Review of an intimate history of evolution by Alison Bashford: Darwin’s explorers | Science and nature books.

CHarles Darwin was, by all accounts, a meek and conflict-averse man. In his written work he tended not to personally attack his opponents. He rarely gave public lectures, and never participated in the face-to-face debates that served as a public testing ground for scientific ideas in Victorian England.

Fortunately, the author of On the origin of species he had escorts to do all that for him, most famously Thomas Henry Huxley, a square-headed, mutton-chopped scientific pugilist who styled himself the “bulldog” of Darwinism. Huxley delighted in overturning old orthodoxies, whether scientific or religious, in the name of evolution. When he went on a lecture tour of North America, a continent Darwin never visited, the New York Daily Graphic featured a front-page illustration of Huxley preparing to hit Moses in the head from behind.

Huxley’s grandson, Julian Huxley, is less well known outside scientific circles, but he was also a biologist and a tireless popularizer of Darwin’s theories in the 20th century. On BBC programmes, in the pages of this newspaper, in more than 30 books, and as director of public institutions such as London Zoo and later UNESCO, he is partly responsible for the idea that the logic of evolution pervades Modern life. from our bodies and minds to politics and society itself.

Alison Bashford’s book is an intriguing hybrid. A deeply researched biography of Thomas Henry, Julian, and the Huxley family in general, the result of a close examination of their writings and correspondence, it also serves as an intellectual history of Britain through the sweeping changes in science and society that brought about origin to modernity. Thomas Henry was born in 1825 and died in 1895 when Julian was eight years old. Julian himself died in 1975. Bashford sees men as a clear framework for this era, “like Janus”: Thomas Henry turning to natural science to make sense of the past in the late Victorian period; Julián, in the 20th century, looking towards a more uncertain future.

By linking the two men, and their sprawling extended family, Bashford is able to cover more than a century while maintaining continuity and an intimate scale. It helps that each is as close to being an example of the English liberal society of his day as one could ask for. Thomas Henry is a low-class fighter climbing the newly constructed meritocratic ladder of professionalized science and has immense faith in his project to demystify the world. Yet the basic assumptions of his time, from gender relations to the benefits of empire, suit him once freed from religious and reactionary cobwebs.

Eton-education Julian is more flexible and fallible. He flits between the newly created jobs of the era, from movie making to world government. He is a committed scientist, but wonders where Darwinian thinking might fit into the emerging landscapes of psychology, art, and culture. He has ill-advised adventures: one of them, with Viola Ilma, a curious 22-year-old journalist from the Third Reich, occurs at the same time that Julian, in his mid-forties, is writing a book that debunks racial science. Another, with the American poet May Sarton, ends with Sarton moving on to Julian’s wife, Juliette. In one of his books, Julián fantasizes about new forms of education and marriage that could add solidity and meaning to the welcome but confusing display of modern desire.

The juxtaposition of eras generates many nice ideas. Thomas Henry was an enthusiastic dissector of primate brains. He hoped to reveal similar structures in all species that would challenge man’s status as a unique and godly creation. The ape’s body was a battlefield, and since they were so rare, securing them was also the subject of fierce competition. The great Christian anatomist Richard Owen, superintendent of natural history at the British Museum, had an institutional advantage over Thomas Henry, seeing ape skeletons in private collections and preferentially receiving specimens sent from expeditions on the frontiers of the empire. Thomas Henry scrambled to get the material he needed and eventually “killed” Owen through a campaign of hearts and minds among the scientific elite that culminated in his 1863 book Man’s Place in Nature.

Some 70 years later, with the close relationship between humans and apes well established, it was psychology’s turn to further elucidate the common primate heritage. Julian, as ethologist and director of the London Zoo from 1935 to 1942, witnessed and influenced “a methodological victory of culture, mind and emotion over bone and brain.” He was a fan of primatologist Jane Goodall (he named one of her chimpanzees “Huxley”) and defended the value of her work in explaining primate behavior on their own terms to mainstream scientists who, like Thomas Henry, were more interested. in anatomy.

All of British intellectual life seems accessible through some branch of this extensive family tree. Thomas Henry’s son Leonard married into a literary dynasty through Julia Arnold, Thomas’s daughter and Matthew’s niece, and his efforts to found and run a girls’ school in Surrey shed light on the changing state of education. Women’s. Julia’s sister, Mary Augusta Ward, the novelist and anti-suffrage activist, is an influence on Thomas Henry’s engagement with religious philosophy in the last years of his life. Julian publishes books with HG Wells and coins the term “transhumanism.” Julian’s brother, Aldous – from brave new world fame: lurks on the fringes, bringing the cutting edge of psychedelic and psychiatric culture into the lives of the Huxley family. There is a sense that an author is having a great time rummaging through a well-appointed, labyrinthine family home, reading all the books and letters.

But Bashford pulls the strings at the end of the book. Issues of human difference (physical, mental, and cultural) occupy the Huxleys even more than the average British liberal of their day. Thomas Henry sailed on scientific expeditions under an imperial flag, and the concept of “savage” stuck with him. He correctly and repeatedly rejected the idea that there were different species of humans as strictly defined by natural science, yet subscribed to, and often promoted, an idea of ​​the development of civilizations that envisioned a totally unscientific hierarchy of races.

The goal here is not to write off Thomas Henry, but rather to show the progression of ideas through the people who develop and expound them. As notions of human difference mutated and clashed violently, Thomas Henry was part of that fray and influenced others, most notably as part of early efforts to professionalize the field of anthropology.

Julian was intimately aware of the failings of previous generations of scientists, including his grandfather. As head of UNESCO, he consciously helped shape a new utopian and anti-racist internationalism. But he also believed that understanding evolution would give humanity the power to alter its own genetic destiny. He was concerned about overpopulation and for decades he sought to redeem eugenics from its fascist associations.

Bashford is too witty to present her subjects simply as avatars of their times. But at the end of Julian’s life, there is a sense of how completely things have changed. Thomas Henry’s project succeeded: science has triumphed over religion and brought a kind of order to the natural world, but Julian is drawn to new and unknowable frontiers: politics, consciousness, humanity’s distant future. Late in his life, this man of science developed a skeptical interest in phenomena such as telepathy. Progress is a funny thing. The world, Bashford suggests, can always be mystified again.

An Intimate History of Evolution: Alison Bashford’s Huxley Family History is published by Allen Lane (£30). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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