Books March 2023
A review of The Huxleys by Alison Bashford.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–95), “Darwin’s bulldog,” and his grandson Julian Huxley (1887–1975), the first director of unesco, were dominating figures of modern biology. That was especially so in biology as perceived by the public, as they were exceptionally talented at public communication. T. H.’s coining of the word “agnostic” and Julian’s promotion of the word “transhumanism” are signs of their ability both to anticipate and to influence the direction of ideas. A joint biography situating them in their times is a promising project. With The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution, Alison Bashford succeeds in telling a revealing story of the transmutation of thought within and beyond biology over a crucial century and a half.
Comparing the lives of the two writers reveals a number of changes to what animal biologists were interested in over the century from 1850 to 1950. T. H. Huxley usually preferred his animals dead and was interested in skeletons, measurements of brain cavities, and comparative anatomy. Julian, by contrast, was an initiator of the turn towards animal behavior and ecology—the studies of living animals in their relations to one another and their environments. His main early scientific project, before he turned to a life of what would later be called science communication and entrepreneurship, concerned the courtship rituals of the great crested grebe, a waterbird known for its elaborate mating displays. From the point of view of evolutionary theory, the displays are very mysterious because they take place after the couple have chosen each other, so their purpose cannot be to convey information about which potential mate would be superior. Julian retained a lifelong fascination for what he called the “ritualization of behavior” in both animals and humans. His sensitivity to cultural as well as genetic aspects of species was to serve him in good stead in his work with unesco. He applied it to his own activities too—on the occasion of the Queen Mother being awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal Society in 1956, he lectured on “Bird Display and Bird Behaviour,’’ and, as Bashford puts in, “in his own minor ritual of courtship display, he presented to the Queen Mother a tail feather of the male Argus pheasant.”
Readers of a humanist bent will enjoy the stories of Julian’s connections to the great and good of the early twentieth-century English literary world. Julian and his later equally famous brother Aldous made the pilgrimage with the Bloomsbury set to Ottoline Morrell’s country house, Garsington, where both of them picked up wives. (Aldous repaid the hospitality with a caricature of Ottoline in his first novel, Crome Yellow.) In 1927 Julian abandoned his academic position to collaborate with H. G. Wells and Wells’s son George Philip on writing a blockbuster, The Science of Life, which is one of the best-written popular science books ever and made a large sum of money. To increase the speed of the writing, the three authors moved into Wells’s house in Essex. The work continued with Julian, Aldous, and their families sharing a chalet in Switzerland. Soon their friends the Lawrences arrived, and D. H. worked hard to complete Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which Aldous’s wife had to type up. Bashford does not speculate on whether the level of anatomical detail that contributed so much to that novel’s succès de scandale was inspired by the proximity of the biological writing.
A somewhat unsettling recurrent theme of Bashford’s book is a fascination with, perhaps even policing of, the boundaries of the human species. T. H. shared the Victorian liking for tea parties with captured chimpanzees dressed in human clothes, and he promoted the recently discovered Neanderthals as the closest thing available to the elusive “missing link” between humans and other primates whose existence evolutionary theory predicted. Julian, too, made the most in The Science of Life of the very small number of remains of prehistoric human-like species, which suggested a past crossing of the boundary from non-human to human. When in charge of the London Zoo in the late 1930s, he oversaw research on the human-like potentialities of chimpanzees and gorillas; the research techniques included the latest in psychoanalytic palm-reading. In later life he wrote widely on transhumanism, which considers human evolution at the opposite end, so to speak, from that of the apes. Will the future of humanity involve breeding a better species that transcends the limitations of our present nature with its lizard brain and dysfunctional emotions? Not much progress had been made by Julian’s death in 1975, nor has it been made by 2023. They’re working on it.
Another boundary negotiated with less than total success by the Huxleys was that between the (biologically) factual and the moral. According to Hume’s is–ought gap, a received idea in philosophy, ethical conclusions cannot follow logically from purely factual (for example, scientific) premises. That is a challenge for biologists who wish to be prophets, as both Huxleys unashamedly did. How could the facts of biology, in which they were expert, imply the moral advice they wished to give? It is easy to criticize Nazi racial “science” on this ground, as Julian did, since biological facts about skin color or skull measurements cannot imply claims about the superiority or inferiority of individuals and peoples. But do the same logical problems arise for any alleged moral implications of biology, such as (to mention one of Julian’s pet campaigns) the necessity of birth control and eugenics? The Science of Life had no compunction about including a chapter on “Modern ideas of conduct” and moral advice such as “After his primary duties to himself, the first duty of Mr. Everyman to others is to learn about himself, to acquire poise and make his persona as much of a cultivated gentleman as he can.” No doubt there are worse moral ideals than that, but it can hardly be represented as an inevitable conclusion from matters of biological fact.
A particularly difficult question of this kind concerns the equality of people.
