An Intimate Evolutionary History Reviewed by Alison Bashford – Darwin’s Pioneers Science and Nature Books

CIn any case, Hals Darwin was a docile, conflict-averse man. In his written work, he tends not to attack his opponents personally. He rarely gave public lectures and never participated in the heated face-to-face debates in Victorian England as a public testing ground for scientific thought.

Fortunately, the author of On the Origin of Species had outsiders to do it all for him — most notably Thomas Henry Huxley, a shredded lamb, square-headed science boxer who called himself Darwin The “bulldog” of ideology. Huxley was happy to overthrow ancient orthodoxy, whether scientific or religious, in the name of evolution. The New York Daily Picture featured a front-page illustration of Huxley preparing to hit Moses with a club from behind while he was on a flamboyant speaking tour on a continent that Darwin had never been to.

Huxley’s grandson, Julian Huxley, is little known outside scientific circles, but he was also a biologist and a tireless promoter of Darwinian theory in the 20th century. On the BBC, in the pages of this newspaper, and in more than 30 books, as head of public institutions such as London Zoo and later UNESCO, he is partly responsible for the idea that evolutionary logic pervades modern life , from our bodies and minds to politics and society itself.

Alison Bashford’s book is an interesting hybrid. This is an in-depth biography of Thomas Henry, Julian, and the wider Huxley family, the result of a careful examination of their writings and correspondence, and through the fundamental shifts in science and society that gave birth to modernity, as a history of British thought. Thomas Henry was born in 1825 and died in 1895 when Julian was 8 years old. Julian himself died in 1975. Bashford thinks these men neatly put an end to the era, “like Janus”: Thomas Henry in the late Victorian turned to the natural sciences to understand the past; Julian, in the twentieth century, looked forward to a more uncertain future.

By wooing two men — and their large extended family — Bashford could cover more than a century while maintaining continuity and an intimate scale. It helps that everyone is as close as possible to a model of the free British society of their day. Thomas Henry is an underclass struggler who climbs the newly built ladder of professional scientific elites with confidence in his plans to demystify the world. However, the basic assumptions of his time – from gender relations to imperial interests – worked well for him once the cobwebs of religion and reaction had been cleared.

Julian of Eton Education is more flexible and more prone to mistakes. From filmmaking to world government, he traverses the newly created jobs of the era. He was a committed scientist, but puzzled over where Darwin’s ideas might fit into the burgeoning fields of psychology, art and culture. He has ill-advised things: One of them, with 22-year-old Curious Third Reich journalist Viola Irma, happens at the same time as Julian, who is in his 40s, is writing a book debunking the science of race. The other, with American poet May Sutton, ends when Sutton turns to Julian’s wife Juliet. In one of his books, Julian fantasizes that new forms of education and marriage can bring stability and meaning to the welcome but bewildering unfolding of modern desire.

The juxtaposition of eras yields many pleasing insights. Thomas Henry was a passionate dissector of the primate brain. He hopes to reveal similar structures across species, challenging the status of humans as unique, godly creatures. The bodies of apes are the battlefield, and since they are so rare, protecting them is also the subject of intense competition. The great Christian anatomist Richard Owen, curator of natural history at the British Museum, had an institutional advantage over Thomas Henry, observing ape skeletons in private collections and prioritizing specimens brought in from imperial frontier expeditions . Thomas Henry was eager to get the material he needed and eventually “annihilated” Owen through a psychic movement among the scientific elite, culminating in his 1863 book “Man’s Place in Nature” reached a climax.

Some 70 years later, with the close kinship of humans and apes already established, it is the turn of psychology to shed further light on the shared inheritance of primates. Julian, as a behaviorist and director of the London Zoo from 1935 to 1942, witnessed and influenced the “methodological triumph of culture, thought and emotion over bone and brain”. He was a fan of primatologist Jane Goodall — she named one of her chimpanzees “Huxley” — and defended her work on explaining primates to conventional scientists value in animal behavior, these scientists, like Thomas Henry, were more interested in anatomy.

The whole of British intellectual life seems to be accessible through some branch of this vast family tree. Thomas Henry’s son Leonard married a literary dynasty through Julia Arnold (Thomas’ daughter and Matthew’s niece), and her efforts to start and run a girls’ school in Surrey shed light on the changing landscape of women’s education. Julia’s sister, the novelist and anti-suffrage campaigner Mary Augusta Ward was influential in Thomas Henry’s later exposure to the philosophy of religion. Julian published books with HG Wells and coined the term “transhumanism”. Julian’s brother Aldous – known for Brave New World – teetered on the fringes, bringing the cutting edge of psychedelic and psychiatric culture into Huxley’s family life. There is a sense of the author having a good time in a disorganized and well-appointed family home, reading all the books and letters.

But Bashford tightens the thread in the final part of the book. Issues of human difference—physical, spiritual, and cultural—occupied the Huxleys more often than even the average British liberal of their day. Thomas Henry conducted scientific expeditions under the banner of the Empire, and the concept of “barbarians” stayed with him. He correctly and repeatedly refuted the different kinds of views of human beings as strictly defined by the natural sciences, but he endorsed and often advocated an idea of ​​civilizational development that envisaged an entirely unscientific racial hierarchy.

The purpose here is not to cancel Thomas Henry, but to show the progress of ideas by those who developed and articulated them. As concepts of human difference mutated and clashed violently, Thomas Henry was part of this struggle and influenced others, especially as part of earlier efforts to specialize in the field of anthropology.

Julian was well aware of the failures of previous generations of scientists, including his grandfather. As head of UNESCO, he consciously helped shape a new utopian, anti-racist internationalism. But he also believes that understanding evolution will give humans the ability to alter their genetic destiny. Worried about overpopulation, he has been trying to save eugenics from the fascist society for decades.

Bashford is too ingenious to present her subjects simply as incarnations of their time. But at the end of Julian’s life, there was a sense of how radically things had changed. Thomas Henry’s plan succeeded: science triumphed over religion and brought some order to nature, but Julian was drawn into new uncharted territories: politics, consciousness, the distant future of humanity. The scientist developed a skeptical interest in phenomena such as telepathy in his later years. Progress is a fun thing. The world can always be remystified, Bashford suggests.

An Intimate History of Evolution: Alison Bashford’s Story of the Huxleys, published by Alan Lane (£30). To support The Guardian and The Observer, order your copy at Guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

Leave a Comment