Did Lady Brewster faint?

Eric Korn

  • Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest by Adrian Desmond
    Joseph, 372 pp, £20.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 7181 3882 1

In 1883, a Mr Wendell Phillips Garrison of New York published a travel narrative called What Mr Darwin Saw on his Voyage around the World, a narrative that follows pretty closely Darwin’s own line and Darwin’s own words, or at least the less intellectually taxing of Darwin’s own words. In a remarkable preface Garrison suggests that the text contains all a child needs at every stage of its education: a well-conducted parent could match the level of difficulty with the child’s evolving ability, telling the story in simple numbers for the babe in arms or on the knee, in greater detail for the toddler and schoolchild, until the grown student gets the undiluted works. Darwin’s text would teach not only reading, but mathematics, science, geography, history and physiography. Darwin in nursery rhymes to Darwin in Alcaics.

In his own lifetime there was a sense of Darwin as a tutelary presence, of his life following an exemplary parabola: careless youth, picaro’s travels, epiphany on road from Galapagos, meditations in the garden, sermons on barnacles, revelations, beatitudes, fame and the glorious humility of the return to earthworms: as children we knew his story as we knew the life of Nelson or St George.

There was no such moving image for Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog (or Rottweiler) as there is not for Nelson’s Hardy or St George’s horse; the acts of the chief apostle are not celebrated. We know Huxley as a photograph or a cartoon: heavy-jawed and self-confident, or already fixed in marble. Or better, like one of those nodding-doll holograms that ceaselessly repeats a greeting. ‘Hallo. I’m Thomas Henry. I’d rather be an ape than a bishop. Hallo, I’m Thomas Henry. I’d rather be an ape than a bishop. Hallo ... ’

We don’t know exactly what happened at the British Association meeting in Oxford in 1860. We think we know who the good guys were and who the bad hat, or mitre. We do not know exactly what the Bishop of Oxford said or what THH replied. Desmond favours a version of ‘was your grandmother a monkey?’, and gives it a plausible class twist. The Bishop was a gentleman, and confident in the identity and ladylike character of his own grandmother, and the grandmothers of the kind of people he sparred with. But Huxley never knew his granny, coming from a stratum where the existence of ancestors cannot be assumed, and consequently took offence where none – perhaps – was offered. But there was no one present with shorthand, a camera or an eidetic memory: contemporary accounts are thin and inconsistent. Henry Sidgwick’s sister wrote her memories of the battle in friends’ albums – I have seen two – but not until twenty years later. Did Lady Brewster faint? Did Fitzroy wave his Bible like a flail? Did Hooker save the day for progress when Huxley couldn’t speak for temper? (Hooker thought so.) Did Huxley murmur: ‘the Lord hath delivered him into my hand?’ (Huxley thought so.) And Samuel Wilberforce straightened his lawn sleeves and reckoned he’d seen off the hosts of Midian. But the victors get to write, or rewrite, history, at least when there’s some agreement about who they might be, and Huxley did it, memorably, definitively, in ‘The Coming of Age of the Origin’ (1880). The Concise DNB of 1930, summarising the Bishop’s achievements in two hundred words, doesn’t mention the 1860 battle (nor sub Huxley or Darwin or Hooker).

