The Huxleys

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Thomas Huxley thought “the smallest fact is a window through which the Infinite may be seen.” His ideas moved from minute particulars to universal propositions. In 1869 he coined the word “agnostic’” to denote a method of thinking that required empirical data rather than biblical revelation to accept the existence of God. At the burial of Thomas’s eldest child, Noel, who died of scarlet fever at the age of 4, a clergyman read at the graveside from 1 Corinthians: “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Thomas stood aghast in this insensitivity. “Why,” he said, “the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out, and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.” The child’s funeral intensified his doubts about Christianity. For Thomas, writes Alison Bashford in her book “The Huxleys,” “science fully and richly took the place of religion.” He handed to his descendants a creed that trusted provable and knowable facts, and rejected credulity, myth and superstition. The Huxley tenets entailed wrestling with conscience, psychological stresses, spiritual anxiety, and anguish.

Ms. Bashford, a historian of medicine and professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has written a daring and joyously intelligent book on Huxley, his family and their immense legacy. Her focus is on two eminent scientific thinkers, Thomas (1825-1895) and his grandson Julian Huxley (1887-1975), but she does not provide a conventionally structured family biography following a neat chronological sequence. The abundance and diversity of her material makes that impossible. Thomas was a pioneer of comparative anatomy, a zealous force in educational reform and a scientific celebrity whose book “Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature” was a landmark argument for human evolution. His descendants became investigators and thinkers who worked with high intensity to clarify some of the boldest, most contentious ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries. They cannot be packed into tight parcels.

Ms. Bashford has partitioned her book into thematic essays. She depicts the family culture of the Huxleys, their dynastic intelligence and literary prowess, their masterful capacity to synthesize scientific knowledge, and their driving conviction that the pursuit of pure truth was a social responsibility which upheld the sanctity of human nature. She gives due attention to other members of the dynasty: the novelists Mary Ward and Aldous Huxley, Julian’s younger half-brother Andrew (a biophysician and Nobel laureate), Julian’s distinguished sons Anthony (a botanist) and Francis (an anthropologist). She discusses the study by the Huxleys of the human species in the remote past, and their work to better, as they hoped, the social conditions of the future. In the 1950s Julian coined a word to describe the transcendent possibilities and higher destiny of a scientifically enlightened humanity, “transhumanism”.

Generations of the Huxley family suffered from crippling depression. Thomas Huxley described his depressions as “paroxysms of internal pain”, and “deserts of the most wearisome ennui.” His father, a failed schoolmaster, was a melancholic who died in a mental asylum; his afflicted brother James lived in self-enforced seclusion for over 40 years; his daughter was treated for depression by the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Julian, who had an acute episode of depression in 1912-13, described himself in 1917 as a “would-be suicide” sunk in “hopeless despair.” He underwent a variety of treatments, including electroshock. His brilliant brother Trevenen, who spoke of being “lost in a pit an enormous way behind my eyes”, hanged himself in 1914. In Ms. Bashford’s telling, the story of how systematic and concentrated work helped other Huxleys, especially Julian, to manage the disarray of depressive illness is a heroic one.

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Living creatures, however, delighted Julian best. In Oxford during the 1920s he fed Mexican salamanders called axolotls with thyroid of ox, which transformed them in a few weeks from amphibians to terrestrial, air-breathing creatures—a Frankenstein’s monster moment, says Ms. Bashford, when life was transformed. Later he made a loving study of orangutans and chimpanzees. After becoming director of the London Zoo, and establishing it on a new footing of fame, he became devoted to the primates there. One of them, known to generations of English children as Guy the Gorilla, he loved perhaps as much as anyone in his life.

Thomas Huxley was driven by the need to understand what distinguishes humans from other species, and indeed to identify humankind’s place in the natural world. He was not convinced by Charles Darwin’s notion of natural selection as the leading evolutionary force. He believed that new forms sometimes appeared, in their full perfection, by sudden incidents of mutation: a theory known as saltation. Nevertheless he was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his defense of the great evolutionist.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal