a family that advocated evolution

a family that advocated evolution

Member of the British delegation, biologist, UNESCO Secretary General prof.  Julian Huxley speaking at the podium in 1948.

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

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

Few concepts have played such an important—and disturbing—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 is viewed in an evolutionary sense. Opposition to evolution is associated with obscurantism and anti-modernism; anti-evolutionist views are completely outside the scientific mainstream.

How did biological theory become such a central part of modern life? U An intimate history of evolutionAlison Bashford follows the story from Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the origin of species, through the rise of scientific naturalism in the 1860s and 1870s and the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1940s, all the way to transhumanism, the idea that the limits of our bodies can be transcended. Histories of evolution usually trace its development over a long period or use the biography of a key scientist as a case study. Bashford deftly combines the two methods by exploring the Huxley family over 150 years.

This is no mere conceit. Central figures in this intergenerational study are Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–95), a naturalist and early promoter of Darwin, and his grandson Julian Huxley (1887–1975), an evolutionary biologist who in 1942 codified the modern synthesis by combining population genetics. , heredity and natural selection.

The striking similarities between the two lead Bashford to suggest that they might be thought of “as one very long-lived man.” One similarity 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 survey also includes other members of the dynasty, including other grandsons of Thomas. One is the novelist Aldous Huxley (1894–1963), author of the 1932 eugenic dystopia. Brave New World, about the impact of science on society. Another was the physiologist Andrew Huxley (1917–2012), who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the propagation of nerve impulses.

Dynastic science

Thomas was a staunch defender of Darwin. In 1860 he was involved in a much-mythologized debate on the subject with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in Oxford, UK. Wilberforce reportedly asked which side of Huxley’s family the monkeys came from, and Huxley realized that evolution could be useful against theologians who strayed into scientific controversy. Research at that time was carried out mostly by gentleman amateurs — in Britain, often Anglican priests.

Huxley wanted to see science under the control of a professional class of trained experts, not just in the service of colonialist expansionism. In 1864 he joined eight friends, including physicist John Tyndale and social theorist Herbert Spencer, to form the X Club, an informal pressure group that used their connections and Huxley’s political savvy to shape the direction of Victorian science. Three successive presidents of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom were drawn from its ranks, including Huxley. He wrote an article in the inaugural issue Naturethe first of many articles for the magazine — a tradition Julian continued decades later.

Bashford neatly uses the Huxley family to deconstruct the simplistic narrative that evolution “suddenly arose with Darwin, locked with theological orthodoxy, and then ushered in a secular victory.” Thomas was not convinced by the mechanism of natural selection, and preferred the idea that evolution occurred by transmission or sudden mutational jumps. His doubts reflect the wider “eclipse of Darwinism” in the late nineteenth 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. He would eventually square the circle to explain the mechanism of evolution that eluded Darwin and left his grandfather unconvinced. In 1900, Gregor Mendel’s 40-year-old work on the inheritance of biological traits was rediscovered. In the 1920s, population geneticists, including Ronald Fisher and JBS Haldane, used mathematical modeling 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 significant as his biological work. He wrote widely on scientific subjects for a popular audience, as well as on religion, philosophy and humanism, and even edited a book on Aldous. A dedicated conservationist, he was the secretary of the London Zoo and the 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 found the wildlife charity WWF.

Bashford also explores the extended 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 writer and headmaster of a private rugby school; her uncle was the poet Matthew Arnold; and her sister, novelist and education activist Mary Augusta Ward.

Ward and Thomas Huxley were significant voices in the ‘crisis of faith’ that troubled the Victorian intelligentsia. Huxley coined the term agnosticism in 1869 to describe his beliefs. He considered evidence for God that is not based on empirical data to be unknowable, and he opposed the intellectual authority of organized religion. But he argued that this belief was compatible with the “absence of theology” and had Leonardo baptized, with Darwin as his godfather.

The book is not a hagiography. Bashford explores changes over time in Thomas’s writings on white supremacy. His condemnation of slavery, she argues, stems from certainty in his scientific position, not from principle. She chronicles Julian’s marital infidelity and shows how his experience with mental illness, both personally and among his family, convinced him that it was hereditary and influenced his support for eugenic sterilization. His scientific status and his family name lent authority to calls for population control that cast a long shadow.

A quasi-biographical approach, based on a wealth of personal correspondence, makes this history of evolution more accessible and relatable than a history of the idea itself. 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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