How the Huxleys Electrified Evolution


Julian was not going to abandon Grandfather’s creed. But he was also not eager to settle in a specialty. “For God’s sake decide what branch of biology you are an expert in,” marine biologist George Parker Bidder implored him in 1925. “A man can no longer be a universal expert. . . . You must not get carried away with the idea of ​​emulating your grandfather. Julian, defiant as always, ignored the advice. In 1927, he left academia to write a summary of biology, “The Science of Life”, with HG Wells and his son GP Wells Very popular – David Attenborough and Walt Disney spoke about it later – the book stimulated Julian’s passion for storytelling and synthesis.

His own crucial justification for Darwinian theory appeared in the book “Evolution: The Modern Synthesis” (1942), which revived the program. “The death of Darwinism was proclaimed not only from the pulpit, but also from the biological laboratory,” wrote Julian, but he wanted to show that Darwinism was “very much alive.” The book – notable for its breadth, clarity and literary flair – articulated a new view of the theory of evolution, reconciling natural selection with ideas from a wide number of sub-disciplines, including genetics, paleontology and cell biology. It was also a typical Huxley project. In a review for American scientistgeologist Kirtley Mather called Julian’s defense of Darwinism “an amusing reminiscence of days past when another Huxley championed the cause of evolution in an entirely different battle.”

In the half century before his death, Julian wrote about forty other books. He also won an Academy Award, ran the London Zoo, helped found the World Wildlife Fund, served as UNESCO, popularized the term “transhumanism” and coined the words “clade” and “cline”. Along the way, he and his wife, Juliette, raised two sons, a botanist, Anthony, and an anthropologist, Francis. True grandson of his grandfather, Julian went from being a disciple of Darwin to that of spokesperson for science itself.

“The Huxleys” is more than an account of how two famous academics shaped and sold evolution. It is also about the implications men have discerned in activities ranging from religion to conservation. The most important of these implications concerned ethics.

Two stories can be told about the Huxleys in this regard. According to one, they were progressive anti-racists who used science for good. The elder Huxley, a comparative anatomist, has collected evidence to refute racist pseudoscience. His research has challenged common beliefs that Africans are more ape-like than Europeans. He railed against polygenists, who argued that Europeans and Africans belonged to different species and whose writings served as justification for slavery in the American South. His observations, demonstrating our common humanity, became buckshot in the war against slavery. The Ladies’ London Emancipation Society collected quotes from his lectures in an abolitionist pamphlet, “Professor Huxley on the Negro Question” (1864), stating that his scholarly work amounted to “a serious plea for black emancipation”.

Julian continued his grandfather’s crusade against racial science. With anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon, he published “We Europeans: A Survey of ‘Racial Problems'” (1935), a book that debunked what its authors called a “vast pseudo-science of ‘racial biology'” endorsed by fascist nationalists. The conclusions of the book have since become common sense: the idea of ​​a “pure” race is wrong. What we call “the Germans” or “the French” are actually mixtures of many ancestral populations. The project of distilling a racially unpolluted people through a reproductive policy is scientifically obtuse. Julian fought against Nazism and racial science for years thereafter, notably in the documentary “Man—One Family” (1946) and in his manifesto “UNESCO: Its purpose and its philosophy” (1946).

And yet another story can easily be told: Thomas Henry was a racist and an imperialist. According to Bashford, he believed that human variation was organized hierarchically, with the white man presumably at the top. Although he was an abolitionist, his rooting interest was with white people. “I have not the slightest sentimental sympathy with the Negro,” he wrote to his sister Lizzie in 1864, a few months after the publication of “Professor Huxley on the Negro Question.” He argued for emancipation, yes, but “for the good of the white man” – for his politics, his morals and his economy.

“I’m turning around. It’s a dump. »

Cartoon by Sam Gross

Julian doesn’t fare much better. He was racially prejudiced and, despite all his talk of “the family of man”, doubted the sophistication of non-Europeans. More damningly, he was a eugenicist – not just vaguely sympathetic, but a prominent proselytizer, waving the banner even after Nazi atrocities and eventually rising to the presidency of the British Eugenics Society.

