Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 5.
This week I’ll be looking into a British autodidactic named Thomas Henry Huxley who was born on the 4th of May 1825 and died 29 June 1895. Huxley was a biologist and anthropologist specializing in comparative anatomy. He was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
His father taught mathematics and was assistant headmaster at a school in Ealing which Thomas Henry attended for a brief period. But after his father lost his job he no longer attended school. For his general education Huxley was largely self-taught; while still in his teens he read extensively, particularly in science and metaphysics, and gained a facility in reading German and French. He learned Latin, and enough Greek to read Aristotle.
Though raised as an evangelical, Tom devoured books of a distinctly anti-evangelical nature written by subversives such as William Lawrence and David Hume and William Paley. Though he wanted to grow up to be an engineer, he became a medical student instead–at the advanced age of 12, he was introduced to medicine as apprentice to brother-in-law Dr. John Scott. This began his life-long commitment to investigating the engineering of the body, to anatomy, morphology, physiology.
He was apprenticed to his sister Ellen’s husband, John Charles Cooke, a medical materialist. Transferred to a London dockside practitioner early in 1841, Huxley was shaken by the lives of his pauper patients. As an apprentice, he would walk the streets of the East End on his way to patients, observing the dreary and dangerous life lived by the poor.
In September 1842 Huxley and his brother James were awarded free scholarships at Charing Cross Hospital. The lecturer on physiology, Thomas Wharton Jones, had a strong influence on Huxley’s interest in physiology and anatomy and helped teach him methods of scientific investigation. Under Wharton Jones’ guidance, Huxley published his first scientific paper demonstrating the existence of an unrecognized layer in the inner sheath of hairs, a layer that has been known since as Huxley’s layer.
He passed his first exams at London University, but didn’t present himself for the second exam and consequently didn’t qualify for a degree. However, this first exam results were enough to allow him to apply for the Royal Navy. Huxley was too young to apply for the Royal College of Surgeons for a license, but because he was deeply in debt he applied for the navy. He was interviewed by Sir William Burnett, the Physician General of the Navy, who arranged for his competence to be tested and he was made Assistant Surgeon on the HMS Rattlesnake.
The Rattlesnake left England on 3 December 1846 and, once they had arrived in the southern hemisphere, Huxley devoted his time to the study of marine invertebrates. He began to send details of his discoveries back to England, where his papers were published by a friend Edward Forbes.
The value of Huxley’s work was recognised and, on returning to England in 1850, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the following year, at the age of twenty-six, he not only received the Royal Society Medal but was also elected to the Council. Huxley, who had learned German when he was a teenager and had begun serious scholarly investigation of German science upon his return to England. He regularly corresponded with, and sometimes had as household guests, Anton Dohrn, Ernst Haeckel, Dr. Leuckart and other German biologists.
Huxley effectively resigned from the navy (by refusing to return to active service). In 1851 recently returned from the Rattlesnake voyage, was so desperate for a job that he applied to the University of Toronto. Fortunately for England and perhaps for science, Toronto rejected him in favor of a politician’s relative. In July 1854, he became Professor of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines and naturalist to the British Geological Survey in 1855. He was active in the British scientific circles for the remainder of his life.
He was also Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution; Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons; President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; President of the Quekett Microscopical Club; President of the Royal Society; Inspector of Fisheries; and President of the Marine Biological Association.
In 1890, he moved from London to Eastbourne where he edited the nine volumes of his Collected Essays. Finally, in 1895, he died of a heart attack (after contracting influenza and pneumonia), and was buried in North London.
When Huxley himself was young there were virtually no degrees in British universities in the biological sciences and few courses. Most biologists of his day were either self-taught, or took medical degrees. When he retired there were established chairs in biological disciplines in most universities, and a broad consensus on the curricula to be followed. Huxley was the single most influential person in this transformation.
Huxley was also a major influence in the direction taken by British schools: in November 1870 he was voted onto the London School Board. In primary schooling, he advocated a wide range of disciplines, similar to what is taught today: reading, writing, arithmetic, art, science, music, etc.
Of all his public speaking Huxley was most interested in the serious of workingmen’s lectures which gave regularly, beginning in 1855, by which he wanted “the working classes to understand that Science and her ways are great facts for them.”
While Huxley is best known for his defense of Darwin’s hypothesis, he did not accept it uncritically and did not consider that the problem was finally settled nor that natural selection was by any means proven as the mechanism. For Huxley it remained a hypothesis because of the lack of experimental proof.
Huxley’s close friends were Charles Lyell, whom he met shortly after his return from the voyage, Herbert Spencer, Michael Foster, John Knowles, Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, and John Tyndall. The number of letters exchanged between Huxley and these people hints at the degree of closeness.
Later an idea came to these friends: to institute a club, Huxley’s title for which was Blastodermic. The first meeting of the X Club, as it came to be designated, was in January of 1864. The club became an admired and feared cabal, since it not only had the talent to write most of a scientific encyclopedia, but from its members came four Presidents of the Royal Society, five Presidents of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, officers of the Royal College of Surgeons and many societies, the London Mathematical, the Chemical, the Geological, the Ethnological.
