An Intimate History of Evolution by Alison Bashford review – Darwin’s outriders | Science and nature books

C.harles Darwin was, by all accounts, a meek and conflict-averse man. In his written work he tended not to personally attack his adversaries. He rarely gave public lectures, and he never once participated in the fractious head-to-head debates that served as the public proving ground for scientific ideas in Victorian England.

Fortunately, the author of On the Origin of Species had outriders to do all that for him – most famously Thomas Henry Huxley, a mutton-chopped, square-headed, scientific pugilist who styled himself Darwinism’s “bulldog”. Huxley delighted in dragging down old orthodoxies, whether scientific or religious, in the name of evolution. When he went on a barnstorming lecture tour of north America, a continent Darwin never visited, the New York Daily Graphic featured a front page illustration of Huxley preparing to club Moses on the head from behind.

Huxley’s grandson, Julian Huxley, is less known outside scientific circles, but he was also a biologist, and a tireless populariser of Darwin’s theories in the 20th century. In programs for the BBC, in the pages of this newspaper, in more than 30 books, and as the head of public institutions such as London Zoo and later Unesco, he is partly responsible for the idea that the logic of evolution suffuses 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 wider Huxley family, the result of close examination of their writings and correspondence, it also serves as an intellectual history of Britain through the radical shifts in science and society that gave birth 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 the men as neatly bookending this era, “Janus-like”: Thomas Henry turning to natural science to make sense of the past in the late Victorian period; Julian, in the 20th century, looking towards a more uncertain future.

By roping in both men – and their sprawling extended family – Bashford can cover more than a century while maintaining continuity and an intimate scale. It helps that each is as near an exemplar of liberal English society at their time as one could ask for. Thomas Henry is a lower-class striver who climbs the newly built meritocratic ladder of professionalised science, and has immense faith in its project of demystifying the world. Yet the basic assumptions of his time – from gender relations to the benefits of empire – suit him well once cleared of religious and reactionary cobwebs.

Eton-education Julian is more flexible and fallible. He flits among the newly created jobs of the era, from film-making to world government. He is a committed scientist, but puzzles over where Darwinian thinking might fit into the emerging landscapes of psychology, art and culture. He has ill-advised affairs: one of these, with the 22-year-old Third Reich-curious journalist Viola Ilma, occurs at the same time the fortysomething Julian is writing a book debunking race science. Another, with the American poet May Sarton, ends when Sarton moves on to Julian’s wife, Juliette. In one of his books Julian fantasises about new forms of education and marriage that could bring solidity and sense to the welcome-but-confusing unfolding of modern desire.

The juxtaposition of eras generates many pleasing insights. Thomas Henry was an enthusiastic dissector of primate brains. He hoped to reveal similar structures across species that would challenge the status of man as a unique, godly creation. The body of the ape was a battleground 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, observing ape skeletons in private collections and preferentially receiving specimens shipped from expeditions at the frontiers of the empire. Thomas Henry hustled to get the material he needed, and eventually “annihilated” Owen via a hearts-and-minds campaign among the scientific elite that culminated in his 1863 book Man’s Place in Nature.

Some 70 years later, with close kinship between human and ape well established, it was the turn of psychology to further elucidate the common primate inheritance. Julian, as an ethologist and as the head of London Zoo from 1935 to 1942, witnessed and influenced “a methodological victory of culture, of mind and emotion over bones and brains”. He was a fan of primatologist Jane Goodall – she named one of her chimps “Huxley” – and defended the value of her work in explaining primate behavior on its own terms to traditional scientists who, like Thomas Henry, were more interested in anatomy.

The whole of British intellectual life seems accessible through some branch of this sprawling family tree. Thomas Henry’s son Leonard married into a literary dynasty through Julia Arnold – daughter of Thomas and niece of Matthew – and her efforts founding and running a girls school in Surrey shed light on the changing state of women’s education. Julia’s sister, Mary Augusta Ward, the novelist and anti-suffrage campaigner, is an influence on Thomas Henry’s late-life engagement with religious philosophy. Julian publishes books with HG Wells and coins the term “transhumanism”. Julian’s brother Aldous – of Brave New World fame – haunts the margins, bringing the bleeding edge of psychedelic and psychiatric culture to Huxley family life. There is the sense of an author having serious fun rifling through a rambling and well appointed family home, reading all the books and letters.

But Bashford pulls the threads tight late in the book. Questions of human difference – physical, mental and cultural – occupy the Huxleys even more than the average British liberal of their times. Thomas Henry sailed on scientific expeditions under an imperial flag, and the concept of the “savage” stayed with him. He correctly and repeatedly shot down the idea that there were different species of human as strictly defined by natural science, and yet he subscribed to – and often promoted – an idea of ​​civilisational development that envisaged a wholly non-scientific hierarchy of races.

The aim here isn’t to cancel Thomas Henry, but 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, not least as part of early efforts to professionalise 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, anti-racist internationalism. But he also believed that understanding evolution would give humankind the power to alter its own genetic destiny. He worried about overpopulation, and for decades sought to redeem eugenics from its fascist associations.

Bashford is too artful to present her subjects simply as avatars for their times. But by the end of Julian’s life, there is a sense of how completely things have changed. Thomas Henry’s project succeeded: science 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 far future. Late in 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 re-mystified.

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

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