UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


'How extremely stupid'

by Joe Cain


How extremely stupid

When asked about the Origin of Species and the theory of natural selection, Thomas Henry Huxley told friends, "how extremely stupid not to have thought of that".

This is well-known folklore, and much has been made of it. Though often repeated, it rarely is traced to its source and considered in its full frame. Just where did Huxley say this, and what’s the original context?


Original quotation

The quote in its full, original context is here:

“The ‘Origin’ provided us with the working hypothesis we sought. Moreover, it did the immense service of freeing us for ever from the dilemma – Refuse to accept the creation hypothesis, and what have you to propose that can be accepted by any cautious reasoned? In 1857 I had no answer ready, and I do not think that anyone else had. A year later we reproached ourselves with dullness for being perplexed with such an inquiry. My reflection, when I first made myself master of the central idea of the ‘Origin’ was, ‘How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!’ I suppose that Columbus’ companions said much the same when he made the egg stand on end.” (Huxley 1887: 2:197)

Huxley, Thomas Henry. 1887. On the Reception of the ‘Origin of Species,’ in Darwin, Francis (ed.). 1887. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter (London: John Murray), volume 2, pp. 179-204. Quote is on v2:p197. View original page here (Web)

Was this the original usage?

In the Preface to volume 1 of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Francis Darwin (pp. v-vi) implies Huxley wrote this essay specifically for inclusion in this volume.

Huxley might have told this story before, but I’ve not located any reference to an earlier usage. A search of the digital volumes in The Huxley Files (Web) reveals no earlier version in print. However, this collection is not exhaustive. The Huxley Files was created by Charles Blinderman and David Joyce (Clark University).

Second location

Huxley’s essay on the reception is excerpted in:

Huxley, Leonard (ed.). 1900. Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (London: Macmillan and Co.), volume 1, pp. 167-171.

The ‘extremely stupid’ quote is on page 170. As the volume above makes clear, this is an extract from Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, volume 2, pages 187-190 and 195-197.