Another portrait, another angle. John Collier’s 1890 painting is the most familiar image: a stiff, hard, sad old man, a man of power – he was ‘the Pope’ and ‘the General’ even before he had rank to pull. Collier was good at old men in pain – he caught Darwin’s next-to-last likeness in 1881. Collier was also Huxley’s son-in-law, twice. After Mady, Huxley’s favourite and his temperamental heir, died in Charcot’s madhouse in 1887, her widower was solaced by Ethel, the youngest. (They had to go to Norway to marry because the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill had failed.) Victorian families (like all families) were a reliable source of tragedy (Charles and Emma’s adored Annie, three-year-old Noel Huxley, gone with no secure promise of extra reunion); but Huxley’s kindred provided an extra element of disreputable uproar. His father was a maths teacher in a small and failing public school: it failed, and he became a bank manager in a town that mistrusted banks. Lizzie, Tom’s favourite sibling, fell into some still concealed scandal and went off to struggling exile in New Orleans with her hopeless husband; sister Ellen turned to ‘drink, quarrels, debt and vice’, inducting her daughter in the same lifestyle; brother Jim, a mad doctor and eventually a madman; Charles, who spoke out of turn about George’s wife and disappeared from the family for a few decades. Brother George married Polly, came a cropper with railway shares and died. Polly popped pills. Thomas Henry’s wife Nettie, though a perfect angel in the house, was slightly illegitimate. More to the point perhaps, Tom had spent impressionable years as a slum-doctor’s assistant in the East End and had seen the hell of Wapping and the Ratcliffe Highway. He was close enough to the edge to fear losing his grip. The class distinction between Darwin and Huxley is essential to the thesis of this book, of its predecessor, Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple (1994), and of Desmond’s larger politicising, cooperative work that includes The Politics of Evolution and the Moore-Desmond Darwin. Huxley didn’t drop his aspirates or hold the wrong fork: but timid Darwin had a deep assurance that brash Huxley could not simulate. The class difference between them might seem narrow for a historiographic contrast; but most of English comedy and much of English history is founded on even slenderer zonal distances.

Darwin was supported by his family (brother Erasmus did things in the City that Charles didn’t enquire about, and the family fortunes grew), while Huxley was ‘crushed under an inverted financial pyramid, chocked with boozy relations’. As a biological consequence of some kind, the Darwins were valetudinarians, fretting over their health while the Huxleys worried over bills. Hence THH’s ceaseless, often chaotic busyness. The great organiser was incessantly active but ill-organised, his reviews overdue, his monographs stewing on the back burner when something more urgent or exciting came along. He was on endless committees, but few of them paid: when he took on the Inspectorship of Fisheries, an office of profit, Punch, mean-spirited as ever, jeered ‘Professor Huxley, LLD, FRS, LSD’, as caption to a lively cartoon by Linley Sambourne, who had sneaked Huxley into an illustration for The Water Babies.

In Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple, Desmond took our thin and static image of Huxley and coloured and animated and enhanced it into brilliant, dashing, dancing, duelling life. It ended with Huxley in excelsis, President of the British Association for the Liverpool meeting of 1870, taking time out for a tour through the slums, as squalidly shocking as London forty years before. The Huxley of Desmond’s second volume is a different creature from the (retrospectively) happy warrior of Volume One. To mark the difference of tone, or perhaps out of mere incompetence, Michael Joseph have arranged matters so that the two volumes don’t match, whether in dust jackets or out of them: clashing cloths, misaligned lettering, ill-assorted portraits. Only face up and side by side do they make a pair, as though the publisher couldn’t conceive a future for them beyond the book bin. But they are destined for a long and fruitful shelf life.

Let me get other complaints out of the way. Desmond writes with a furious and seductive élan, and one reads at a gallop, clinging on for dear life, and for enjoyment. Every sentence is pumped full of meat and nerve. Not purple prose, but a tasteful Carlylac: ‘In the 1840s Evolution had been a nail-studded club hidden in the street-atheist’s coal hole; by 1870 it was being polished as a Whitworth gun in the imperial armoury.’ He has read five thousand letters and wants to get them all in, so rarely quotes more than a few words. But his publisher (I’m guessing) has restricted him to a footnote per paragraph, or thereabouts. And though the notes are compactly stowed at the end, with proper running heads, each note references a score of quotations, as dense as pemmican and as hard to digest. In 1871, Desmond tells us, Huxley’s hesitant dualism ‘had brought jeers from the militant materialists on the street. They accused him of casting “Idealistic dust in our eyes; seemingly to prevent the bigots calling him Materialist”20.’ I was curious to know who had said this and turned to note 20. It reads: ‘L.L.D., ‘Huxley’, cf. CE., 6:279, 1: 241.’ And this is one of the shortest footnotes. Others are paragraph-long cakes of letters and digits, with the occasional single word, that, keep, dead, oh, thrown in for guidance.