A particularly difficult question of this kind concerns the equality of people. If Nazi reasoning about inequality has no scientific basis, is the same also true of claims that people are in some sense equal, for example in their rights? Both T. H. and Julian were clear on their position: there is no basis to equality. During the American Civil War, T. H., while dismissive of the theory held in some American circles that black and white humans were different species, wrote that “the doctrine that all men are, in any sense, or have been, at any time, free and equal, is an utterly baseless fiction.” Although he was against slavery, he regarded the view of “fanatical abolitionists” that black and white were equal as so “hopelessly absurd as to be unworthy of serious discussion.” Julian wrote while director of unesco, “Our new idea-system must jettison the democratic myth of equality. Human beings are not born equal in gifts or potentialities, and human progress stems largely from the very fact of their inequality.” These questions about the relation of moral equality and biological inequality have hardly been solved since. It is one of the valuable aspects of the story to be able to see what the problem looked like from the point of view of widely informed biologists.
Those interested in the controversies about evolution may be disappointed that little is said about them in this book. The celebrated Oxford debate of 1860 between T. H. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce, normally regarded as the opening shot of the modern war between evolution and religion and a win for the former, is dismissed by Bashford as largely mythical. She does give a brief account of the mounting problems for evolutionary theory in the late nineteenth century arising from the estimated age of the earth and lack of a workable genetic theory, but there is no extended account of the exact nature of T. H. Huxley’s views on the credibility of evolutionary theory. On her account, he was far from the single-minded Darwinist “bulldog” of legend and was in fact for some time doubtful that mutation plus natural selection could be the sole or primary cause of evolutionary change. That view contrasts with his later claim about his initial reaction to Darwin’s Origin of Species, “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!’” This reaction has been shared by many a philosophically inclined intellectual since. It seems to such a mind that the suggested mechanism of genetic variation plus natural selection must cause evolutionary change, so there is no real need for empirical evidence and hence any objections to evolutionary theory must be wrong. That thought is not correct. The reason is that although genetic variation plus natural selection must cause some evolutionary change, there is no saying how much—in particular, whether it can cause all the evolutionary change observed in the fossil record. That is an extrapolation argument that requires a great deal of support from empirical facts.
Bashford notes a number of deviations by both Huxleys from later standards of correctness regarding women, blacks, imperialism, and so on. But in truth the record of both of them is reasonable, given especially the long time period, the number of topics on which they pronounced in public, and the pressures arising from their mental-health problems (both suffered serious depression, probably from bipolar disorder). In the fraught times of the 1930s, Julian publicly and vigorously opposed both Nazi “race science” and the Soviet Lysenkoist ideology that caused the deaths of so many Soviet evolutionary biologists. His high public profile meant that he was able to tell Lysenko to his face that he was talking nonsense. After the war, his short-lived but formative period as director of unesco, again in a period of fluid and difficult politics, set the scene for unesco to develop into one of the more respectable and useful UN agencies, though it too became deeply politicized by the 1970s. Its nature-conservation work and that of organizations like the World Wildlife Fund were largely Julian’s initiatives. David Attenborough began his spectacular career as a presenter of nature documentaries collaborating with the more senior Julian.
Bashford’s book has two notable strengths over and above simply telling a readable story about two significant intellectual figures. The archival research is outstanding in the way that earns readers’ gratitude, that is, both in finding and organizing the interesting facts and in leaving out the uninteresting ones. And the sketches of the various aspects of intellectual background are clear, short, authoritative, and sympathetic—no easy task given the breadth of fields in which the Huxleys played.
A specially valuable example is the last chapter, which deals with the religious background. Officially, both Huxleys were key figures in the decline of religious belief caused by the Darwinian theory of evolution. The truth is more nuanced, in both cases. Julian took very seriously the views of the unorthodox Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, who saw evolution as spiritually directed and moving the world towards an “Omega point” where a kind of divinity, not yet present, would be realized. T. H., though resolutely agnostic (rather than a crusading atheist), was well versed in biblical studies and enjoyed sparring with the family’s prominent religious thinker, Mary Augusta Ward. Writing under the name Mrs. Humphry Ward, Mary, the niece of Matthew Arnold as well as Julian’s aunt, wrote an 1888 novel, Robert Elsmere, that portrayed the struggles of an Anglican clergyman who loses literal faith but retains a religious sensibility and ethics. An earnest novel of ideas about the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, it spoke to the anxieties of the times and quickly sold a million copies (thus funding her later work as president of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League). The other religious person in the family was T. H.’s wife Henrietta, whose rather more literal Christian faith proved valuable in seeing her through her husband’s episodes of severe depression. He was prepared to make some concessions to her faith when it came to the birth of their children. Leonard, their son who was to become Julian’s father, was born in 1860 and it was agreed that he should be christened. This piece of ritualized behavior requires various roles to be filled, such as that of godfather. So who to choose?
Leonard’s godfather was Charles Darwin.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 7, on page 72
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