An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family 
by Alison Bashford.
Allen Lane, 529 pp., £30, September 2022, 978 0 241 43432 1
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Not everyone​  has a chimpanzee named after them. When the primate ethologist Jane Goodall called one of the troop she studied in Tanzania ‘Huxley’, it was an affectionate tribute to her colleague Julian Huxley, distinguished biologist and prominent popular science writer. But observers (and perhaps other chimps) could be forgiven for thinking it was a reference to Thomas Henry Huxley, the best-known ‘man of science’ in Victorian England, a comparative anatomist who also became the leading, and most aggressive, public spokesman for evolutionary ideas, to the point where he was known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. After all, the frontispiece to his 1863 book, Man’s Place in Nature, showed a sequence of skeletons running from the gibbon to the human via the orangutan, the chimpanzee and the gorilla, a sequence intended to emphasise man’s anatomical kinship with the primates. Darwin called it Huxley’s ‘monkey book’, and thereafter any chimp might have been proud to bear the name of the writer who had forced Victorian readers to recognise this kinship.

T.H. Huxley was Julian’s grandfather, and this appropriately biological connection provides the thread on which Alison Bashford has strung her rich account of evolutionary thinking between the early 19th and late 20th centuries (Huxley the First was born in 1825, Huxley the Second died in 1975). Monkey business was the main family enterprise, but both Huxleys tended to the polymathic, so Bashford’s book ranges across the structure of marine invertebrates, the mating behaviour of great crested grebes, debates about vivisection, the passion for fossil hunting, the significance of craniology, and the unnervingly steady gaze of Guy the Gorilla, whom she describes as London Zoo’s most famous creature ever. Along the way we also learn a lot about the firm of Huxley, père et petit-fils.

The book opens with some big questions. ‘How are humans animal and how are we not? What is the nature of time and how old is the Earth itself? What might the planet look like – with or without humans – ten thousand years hence? More modestly, who asks such questions for a living, and who thinks they have the answers?’ These are very different questions and the book doesn’t address them all equally – there is little about ‘the nature of time’, and not a lot about the planet in ten thousand years’ time (T.H. Huxley, in particular, wasn’t much given to speculative futurology). The question of the kinship, or otherwise, between humans and other animals is the core issue, and although there is a certain amount of incidental information about the more ‘modest’ question – the only one that historians are really equipped to address – Bashford refrains from attempting any more analytical account of the public roles and intellectual identities of ‘men of science’ (they were nearly all men) over these 150 years. Each of the main chapters covers the development, largely in Britain, of thinking about a major topic – ‘Creatures of the Sea and Sky’, ‘The Man Family: Sapiens of the Deep Past’ – with the contributions of the two Huxleys woven in along the way.

As Bashford emphasises, ‘evolution’ was not a single idea, and the history of thinking about it has by no means been a simple story of the triumph of science over superstition. In the early Victorian period, it was geology, rather than biology, that set the pace. Clergymen were among the many who loved getting out their geological hammers and specimen bags, but what they found suggested that the Earth, and even some of the creatures on it (to judge by fossil remains), were immeasurably older than the orthodox calculation, made by Bishop Ussher in the 17th century using scriptural sources, that the Earth was created on 22 October 4004 bc. Nor were ideas of ‘development’ new in themselves, and writers such as Robert Chambers, in his bestseller of the 1840s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, could run together an eclectic mix of geology, natural history and philosophical speculation to propose some kind of ‘evolutionary’ story. After 1859, Darwin’s name was, of course, associated with one explanatory mechanism – ‘evolution by means of natural selection’ – but this wasn’t at first accepted even by some fellow naturalists, who believed in a kind of mutation of species (Huxley was one such initial sceptic).

The distinctiveness of Darwin’s theory, the implications of which weren’t always consistently adhered to even by the great man himself, was to remove all traces of purpose or progress: species produced random mutations; some of these mutations turned out to be beneficial for survival in a given environment; and so descendants with the relevant mutation gradually replaced those without it. Various attempts were made to smuggle some sense of direction or progress back into this account – the ambiguity of Herbert Spencer’s coinage ‘the survival of the fittest’ allowed many to see it as a constant process of improvement – but the strict logic of Darwin’s mechanism didn’t warrant any such comforting inference: chance dictated the appearance of mutations, and the remorseless nature of the struggle for survival dictated which mutations were passed on in numbers.

