It Is the Customary Fate of New Truths to Begin as Heresies and to End as Superstitions

Thomas Henry Huxley? George Bernard Shaw? Garrett Hardin? Caryl P. Haskins? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An influential idea passes through three stages:

1) Begins as heresy
2) Turns into orthodoxy,
3) Ends up as superstition.

I cannot remember who said this. Can you help?

Quote Investigator: There are several different quotations that describe the reception of new ideas via a series of stages. A partial match with two stages instead of three was spoken by the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley during a lecture delivered at The Royal Institution of Great Britain. Today Huxley is best known as “Darwin’s bulldog” because of his vigorous defense of the theory of evolution. Huxley’s speech was printed in the journal “Nature” in 1880. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

History warns us, however, that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions; and, as matters now stand, it is hardly rash to anticipate that, in another twenty years, the new generation, educated under the influences of the present day, will be in danger of accepting the main doctrines of the Origin of Species with as little reflection, and it may be with as little justification, as so many of our contemporaries, twenty years ago, rejected them.

In 1961 Huxley received credit for a version with heresy, orthodoxy, and superstition, but QI has not yet found substantive evidence that he actually employed a tripartite expression.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1918 the playlet “Annajanska: The Bolshevik Empress” by George Bernard Shaw premiered at the Coliseum Theatre in London. A character suggested that major truths began as blasphemies instead of heresies: 2

THE GRAND DUCHESS: Do not deceive yourself, General: never again will a Panjandrum reign in Beotia. [She walks slowly across the room, brooding bitterly, and thinking aloud.] We are so decayed, so out of date, so feeble, so wicked in our own despite, that we have come at last to will our own destruction.

STRAMMFEST: You are uttering blasphemy.

THE GRAND DUCHESS: All great truths begin as blasphemies. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot set up my father’s throne again. If they could, you would have done it, would you not?

An apothegm collector quickly spotted Shaw’s statement and placed it into “Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations” in 1923: 3

All great truths begin as blasphemies.
BERNARD SHAW — Annajanska.

Huxley’s remark was remembered in the 1949 edition of “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” compiled by Burton Stevenson: 4

History warns us that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions.
THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY, Science and Culture: Origin of Species.

In 1960 a book reviewer in the “Saturday Review” referred to Huxley’s notion: 5

Because we, laymen as well as scientists, do tend to become idolaters what begins as heresy turns (as T. H. Huxley warned that it would) into superstition.

In 1961 prominent ecologist Garrett Hardin published “Nature and Man’s Fate” which included a tree part expression ascribed to T. H. Huxley: 6

The problem of fostering science is one of the great unsolved problems of our day. T. H. Huxley once remarked that the new truths of science begin as heresy, advance to orthodoxy, and end up as superstition.

The “Year Book” of the Carnegie Institution of Washington for 1969-1970 contained a report from Caryl P. Haskins who was the president of the organization. He credited Huxley with a variant expression using two stages: 7

It was Thomas Henry Huxley who remarked that it is the fate of a new scientific concept to begin as heresy and end as orthodoxy, and that transformation is not restricted to the ideas of science.

In 1990 a book review by Marcia Bartusiak published in “The New York Times” credited Huxley with the tripartite statement: 8

The 19th-century British biologist Thomas Huxley once noted that new truths in science often begin as heresy, advance to orthodoxy and end as superstition.

In conclusion, Thomas Henry Huxley crafted a clever remark about heresies and superstitions in 1880. George Bernard Shaw composed a thoughtful remark about blasphemies in 1918. Neither famous intellectual spoke of a three stage transition from heresy to orthodoxy to superstition. Garrett Hardin mentioned the three stages in 1961, but he incorrectly credited Huxley.

Image Notes: Drawing of Thomas Henry Huxley from “The New International Encyclopaedia” published by Dodd, Mead and Company of New York in 1906. Two eyes representing superstition from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Portrait of George Bernard Shaw circa 1909; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Great thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Zweig who inquired about quotations that outlined multiple stages in the acceptance of a new idea. QI has been creating a set of articles on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1880 May 6, Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science, Volume 22, The Coming of Age of the Origin of Species by T. H. Huxley, (Footnote: A lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, Friday March 19, 1880), Start Page 1, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Macmillan and Company, London and New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1919, Heartbreak House, Great Catherine, and Playlets of the War by Bernard Shaw, Annajanska: The Bolshevik Empress: A Revolutionary Romancelet, Start Page 275, Quote Page 289, (Performance Note: Annajanska was first performed at the Coliseum Theatre in London on the 21st January 1918, with Lillah McCarthy as the Grand Duchess Henry Miller as Schneidekind, and Randle Ayrton as General Strammfest), Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1923 (Copyright 1922), Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations: Completely Revised and Greatly Enlarged by Kate Louise Roberts, Topic: Truth, Quote Page 822, Column 1, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Truth, Quote Page 2049, Column 1, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org)
  5. 1960 August 20, Saturday Review, The Tortuous Road of Knowledge by Joseph Wood Krutch, (Book Review of “The Firmament of Time” by Loren Eiseley), Start Page 21, Quote Page 21, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  6. 1961, Nature and Man’s Fate by Garrett Hardin (Garrett James Hardin), Quote Page 293, A Mentor Book: The New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1970, Year Book 69: Carnegie Institution of Washington (1969-1970), Report of the President (Caryl P. Haskins), Start Page 1, Quote Page 17, Published by Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C. (Internet Archive Full View) link
  8. 1990 January 28, New York Times, Section: Book Reviews, How to Encourage New Heresies by Marcia Bartusiak, (Book review of “Discovering” by Robert Scott Root-Bernstein), Quote Page BR24, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)