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Assigned: Thomas Henry Huxley. "On the Physical Basis of Life" (E-Text)

"On the Physical Basis of Life"

(The page numbers referenced below are to be found in brackets in the e-text.)

1. On pages 131-45, what scientific argument does Huxley advance? Sketch the logical flow of his comments regarding "the physical basis of life" and his remarks about "protoplasm." What comparisons does he make between humans, plants, and animals to reinforce his argument?

2. On pages 145-53, Huxley shifts to another facet of his argument: "what is the ultimate fate, and what the origin, of the matter of life?" (145) What answers does he provide for these questions? How does Huxley's reference to Balzac's "Peau de Chagrin," as well as his humorous remarks about mutton, enhance his response? Finally, what criticism does he make of "vitalistic" notions about life?

3. On pages 153 (bottom) -- 65, Huxley explores the philosophical context and implications of the scientific argument he has been making. How does he describe this philosophical dimension, and where does he stand on the ultimate significance of scientific explanations of life for philosophy and for the public? In particular, where does he stand on the issue of "materialism" as a basis for understanding life, and on "necessity" as an explanatory concept?

4. General question: how would you characterize Huxley's performance as a public speaker, a rhetorician who in part uses literary means to persuade the public to accept his scientific claims about "the physical basis of life"? Do you find his rhetoric effective? Why or why not?

5. General question: there is still some lively debate in the first decade of the twenty-first century regarding the relative value of scientific and religious claims about the origin and significance of life. A number of authors, taken together, might be said to constitute something like a "new atheist" movement (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and others). If you are familiar with any of these authors' arguments, how do they compare with Huxley's scientific rhetoric and position in the essay we have read? (Google-search any of the above-mentioned authors' names, and you should be able to find some excerpts from books and essays they have written.)

Edition: "On the Physical Basis of Life" (E-Text)