Desmondism

John Sutherland

  • 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:

Huxley, Thomas Henry (1825-1895), man of science; studied at Charing Cross Hospital; announced, 1845, discovery of the layer of cells in root sheath of hair which now bears his name; MB London, 1845; made assistant surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake 1846-50, investigations relating to hydrozoa; established morphological plan dividing hydrozoa into ‘Radiata’ and ‘Nematophora’; sent, 1848, memoir ‘On the Affinities of the Family of the Medusa’; FRS 1850; published two memoirs on the Ascidians; lecturer on natural history at Royal School of Mines, 1854; naturalist to geological survey, 1855; published writings dealing with subject of fossil forms including memoirs on cephalaspis and pteraspis (1858), the eurypterina, 1856-9, and the dicynodon, rhamphorhynchus and other reptiles.

Planting one’s flag on a root sheath of hair, significant though it may have been in the chronicles of biological discovery, does not rank in glamour with the exploits of Captain Scott and Sir Edmund Hillary. Hydrozoa are commonly known as jellyfish, and Huxley seems to have devoted a lot of time in the 1840s to examining the interior workings of tapeworms (cestodes, or endoparasitic platyelmia). Hard to make a bestseller out of that. More offputtingly, science is difficult. Nine key words in the above short extract will elude the otherwise literate reader (five of them are undefined in the Oxford English Dictionary, and I cannot find even a cognate for the tongue-twisting ‘rhamphorhynchus’). Richard Feynman supposedly turned away requests to explain quantum physics with the jest that if you were smart enough to understand how he won the Nobel Prize, you, too, could win it.

Against the odds, Adrian Desmond has produced a string of popular and learned books about Victorian biology, biologists and the epochal publication of The Origin of Species in 1859: The Ape’s Reflexion (1979), Archetypes and Ancestors (1982), The Politics of Evolution (1989) and, most successfully, Darwin (1991, with James Moore). Desmond’s literary technique has itself undergone evolution and, with his last two works, is now perfectly adapted to his purposes. Biography (currently the best-paid and best-selling of genres) is Desmond’s preferred form despite the fact that scientists do not, typically, lead exciting lives outside their laboratories and lecture rooms – mainly because science is such a time-consuming business that they rarely leave them except to sleep. Desmond habitually underpins his biographies with a vast amount of primary research. For Huxley he has digested, as he records, five thousand letters, diaries and other items in manuscript. This is the more impressive given the notorious illegibility of Huxley’s handwriting: ‘when he was in a rush (which was always), it resembled one of his drunken crayfish which had fallen into an inkpot and staggered across the page to its doom.’ Desmond’s preparatory research – laborious as it must have been – lies lightly on the surface of his narrative, usually protruding as an occasional, brief (and often unfootnoted) quotation.

The most controversial aspect of Desmond’s way with history of science is what he terms his ‘“ciné theory” of narration’, designed ‘to conjure up a flesh-and-blood picture of T.H. Huxley’. It’s an odd analogy. Unlike television, which has made a distinguished contribution to the spread of general scientific knowledge, the cinema’s achievements reach no higher than such biopics as Young Tom Edison (1940 – one of Mickey Rooney’s less memorable efforts), Madame Curie (1943, a weepy Greer Garson vehicle) and sub-standard science fiction. What Desmond has apparently taken from Hollywood with his ‘ciné’ style of narration is a fondness for vivid scenery and location. Huxley is narrated against a lavishly reconstructed Victorian set: ‘it is an unashamedly social portrait, which pans across London’s splashy streets to catch him in action.’ Later on, the splashings are detailed. The mid-1840s London in which Huxley qualified as a doctor is pictured as a gigantic hell-hole ‘where one in four children died,’ and ‘the surviving urchins scraped horse manure off the Strand crossings for a living, to allow silk-chokered gents to pass unsullied.’ As with many of Desmond’s scene-painting flourishes, one is almost swept along, until exactly what he is saying sinks in: namely, that all London’s surviving working-class children eked a precarious living, shovelling horse-shit from the path of their betters’ patent leather shoes. There was undoubtedly a lot of it going on, but not that much. As Mayhew testifies, there seem to have been no more than a few hundred juvenile crossing-sweepers in the 1840s and 1850s, mainly congregated around Trafalgar Square.

