The Huxley Conspiracy to Sell Darwinism
Darwinism may not have taken over the world but for a
dynasty of ethically-challenged salesmen: the Huxley family.
A new book is out about a family that “championed evolution” for Darwin: the Huxley dynasty. In Nature today (7 Nov 2022), Stuart Mathieson reviews An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family by Alison Bashford Allen Lane (2022).
Before he reveals some disturbing details about the Huxleys, predominantly Thomas Henry (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) Huxley and his son Julian Huxley and their ” vexed influence on science and society,” Mathieson pauses with drum roll for the standard Darwin commercial. Darwinism is the greatest doctrine in the history of science and anybody who denies this is a muddle-headed anti-truth loser. Got that?
Few concepts have had as important — and vexed — a role in the relationship between science and society as evolution. What it means to be human, our place in nature and how society should be structured: all have been viewed in evolutionary terms. Opposition to evolution is associated with obscurantism and anti-modernism; anti-evolutionist views are squarely outside of the scientific mainstream.
Having satisfied the elitists, Mathieson can now mention some of the vexing material presented by Bashford. Her book is “no hagiography,” he realizes. Thomas and son Julian were co-conspirators in a determined effort to sell evolution to the public as settled science. And yet as individuals, their personal views left much to be desired.
The striking similarities between the two lead Bashford to suggest that they might be thought of “as one very long-lived man”. One resemblance was their contradictory morality, which Bashford illuminates but neither condones nor condemns. Thomas called for the abolition of slavery but argued that white people were superior to Black people; Julian opposed Nazism and South African apartheid but was president of the British Eugenics Society from 1959 to 1962.
Eugenics and white supremacy are very politically incorrect these days, and unscientific, too; why did Bashford not condemn those views? Are those ideas not “squarely outside of the scientific mainstream” now? Are they not obscurantist and anti-modernist?
Interestingly, two of Thomas’s grandchildren went in different directions: Aldous Huxley wrote the famous dystopian novel Brave New World (1932) that portrayed one horrifying view of naturalism run amok, where people are bred for stratified roles from birth, sex is unrestrained, and those lucky enough to avoid slavery are kept compliant on drugs by a tyrant (see video review at PragerU). Another grandson pursued operational science: “Andrew Huxley (1917–2012), won a Nobel prize for his work on the propagation of nerve impulses.”
Here are some troubling facts about father & son Thomas and Julian from Mathieson’s review of Bashford’s book:
- Thomas was a “staunch defender of Darwin”, but didn’t accept Darwin’s key idea of natural selection.
- The debate with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce is called “much mythologized” but Thomas realized its propaganda value: “Huxley realized that evolution could usefully be wielded against theologians who strayed into scientific controversy.”
- Thomas was a conspirator. “In 1864, he joined eight friends, including the physicist John Tyndall and social theorist Herbert Spencer, to form the X Club, an informal pressure group that leveraged its connections and Huxley’s political savvy to shape the direction of Victorian science.“
- One of the achievements of the X Club was to gain power in scientific societies. “Three successive presidents of the UK Royal Society were drawn from its ranks, including Huxley.”
- Another achievement was to dominate scientific journals. Thomas Huxley “wrote an article in the inaugural issue of Nature, the first of many pieces for the journal — a tradition that Julian continued decades later.” Biographer Janet Browne called the action of commanding the periodical market “a shrewd tactic” and says that Nature was “conceived, born, and raised to serve polemic purpose” (Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, p 248).
- Thomas believed in miracles of chance. Unpersuaded by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, “he preferred the idea that evolution occurred by saltation, or sudden mutational leaps.“
- Twenty years after Mendel‘s 40-year-old laws of inheritance were “rediscovered” in 1900, Julian worked with other evolutionists to merge it with natural selection by raising the perhapsimaybecouldness index. “Throughout the 1920s, population geneticists including Ronald Fisher and J. B. S. Haldane used mathematical modelling to demonstrate that Mendelian inheritance could explain variation and the results of natural selection on large populations.” (But see Basener and Sanford’s critique, 22 Dec 2017, 20 Feb 2018, 16 Feb 2018).
- Julian was a propagandist. “Julian’s talent as a communicator and his advocacy were at least as significant as his biological work. He wrote widely on scientific topics for a popular audience, as well as on religion, philosophy and humanism, and even edited a volume on Aldous.”
- Thomas coined the term agnostic. “He held that evidence for God not based on empirical data was unknowable, and opposed the intellectual authority of organised religion.”
- Thomas was a hypocrite, using religion for personal benefit. “But he argued that belief was compatible with “an absence of theology”, and had Leonard baptised, with Darwin as his godfather.”
- Julian was a force for eugenic sterilization. “His stature as a scientist, and his family name, lent authority to calls for population control that left a long shadow.” See Bergman’s article about Paul Ehrlich’s argument for a “population bomb” (26 April 2019) that bombed.
Darwinism, Mathieson admits, was in eclipse in the late 1800s. One has to wonder whether Darwinism would have survived on its own without Huxley’s conspiratorial efforts to promote it. While not accepting the details of Darwin’s theory itself, Thomas Huxley saw in Darwinism an opportunity to “shape the direction of Victorian science” by wresting it away from theologians and giving it to agnostics, atheists and materialists like Spencer and Tindall. Huxley conspired with the X Club he formed, and adroitly used print media such as Nature to promote their views on “religion, philosophy and humanism” — a tactic that Julian continued.
Julian rescued Darwinism from further eclipse by helping find a way to resurrect it in “Neo-Darwinism” which, like the phrase “new and improved” in commercials, helped attract doubters back to King Charley’s monarchy. By the Darwin Centennial in 1959, Julian felt confident enough to preach a secular sermon to leading scientists of the day, stating that “all reality is a single process of evolution.” And yet the Huxleys, as Bashford and Mathieson had to admit, were also proponents of white supremacy, scientific racism and eugenics.
Janet Browne, in her excellent biography of Darwin, tells a great deal about Thomas Huxley’s efforts to sell evolutionary dogma as a secular religion. Even when Darwin died, Huxley was there to promote his friend to sainthood by scheming to get him buried in Westminster Abbey:
Dying was the most political thing Darwin could have done. As Huxley and others were aware, to bury him in Westminster Abbey would celebrate both the man and the naturalistic, law-governed science that he, and each member of the Darwinian circle, had striven, in his way, to establish. Such an accolade suited Huxley down to the ground. (p 496)
It’s clear that Darwin was more than just a friend. To Huxley, he was a tool to direct science away from natural theology and toward a replacement: a secular religion. The only “law-governed science” Huxley believed in was the Stuff Happens Law, a unique “law” devoid of metrics, equations or units. Huxley’s faith was even stronger than Darwin’s. He envisioned a type of evolution where chance was capable of performing miracles beyond the gradual ones that Darwin envisioned. To Huxley, “evolution occurred by saltation, or sudden mutational leaps.”
Thanks to the Huxleys, particularly Thomas and Julian, Big Science now has a secular religion, with its own creation myth, miracles and saints. But there are rumblings outside the cathedral (7 Aug 2015, 15 Nov 2019, Evolution News 13 Oct 2019, etc.)