the family that championed evolution

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Julian Huxley, grandson of naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, was instrumental in the development of modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1940s.Credit: PAP/Alamy

An Intimate History of Evolution: The Huxley Family Story Alison Bashford Allen Lane (2022)

Few concepts have had such an important – and thwarted – 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: everything was considered in terms of evolution. Opposition to evolution is associated with obscurantism and anti-modernism; anti-evolutionary views are squarely outside the scientific mainstream.

How did a biological theory become such a central part of modern life? In An intimate history of evolutionAlison Bashford traces the story of Charles Darwin’s 1859 book About the origin of species, through the rise of scientific naturalism in the 1860s and 1870s and modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1940s, to transhumanism, the idea that the limits of our bodies could be transcended. Stories of evolution usually follow its development over an extended period or use the biography of a key scientist as a case study. Bashford deftly mixes the two methods in probing the Huxley family over 150 years.

It is not mere vanity. The central figures in this intergenerational study are Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), the naturalist and first promoter of Darwin, 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.

The striking similarities between the two men lead Bashford to suggest that they could be considered “one very long-lived single man”. One resemblance was their contradictory morality, which Bashford illuminates but neither condones nor condemns. Thomas called for the abolition of slavery but argued that whites were superior to blacks; Julian opposed Nazism and South African apartheid but was president of the British Eugenics Society from 1959 to 1962.

Bashford’s investigation also takes into account other members of the dynasty, including Thomas’ other grandchildren. One was the novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), author of the 1932 eugenics dystopia The best of worlds, on the influence of science on society. Another was physiologist Andrew Huxley (1917-2012), who won a Nobel Prize for his work on the propagation of nerve impulses.

Dynastic Science

Thomas was a strong defender of Darwin. In 1860 he was embroiled in a much mythologized dispute over the subject with a bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, in Oxford, UK. Wilberforce reportedly asked which side of Huxley’s family were apes, and Huxley realized that evolution could be usefully used against theologians who strayed into scientific controversy. At the time, research was mainly carried out by amateur gentlemen – in Britain, often Anglican clerics.

Huxley wanted to see science under the control of a professional class of trained specialists, especially 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 lobby group that leveraged his connections and Huxley’s political acumen to shape the direction of the Victorian science. Three successive presidents of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom have been drawn from its ranks, including Huxley. He wrote an article in the first issue of Naturethe first of many articles for the newspaper – a tradition that Julian continued decades later.

Bashford carefully uses the Huxley family to deconstruct the simplistic narrative that evolution “came suddenly with Darwin, clashed with theological orthodoxy, and then ushered in secular victory.” Thomas was unconvinced by the mechanism of natural selection and preferred the idea that evolution occurred by saltation or sudden mutational leaps. His doubts reflect the “wider eclipse of Darwinism” at the end of the 19th century, when rival evolutionary theories proliferated.

Thomas H. Huxley, English biologist with his grandson, Julian Huxley, in 1895.

Thomas Henry Huxley with Julian in 1895.Credit: Granger/Shutterstock

Julian was born during this period. Finally, he squared the circle to explain the mechanism of evolution that had eluded Darwin and left his grandfather skeptical. In 1900, Gregor Mendel’s 40-year work on the inheritance of biological traits was rediscovered. Throughout the 1920s, population geneticists including Ronald Fisher and JBS Haldane used mathematical modeling to demonstrate that Mendelian inheritance could explain the variation and outcomes of natural selection over 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 religion, philosophy, and humanism, and even edited a volume on Aldous. A committed ecologist, he was secretary of the London Zoo and first director of the United Nations cultural and scientific organization, UNESCO. This work led to an interest in primate emotions, influencing his role in efforts to establish wildlife charity WWF.

Bashford also explores the extended family and its 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 headmaster of the private school Rugby; his uncle was the poet Matthew Arnold; and her sister, novelist and education activist Mary Augusta Ward.

Ward and Thomas Huxley were important voices in the “crisis of faith” that troubled the Victorian intelligentsia. Huxley coined the term agnosticism in 1869 to describe his beliefs. He argued that proof of God not based on empirical data was unknowable and opposed the intellectual authority of organized religion. But he argued that the belief was compatible with “an absence of theology”, and had Leonard baptized, with Darwin as godfather.

The book is not a hagiography. Bashford explores changes over time in Thomas’s writings on white male superiority. Her condemnation of slavery, she argues, stemmed from the certainty of her scientific position rather than principle. It chronicles Julian’s marital infidelity and shows how his experience of mental illness, personal and family, convinced him that it was hereditary and influenced his support for eugenic sterilization. His scientific stature and family name gave authority to calls for population control that left a long shadow.

The quasi-biographical approach, based on extensive personal correspondence, makes this history of evolution more accessible and relatable than a history of the idea itself would be. Bashford traces a cultural phenomenon that has profoundly shaped society and revolutionized our understanding of what it means to be human.

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