the family that advocated evolution
An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family Alison Bashford Allen Lane (2022)
Few concepts have played such an important – and tricky – role in the relationship between science and society as evolution. What it means to be human, our place in nature and how society should be structured: they have all been viewed in evolutionary terms. Opposition to evolution is associated with obscurantism and antimodernism; anti-evolutionist views are right outside the scientific mainstream.
How did a biological theory become such a central part of modern life? In An Intimate History of EvolutionAlison Bashford follows the story from Charles Darwin’s 1859 book About the origin of species, through the rise of scientific naturalism in the 1860s and 1870s and the modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1940s, all the way to transhumanism, the idea that the limits of our bodies could be crossed. Evolutionary histories typically follow its development over a longer period of time or use the biography of an important scientist as a case study. Bashford cleverly combines the two methods by surveying the Huxley family over 150 years.
This is not just conceit. The central figures in this intergenerational study are Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), Darwin’s naturalist and early promoter, and his grandson Julian Huxley (1887-1975), the evolutionary biologist who in 1942 codified the modern synthesis by combining population genetics . , inheritance and natural selection.
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The striking similarities between the two lead Bashford to suggest that they could be considered “a very long-lived man”. One similarity was their conflicting morals, which Bashford highlights but does not condone or condemn. Thomas called for the abolition of slavery, but argued that white people were superior to black people; Julian was against Nazism and South African apartheid, but was president of the British Eugenics Society from 1959 to 1962.
Bashford’s research also includes other members of the dynasty, including Thomas’ other grandchildren. One was novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), author of the 1932 Eugenic Dystopia brave new world, about the influence of science on society. Another was physiologist Andrew Huxley (1917-2012), who won a Nobel Prize for his work on nerve impulse propagation.
Thomas was a staunch defender of Darwin. In 1860 he was involved in a much mythologized discussion on the subject with a bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, in Oxford, UK. Wilberforce reportedly asked which side of Huxley’s family apes were on, and Huxley realized that evolution could be helpful against theologians who strayed into scientific controversy. Research at the time was mainly conducted by gentlemen’s amateurs – in Britain, often Anglican clergy.
Huxley wanted to see science under the control of a professional class of trained specialists, not least in the service of colonialist expansionism. In 1864, he joined eight friends, including physicist John Tyndall and social theorist Herbert Spencer, to form the X Club, an informal pressure group that used his connections and Huxley’s political knowledge to shape the direction of Victorian science. Three successive presidents of the British Royal Society were drawn from its ranks, including Huxley. He wrote an article in the first issue of Naturethe first of many pieces for the magazine – a tradition Julian continued decades later.
Bashford neatly uses the Huxley family to deconstruct the simplistic story that evolution “suddenly arose with Darwin, battled theological orthodoxy, and then ushered in secular victory”. Thomas was unconvinced by the mechanism of natural selection, preferring the idea that evolution occurred through saltation or sudden mutational jumps. His doubts reflect the broader “eclipse of Darwinism” in the late 1800s, as rival theories of evolution spread.
Julian was born during this period. Ultimately, he would square the circle to explain the mechanism of evolution that had eluded Darwin and left his grandfather unconvinced. In 1900, Gregor Mendel’s 40-year-old work on the inheritance of biological properties was rediscovered. Throughout the 1920s, population geneticists, including Ronald Fisher and JBS Haldane, used mathematical models to show that Mendelian inheritance could explain variation and the results of natural selection on large populations.
Julian’s talent as a communicator and his advocacy were at least as important as his biological work. He wrote extensively on scientific subjects for popular audiences, as well as on religion, philosophy and humanism, and even published a tome on Aldous. A committed conservationist, he was Secretary of the London Zoo and the first Director of the United Nations Cultural and Scientific Organization UNESCO. This work sparked interest in primate emotions and influenced his part in the effort to found the wildlife charity, WWF.
Bashford also explores the wider family and their philosophical milieu. In 1885 Leonard Huxley, son of Thomas and father of Julian, married Julia Arnold, a member of another intellectual dynasty. Julia’s grandfather was Thomas Arnold, a literary scholar and principal of the Rugby Private School; her uncle was the poet Matthew Arnold; and her sister, the writer and education activist Mary Augusta Ward.
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Ward and Thomas Huxley were key voices in the “crisis of faith” that plagued the Victorian intelligentsia. Huxley coined the term agnosticism in 1869 to describe his beliefs. He believed that evidence for God not based on empirical data was unknowable, and opposed the intellectual authority of organized religion. But he argued that faith was compatible with “an absence of theology,” and had Leonard baptized, with Darwin as his godfather.
The book is not a hagiography. Bashford examines the changes over time in Thomas’ writings on the superiority of white men. His condemnation of slavery, she argues, stemmed from certainty in his scientific position, rather than principle. She describes Julian’s infidelity in marriage and shows how his experience with mental illness, personally and in his family, convinced him it was hereditary and influenced his support for eugenic sterilization. His status as a scientist and his family name lent authority to calls for population control that left a long shadow.
The quasibiographical approach, based on a wealth of personal correspondence, makes this history of evolution more accessible and recognizable than a history of the idea itself would be. Bashford outlines a cultural phenomenon that has profoundly shaped society and revolutionized our understanding of what it means to be human.
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