According to its members, the club was originally started to keep friends from drifting apart, and to partake in scientific discussion free from theological influence. A key aim was to reform the Royal Society, with a view to making the practice of science professional.
The scientific eminence, social status, hard work, and political astuteness of the X Club’s members were all essential to the group’s success. By electing one another to office and through effective networking, these men were influential in scientific societies and became leading advisers to the government. As popular lecturers, contributors to elite journals, and textbook writers, they were among the prime interpreters of science for the industrializing and secularizing society of Victorian England
What can we take away from Huxleys life and learning? Firstly like all the autodidactics and polymaths I’ve reviewed so far he had an insatiable love of reading. He also was hard-working and dedicated. I can tell you as a fellow language learner, Huxley’s learning of multiple languages, German, French, Greek, and Latin was not mean feat and would have consumed many hours of study, reading and practice.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has created a practical reference for people interested in learning a foreign language. The list contains difficulty ratings and the estimated number of classroom hours necessary to learn each language at a semi-proficient level.
German is rated as a category 2 language and considered to be similar to English. The FSI estimates that German takes approximately 30 weeks, or 750 classroom hours to learn. This study was conducted on a group of language students who spent 25 hours per week in class, and three hours daily on individual practice.
Without a teacher or modern methods such as electronic flashcards and working only with books and meetings, Huxley would have had a much more difficult time, and probably would have spent longer. Remember that a bachelor’s degree in most areas can require between 124 to 128 college credits particular to a specific program of study. Where as a C2 – CEFR certification in German is estimated at well over 1500 hours of study.
So we know that Huxley had dogged determination and great motivation to learn a language. We know he was a vicarious reader. But one thing we can also take away from Huxley’s life and study practices is his network of people. Huxley was a prolific correspondent and wrote letters all his life. Starting in his early years while studying and corresponding with various mentors.
In addition, the creation of the X-Club was specifically designed to have a peer system. Today we’d call this a Mastermind Group. Napoleon Hill, his classic book Think and Grow Rich, coined the phrase “mastermind group” and pointed out that the most successful people throughout history had a personal “Board of Advisors” that helped them reach their goals. Huxley was one of these people.
Surrounding himself with like minded people, and creating a network of friends and mentors via correspondence was a core feature in Huxley’s life and learnings. These mastermind groups have been around a long time. One of the people I previously reviewed, Ben Franklin established a group called “The Junto” in 1727 who met together for mutual improvement by discussing moral, political, and scientific topics of the day.
As a self-learner you may struggle with a topic and it is often good to get an outside perspective on the issue. For example, yesterday I sent some computer code to a friend asking him for help. He didn’t give me the answer, but managed to start me down the correct path to get the answer myself. Often when you have a knotty problem to figure out, just explaining the problem to someone else will trigger the answer to pop up into your head without them saying a word.
If you research a Napoleon Hill mastermind group, it will be different from what I’m proposing for an autodidactic. Typically the groups outlined by Hill are for career progression and business mentoring. What I’m suggesting is more like what Huxley used in his youth. A group of people who are knowledgeable in a subject your are learning and would be willing to assist you. It is also helpful if you know something they are learning so you can pay them back, but often people will assist you simply from kindness or friendship.
Huxley corresponded via letter with knowledgeable people in his field of study. Asking questions and having discussions about what he was learning.
A few years ago I was looking into statistics and wanted to do a small experiment. I read a number of books on the subject and had a general idea how to go about it, but didn’t know any specifics. I decided to write the author of one of the books I was studying, a professor at the University of Bath. I sent an email and told him I was reading his book, and why I was reading it. I asked the specific question about my project and hoped for an answer. Not only did he reply he advanced some suggestions for improvements in my project and we continued to correspond via email for a few weeks.
You can have a group of mentors for your own learning. You need to identify people who could help you, and may want to help you. Remember that you shouldn’t badger people into helping you, nor depend on a few people. But here are some ways you can start to pull together a learning mastermind group.
- Create a list of people who are knowledgable.
- Determine the best way to communicate with these people.
- Determine what you can do for them.
- Have a hotseat.
A diverse group has been proven to be a far better way to solve our problems than one or two individuals. Groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, so try to diversify. For example, if you’re learning computer programming having a mathematician around would be extremely helpful to you.
Communication could be as a group, or to individuals. You might decide to meet with your six friends who are all learning the same subject as you each week. Or you might decide to create a WhatsApps or Signal group in order to share learnings and problems. You might decide that you’d rather meet one-to-one or use email correspondence for communications.
Determine what you can give back to these people. It might be that you don’t have anything to give back, but they help simply because they enjoy helping others. Don’t abuse people for your personal gain, try to help them if you can. Always be available to answer their questions if they have them.
If you’re going to meet regularly have a hot-seat that rotates through all the members so they can ask questions about their issues and seek answers from the group.
Remember that while the authors of books, professors, or other people might seem to mighty to answer your simple questions, they are people just like you. A rather famous, but insightful saying is; Don’t ask, don’t get.
Well that is all for this week.
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Thank you very much for listening.