Sunday, April 6, 2014

Huxley. From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest by Adrian Desmond.

Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest focuses on the life of a tireless, effective advocate for evolution and science. This is an impressively well-researched, highly informative tome. Its 32 page bibliography and 1581 endnotes testify to the author’s assiduous research and command of the details. Adrian Desmond does an admirably thorough job of presenting the story of T.H. Huxley’s private life and public contributions.

This representation of a life in science demonstrates the contributions of Huxley, who is overshadowed by his friend Charles Darwin in the modern public mind. But without the pugnacious activism of T.H. Huxley, there would have been a greater delay in recognition for the brilliant but meek Darwin and his Natural Selection. We would not be as far along as we are now in our understanding of evolution. While this is the chief contribution for which Huxley is known, there is so much more for which he deserves recognition.

Desmond presents Huxley’s life as one of constant hard work and achievement. In addition to lecturing and teaching, this educator chaired the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Metaphysics Society and many committees too numerous to mention. His work on the London School Board resulted in the inclusion of science education in the public schools. In Higher Education, he was the driving force behind the creation of South Kensington College, a pioneering institution of science during a time when gentlemanly liberal arts were still the norm. Additionally, he published throughout his life, adding to our knowledge in significant ways. Huxley is widely credited as the discoverer of the bird-dinosaur evolutionary link.

This scientist also expanded our thinking philosophically.  Employing the root of the Greek “gnosis” (to know) he created the word “agnostic” (one who does not or cannot know) and was the catalyst for this secular philosophy. With his emphasis on “the scientific method and its sensual limitations,” Huxley determined that one could neither prove nor disprove God (Desmond, p. 374). While this approach lacks the satisfying certainty of both Theism and Atheism, it was an idea made for a historical moment, providing an exceptional foil against the intrusions of state sponsored Anglicanism on science.

While Desmond presents Huxley as an industrious achiever, this book is in no way a hagiography. Privately, the evolutionist innovator is characterized as prone to “volcanic moods” and “depressive” with periodic “breakdowns” from both overwork and his emotional demons (Desmond, pp. 84 & 537). Politically, the author is not afraid to show his subjects regressive attitudes. Huxley’s support of violent British imperialism is extreme enough to shock his family. He refers to Afghan tribes defending their land as “blood-thirsty thieves” and approves of England’s “civilizing influence” in South Africa even if it meant using a “heavy hand” (Desmond, p. 493).

Even regarding Huxley’s stellar professional life, the biographer can be rightfully critical. When Huxley fails in a speech, the Desmond explains why (Desmond, p. 478). When Huxley fails to understand Natural Selection even after Darwin works on him, Desmond elucidates how he is being dense (Desmond, p. 223). Though Huxley was an advocate for women’s education, he believed that their “natural limitations” would prevent them from competing with men for science positions (Desmond, p. 371). The career scientist’s record is not presented without blemishes.

Another consistent theme throughout the work is Great Britain’s transformation from a society of privileged gentlemen directing science, business and politics, to a meritocracy where industrious working-class and middle-class men could make a name for themselves. This new ethos is particularly evident in science which, up until this time, was the past time of wealthy aristocrats. “In came the academics and empire builders, secular sons with their B.Sc.s…out went the marginalized clergymen” and elites (Desmond, p. 424).

Despite the book’s many merits, there is no nice way to say this and still be accurate: the writing is awful. Desmond opens with excessive melodrama:

“The lanky 15 year-old sidled down fetid alleyways, past gin palaces and dance halls. Sailors hung out of windows, the gaiety of their boozy whores belying the squalor around them. The boy’s predatory looks and patched clothes seemed in keeping. But his black eyes betrayed a horror at the sights: ten crammed into a room, babies diseased from erupting cesspits, the uncoffined dead gnawed by rats” (Desmond, p. 3).

When the style is not being melodramatic, it is pompous and excessively ornamental: “Nature was no capricious dame to be appeased by the gods” (Desmond, p. 85). Rarely are statements made simply. Where Huxley is consulting with factory bosses and engineers, Desmond confuses the message that hard-working professionals were replacing privileged aristocrats: Using grandiloquent imagery, he writes “Huxley was in his muddy boots, moving the centre of the world, making the dead Oxbridge outer planets revolve round the solar furnace of the Black Country” (Desmond, p. 513). A more Hemingway-esque pen could have easily trimmed at least 100 pages from the biography by eliminating overblown decoration.

Though the writing is atrocious, no literary criticism can demean the quality of the information. Desmond has researched well. There are probably other books on Huxley that waste less time with bombast. However, one would be hard-pressed to find a study as thorough. Readers will have to decide for themselves how much pretentious writing they can tolerate.

Desmond, Adrian. Huxley. From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest. Reading, Mass : Addison-Wesley, 1997.