It was a weakness of Darwin’s theory, one much insisted on after his death in 1882, that it couldn’t explain the appearance of mutations in the first place. That they did appear was a fact known by observation to naturalists and farmers the world over, but it wasn’t until science assimilated the ramifications of Gregor Mendel’s studies of what came to be called ‘genetics’ (after they had been rediscovered in 1900) that an adequate explanation could be given. Part of Julian Huxley’s self-appointed task was to frame a new evolutionary synthesis that married Darwinian and Mendelian ideas.

Genetics also opened up new possibilities for the human species. It was standard practice in horticulture and livestock breeding to weed out weaker strains and propagate from the better specimens: if humans were subject to the same evolutionary laws, why not do this with them? Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton had created something of a splash in 1869 with his Hereditary Genius, purporting to correlate high achievement with particular bloodlines. In work by others inspired by Galton’s example, the easily transmitted cultural advantages of a social elite were sometimes mistaken for manifestations of biological heredity. In the early decades of the 20th century such speculations seemed to acquire a sounder scientific foundation with the development of population eugenics, and various hopes were entertained that ‘the unfit’ could be bred out of existence. (The Eugenics Society evidently applied its bloodstock thinking to the filling of its main office: Darwin’s son Leonard chaired the society in the 1920s and his grandson Charles Galton Darwin in the 1950s, after which he was succeeded by Julian Huxley.) Eugenics is now the science that dare not speak its name, but at the time it was fed by various scholarly and benevolent pulses, even as it lent itself to less reputable uses. ‘I confidently look forward to a time when eugenic improvement will become one of the major aims of mankind,’ Julian Huxley announced in 1963. But the chill winds of political criticism were beginning to blow more strongly: in 1989 the society changed its name to the Galton Institute, and more recently has disavowed any association with the selective breeding of human beings.

Details of the careers of both Huxleys are scattered through this book in keeping with its thematic rather than chronological organisation, but when pieced together they make an interesting contribution to the sociology of intellectual life in Britain. T.H. Huxley belonged to a species that has almost become extinct, that of the self-made scientist. He grew up in a shabby-genteel lower-middle-class family in Coventry, a family whose straitened circumstances forced him to leave school and earn a living as soon as possible. Aged thirteen, he became a medical apprentice to his brother-in-law in London, a dogsbody role in what was at that time not always a high-status or well-remunerated profession. By the time he was twenty, he had taught himself enough to be able to sit the London University first-year medical exams, winning a gold medal for anatomy and physiology. Needing a job, he set sail in 1846 as assistant surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake, which was to explore and chart the north coast of Australia and the islands beyond, including New Guinea and the Torres Strait. The voyage lasted four years, during which time Huxley worked more as a naturalist than a doctor, collecting specimens wherever he could. On his return to Britain in 1850 he set about publishing the results of his investigations, principally in marine biology, publications that earned him precocious election to the Royal Society. But he wanted to marry, and still needed an income. He applied for four different academic posts in Britain and the colonies but was turned down for all of them (there is always something comforting in learning that those who later scaled the heights in terms of career and achievements failed to get the early jobs they applied for). Then his luck turned: in 1854 he was appointed to a post at the Royal School of Mines in South Kensington, later to become part of Imperial College, where he stayed until his retirement thirty years later as professor of natural history. This relatively modest post was the base from which he conducted his remarkable career as a champion of science and polemicist for evolution.

Quite why Huxley, rather than several other older and better-qualified men of science, became such a prominent public figure isn’t easy to say. Clearly, he possessed some of the temperamental characteristics conducive to success: he wasn’t backward about coming forward, and he enjoyed a fight. He worked hard and cultivated connections, both scientific and journalistic. But the success wasn’t immediate. As Bashford puts it, ‘in the early 1850s, Huxley was still elbowing his way towards the centre of London zoology.’ His first specialty was the classification of jellyfish and molluscs, before he moved on to fossil forms; his early publications included, according to the unyielding account in the old DNB, ‘studies of cephalaspis and pteraspis, the eurypterina, and the dicynodon rhamphorhynchus’. This wasn’t an obvious route to general fame. The most important connection he made arose out of a correspondence in the early 1850s with Darwin over the development of starfish and sea urchins. These professional acquaintances became close friends, and in the course of the 1860s and 1870s the public came to identify Huxley with Darwin’s revolutionary ideas. Huxley was at first hesitant about the idea of evolution and long remained sceptical of the mechanism of natural selection. But woe betide anyone incautious enough to attack his friend’s ideas from a position of religious orthodoxy or other unscientific prejudice: this bulldog could bite and did so with relish. He coined the term ‘agnosticism’, and clung to the credo that one should accept as true only what could be supported by the available evidence. Science has been described as ‘organised scepticism’, and he remained a doubting Thomas all his days.

