Huxley’s Extra Effort

A family of scientist-writers recast religion and ethics in light of evolution. Illustration by Melinda Beck

We are all fortunate that the Huxley family produced no slouches:

How the Huxleys Electrified Evolution

Defending Darwinism from both clerical and scientific opponents, T. H. Huxley and his grandson Julian shaped how we think about the past and future of our species.

Thomas Henry Huxley almost skipped the showdown of his life. It was the fourth day of the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He was tired. He had spent the earlier part of the conference mingling, attending talks, and defending his friend Charles Darwin’s new book, “On the Origin of Species.” He was keen to escape the Oxford bustle and relax with his wife at her sister’s home, near Reading.

He knew that the fourth day would be charged. Everyone did. The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, was scheduled to appear. The son of the abolitionist William Wilberforce, the Bishop was considered one of the greatest orators of his time—part viper, part soapbox parliamentarian. He had been armed with anti-evolution arguments by one of Darwin’s rivals, the anatomist Richard Owen, and arrived in Oxford ready to deploy.

“I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse and misrepresentation which, unless I am greatly mistaken, is in store for you,” Huxley had written Darwin just before the publication of “The Origin.” “I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.” And indeed, in the seven months since the book’s publication, Huxley had showed up slashing and pecking. He wrote reviews and rebuttals for the London Times, Macmillan’s Magazine, and The Westminster Review. In a public lecture for the Royal Institution, he not only defended “The Origin” but also explored its most sacrilegious implication: our kinship with apes.

Still, he expected a confrontation with the Bishop to be trickier. Huxley later recalled that Wilberforce “had the reputation of being a first-class controversialist.” He could hardly “see the good of giving up some peace and quietness to be episcopally pounded.” But peer pressure got to him. He explained that a fellow-evolutionist had accused him of deserting the Darwinians: “So, I said, ‘Oh! if you are going to take it that way, I’ll come and have my share of what is going on.’ ”

The resulting face-off is now legendary. It was included in Hal Hellman’s book “Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever” (1998). It was reënacted in the PBS documentary series “Evolution” (2001) and the BBC television show “The Voyage of Charles Darwin” (1978). It inspired Crispin Whittell’s play “Darwin in Malibu” (2003), which imagined Darwin, Huxley, and Wilberforce meeting in a beach house in the afterlife more than a century after their deaths. And, like one of those enormous mama spiders carrying an ungodly number of spiderlings, it continues to spawn a relentless stream of scholarly papers, including an article published last year titled “Enough of Galileo and the Huxley-Wilberforce Debate.”

Today, the showdown is remembered less for its scholarly arguments and more for one of the zestier Victorian comebacks on record. After railing against “The Origin,” the Bishop addressed Huxley and, according to the London weekly The Press, “asked the Professor whether he would prefer a monkey for his grandfather or his grandmother.” There are different versions of Huxley’s response, although the one he reported a few months later is (no surprise) the most eloquent: “If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”

By this point, Huxley had eclipsed his upbringing. Born in 1825 and brought up in a lower-middle-class family, he received just two years of formal education before apprenticing to his rambunctious, opium-chewing brother-in-law, the doctor John Cooke. After pursuing more medical training, he was assigned to the Royal Navy’s H.M.S. Rattlesnake as an assistant surgeon. The ship’s voyage to Australia and New Guinea, which lasted four years, revealed Huxley’s talents in natural history. He spent his spare time dissecting marine invertebrates and mailing manuscripts to England. While he stewed in self-doubt in the South Seas, his scientific work was attracting attention at home, appearing in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and in Proceedings of the Zoological Society. When he arrived back in England, in 1850, Huxley learned that he had become a noted scientist. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1851, won its medal for physiology in 1852, and by 1854 had secured a lectureship in natural history at the Government School of Mines (now part of Imperial College London).

Even with his rising profile, the showdown with Wilberforce was a turning point for Huxley. He was, he later recalled, “the most popular man in Oxford for full four & twenty hours.” More important, he gained a new perspective on public speaking, becoming convinced that he “should carefully cultivate it, and try to leave off hating it.” While Darwin, forever sickly, stayed at home in the following years, Huxley fought as evolution’s champion. He used his growing influence to expand scientific education, and he grappled with ethics and religion. (He coined the term “agnostic” in 1869.) From relatively modest beginnings, Thomas Henry Huxley became one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the English-speaking world.

It was fitting for a man known as “Darwin’s bulldog” that his descendants inherited many of his traits—not just his talents but also his affinity for certain sweeping questions: Who are we? What is our place in nature? How can we design morality and religion in a world informed by science? In “The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution” (Chicago), the historian Alison Bashford moves across the Huxley generations, tracing how Thomas Henry and his gifted brood struggled to answer these questions, in the process shaping outlooks we hold today.

Bashford focusses her chronicle on the two most evolutionarily minded Huxleys: Thomas Henry and his grandson Julian. The eldest child of Huxley’s son Leonard—himself a notable writer and magazine editor—Julian enjoyed not one but two illustrious bloodlines. His mother, Julia, came from the Arnold family, a clan famed for its writers and scholars. (Matthew Arnold was her uncle.) After Julia’s untimely death, in 1908, her sister, the best-selling novelist Mrs. Humphry Ward, both mentored Julian in his literary ventures and became a second mother to him and his siblings, Aldous, Trevenen, and Margaret…

Read the whole essay here.

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