The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution

  • By Alison Bashford
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 576 pp.

A sweeping, intelligent look at a trailblazing family.

The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution

“The layers of Huxley introspection were endless,” writes historian Alison Bashford in her deftly crafted biography of this illustrious British family. Throughout The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution, Bashford shows the impact of Huxley introspection on science, literature, religion, society, and one another for almost two centuries.

Bashford focuses her book on two members of the family: patriarch Thomas H. Huxley and his grandson Julian. From Thomas’ birth in 1825 (he died in 1895) to Julian’s death in 1975 (born in 1887), Bashford proposes “thinking of them as one long-lived man, 1825-1975, whose vital dates bookended the colossal shifts in world history.” Both were prolific, inquisitive, creative, provocative, and famous. They took science beyond the bench to consider big questions around the origins of life, the linkages between humans and animals, and the relationships within our own species.

If you’re like me, you may know their surname without knowing why they were so famous in their time. A nutshell description does justice to neither, but let’s set up their bona fides. Thomas, an early and ardent proponent of Darwin, became a well-known — indeed, celebrity — author, lecturer, and teacher. He set forth such now-accepted ideas as the similarities between the brains of humans and apes, and the evolution of birds from dinosaurs.

Julian, after a brief stint in academia, held a multitude of public-facing positions, including head of the London Zoo and first director of UNESCO. In these roles and through extensive use of the media (print, radio, film, and TV), Bashford lauds him as an “adventurous” science communicator with prescient messages on the need for ecosystem conservation.

Yet the Huxleys started modestly. Thomas’ family was respectable but financially floundering, and Thomas was essentially self-educated. After an apprenticeship to become a physician, he needed work and signed up, in 1846, as an assistant surgeon on a long voyage to explore the South Pacific. Although the ship employed a naturalist, Huxley found he greatly preferred the in-depth examination of marine creatures to treating his shipmates’ illnesses. On a port call in Australia, he met his wife, Henrietta, and courted her for eight years until he felt he had enough of a financial cushion to marry. Although she had more formal education than Thomas, she, too, had a complicated childhood. “The match,” Bashford observes, “provided a fresh starting point for a new dynasty.”

By the 1850s, the Huxleys were well established back in England, and their children and grandchildren could expect to have the best education possible. Leonard (Thomas’ oldest surviving son and Julian’s father) preferred the arts to science, but Julian’s scientific leanings were recognized and encouraged when he was still a child. According to Bashford, grandmother Henrietta “had her eye on Julian as the Inheritor.” In a tangible manifestation of this expectation, he, among all the grandchildren, was bequeathed the bulk of his grandfather’s substantial library.

Not that other members of their circle were slouches. We encounter a raft of other 19th- and 20th-century Huxleys, not to mention scientific Darwins, literary Arnolds (from Julian’s maternal lineage), and intellectual heavyweights in each era. The most famous Huxley to American readers is probably Aldous, younger brother of Julian and author of Brave New World.

But the talent extended to Julian’s mother, Julia, who created a progressive school for young women in 1902 that still operates today; his wife, Juliette, an author and intellectual who may have accomplished more if not compelled to manage her husband’s life; his half-brother Andrew, recipient of a Nobel Prize for Physiology; and others. The Huxleys also had their share of health tragedies. Siblings in several generations died young by illness or suicide. Both Thomas and Julian had significant mental breakdowns, as did other relatives.

Bashford structured this book by theme, interweaving Thomas and Julian throughout. The core explores ideas related to animals (part II) and humans (part III), with smaller sections on genealogies (part I) and the spirits (part IV). A professor and director of the Laureate Centre for History and Population at the University of South Wales, Bashford has a deep understanding of her subjects that makes this ambitious structure work, but it requires a reader’s attention.

For example, one paragraph combines highlights from four of Julian’s trips to Africa from the 1940s to the 1970s, along with encounters with the first prime minister of Ghana, the emperor of Ethiopia, and Jane Goodall. In most chapters, she presents Thomas’ and his generation’s concepts, then shows how Julian and his ilk accepted, adapted, furthered, and/or rebutted these concepts.

While both men were forward thinkers for their time, Bashford makes clear that some of their views are, or should be, obsolete, such as their Eurocentrism. Julian had a complicated connection to eugenics, which he fiercely tried to disassociate with Nazism while still advocating that it could be used for “a better future.” His use of psychedelic drugs and justification of marital infidelity may be other points for moral debate today.

The 75 or so images in the book strengthen the narrative, including photos from the Huxleys’ private collection, illustrations extracted from books and letters, and a comprehensive family tree. With the book’s subtitle — An Intimate History of Evolution — Alison Bashford makes clear that just as evolution can explain populations over the course of millennia, it can also shed light on a family like the Huxleys within the span of a few generations.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a consultant writer and editor for the National Academy of Sciences. She also writes about history, with a focus on 19th-century social history. She is currently working on a book about the Civil War and Reconstruction focused on Alexandria, Virginia.

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