It was the salience in public debate in the 1860s of ideas about evolution that propelled Huxley from being a well-regarded working scientist into what might now be called a public intellectual. He became a prolific contributor to the serious Victorian periodicals, and took his place among the great and good of his time. He debated with philosophers and churchmen in the select Metaphysical Society and engaged in high-profile exchanges with his friend Matthew Arnold about the respective claims of science and literature in education. When a magisterial statement was needed on ethics and evolution, it was the ageing Huxley who provided it in his Romanes Lecture for 1893. The celebrity Darwinian of the 1860s became the sage of science of the 1880s, now president of the Royal Society, serving on several royal commissions, and accepted as an intellectual equal by the thinkers and writers with whom he rubbed shoulders at the Athenaeum.

Julian Huxley’s​ early life and career were blessed by multiple advantages not available to his grandfather, but despite early academic success his chosen path was uneven and, in the end, eccentric. After Eton, he won a scholarship to Balliol to study zoology, leading to a junior position at Oxford on his graduation. In 1912 he accepted the chair of biology at the recently founded Rice Institute in Houston but never settled, shuttling across the Atlantic. Four years later he returned to do war work in England and then in 1919 accepted a post in the zoology department at Oxford. Six years later, when he was 38, he became professor of zoology at King’s College, London, and looked set for a distinguished academic career. It seems, however, that Julian’s strictly scientific work might not have been quite up to snuff: he had articles rejected by specialist journals in the 1920s, and a senior colleague told him, with some exasperation: ‘for goodness sake do decide which branch of biology you are expert in. A man now cannot be a universal expert … You must not be led away by the notion of imitating your grandfather.’ This was good advice if one wanted to make a career as a research scientist in the 20th century, but Julian preferred the idea of becoming a ‘universal expert’. He began to co-write, with H.G. Wells and his son G.P. Wells, a three-volume work of haute vulgarisation called The Science of Life. Somehow the ever plausible Wells persuaded the ever suggestible Huxley to resign his chair after only two years and devote himself to full-time popular science writing. He never held a regular academic appointment in the remaining fifty years of his life, turning his hand to broadcasting and filmmaking as well as books and journalism.

Where T.H. Huxley had been a working scientist who only reluctantly embraced the role of scientific populariser, Julian grabbed the role eagerly. From 1935 to 1942 he was secretary of the Zoological Society of London, a post that came with an apartment in the London Zoo, enabling close observation of some very distant relatives. After the war he became the first director general of Unesco, a post well suited in some ways to his combination of polymathic interests and social confidence. But the political pressures to be negotiated meant that a director general shouldn’t have too many bright ideas of his own, and Huxley was a fount of bright ideas. He left after two and a half years, returning to writing and filmmaking (in 1938 he had won an Oscar for The Private Life of the Gannets). In 1951 David Attenborough’s first TV production was narrated by Huxley.

An early fascination with Africa (and a lifelong love of travel) slowly developed into one of the two dominating preoccupations of his final decades, the preservation of African wildlife, where his efforts contributed to what became the World Wildlife Fund. His other great theme was the threat of human overpopulation. ‘He occupied an international communication role superbly,’ Bashford writes of this final phase of his career,

doing a great deal both to generate awareness of global catastrophe and direct high-level discussion about what might be done. By the 1950s, population control was central to his cosmopolitanism, his global political ecology and his planetary-oriented pacifism. And by the 1960s he was spokesman-of-choice about the world population crisis and for family planning.

He lectured and published all over the place, as popularisers and campaigners must, even writing articles on overpopulation for Playboy. While for T.H. Huxley and his contemporaries the focus of evolutionary thinking was deep time, for Julian it was about an ecologically interrelated present.

