly anthropological subjects were at the time brought before the geographical section—with the proper subject of which they had nothing whatever to do—I find, that even then, more than half of the papers that were brought before that section were, more or less distinctly, of an anthropological cast. It is very curious to observe what that cast was. We had systems of language—we had descriptions of savage races—we had the great question, as it then was thought, of the unity or multiplicity of the human species. These were just touched upon, but there was not an allusion in the whole of the proceedings of the Association, at that time, to those questions which are now to be regarded as the burning questions of anthropology. The whole tendency in the present direction was given by the publication of a single book, and that not a very large one—namely, 'The Origin of Species.' It was only subsequent to the publication of the ideas contained in that book that one of the most powerful instruments for the advance of anthropological knowledge—namely, the Anthropological Society of Paris—was founded. Afterwards the Anthropological Institute of this country and the great Anthropological Society of Berlin came into existence, until it may be said that, at the present time, there is not a branch of science which is represented by a larger or more active body of workers than the science of anthropology. . But the whole of these workers are engaged, more or less intentionally, in providing the data for attacking the ultimate great problem, whether the ideas which Darwin has put forward in regard to the animal world are capable of being applied in the same sense and to the same extent to man.

That question, I need not say, is not answered. It is a vast and difficult question, and one for which a complete answer may possibly be looked for in the next century; but the method of inquiry is understood, and the mode in which the materials bearing on that inquiry are now being accumulated, the processes by which results are now obtained, and the observation of new phenomena lead to the belief that the problem also, some day or other, will be solved. In what sense I can not tell you. I have my own notion about it, but the question for the future is the attainment, by scientific processes and methods, of the solution of that question. If you ask me what has been done within the last twenty-one years towards this object, or rather towards clearing the ground in the direction of obtaining a solution, I don't know that I could lay my hand upon much of a very definite character— except as to methods of investigation—save in regard to one point. I have some reason to know that about the year 1860, at any rate, there was nothing more volcanic, more shocking, more subversive of everything right and proper, than to put forward the proposition that as far as physical organization is concerned there is less difference between man and the highest apes than there is between the highest apes and the lowest. My memory carries me back sufficiently to remind me that in 1860 that question was not a pleasant one to handle. The other day I was reading a recently published valuable and interesting work, 'L'espèce humaine,' by a very eminent man, M. de Quatrefages. He is a gentleman who has made these questions his special study, and has written a great deal and very well about them. He has always maintained a temperate and fair position, and has been the opponent of evolutionary ideas, so that I turned with some interest to his work as giving me a record of what I could look on as the progress of opinion during the last twenty years. If he has any bias at all, it is one in the opposite direction to that in which my own studies would lead me. I can not quote his words, for I have not the book with me, but the substance of them is that the proposition which I have just put before you is one the truth of which no rational person acquainted with the facts could dispute. Such is the difference which twenty years has made in that respect, and speaking in the presence of a great number of anatomists, who are quite able to decide a question of this kind, I believe that the opinion of M. de Quatrefages on the subject is one they will all be prepared to endorse. Well, it is a comfort to have got that much out of the way. The second direction in which I think great progress has been made is with respect to the processes of anthropometry, in other words, in the modes of obtaining those data which are necessary for anthropologists to reason upon. Like all other persons who have to deal with physical science, we confine ourselves to matters which can be ascertained with precision, and nothing is more remarkable than the exactness which has been introduced into the mode of ascertaining the physical qualities of man within the last twenty-five years. One can not mention the name of Broca without the greatest gratitude; I am quite sure that, when Professor Flower brings forward his paper on cranial measurements on Monday next, you will be surprised to see what precision of method and what accuracy are now introduced, compared with what existed twenty-five years ago, into these methods of determining the facts of man's structure. If, further, we turn to those physiological matters bearing on anthropology which have been the subject of inquiry within the last score of years, we find that there has been a vast amount of progress. I would refer you to the very remarkable collection of the data of sociology by Mr. Herbert Spencer, which contains a mass of information useful on one side or the other, in getting towards the truth. Then I would refer you to the highly interesting contributions which have been made by Prof. Max Müller and by Mr. Tylor to the natural history of religions, which is one of the most interesting chapters of anthropology. In regard to another very important topic, the development of art and the use of tools and weapons, most remarkable contributions have been made by General Lane Fox, whose museum at Bethnal Green is one of the most extraordinary exemplifications that I know of the ingenuity, and, at the same time, of the stupidity of the human race. Their ingenuity appears in their invention of a given pattern or form of weapon, and their profound stupidity in this, that having done so, they kept in the old grooves, and were thus prevented from getting beyond the primitive type of these objects and of their ornamentation. One of the most singular things in that museum is the exemplification of the wonderful tendency of the human mind when once it has got into a groove to stick there. The great object of scientific investigation is to run counter to that tendency.

Great progress has been made in the last twenty years in the direction of the discovery of the indications of man in a fossil state. My memory goes back to the time when anybody Who broached the notion of the existence of fossil man would have been simply laughed at. It was held to be a canon of paleontology that man could not exist in a fossil state. I don't know why, but it was so; and that fixed idea acted so strongly on men's minds that they shut their eyes to the plainest possible evidence. Within the last twenty years we have an astonishing accumulation of evidence of the existence of man in ages antecedent to those of which we have any historical record. What the actual date of those times was, and what their relation is to our known historical epochs, I don't think anybody is in a position to say. But it is beyond all question that man, and not only man, but what is more to the purpose intelligent man, existed at times when the whole physical conformation of the country was totally different from that which characterizes it now. Whether the evidence we now possess justifies us in going back further or not, that we can get back as far as the epoch of the drift is, I think, beyond any rational doubt, and may be regarded as something settled. But when it comes to a question as to the evidence of tracing back man further than that—and recollect the drift is only the scum of the earth's surface—I must confess that to my mind, the evidence is of a very dubious character.

Finally, we come to the very interesting question—as to whether, with such evidence of the existence of man in those times as we have before us, it is possible to trace in that brief history any evidence of the gradual modification from a human type somewhat different from that which now exists to that which is met with at present. I must confess that my opinion remains exactly what it was some eighteen years ago, when I published a little book which I was very sorry to hear my friend, Professor Flower, allude to yesterday, because I had hoped that it would have been forgotten amongst the greater scandals of subsequent times. I did there put forward the opinion that what is known as the Neanderthal skull is of human remains, that which presents the most marked and definite characteristics of a lower type— using the language in the same sense as we would use it in other branches of zoology. I believe it to belong to the lowest form of human being of which we have any knowledge, and we know from the remains accompanying that human being, that as far as all fundamental points of structure were concerned, he was as much a man—could wear boots just as easily—as any of us, so that I think the question remains pretty much where it was. I don't know that there is any reason for doubting that the men who existed at that day were in all essential respects similar to the men who exist now. But I must point out to you that this conviction is by no means inconsistent with the doctrine of evolution. The horse, which existed at that time, was in all essential respects identical with the horse which exists now. But we happen to know that going back further in time the horse presents us with a series of modifications by which it can be traced back from an earlier type. Therefore, it must be deemed possible that man is in the same position, although the facts we have before us with respect to him tell in neither one way nor the other. I have now nothing more to do than to thank you for the great kindness and attention with which you have listened to these informal remarks.