As a precocious four-year-old in 1892, Julian Huxley was puzzled by a cartoon depicting his grandfather, renowned anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley, examining a bottle of liquid containing a naked human baby. “Dear Grandpater,” Julian wrote. “Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day?”
TH Huxley, an arch rationalist who coined the term “agnosticism”, assured his grandson he hadn’t seen a living baby in vitro. But he indulged the child with a little playful prognostication: “When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing.”
Grandpater wasn’t wrong, as Alison Bashford shows in her ambitious biography of the Huxley family. An Intimate History of Evolution spans a century and a half, combining the stories of two English pioneers of rational scientific inquiry who helped transform public understanding of the origins of life. Together, they comprised “a modern-day scientific Janus, the Roman god who could look backwards and forwards, as well as inside and outside, simultaneously”. A large claim, particularly in the case of two men who had little time for gods.
They might have preferred her argument that they were great popularisers of science who deftly used the communication resources of their respective eras. They were, she writes, “influencers”, though neither made it to the age of social media. But if they had, Bashford’s description suggests they would certainly have maintained Twitter feeds, if not Instagram accounts. They were, in modern parlance, celebrity scientists, part of a dynasty that also included celebrated writers Matthew Arnold and Julian’s brother Aldous.
Pamphlets, periodicals, books and lectures to working men were the media for TH Huxley, a self-styled “smiter of humbug”, promoter of “disenchantment” — challenging notions of the supernatural — and fearless champion of the evolution theories of his friend Charles Darwin. In the case of Julian — a zoologist who ran London Zoo, a pioneer of wildlife conservation and who would become the first director of Unesco — outlets for his science advocacy included newspapers, books, radio, television, an Oscar-winning wildlife film and the features pages of Playboy magazine.
More than seven decades after his “Waterbaby” correspondence with his grandfather, Julian, the “great-deal seer”, as president of the British Eugenics Society, gave a lecture in which he made the case for the collection, preservation and freezing of sperm, particularly from donors “of outstanding ability and vigour”, as a hedge against the civilisational depredations of nuclear war. Echoing Aldous’s 1932 novel Brave New World, in which humans were engineered in artificial hatcheries, Julian invented the term “transhumanism” to describe the idea that the human species could be radically improved, physically and mentally, through the intervention of science.
Both brothers were ahead of their time in terms of available technology but, in Julian’s case, when he addressed the British Eugenics Society in 1962, only by a decade or so. Three years after he died in 1975, the first human was born from in vitro fertilisation. Citing work today on human life extension, foetal diagnosis, abortion, sperm selection and germ line engineering aimed at eliminating certain diseases, Bashford stretches a point to argue that “choice-oriented eugenics” and the “transhuman dreams” of Julian have become normalised.
Marked out by the twin poles of the Huxleys’ curricula vitae, An Intimate History of Evolution is also a biography of ideas, using one family’s history to explore the development of theories about generations, genealogy and genes, chronicling shifting attitudes to religion, race, women and animal experimentation — from morphology to ethology.
In the 19th century, TH Huxley presented the new theories of evolution to High Victorian Christians, literal readers of Genesis, and heralded “the death of the divine”. In the 20th century, his grandson extended the project to genetic inheritance and made the case for human population control and eugenics. But while Julian continued his grandfather’s work on evolution, he repudiated TH Huxley’s subscription to the then fashionable, later discredited, view that a northern Aryan race had first emerged in Europe. For Julian, appalled by the consequences of Nazi beliefs in the myth of Aryan superiority, eugenics needed to be rescued from the taint of genocidal racism.
For TH Huxley, a formidable autodidact who had left school at 10 and worked as a surgeon’s apprentice, it was his study of jellyfish that launched his scientific career; for Julian, educated at Eton and Oxford, his introduction to scientific discipline was his observation of the courtship rituals of the great crested grebe.
In maturity, both men turned to the study of apes, Thomas Henry using skeletons and soft-tissue specimens in his work on comparative anatomy, Julian observing the behaviour of living creatures in the wild in Africa and at London Zoo. Both men were, in Bashford’s account, combative colleagues and both were haunted by spells of debilitating depression and mental breakdown.
Curiously, in a book that covers the lives and work of its subjects so comprehensively, the famous 1860 Oxford debate, when TH Huxley defended Darwin’s newly published On the Origin of Species in a pugnacious exchange with Bishop Wilberforce, receives scant and sniffy attention. The debate was, writes Bashford, mythologised and “reconstructed on hearsay”, and she does not deign to quote from available eyewitness accounts, including that of Huxley, who described himself as “Darwin’s bulldog”. Authoritative biographers of Darwin, while acknowledging some post facto embellishment, have quoted extensively from first-person reports of the debate, regarding it as a significant moment in the confrontation between science and a hitherto all-powerful religious establishment.
Despite his public abrasiveness, TH Huxley was, according to Bashford, an uxorious paterfamilias in the Victorian style, while Julian, who had gay love affairs before his marriage, was more tortured in his private affections, and used his knowledge of natural science and the “seasonal marriages” of grebes to justify extramarital passions. Starting on the fringes of Bloomsbury, through a ménage à trois with the American poet May Sarton, with a cast including HG Wells, Ottoline Morrell and DH Lawrence, his personal life would lend itself to the racier sort of biography.
The book’s structure, however, is dictated not by the linear narratives of two lives but by the intellectual history of their times, and encompasses cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, mesmerism, sexology, the work of the paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, secular transcendentalism and psychedelic drug use. At times it seems Bashford’s summary of a clerical novel by Julian’s aunt might serve as a description of An Intimate History of Evolution — a “long path . . . strewn with one of everything, doctrinally speaking”.
For such a scholarly survey, there are some jarring locutions. Apart from “influencers”, the author describes Julian and Aldous as “A-list worriers” and writes of Julian’s “visions” as being “upscaled to a kind of sublime”. More surprisingly, the death of Julian’s mother is described as her “passing”, once to “to the other side”, once “to another world” — a formulation that surely neither Huxley under discussion would have had time for.
There is, however, a third Huxley who claims authorial sympathies over Bashford’s main subjects: Francis, son of Julian and great grandson of Thomas Henry, may be “the greatest Huxley wordsmith of all”, she writes. An anthropologist “who became so immersed in the magical and mystical, in voodoo and in rituals of sacralisation, as to become himself a kind of animist”, Francis disapprovingly noted that science had “done much to dispel” the sacred.
While TH Huxley’s rational agnosticism, in pursuit of the scientific understanding of mankind’s place in the natural world, begat Julian’s questing atheism, Francis, according to Bashford, finally restored “enchantment” to the humbug-smiting dynasty. Bishop Wilberforce, no doubt robed and enthroned on “the other side”, must have been delighted.
An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family by Alison Bashford, Allen Lane £30/University of Chicago $30, 576 pages
Annalena McAfee’s novel ‘Nightshade’ is published by Vintage
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Source: Financial Times