It can be hard to grasp how ambitious the synthesis that Julian tried to provide actually was. In his hands, evolution became emphatically a story of progress, especially human progress. ‘Because the human brain (and only the human brain) can comprehend evolution by natural selection,’ Bashford writes, ‘humanity can install its own purpose into the process.’ Or as Julian put it in Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (published in 1942 and running to several editions and many reprintings), ‘the future of progressive evolution is the future of man.’ This was the kind of sonorous phrase that gave him a reputation as a scientific sage. He conjured up the possibility of a qualitatively different form of life in the future, and his achievement was to give this cosmic optimism the legitimacy derived from his (somewhat diluted) standing as a ‘man of science’. (Meanwhile, his brother Aldous looked elsewhere for indications of a reality beyond everyday existence.) As Bashford puts it, ‘refining and repeating the humanist credo was his life’s work, the great synthesiser bringing secular wonder back to nature via the extraordinary new human understanding of evolution … Julian Huxley’s evolutionary humanism was a kind of transcendental naturalism, but with a teleology, a direction, even a purpose that he himself invented.’

The forum in which the greatest number of people would have been likely to come across Huxley was as a long-time member of The Brains Trust, the panel programme that began on radio in 1941, attracting twelve million listeners at its peak, and then transferred to TV in the 1950s. Here, too, a pretty contrast could be made between the careers of the two Huxleys. The extensive overlap of various kinds of elite is what seems, from this distance, so characteristic of Victorian culture. Appearance in the pages of a journal like The Nineteenth Century was a form of consecration because it enacted the fiction that there was just one conversation and only a small number of contributors to it who mattered. The Brains Trust was a representative institution of changed cultural circumstances. Now the questions came from a wider sample of the population, though the answers were still mostly provided by panellists who seemed to have some claim to belong to the intellectual elite (‘Commander Campbell’, the panel’s plain man, perhaps had other claims). At its peak, the programme generated between four and five thousand letters from the public each week, indicating a desire by listeners to ‘answer back’.

Like other figures from modest provincial backgrounds in the 19th century, including Herbert Spencer and George Eliot, the elder Huxley scaled the peaks of intellectual life without ever being part of aristocratic ‘Society’. By contrast, Julian could trade on the Huxley name and the cultural capital of his education to mingle at Garsington with the more bohemian fraction of that now fragmenting social formation. With the caution of someone from a poor background, T.H. Huxley prudently held on to his teaching post until retirement. Having held academic appointments only briefly, Julian confidently set out to support himself by his writing and his public activities (one of his resemblances to Bertrand Russell, who could trade on a much grander name). Once he had returned from the Rattlesnake voyage, T.H. Huxley made his entire career in London, where he was at the heart of a national culture, though he kept up with scientific work being done elsewhere, especially in Germany. Julian had a more international profile, endlessly chairing congresses around the world. In terms of that perennial typology from English history, one can see elements of the Roundhead in Thomas Henry and traces of the Cavalier in Julian.

The physical contrasts between the two Huxleys leap to the eye in this well-illustrated book, suggesting interesting differences of personality and style. T.H. Huxley could be mistaken for a prosperous cotton-master or mayor of a merchant city, his square head framed by luxuriant mutton-chop whiskers, his deep-set eyes confronting the world with challenging confidence. Julian looks the part of the eccentric don, thinning hair conventionally parted, round glasses indicating the triumph of study over vanity, the whole three-piece-suit-clad ensemble conveying a default respectability. There was something four-square about T.H. Huxley: he was all of a piece, a careful scientist, a formidable opponent, a staunch friend. The intellectual honesty that he believed was required by scientific method held his life together. Julian was more febrile, more showily brilliant, in some ways more erratic. Where Thomas Henry had immovable convictions, Julian had compelling enthusiasms. The former excited admiration but also fear, the latter interest but also scepticism.

