In the iconic frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), primate skeletons march across the page and, presumably, into the future: “Gibbon, Orang, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Man.” Fresh evidence from anatomy and palaeontology had made humans’ place on the scala naturae scientifically irrefutable. We were unequivocally with the animals — albeit at the head of the line.
Nicolaus Copernicus had displaced us from the centre of the Universe; now Charles Darwin had displaced us from the centre of the living world. Regardless of how one took this demotion (Huxley wasn’t troubled; Darwin was), there was no doubting Huxley’s larger message: science alone can answer what he called the ‘question of questions’: “Man’s place in nature and his relations to the Universe of things.”
Huxley’s question had a prominent place in the early issues of Nature magazine. Witty and provocative, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ was among the most in-demand essayists of the day. Norman Lockyer, the magazine’s founding editor, scored a coup when he persuaded his friend to become a regular contributor. And Huxley knew a soapbox when... see more