His scientific debates against Richard Owen demonstrated that there were close similarities between the cerebral anatomy of humans and gorillas. Interestingly, Huxley did not accept many of Darwin's ideas (e.g. gradualism), and was more interested in advocating a materialist professional science than in defending natural selection.
A talented populariser of science, he coined the term "agnosticism" to describe his stance on religious belief. His interest in Biology was the source of his coining of the word "Biogenesis", which represents the theory stating that all cells arise from other cells.
Huxley was born in the village of Ealing near London, being the seventh of eight children of a teacher of mathematics. At seventeen he commenced regular medical studies at Charing Cross Hospital, where he had obtained a scholarship. At twenty he passed his first M.B. examination at the University of London, winning the gold medal for anatomy and physiology. In 1845 he published his first scientific paper, demonstrating the existence of a hitherto unrecognized layer in the inner sheath of hairs, a layer that has been known since as Huxley’s layer.
Huxley then applied for an appointment in the navy. He obtained the post of surgeon to HMS Rattlesnake, about to start for surveying work in Torres Strait. The Rattlesnake left England on December 3, 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, and his paper, On the Anatomy and the Affinities of the Family of Medusae was printed by the Royal Society in the Philosophical Transactions in 1849. Huxley united, with the Medusae, the Hydroid and Sertularian polyps, to form a class to which he subsequently gave the name of Hydrozoa. The connection he made was that all the members of the class consisted of two membranes enclosing a central cavity or stomach. This is characteristic of what are now called the Cnidaria. He compared this feature to the serous and mucous structures of embryos of higher animals.
The value of Huxley’s work was recognized, 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 merely received the Royal medal, but was elected on the council. He secured the friendship of Joseph Dalton Hooker and John Tyndall, who remained his lifelong friends. The Admiralty retained him as a nominal assistant-surgeon, in order that he might work up the observations he had made during the voyage of the Rattlesnake. He was thus enabled to produce various important memoirs, especially those on certain Ascidians, in which he solved the problem of Appendicularian organism whose place in the animal kingdom Johannes Peter Müller had found himself wholly unable to assign and on the morphology of the Cephalous Mollusca.
Huxley resigned from the navy, and in July 1854 he became lecturer at the School of Mines and naturalist to the Geological Survey in the following year. His most important research belonging to this period was the Croonian Lecture delivered before the Royal Society in 1858 on The Theory of the Vertebrate Skull. In this he rejected Richard Owen’s view that the bones of the skull and the spine were analogous, an opinion previously held by Goethe and Lorenz Oken.
In 1859 The Origin of Species was published. Huxley had previously rejected Lamarck’s theory of transmutation on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to support it. However he believed that Darwin at least gave a hypothesis which was good enough as a working basis, even though he believed evidence was still lacking, and became one of Darwin’s main supporters in the debate that followed the book’s publication. He did this in a lecture at the Royal Institution in February 1860, and spoke in favour of Darwinism in the debate at the British Association meeting in Oxford in June. He was joined on this occasion by his friend Hooker, and they were opposed by the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce and Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle.
Following this Huxley concentrated on the subject of man’s origins, maintaining that man was related to apes. In this he was opposed by Richard Owen, who stated that man was clearly marked off from all other animals by the anatomical structure of his brain. This was actually inconsistent with known facts, and was effectually refuted by Huxley in various papers and lectures, summed up in 1863 in Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature.
The thirty-one years during which Huxley occupied the chair of natural history at the School of Mines were largely occupied with palaeontological research. Numerous memoirs on fossil fishes established many far-reaching morphological facts. The study of fossil reptiles led to his demonstrating, in the course of lectures on birds, delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1867, the fundamental affinity of the two groups which he united under the title of Sauropsida.
From 1870 onwards he was drawn away from scientific research by the claims of public duty. From 1862 to 1884 be served on ten Royal Commissions. From 1871 to 1880 he was a secretary of the Royal Society, and from 1881 to 1885 he was president. He was made a Privy Councillor in 1892. In 1870 he was president of the British Association at Liverpool, and in the same year was elected a member of the newly constituted London School Board. In 1888 he was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society.
His health completely broke down in 1885. In 1890 he moved from London to Eastbourne, where after a painful illness he died.
Huxley was the founder of a very distinguished family of British academics, including his grandsons Aldous Huxley (the writer), Sir Julian Huxley (the first Director General of UNESCO and founder of the World Wildlife Fund), and Sir Andrew Huxley (the physiologist and Nobel laureate).