The story Desmond tells is how the upwardly mobile Huxley transformed subversive science into an organ of the meritocratic state. Never one to conceal his own motivations, Desmond describes his work as a post-Vietnam deconstruction of the military metaphors dear to the Huxleyans. The exemplary text for battle metaphors was John Draper’s History of the Warfare of Religion and Science, the fugleman of the International Science Series, a platoon of red-coated uncompromising manuals, eventually a hundred, that covered the traditional territory of science (and its new colonies, like anthropology and archaeology). This series began in 1874, with Tyndall, in uncharacteristically peaceable mode, on The Forms of Water. The books were American in inspiration, but simultaneously published in the US and Britain, some also in French, Italian, German or Hungarian: and not a reference to the Divine Architect (Geometer, Watchmaker, Aquarist, Zookeeper) anywhere. They contrast nicely with the Bridgewater Series of an earlier generation, eight titles to cover the whole of Natural Philosophy and each ex officio leading through Nature to Nature’s God. Huxley’s contribution was, perhaps surprisingly, a book on the crayfish, where the evolutionary message – as so often in his textbooks – was largely implicit. But its author was already a bit too grand for humble cloth: uniquely, The Crayfish appeared also in a limited large-paper edition.

‘Always the self-perceived plebeian, Huxley was prey to the pressures of Victorian uprightness. Using Darwinism to claw more power only exacerbated his predicament ... George’s banking scandal and Ellen’s drunken debauchery threatened him like a dropped accent.’ Huxley was role model to a self-made class: ‘Never did appear “such worthy representatives of frock-coated respectability as those terrible scientists”. But the struggle for respectability had taken its toll.’ He ground his teeth in sleep-rage at Tory attempts ‘to frighten sober people by the suggestion that evolutionary speculations generate revolutionary schemes in Socialist brains’. And this is partly why Huxley became the architect of the modern state in which science served imperial purposes. Desmond makes much of the bad fright Huxley received in the riots of Black Monday, 8 February 1886, when a cold and hungry crowd looted clubland, overturned omnibuses. But his distaste for socialism had deeper roots. The struggle for existence over which Darwin presided (as non-playing captain) had horrified Huxley, especially when he was mourning the death of a child: ‘You see a meadow rich in flower and foliage and your memory rests upon it as an image of peaceful beauty. It is a delusion ... in every hedge and every copse battle, murder and sudden death are the order of the day.’ Paradoxically, and after many a writhe and wriggle, he at last defended the rightness, or at least the necessity, of that battle and murder and sudden death.

He was, briefly, part of the insurrectionary movement that booted the argument from design out of respectable debate. To the timid he seemed to have booted design out of the universe. But permanent revolutionaries are rare: like a warlord who conquers an empire, he spent the second half of his life securing the state: museums, science libraries, university laboratories (there had never been such things before him). There is a marvellous photograph in the book of a cramped and uncomfortable class in the South Kensington Science Schools lab. Except for one languid poseur, each student sits upright at his desk, microscope by the left elbow, pencil at the right. The image is smudged; one has a skull beside him, one may be a woman, one may be H.G. Wells. They are looking up at the camera; after the shutter has closed they will look down their microscopes and see what they are told to see, for microscopy is a mystery and Huxley its magus.

In the great age of burgeoning laboratories, designed to turn out hands-on schoolteachers wholesale, the microscope was portrayed as powerful and democratic, an open spyhole through to Nature’s foundations. Really of course it offered no ‘transparent’ close-up. The tyros looking through an achromatic lens were baffled by the histological image ... they did ‘not believe nature’, Huxley admitted, they ‘believed me’.

