Architect of the scientific caste

April 11, 1997

This is the second volume of Adrian Desmond's biography of Thomas Huxley and covers the period from 1870, when he was 48, to his death in 1895. Few lives split easily into halves and the 1870 breakpoint is somewhat arbitrary. There is a sense, of course, in which Huxley becomes an establishment "insider" in this volume, whereas he was very much an "outsider" trying to make his mark in the first book.

But it is doubtful if Huxley would have seen it like that, and, despite Desmond's introductory prologue, I am not sure that the author really sees it like that either. However, this volume can stand on its own as the record of the first professional scientist who also made the case, in terms that are still very familiar, both for science policy and a policy for science.

His energy and dedication were, even by Victorian standards, phenomenal. Committees, chairmanships, royal commissions, lectures, books and, above all polemical articles - more than a million words in the collected works - fill these pages as they must have filled his life. Somehow time was found for a rather wayward and, at the margin, sometimes awkwardly embarrassing family. Desmond portrays a happy marriage; a devoted father and a wide circle of loyal and supportive friends and colleagues at the centre of all this frenetic activity. Just reading about it all is liable to make the modern reader feel tired, a feeling accentuated by Desmond's busy and staccato style. There is so much to cram in that the reader whose knowledge of 19th-century history is a bit rusty is apt to find it all a bit too much and to long for a more leisurely and better signposted pace. For those prepared to make the commitment that the author requires, though, this is scientific biography of a novel, ambitious and intriguing kind.

In his prologue Desmond writes that he "regards Huxley as a contribution to the new contextual history of science". The book "looks at evolution's use in order to understand the class, religious or political interests involved I Put simply Huxley shows the external world changing with the social world I This is a story of Class, Power and Propaganda." Such an approach requires the reader to be familiar with the social, cultural and religious history of the period, and the main political events and tensions. In addition, there is the science which is not necessarily straightforward or simple even for those who have done A-level biology. All this has to be woven into the chronological structure of an extraordinary life. It is a very challenging task and, not surprisingly, parts of the programme work better than others.

Rather surprisingly, the science component comes off worse. It is actually rather difficult to find out what Huxley contributed to evolutionary thought and some of the feuds he enjoyed, like that with Richard Owen, are baffling for the uninitiated since their intellectual basis is left largely unexplained.

Much better treated are the religiocultural aspects of Victorian life. Huxley invented the word agnostic and greatly enjoyed teasing and annoying the Anglican establishment. There is a wonderful account of his crossing swords with Gladstone when the grand old man attempted to underpin Anglican authority with scriptural exegesis. Huxley's view was simple: "The foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying; to give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence." But there was more to it than that. As Desmond shows, these battles were part of the process whereby the cosy, ordered world of the early part of the century, where everyone knew their station in a social order sanctified by an Anglican clergy and ruled by an aristocratic class, was transformed into a meritocratic, if by no means classless society. It was a time when the strains of rapid industrialisation undermined all forms of tradition and traditional authority, thus opening the way, not only for dissenters like Huxley and his friends, but also for socialists and subversives. This is, in many key respects, still the world in which we live and Huxley is credited with being one of its architects.

But he did more than that. Huxley the teacher is well described, organising and instructing classes in what was to become Imperial College. He single-handedly invented biology as a teachable school subject. This school biology was based on the anatomical dissection of "type" specimens and the accurate description of what was found. All those who have gone from dissecting the earthworm to the rabbit via the cockroach, frog and dogfish in formalin-impregnated sixth-form practicals will have followed in the footsteps of those student teachers first taught by Huxley in South Kensington over a century ago. Few scientific syllabuses remained so stable for so long. Perhaps curiously there was little place here for the teaching of evolutionary theory. Instead Huxley focused on training his students to trust only what they had seen, and to question, relentlessly, textbook knowledge and authority - even his own. There is a splendid description of a student informing Huxley that the manual he had written on the dissection of the whelk's tongue was inaccurate. Far from being irritated, Huxley became very excited and offered to publish his finding.

This attitude to scientific facts defined for Huxley the professionalism that he wanted in his students. He held that those who shared with him that confidence in their observations and discoveries were suitable for induction into that new class of "scientist" that he saw would be needed when the Anglican religious establishment was finally undermined.

Desmond is at his best in describing the social and political tensions that arose from Huxley's attempts to replace one kind of priesthood (the Anglican) with another (the scientific). Huxley pressed for a system of state education that was founded on the objective study and discovery of the facts of science rather than the study of Latin and Greek. He saw that the professionals produced would then be available for the state-supported laboratories and scientific enterprises, such as the voyage of HMS Challenger in 1873. That, in turn, would produce the knowledge and technology required to maintain Britain's industrial supremacy in the face of increasingly effective French and, especially, German interests.

In this crusade Huxley had many allies and supporters and Desmond is particularly good at drawing out the close links, at a personal as well as political level, between the northern industrialists such as Sir Joseph Whitworth and Huxley's circle. The rhetoric and the arguments have not altered much between the pub-lication of the findings of the Duke of Devonshire's royal commission on scientific instruction in the 1870s and Michael Heseltine's competitiveness white paper last year.

The great strength of this biography is that it tracks, in great and copiously annotated detail, how the scientific, cultural and political strands of mid-Victorian debate were woven together by Huxley.

John Ashworth is chairman, British Library Board.

Huxley: Evolution's High Priest

Author - Adrian Desmond
ISBN - 0 7181 3882 1
Publisher - Michael Joseph
Price - £20.00
Pages - 370

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