Review of Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest by Adrian Desmond (Addison Wesley)Published in National Review
Darth Vader was a thoroughly bad man, destroying planets, kidnapping princesses, and such. That’s the way it should be-we like our movie villains uncomplicated. Mr. Vader’s only virtue was in begetting Luke Skywalker, and in the finale, after we had hissed for a few hours, that relationship was enough to redeem him. Yet what if the opening scenes of Star Wars had shown the Vader family at home, mom and dad cooing at baby Luke around the hearth? What then to think when the scene shifted to worlds being blown away?
Thomas Henry Huxley, a.k.a. “Darwin’s Bulldog”, was no movie villain, and in this marvelous biography Adrian Desmond confronts us with his considerable complexity. Huxley, who was “never at peace unless he was fighting, never alive unless he was slaying”, made a career of flogging bishops, pushing godless evolution, and trampling those who would impede his dream of a new social order guided by science. At home, however, Darth turned into ‘Hal’, devoted husband and father of seven.
“He took the six-week break at home to clear the backlog. Here his only plague was a curly head poking round the door, wanting to play. Noel, three, was articulate and inquisitive, Jessie was toddling and precocious, 16 month-old Marian completed the blond conspiracy. Nettie, five-months pregnant, looked forward to her next Christmas baby. There was a new togetherness as Hal’s first holiday at home turned into a second ‘Honeymoon’. Evenings were spent proof-reading Spencer’s First Principles. Hal passed the pages to Nettie, who liked their calm tone.”
Thomas Huxley was born in 1825 above a butcher’s shop in Ealing, a small village near London, the youngest of six children. Neglected by his intelligent, impoverished father-a former teacher who once instructed the future Cardinal John Henry Newman-Huxley spent his early teens in the working-class city of Coventry. There he first thought that respect and financial security should be the rewards of knowledge and achievement, instead of the perquisites of class. There he acquired an abiding antipathy to religion and the Anglican Church, whose state- privileges alienated it from many of the poor. In later decades the disenfranchised would flock to his public lectures to hear the new gospel of evolution, hoping to replace the old gospel of the rich.
Huxley was largely self-taught; his reading of James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, “that aimless earth, wheeling on, with no signs of a beginning and ‘no prospect of an end'”, attracted him to science as a base of knowledge to rival theology. Apprenticed to a doctor, he eventually began medical studies himself at a cut-rate anatomy school. Upon graduating with distinction, Huxley joined the Queen’s navy as an assistant surgeon and naturalist on the mapping ship H.M.S. Rattlesnake. The plan was to earn enough money to retire his debts while building a scientific reputation-and then to leverage his reputation into a promotion or a better-paying job. (Unlike the well-born Charles Darwin, Huxley had to scratch for a living throughout his life.) The voyage of the Rattlesnake brought a bonus: at a port stop in Sydney he met Henrietta Anne Heathorn. Nettie and Hal were quickly engaged, but their wedding would have to wait five years until Hal was financially established.
Back in England Huxley’s life accelerated. He held several professorships simultaneously, garnered prestigious medals, helped found the journal Nature, and was elected president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Huxley waged war mercilessly on the reputation of the anti-Darwinian paleontologist Richard Owen. Hal and Nettie wretchedly mourned three-year-old Noel, dead of a sudden fever. Huxley pushed to make science a paying profession with its own standards, answerable to no bishop and financed by the government. Hal supported parents, sisters, and nieces who were still mired in poverty. Huxley preached nihilism to the workers, and wrote that humans are automatons. He strongly backed Darwin, arguing for evolution as an alternative to religious origin stories, but he doubted that natural selection was evolution’s mechanism. He worked to have science taught in public schools, instead of the classics. Huxley coined the words ‘agnostic’ (to put the burden of proof on others) and ‘creationist’ (to ridicule his enemies, although none of them believed species came ex nihilo).
The dynamo eventually slowed. As Hal was dying Nettie, his wife of more than forty years, fussed over him. “She had waited almost as long as Rachel to marry her Jacob and the tenderness showed them as ‘lovers to the end'”.
The distance of a century shows how Huxley helped change society’s assumptions. Science now is the respected, remunerative profession he fought to make it. The influence of the church has drastically decreased, and public discussion of morality largely takes its cues from science. Government officials fret over how well schools teach math and science; the classics are all but forgotten. Evolutionary naturalism is the air we breathe although, notes Desmond, “Nature’s undeviating causality (is) as unprovable as the Holy Ghost.” On the other hand, the great wars of the twentieth century have shown the dark side of science. Science is no longer “power to the people. It (is) power to the professionals.” Science itself has changed its views. That aimless earth, wheeling on, now has a beginning and will have an end. Life no longer oozes from sea mud, as Huxley thought; rather, according to Francis Crick, its origin “seems almost a miracle, so many are the conditions necessary to get it going”. And in the face of the complexity of the cell, Darwin’s natural selection as an explanation for life is more problematic than even Huxley thought.
The engaging prose of Adrian Desmond reveals a pivotal, complicated figure, a man who was shaped by his age, and in turn shaped the modern world for good and ill. Huxley fought his professional battles with ferocity, and faced his personal trials with gentleness. “Through all, the ‘Cynic and sceptic’ clung to love as the one ‘mysterious reality'”. Darth Vader, call your office.