Desmond’s reckless way with incidental background detail – he is much more scrupulous about the science – is accompanied by a rip-roaring rhetoric that most copy-writers would blush at. The declaration of biographical intent is a good example of Desmondism:

Thomas Henry Huxley became Darwin’s Rottweiler, instantly recognisable by his deep-set dark eyes and lashing tongue. Where Darwin held back, Huxley lunged at his limping prey ... Huxley was one of the founders of the sceptical, scientific 20th century. We owe to him that enduring military metaphor, the ‘war’ of science against theology. He coined the word ‘agnostic’ – and gave the West its existential crisis. All of this makes him look so modern that we want to snatch him from his age.

Anachronism is one of the main means by which Huxley is to be snatched from his age. He has long been known as Darwin’s bulldog – a venerable English kind of hound, known to Shakespeare. Calling him Darwin’s Rottweiler (a breed which did not exist in the 19th century and which in England did not become notorious for its savagery until the 1980s) is wilfully disconcerting – and tasteless. It seems true (on the testimony of R. H. Hutton, writing a decade or so later) that Huxley invented the instantly ubiquitous term ‘agnostic’ (an ungrammatical compound, as the OED sniffily notes). But that he was the direct inspiration for Sartre’s L’Etre et le néant is highly questionable. It’s hard to see that lashing tongue wrapping itself around a Gauloise. Huxley is replete with such overstatements and clashing incongruities: they cannot originate in ignorance (given the learnedness of the author) and must therefore be intended to provoke. ‘With Huxley the scientist was born,’ we are told. In fact, it was William Whewell, writing in 1840, who said: ‘We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist.’ It is arguable that Huxley was the first fully to merit this new appellation, but it is also quite clear that in coining the term Whewell had predecessors such as Lyell and Faraday in mind. To have said, ‘Huxley was one of the first generation of scientists, so-called,’ would have been too tame for Desmond, and not worth the marginal addition of historical accuracy.

On the stylistic level, the ciné method routinely mixes and mangles metaphors so extraordinarily that one wonders if Desmond is aiming for comic effect or whether – like his subject – he is in so much of a rush that he doesn’t notice where his drunken crayfish are staggering. ‘With an intellectual head of steam,’ we are told, ‘Tom packed his books and escaped the ghetto in 1841.’ ‘Ghetto’ (like ‘Rottweiler’) is deliberately anachronistic; the half-resurrected metaphor in ‘intellectual head of steam’ is troubling. When he disembarks from the Rattlesnake in 1850, Huxley is said to be back in ‘Civvy Street’, which seems wrong on two counts: anachronistic and soldier’s rather than sailor’s slang. Huxley rides on Victorian trains with ‘commuters’ (a coinage which originates in America in the 1950s). A famous name is never left unadorned by epithet: ‘the sour-stomached Thomas Carlyle’, ‘the flamboyant John Elliotson’, ‘the one-eyed, gold-waistcoated, civic-skewering Robert Knox’, ‘the humane mad-doctor John Conolly’, ‘the bombastic Ernst Haeckel’. If Desmond gave us time to think about it, one might wonder whether ‘civic-skewering’ is a branch of anatomy (Knox was Burke and Hare’s main customer) or of social warfare.

The ciné method works best and is most legitimate in those human-interest departments of Huxley’s life, where documentary evidence is entirely lacking. Huxley, for instance, is depicted courting his fiancée Henrietta (‘Nettie’) with a made-up biologist’s rhapsody. It is plausible, although a less brash biographer than Adrian Desmond would have used ‘may have’ rather than ‘must have’ and not put quite so much high-flying hypothetical phraseology into the wooer’s mouth:

Nettie, a sensible girl who liked Schiller and penned love poems, must have asked ‘Why jellyfish?’ And he must have led her self-importantly from these pulsing ‘nastinesses’ to the great problem of existence, contrasting his tiny truths of creation with the sandcastle sophistries for which men were willing to die. The tiny truths were real bricks which would build a palatial foundation to Truth. They were the stanzas of Nature’s great poem; and only by reciting the ultimate sonnet could we gain a rational set of mores and a real meaning to life.