We should spare a thought for Leonard, Thomas Henry’s son and Julian’s father, the ‘missing link’ in this story of inheritance. Born in 1860, Leonard followed an educational and career trajectory that was by then becoming common among his father’s adopted class: after a First in Greats at Balliol and a spell as a schoolmaster at Charterhouse, he became assistant editor and then editor of the Cornhill Magazine from 1901 until his death in 1933. By the early decades of the 20th century the Cornhill had declined into a weak echo of the periodical that had been launched with much fanfare under Thackeray’s editorship in 1860, but Leonard seemed content in this literary backwater. He had married Julia Arnold, the daughter of Matthew Arnold’s brother Tom (the redoubtable novelist Mrs Humphry Ward was Julia’s sister), so the bloodline had been well enriched. He sent his sons, Julian and Aldous, to Eton, playing his small part in that process whereby some of the provincial and dissenting energies of 19th-century England were transformed into the establishment entitlements of the 20th.

In a book​  hung on the evolutionary ideas of two men and their place in the public sphere, women, though they are sympathetically treated, are assigned the minor parts. Here, too, revealing generational differences emerge. Henrietta Heathorn waited many years until the young T.H. Huxley was in a position to marry, and then supported his career in the fashion of the loyal Victorian wife, while bearing him eight children. Her daughter-in-law, Julia Arnold, was one of the first students at Somerville, clever and independent – a representative ‘New Woman’ of the closing decades of the 19th century. After having four children, she set up and ran a progressive school for girls in Surrey, before breast cancer killed her at 46. Her own daughter-in-law-to-be, Juliette Baillot, was working as a governess to Ottoline Morrell’s daughter when Julian met her, in a bohemian Garsington milieu that couldn’t be more different from the straitened respectability of T.H. Huxley’s provincial background. Late in life Juliette made a modest name for herself as a writer, but for most of their long, sometimes troubled, marriage she accompanied Julian as his work and intellectual adventures took him all over the world. But this wasn’t a complete reversion to the role of subservient wife: by mutual agreement, they each had relationships with other people, including for a while in the 1930s a love triangle with the American poet May Sarton in the course of which Sarton transferred her affections from Julian to Juliette.

Bashford seems unnecessarily exercised by the fact that previous generations didn’t always share values we take for granted today. She berates both Huxleys for ‘their bigotry, racism and sexism’ and denounces Julian for having written ‘a ridiculously colonial and superior book on his African travels’. Like most of his contemporaries, T.H. Huxley worked with a model of ‘universal history’ in which the still extant ‘lower races’ in the present illustrated the condition of the advanced or civilised societies of the past. Bashford says the elder Huxley’s work ‘reinscribes all the presumption and bigotry that had long paraded as the philosophy and the universal history of man’, but I wonder whether it’s right to call the belief in a sequence of stages of civilisation ‘bigotry’. She also declares that when Darwin concluded The Descent of Man ‘with a statement of natural history humility – “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” – he missed his own low political culture, which failed to be able to consider human difference in any way except progressively from simple to complex and hierarchically from low value to high. Huxley was no better.’ ‘Which failed to be able to consider’ is tellingly awkward syntax: Darwin and Huxley are in effect being ticked off for not being sensitive to the position of ‘indigenous peoples’, but why, apart from its current political salience, should that be selected from the great range of our other assumptions and attitudes our forebears didn’t share? It’s anyway not so clear that our own widely used vocabulary of ‘developed’ or ‘advanced’ societies is entirely free of the alleged taint.

I suspect that in An Intimate History of Evolution there are two excellent books struggling to get out. One is a scholarly study of the careers of T.H. Huxley and his grandson: a work which, drawing on a wide range of manuscript sources, would allow the temperamental affinities as well as the professional contrasts between the two men to be brought out in subtle detail and their places in the intellectual elites of their times to be charted. The other is a guide to the history of evolutionary thinking in the 19th and 20th centuries: a work, drawing chiefly on existing secondary sources, that would provide a scientifically literate account of debates across biology, genetics, primatology and anthropology. It’s impressive that Bashford can command both these types of writing with equal authority; I’m not so sure, however, that it was such a good idea to try to combine them in a single volume. The book appears to be aimed at a general readership, and it certainly has many of the requisite virtues, including both readability and range. But I can’t help wondering whether a scholar of Bashford’s gifts might not have written a more important book (or even two) by sticking more closely to her scholarly last. Evolution never stops, of course, even if books have to. I learn from Bashford that in 1964 T.H. Huxley’s great-granddaughter married Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, surely opening up the possibility of more ‘intimate histories’ yet to come.

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