Patiently, laboriously, marking papers, cajoling ministers, hectoring committees, Huxley built the system of taxonomic biology teaching which lasted close on a hundred years; wrote the lab notes; inspired the demonstrators; proposed the syllabuses; set and marked the exams. An army and a navy on scientific principles. An established church of science to serve the needs of the dissenting factory-owners of the North. While the Great Depression of the late Eighties and Nineties wore on, the revolutionary thinker was consolidating a system which rewarded success. A practical system with a clear ideological content: ‘the theoretical bent was part of the professional scientists’ agenda. They were equating science’s moral training with the classics’ character-forming ability. It was their pitch for power.’

Testable hypotheses and, where you cannot know, agnosticism. When Aveling brought the notorious German freethinker Büchner to Down for a freethought blessing, Darwin invited the vicar to set the balance straight. Huxley could not afford to be seen in the wrong company: one evening his artistic daughter brought Oscar Wilde home – Huxley declared that Wilde was never to come to the house again. And so he constructed a respectable, almost a pious agnosticism (the word is his neologism) while distancing himself from the political atheists Bradlaugh, Watts, Holyoake. When the Agnostic Annual pirated a piece of his, Huxley was furious.

As he often was. He was an excellent hater. Did he hate Gladstone for Home Rule or Home Rule for Gladstone? At any rate, his gang, the X Club (Hooker and Tyndall, Spencer and Lubbock mobilised by Huxley in 1864 to do battle with the Bishop of Oxford and drilling conscientiously for the next thirty years), lined up with Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists. His view ‘coloured by the pervasive anti-Catholic prejudice’, Huxley nonetheless pragmatically squelched fiery Tyndall’s plan for a scientific declaration in favour of the Union. Even on his deathbed, he was belabouring opponents not worth his strife.

The conflict between religion and science has always been not a war but a rout. Rabbis, bishops and ayatollahs, shamans, bonzes, and kahunas have made individuals or nations murderous or mad or melancholic, and occasionally consoled or coherent; but no important understanding of the external world, once gained, has ever been lost. The mighty battle over evolution and the method of evolution boils down to a few shouting matches. Natural Theology fell like the Berlin Wall. And with it there tumbled the kind of scientific biography which saw the individual scientist as a mere surfer on the tide of progress, a style which had itself replaced the hero tales of Harvey, Newton and Galileo. Desmond’s hero is intricately articulated into the social and political and moral landscape which made him and which he transformed.

The reactionary aspects of the revolution are too piquant to be ignored, and Desmond has fun with them. Just as sexual selection was visualised as males actively competing for passive females, and thereby progressing, so Social Darwinism at its blackest justified every species of classism, racism and sexism (though it revered its Old Men a bit longer than the health of the race demanded): ‘scientists incorporated all their mid-Victorian prejudices into the new civil service biology. The slamming lab door shut out the women and workers and priests. Inside the lab, the new man, having trouble with the “new woman”, could bolster Darwin’s gendered and class image of evolutionary “reality”.’ As H.G. Wells, that most devoted and unreasoning Huxleyan, chronicled, new women didn’t wait passively outside the lab doors; Ann Veronica, Marie Stopes and Marie Curie were hammering outside. As early as 1874, Ms McConnish was a demonstrator in Huxley’s own laboratory. Huxley invented the modern scientific enterprise, or at least brought it to Britain. He made agnosticism the natural stance of the enquirer. And himself a charitable man, and the sole support of a gang of relatives whom unmitigated natural selection would have disposed of, he directed and sharpened the scythe of Social Darwinism, thanks to which co-operation and social benevolence are still considered abiological.

Desmond’s multitasked, breakneck prose style splendidly matches his subject: exhilarating, thorough, rash and occasionally unfair. In the envoi with which he concludes his study, he sighs: ‘the years of science’s heady excitement were over.’ This is absurd: the excitement shifted to physics and chemistry. The year of Huxley’s death was the year of X-rays and the radioactivity of Uranium: Michelson-Morley, Hertz, Planck, Einstein, and the Curies would soon dissolve the foundations of physical nature; and biology would rediscover Mendel.