Both stories have their truth, of course, leaving modern interpreters unmoored. Should the Huxleys be celebrated or reviled? In 1969, Western Washington University named its new environmental college after the elder Huxley. Half a century later, in 2021, a task force recommended removing his name because his “white supremacist values” served to “dehumanize and harm many members of the Western community.” The task force report was riddled with inaccuracies, many of which were documented in a response from ten Western Washington University faculty members. Yet a more responsible group commissioned by Imperial College London came to a similar recommendation: rename Imperial’s Huxley building and exile Huxley’s bust to the archives. (WWU has removed its name; Imperial will consider adding the name of a scientist from a minority group.)

Although Bashford is openly sympathetic to Julian, she tends to avoid moral pronouncements, instead viewing the Huxleys’ positions as artifacts of historical study: examples of the weight of cultural heritage, snapshots of the ever-changing relationship between evolution and ethics, and paradoxes that illuminate another way of thinking. She is particularly fascinated by eugenics. For many readers, Julian’s plea may seem incomprehensible. He was an opponent of biological racism and yet an advocate of population-level genetic planning; a whistleblower of Nazi atrocities, but a crusader for sterilization.

But Julian’s position was far from unusual. In the 1920s and 1930s he joined a team of biologists, including Hermann Muller and JBS Haldane, who combined progressive and sometimes socialist agendas with eugenic fervor. For them, genetic planning was a facet of a modern utopian state: a tool for good that had to be separated from the corrosive evils of ethnonationalism and racial prejudice.

They set out their vision in a 1939 manifesto titled “Social Biology and Population Improvement”. Posted in Nature two weeks after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the manifesto called for radical reforms: establishing equal opportunities. End racial and national discord. Legalize and expand birth control. Provide social protection and ease the burden of women. Teach people that heredity and environment interact to affect well-being. Institute a social system that puts the “good of mankind as a whole” first. The manifesto was more leftist than typical for Julian, but its advocacy against racism, internationalism and birth control were familiar Huxley positions.

A key point of the Geneticists’ Manifesto (as it is sometimes called) is that eugenics planning requires these reforms. Our understanding of genetics remains impoverished, he argued; there is “no valid basis” for assessing the genetic component of intelligence or temperament of individuals as long as they come from unequal social backgrounds. Even so, Julian campaigned for eugenics policies, especially those related to health. He was convinced, he said, by data showing that “mental and physical defects are hereditary” and that small measures, principally voluntary sterilization, “could greatly reduce the burden of defective humanity”. This plea was striking because Julian and his family were part of the targeted group. Not only did they suffer from mental illness, but Julian considered it to be their genetic burden.

The Huxleys had many names for the dark spells that afflicted them. Thomas Henry called them “paroxysms of internal pain”. Julian used the phrase “the disease of thinking”. His brother Aldous preferred “accidie”, Chaucer’s term for a “heavy, reflective and wrawe” state. Whatever its name, Julian considered it a hereditary plague.

Bashford locates haunting passages in Julian’s private writings. After the birth of his firstborn, he mourned the torture his son would inherit: “Your spirit. . . will perhaps collapse and leave you homeless, be ugly, be so bewitched that it will turn (when least expected) from an Arcadian cradle palace into a pigsty or prison. Bashford notes that the words read almost like a curse.

The disease could be disabling. Julian suffered a nervous breakdown before he was supposed to start at Rice, which delayed his departure for America by about four months. During another episode, he became almost catatonic – a sad, motionless and silent facsimile of his usually boiling self. Nevertheless, he fared better than some other Huxleys. Thomas Henry’s daughter Marian was despondent after giving birth and later died in psychiatric care. Julian and Aldous’ brother, Trev, hanged himself at the age of twenty-four.

Julian, in his autobiography “Memories”, speculated that the disease was genetically inherited, and Bashford offers no alternative explanation. But other observers point to a different legacy: the heavy expectations placed on Huxley’s children and grandchildren. Julian believed his brother’s suicide had been triggered by a failed romance, but Trev’s “desperate bouts of melancholy”, as one biographer put it, began months earlier, after a disappointing performance at the civil service examination. “There’s something really devastating about having a grandfather (Grand-pater as they called him) who was a god in the family,” Juliette, Julian’s wife, said in a 1985 interview. These children grew up in this atmosphere: ‘Worthy of Grand-Pater, that’s it! You must be worthy of grandfather. ”


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