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  • On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata
  • Suzy Anger (bio)
Thomas Huxley , "On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata" (1874)

It may be surprising to find Thomas Huxley's somewhat misleadingly titled article "On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata" identified as a keynote text of the Victorian period, but it is a piece that crucially impacted late Victorian literature and culture in ways that have now become invisible to us. Consciousness and its relation to the body became a topic of acute interest in the nineteenth century as physiology and neurology revealed increasingly detailed connections between brain processes and conscious experience. To use Victorian terms, it had been well established that molecular changes in the brain were accompanied by changes in consciousness, but how to account for that association remained unclear.

Huxley powerfully develops in his article one influential response to the problem: the theory that humans are conscious automata. According to that view, consciousness is epiphenomenal, a by-product of neural processes. There is a one-way causal relation between body and mind: the physical affects the mental, but the mental has no effect on the physical. The body carries on by reflex action, without any interference from thought and emotions, and, most significantly, entirely apart from volition. It is a dualist conception of mind, but one that limits consciousness to registering the private, the "what it feels like to me." As Huxley puts it, consciousness has no influence on the physical world just "as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery" (575).

The theory took a profound hold on the Victorian cultural imagination, despite the unlikelihood that such a view would have broad appeal, since it denies the efficacy of what many take to be the most significant aspect of human life. Huxley was a beautiful stylist, so his presentation may have contributed to his article's impact. He was also a talented publicist, and he arranged for his paper to be published simultaneously in three separate journals, including the influential Fortnightly Review and Nature, after he presented it at the 1874 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, where it was read alongside John Tyndall's infamous "Belfast Address" supporting scientific materialism. But the topic also, to borrow some of the article's own terminology, hit a nerve with the Victorian public. Huxley's paper occasioned hundreds of discussions in books and articles, which continued to appear into the 1890s.

William James notes the paper's notoriety when he begins his 1879 Mind piece, "Are We Automata?" with the assertion that "everyone is now acquainted with the Conscious-Automaton theory to which Prof. Huxley gave such publicity in his Belfast address" (1). Huxley's theory was admired by the mathematician W.K. Clifford, the neurologist John Hughlings Jackson, the psychologist [End Page 50] Henry Maudsley, and the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, among others, and critiqued by the psychologists G.H. Lewes, W.B. Carpenter, George Romanes, and William James. Carpenter, the Victorian psychologist known for originating the phrase "unconscious cerebration," objected to the view primarily because he was unwilling to give up conscious volitional agency and personal responsibility, considerations central to much Victorian psychological theory. W.S. Lilly's strident article "Materialism and Morality," appearing in the Fortnightly over ten years after Huxley's paper, can stand as representative of other near-hysterical responses. Lilly charges that Huxley's theory destroys not only morality but also the unity of the self; the new naturalist psychology "reeks of the brothel, the latrine, and the torture trough" (581).

To indicate how widespread these debates were, conscious automatism not only was the subject of scholarly inquiry but also entered into the cultural vocabulary, so Fraser's Magazine in 1875 ran a satirical poem that announces, "Conscious Automata, we nothing can" (2). The phrase was also dropped into novels, often in nonsensical ways, as when the hero of Morley Robert's minor 1899 novel, The Colossus, "felt like a conscious automaton.... Here like the solitary soul seated, a remote uplifted Teufelsdrockh, in the pineal gland of the brain" (101). (You have to give Morley credit...


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