- Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple by Adrian Desmond
Joseph, 474 pp, £20.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 7181 3641 1
The problem T.H. Huxley presents for the would-be popular biographer is evident in his entry in the Concise DNB:
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 17 No. 7 · 6 April 1995
We used to be told that liberalism was dead. What we now get, paradoxically, are repeated attempts to discredit the progressive liberal thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries by smears and innuendoes rather than responsible argument. I am sorry to see John Sutherland stooping to this kind of thing in his remarks on T.H. Huxley (LRB, 23 March). According to Sutherland, Huxley in his last years became a ‘populariser of vulgar Darwinism and its crude applications to social and ethnic conflict’ – a racist and proto-Fascist whose views are supposedly ‘sanitised’ by his latest biographer. Sutherland gives no evidence of what the later Huxley thought and said, but by far the most influential expression of his ideas was his essay ‘Evolution and Ethics’ (1893) which is unremittingly opposed to vulgar Darwinism. Huxley’s whole point is that ‘cosmic nature is no school of virtue’ and that civilisation and social progress must be measured by moral standards, not by victory in the ‘struggle for existence’. Perhaps Professor Sutherland would care to say just where, in this famous essay, he finds a justification for his ill-judged and deplorable attempt to link Huxley to Hitler.
University of Reading
Vol. 17 No. 9 · 11 May 1995
In reviewing Adrian Desmond’s Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple John Sutherland makes a strange set of criticisms (LRB, 23 March). He castigates Desmond for using words anachronistically. For example: ‘Huxley rides on Victorian trains with “commuters” (a coinage that originates in America in the 1950s).’ And: ‘Rottweiler (a breed that did not exist in the 19th century)’. These are only two examples. If what we term ‘commuting’ took place before the word was coined, it seems perfectly reasonable to apply it retrospectively. Are biographers expected to confine themselves to the vocabulary their subject might have used or known? Difficult if you are writing about Chaucer. Sutherland has got it all wrong anyway. ‘Commuter’ is recorded in exactly the sense in question during Huxley’s lifetime, while the first recorded reference to ‘Rottweiler’ is in 1907 and implies that the breed was well established by then.
Beverley Charles Rowe
Vol. 17 No. 10 · 25 May 1995
John Sutherland begins his review of Adrian Desmond’s Huxley (LRB, 23 March) by claiming that Huxley is a hard subject for a biography, working as he did on squishy animals with long names that are not even in the OED. In fact, the story of Huxley’s life – apothecary’s assistant in the London slums, assistant Naval surgeon in the Pacific, and then an unemployed and grantless young scientist, eventually fighting, biting and backbiting his way to the very top to become president of such societies as the Royal, Ethnological, Geological, Palaeontological and the British Association, as well as university president, dean, Privy Councillor and major figure in educational reform – would thrill anyone interested in the history of science. Indeed, there have been five full-length biographies of Huxley since 1960.
But aside from the Horatio Alger aspect of the story, Sutherland misses Huxley’s importance in the transfer of power in Victorian science from the clergyman-naturalists of Oxbridge to the new professional scientists, and his role in establishing the institutions of this new organisation of science such as the journal Nature and, eventually, the Imperial College of Science. When Desmond says, ‘with Huxley the scientist is born,’ he very well knows that the term is William Whewell’s much earlier one. He is saying that Huxley represents the beginning of the era of the professional scientist who earns a salary for his research, and not as a fellow of some religious foundation like the Oxbridge colleges, not as a physician or clergyman, doing science on the side, and not as a Darwin, rich enough not to have to work at all. Similarly, Sutherland fails to see the insights into Victorian and contemporary science provided by the accounts of how Huxley and his buddies got together, first in the Red Lion dining-club and then in the X-Club, to conspire, fix elections, dispense honours, take over organisations and set new standards for science teaching and examination.
Sutherland claims that Huxley and Darwin had ‘intellectual differences’ which are ‘not easy to disentangle’. In fact, the basic differences were very simple: Huxley, like most of his contemporaries (except Wallace), never really accepted Darwin’s concept of natural selection, and unlike Darwin, tended to see evolution as progressive, not as an irregularly and randomly branching tree. Sutherland claims that Desmond’s quotes are ‘often unfootnoted’: perhaps he missed the (admittedly annoying) technique used by Desmond here and in previous books: putting superscript numbers every paragraph or so, he then piles up a list of corresponding references in the endnotes.
Sutherland might use his OED to look up ‘historiography’ and see it has nothing to do with ‘smuggling in science’. Desmond is simply promising to avoid detailed accounts of all the many relevant controversies among historians of science working on Victorian biology. In fact, many of them can be dug out of his notes. The book does seem to end in midstream: Desmond’s reason for stopping in the middle is probably that he is planning a second volume. His failure to point this out is a weakness, as are his accounts of some of the biology and the controversies in which Huxley was involved.
Although Huxley was an abolitionist and, for example, helped lead a campaign against abuses of black workers in Jamaica, he, like Darwin and most of his scientist contemporaries (but not Wallace), was certainly a racist. However, to lay genocide at his feet is going a bit far. There are many much better candidates among the psychologists and biologists of our century.