Thomas Henry Huxley, English naturalist and scientist was born today, 1825. An early and important champion of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Huxley was the first to propose an ancestral link between dinosaurs and modern birds.
He also coined the term agnostic, which is enjoying a bit of a renaissance among scientists and thinkers. By combining the alpha-privative a negating the word that followed, the Ancient Greek word gnostos, meaning (to be) known. Huxley wanted to convey uncertainty where the Ancient sect of Gnostics were intending to show certainty. Of the word, Huxley said this:
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. […]. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. […] To my great satisfaction the term took.
Today many prominent scientist, notably and recently Neil DeGrasse Tyson, have re-adopted the word as more suitable to the scientific framework than atheist, which has a similar air of certainty that Huxley sought to avoid. Happy Birthday, Thomas Henry Huxley!
Image of Huxley by Ernest Edwards (1837—1903) in the public domain.