In addition to the technicolour pleasures of the cinema, Desmond promises in his preface to ‘hide his historiography’. What this means, apparently, is that the unavoidable scientific complexities of his subject-matter (all those Latinate polysyllables) will be smuggled in so discreetly that readers will be unaware that they are being instructed. Desmond’s favoured device for this higher education by stealth is the sneaky parenthesis. The following is an account of Huxley’s investigations into marine biology, as the Rattlesnake lay off the coast of Africa, in 1849:

Time hung heavily and Huxley spent the last steamy mouth at the Cape poring over fleshy sea squirts (or salps). He had hauled in hundreds of these flask-shaped creatures at Redscar Point, and here at the Cape ‘the sea was absolutely crowded’ with them. Alive they defensively spurted a stomach-ful of sea water at him; dead no kin readily claimed them. They were anomalies, apparently, with no close relations. Tradition made them strange molluscs, all the stranger for his observation that the free-swimming embryo of one, an Appendicularia from New Guinea, had tail muscles like a tadpole’s. (It was a hint of the most astounding relationship ever to be uncovered in the animal kingdom; the sea squirt larva would eventually be linked to the fish. Within 20 years it would be made the evolutionary bridge between the invertebrates and the backboned fish, reptiles and mammals.)

Almost subliminally, the transmutation thesis is planted in the reader’s mind, to await the climax of the narrative, twenty years and two hundred pages ahead.

The shape of Huxley is uncomplicated but finally rather perplexing. The first quarter dwells on the early experiences of the growing hero. He was born over a butcher’s shop in Ealing: a motif which echoes through the later narrative in depictions of his anatomist’s laboratory, ‘a necrophiliac’s delight, with its peeling tendons and pickled brains’. The son of an unsuccessful schoolteacher, and one of many children, Huxley’s formative experience, as Desmond reconstructs it, was as a medical student in the famine and riot-stricken London of the 1840s. It was here that his angry social conscience developed. Financial necessity and the absence of powerful patrons sent young Tom to sea and on his return almost induced him to take a professorship in the colonies. In the late 1850s, he became the reticent Darwin’s principal propagandist (although he had intellectual differences with his mentor which are not easy to disentangle). Desmond’s narrative reaches its climax with the epic debate – there were a thousand spectators in attendance – with Bishop Wilberforce in Oxford in 1860. The narrative ends in 1870, the year that marked Huxley’s election to the presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and (so it would seem) the triumph of agnosticism as the new faith of the Western world, with Huxley as its Pope.

The puzzle is that Huxley lived another quarter of a century and, despite illness, these were among his most active and influential years. Possibly the narrative was cut short for reasons of length. More likely, Desmond wants the central spotlight to fall on 1859-60, for him Year One of the modern age. But one might also wonder whether the peculiar abbreviation of the biographical account is designed to sanitise our view of Huxley. It was in his last years that he became, with Spencer, the populariser of vulgar Darwinism and its crude applications to social and ethnic conflict. If one were to take the whole picture, rather than the three-quarter length portrait that Desmond gives us, it might seem logical to see Huxley’s bequest in terms not so much of ‘existentialism’ as of imperial racism and even Fascism. By stopping where he does, Desmond arrests our gaze on the young idealist, appalled by London’s slums, and on the selfless crusader for Darwin’s intellectual cause. The dubious prophet is discreetly obscured.

Even in Desmond’s partial account some unlovely aspects of Huxley poke through. His views on Australia’s ‘hopelessly irreclaimable savages’, the aborigines, were notably unphilanthropic. ‘Their elimination from the earth’s surface can be viewed only with satisfaction as the removal of a great blot from the escutcheon of our common humanity,’ he wrote during the cruise of the Rattlesnake. Desmond rightly calls this ‘final solution’ horrifying. But he justifies it as a temporary lapse into ‘squatter’s morality’. Other Englishmen, such as Thomas Arnold, who was in Australia at exactly the same period, were appalled by the extermination of the entire Tasmanian aborigine race (on the grounds that they worried sheep). This genocide was one of the factors which impelled Arnold to back-migrate to England. It seems not to have disturbed Huxley, except insofar as it did not extend to the aborigines generally.

One of Huxley’s eager pupils at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington in 1884 was the future author of The War of the Worlds (1897). Wells was even more effective in propagating Huxley’s ideas than Huxley had been in propagating Darwin’s. Before we judge the Martians too harshly, the narrator of his most celebrated scientific romance muses, ‘we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only on animals, such as the vanished bison and dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?’ Worse was to come, and at least part of it can be laid at the kennel door of Darwin’s Rottweiler.