Evolution of science

18th April 1997 at 01:00
John Durant shows why T H Huxley was so central to the Victorians

HUXLEY, EVOLUTION'S HIGH PRIEST By Adrian Desmond Michael Joseph Pounds 20

It's rare for a scientist to be given the accolade of a major biography, and rarer still for that biography to extend to two hefty volumes. In Huxley: The Devil's Disciple (1994), Adrian Desmond traced Thomas Henry Huxley's rise from relatively modest beginnings to a position as one of Victorian Britain's leading public figures. In this volume, he takes up the story in 1870 and recounts in vivid detail the last 25 years of Huxley's life.

The shape of Huxley's scientific life and times are nicely captured by the twin titles of this major work. For roughly the first half of his career, The Devil's Disciple was a young Turk championing the cause of science against the established orthodoxies of the day. By around 1870, however, both Huxley and science had clearly "arrived". Thereafter, Evolution's High Priest rapidly assumed a position of pre-eminence with a new establishment that was determined to give science pride of place in British national life.

More than anyone else, Huxley embodied the Victorian transition from a culture dominated by the ideas and institutions of organised religion to one dominated by the ideas and institutions of science. At every stage, Huxley and his supporters faced stern opposition from those with a vested interest in the old order. Enormous power, as well as wealth, was vested in the Church; and nowhere did those who held this power give it up without a struggle.

Huxley was the perfect complement to Darwin. Darwin was the greater scientist by far, but he was also cautious, conservative and reclusive by nature - hardly the man to lead a scientific movement, let alone a major intellectual and social transformation. Huxley made comparatively few important contributions to scientific research (and appropriately enough, these scarcely figure in Desmond's account); his real contribution was as chief crusader for the cause of science itself. In this crusade, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was Huxley's single most powerful weapon. Ironically, Huxley seems never to have understood Darwin's theory particularly well; but for all that, he was supremely skilful at using it to make the case for a purely secular science, free from the constraints of religious prejudice and dogma.

Huxley's energy and ambition are astonishing to behold. Eminent Victorians are famous for having been workaholics, and Huxley was the prototypical case. For months and even years at a stretch, he appears to have rushed from research to teaching and examining, from teaching and examining to public lecturing and writing, and from public lecturing and writing to public administration, the creation of new institutions such as the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, and the provision of science advice to Government. Every so often, the pressure would tell and he would lapse into depressive illness; but on each occasion, he emerged re-energised and ready to carry forward the campaign for science.

Desmond completes his biography of Huxley in a style that we have come to recognise, not just from his first volume on Huxley but also from his and Jim Moore's passionate biography of Charles Darwin. The style is, in Moore's words, a "cine theory of narration". This phrase, Desmond tells us,"was meant to evoke a highly-mediated celluloid construct, where the camera pans across the stage (context) to catch actors reading lines, while pulling focus periodically to reveal lavish 'sets' which give their words meaning".

In practice, what this means is that all of the great themes of Victorian social history - industrialisation, the rise of the professional, the decline of the "gentleman", the uneasy co-existence of affluence and poverty, the struggle for democracy, moral earnestness, and much else besides - are continually present in the narrative. As we read on, we come to see Huxley not so much as an individual (and certainly not as an isolated genius), but as an embodiment of those powerful economic, social and political forces that shaped 19th century Britain.

At times the narrative feels a bit like a BBC historical drama; and if on occasion the visual banquet is a bit too rich, this is generally a small price to pay for the prize of seeing how Victorian science was simultaneously created by and creative of Victorian society. As Desmond himself suggests, his is "a book about Class and Power".

Amid all of the hectic hustle and bustle of his working life, Huxley himself is not always clearly visible. He was heavily dependent on the stability provided by his wife Nettie, but although he was often eloquent in print he was also for the most part evasive about his innermost thoughts and feelings. He was reluctant to provide autobiographical notes to accompany his lectures and articles, and when he did so these were "a pastiche of anecdotes and smokescreens through which he remained invisible.Nothing was given away. "

Huxley may not have been the most instantly likeable of the eminent Victorians, but he was undoubtedly one of the most impressive. For a generation, he dominated the English intellectual scene in a way that few others have managed to do either before or since. Desmond's biography is to be thoroughly recommended. It brings to life a man whose name was practically synonymous with science itself; and in doing so, it illuminates the emergence of the kind of society we live in today.

John Durant is assistant director (head of science communication) at the Science Museum, London

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today