Darwin's bulldog

March 15, 1995

Huxley: The Devil's Disciple
By Adrian Desmond
Michael Joseph, 1994. 475 pp., $40.00 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Charles Darwin fretted for 20 years about publishing revolutionary materialist theory of the evolution of species. If all animal species, including Homo sapiens, are the result of the natural process of adaptation to environment, rather than of God's intervention in nature, then the divine justification, not just of nature, but of the social and political world (with its poverty, slavery and colonialism for the many, and its wealth and privilege for the few) might come crashing down, too, Darwin and the church feared.

If Darwin was a reluctant crusader for science against religion, for reform against the status quo, he had one disciple who was proud to carry the banner. Thomas Huxley, as Adrian Desmond relates in his biography, was "Darwin's bulldog", who savaged the conservative Anglican and scientific establishment and paved the way for the triumph of Darwin's theory of evolution and for social progress. Huxley helped to dethrone God and to put science in the vacant seat.

Born in 1825 above a butcher's shop, apprenticed to a lowly pharmacist/doctor, working for poor pay as a doctor in a charity hospital and in the English navy, and distressed by the poverty of the working class that was his occupational milieu, Huxley was a social world away from the leisured gentry of Darwin's class. But Huxley and Darwin were to meet as revolutionaries in the scientific world.

Huxley's vast hunger for understanding and for alleviating the sufferings of the poor led him to science. He became one of England's foremost experts in physiology, palaeontology and marine zoology. Through a combination of sheer merit, a confrontational temperament for "trashing reputations and received wisdom", and a preparedness to appeal to the working class through lectures and pamphlets in a punchy street prose, Huxley challenged the hobbling allegiance of science to church and crown, to its corruption by religious myth, political patronage and social privilege.

He became part of radical London, discussing, with progressive novelists (George Eliot), philosophers (John Stuart Mill), freethinkers, atheists and anarchists, such issues as democratic reform, biblical criticism, evolutionary theory, the evil of slavery and the "tyranny of marriage".

On evolution, "Huxley proclaimed in public what Darwin thought in private" and led the charge to batter in the doors of clerical, anti-scientific conservatism. The doors gave a little easier in the 1850s as the preceding decades of hunger and the at times insurrectionary Chartism of the labour movement gave way to a buoyant economic prosperity, and space opened up for the accommodation of working-class demands for reform. The need for a religious police in science and society was less urgent. It was safer for Darwin to "come out".

The revolutionary implications of Darwin's theory and Huxley's proselytising, too, were muted by the social application of Darwinism. Its industrial moral of progress through competition, and its political lesson of the survival of the fittest, suited the capitalists and left the labouring classes chained not by religious dogma but by scientific "law".

Huxley, argues Desmond, "tailored evolution to middle class needs". An admirable enemy of aristocracy and clergy, Huxley was a believer in science professionals leading industry on to further triumphs unfettered by feudal hangovers. He was not at all anti-worker, but like other middle class reformers, he believed the capitalist to be the workers' best friend.

Huxley's progressive c.v. was thus qualified. He was an agnostic, not an atheist. He was an opponent of slavery but no believer in egalitarianism — his theory of evolution challenged scientific racism by viewing blacks and whites as of the same species yet he still saw them following different evolutionary paths rather than viewing racial inequality as a matter of political and economic power.

When he took his scientific message to the working class (and he held audiences of 2000 "cloth-caps" enthralled for hours with lectures on the evolutionary lessons of aphids, barnacles, fossils, dinosaurs, missing links, pigeons and gorillas) it was to use the working class as a counterweight to Anglican institutional orthodoxy, not to encourage revolution; Huxley aimed to turn the "menacing labourers" into "backers for Great technocratic Britain". Huxley's science was "not power to the people; it was power to the professionals". His was "corporate science in the making".

Huxley's socialist contemporaries in England — Friedrich Engels, Karl and Jenny Marx — were right, as Desmond notes, to chalk up Huxley and Darwin as scientific revolutionaries who helped overturn religion's endorsement of the status quo. But they also recognised that these two scientific insurgents could not but abandon their working-class followers in favour of England's capitalists at the entrance from science to politics.

Adrian Desmond's biography of Huxley, with Desmond's enthusiasm, knowledge of science and a vigorous if sometimes frenetic prose, brings the scientific revolution of Huxley to vibrant life whilst remaining astutely critical of his political limits. Huxley wanted to clean up society but to do so through a rejuvenated capitalism, which could not be in the long-term interests of the workers and the poor. To do so, however, Huxley had to revolutionise science and that is his, and Darwin's, finest legacy.

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