An Intimate History of Evolution by Alison Bashford review – Darwin’s Misfits | Science and nature books

Charles darwin was in every way a gentle and conflict averse man. In his written work he tended not to attack his opponents personally. He rarely gave public lectures, and he never took part in the frenetic debates that served as a public testing ground for scientific ideas in Victorian England.

Fortunately, the author of On the Origin of Species had outsiders to do all that for him—most famously Thomas Henry Huxley, a mutton, square-headed, scientific boxer who called himself the “bulldog” of Darwinism. Huxley loved to tear down old orthodoxies, whether scientific or religious, in the name of evolution. When he went on a stormy lecture tour of North America, a continent Darwin never visited, the New York Daily Graphic featured a front-page illustration of Huxley preparing to hit Moses on the head from behind.

Huxley’s grandson, Julian Huxley, is less known outside scientific circles, but he was also a biologist and a tireless propagator of Darwin’s theories in the 20th century. In programs for the BBC, in the pages of this newspaper, in more than 30 books, and as head of public institutions such as London Zoo and later Unesco, he is partly responsible for the idea that the logic of evolution permeates modern life, of our body and mind to politics and society itself.

Alison Bashford’s book is an intriguing hybrid. A thoroughly researched biography of Thomas Henry, Julian and the wider Huxley family, the result of close examination of their writings and correspondence, it also serves as an intellectual history of Britain through the radical shifts in science and society that the produced modernity. Thomas Henry was born in 1825 and died in 1895 when Julian was eight years old. Julian himself died in 1975. Bashford sees the men as a neat end to this era, “Janus-esque”: Thomas Henry turned to science to understand the past in the late Victorian period; Julian, in the 20th century, looking for a more uncertain future.

Bonding both men – and their sprawling extended family – allows Bashford to span over a century while maintaining continuity and an intimate scale. It helps that each is as close to an example of liberal English society in their day as one could ask. Thomas Henry is a lower-class pusher climbing the newly built meritocratic ladder of professionalized science, and has tremendous faith in his project to demystify the world. But the basic assumptions of his time — from gender relations to the benefits of the empire — suit him well once he is free of religious and reactionary cobwebs.

Eton education Julian is more flexible and fallible. He flutters between the newly created jobs of the era, from filmmaking to world government. He is a committed scientist, but wonders where Darwinian thinking might fit into the emerging landscapes of psychology, art and culture. He has ill-advised affairs: one, with 22-year-old Third Reich inquisitive journalist Viola Ilma, takes place when Julian, in his forties, is writing a book debunking racial science. Another, with American poet May Sarton, ends when Sarton moves on to Julian’s wife, Juliette. In one of his books, Julian fantasizes about new forms of education and marriage that can give solidity and meaning to the welcome but confusing unfolding of modern desire.

The juxtaposition of eras generates many pleasant insights. Thomas Henry was an enthusiastic primate brain dissector. He hoped to reveal similar interspecies structures that would challenge man’s status as a unique, divine creation. The monkey’s body was a battlefield, and because they were so rare, securing them was also the subject of fierce competition. The great Christian anatomist Richard Owen, head of natural history at the British Museum, had an institutional advantage over Thomas Henry, observing skeletons of monkeys in private collections and preferring to receive specimens shipped from expeditions on the frontiers of the empire. Thomas Henry rushed to get the material he needed, eventually “destroying” Owen through a hearts-and-minds campaign among the scientific elite that culminated in his 1863 book Man’s Place in Nature.

Some 70 years later, when the close relationship between humans and apes was well established, it was the turn of psychology to further elucidate the common inheritance of primates. As an ethologist and head of the London Zoo from 1935 to 1942, Julian witnessed and influenced “a methodological victory of culture, of mind and emotion over bone and brain”. He was a fan of primatologist Jane Goodall — she named one of her chimpanzees “Huxley” — and defended the value of her work by explaining primate behavior on his own terms to traditional scientists who, like Thomas Henry, are more interested. were in anatomy.

The whole of British intellectual life seems accessible through a branch of this vast family tree. Thomas Henry’s son Leonard married into a literary dynasty through Julia Arnold—daughter of Thomas and niece of Matthew—and her efforts to establish and run a girls’ school in Surrey shed light on the changing state of women’s education. Julia’s sister, Mary Augusta Ward, the novelist and anti-suffrage campaigner, influences Thomas Henry’s involvement in religious philosophy later in life. Julian publishes books with HG Wells and uses the term “transhumanism.” Julian’s brother Aldous – of Brave New World fame – haunts the margins, bringing the bleeding of psychedelic and psychiatric culture into Huxley’s family life. There is the feeling of an author having serious fun scouring a lavish and well-appointed family home, reading all the books and letters.

But Bashford pulls the strings late in the book. Questions of human difference – physical, mental and cultural – occupy the Huxleys even more than the average British Liberal of their day. Thomas Henry sailed on scientific expeditions under an Imperial flag and the concept of the “savage” stuck with him. He correctly and repeatedly rejected the idea that there were different kinds of people, as strictly defined by natural science, and yet he subscribed – and often promoted – an idea of ​​civilizational development that envisioned an entirely non-scientific hierarchy of races.

The aim here is not to cancel Thomas Henry, but to show the progress of ideas through the people who develop and expound them. As notions of human difference mutated and clashed violently, Thomas Henry was part of that struggle and influenced others, not least as part of early efforts to professionalize the field of anthropology.

Julian was well aware of the shortcomings of earlier generations of scientists, including his grandfather. As head of Unesco, he consciously helped shape a new utopian, anti-racist internationalism. But he also believed that understanding evolution would empower humanity to change its own genetic destiny. Worried about overpopulation, he spent decades trying to rid eugenics of its fascist associations.

Bashford is too artful to present her subjects as avatars for their time. But towards the end of Julian’s life, there is a sense of how completely things have changed. Thomas Henry’s project succeeded: science triumphed over religion and brought some sort of order to the natural world, but Julian is drawn to new and unknowable frontiers: politics, consciousness, the distant future of humanity. Later in life, this man of science developed a skeptical interest in phenomena such as telepathy. Progress is a funny thing. The world, Bashford suggests, can always be mystified again.

An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family by Alison Bashford is published by Allen Lane (£30). To support The Guardian and Observer, you can order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs may be charged.

Leave a Comment