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Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's…
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Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest

by Adrian Desmond

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Though not the earliest professional scientist by far (Owen, for example, sustained himself through his scientific work, and he was from the previous generation), Huxley is more on the professional side of the amateur-professional transition than not. As a young man who wanted to pursue science, Huxley faced a dilemma. In the early part of the century, few direct opportunities were available to the man of science. In 1838, when Huxley decided that he wanted to study “natural philosophy” as a boy of thirteen, he had to pursue a surgical apprenticeship because he had no money available to him. Adrian Desmond reports that Huxley wrote in his diary, “Philosophy can bake no bread; but it can procure for us God freedom & immortality. Which is now the more practical Philosophy or Economy?” (9). Huxley was later forced to join the Royal Navy as surgeon’s mate to avoid debt.

Huxley (along with his friend Tyndall) wanted to reshape science, wanted to make it a legitimate part of the everyday life of Britain. This required both a change in scientific education and scientific practice. For starters, “Science required factory discipline, ‘steady punctual uninterrupted work’. His scientific-artisan lineage was being forged, a work-bench mentality far from the leisured aristocratic ideal” (198). Education was one of Huxley's biggest fights (he famously exchanged words with Arnold on it), and he was very frustrated by the level of knowledge available in Britain. He once observed that a Roman centurion’s son in a contemporary university “would not meet with a single unfamiliar line of thought” (275).

According to Desmond, Huxley foresaw a science-led society being governed by “only knowledge well organized and well tested. And that made Nature’s own education the best guide… the only way forward was a competitive, technocratic society, with the science professionals at the helm” (210-11). But such an arrangement of society privileges those who master the profession of science, and means that advancing within science becomes advancing within society, making the desire for scientific knowledge something other than just a desire to discover unknown truths.

As Ursula DeYoung observes in her intellectual biography of Tyndall (A Vision of Modern Science), the outcome of Tyndall and company’s drive to professionalization was eventually a model of science that rejected the kind of science Tyndall had done; remembrances of him published after his death depict him as a necessary transitional figure in the development of science, not someone to be remembered for his own scientific work. The new science had been constructed along the vision of Huxley; Desmond mentions biology professors who claimed their whole discipline and vocation had been created by Huxley and then describes the changes of the century: “Huxley’s professionals in their ‘knowledge factories’ would become ‘pioneers in the exploration and settlement of new regions’” (627). But the employment of the factory metaphor pushes away from a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, the type of neutrality that Tyndall claimed for science in Fragments of Science for Unscientific People (1871). If the laboratory is a factory, then knowledge becomes a product—and making product becomes a means for promotion. The privileging of scientific knowledge means both that knowledge is no longer acquired for its own sake.

Tyndall’s transcendental materialism did not meet the requirements of the laboratory science era, which Desmond describes as having “a deadroom air… a dead, desiccated nature” (628). Huxley and Tyndall succeeded too well, in the end. In establishing science as a legitimate, professional pursuit, complete with various specializations, they carved it into its own sphere, removing it from the realm of “society,” and thus ultimately denying its ability to comment on the world.
  Stevil2001 | Jun 6, 2014 |
Darwin said of Thomas Huxley: “My good and kind agent for the propagation of the Gospels, i.e. the Devil’s gospel.” Huxley was known for lunging (figuratively) at his opponents. He was Darwin’s Rottweiler. No one stirred passions like Thomas Henry Huxley. Adrian Desmond (Darwin’s biographer) has written an absolutely fascinating biography of this man. “Huxley was one of the founders of the skeptical scientific twentieth century. We owe to him that enduring military metaphor, the ‘war’ of science against theology. He coined the word ‘agnostic’ and contributed to the West’s existential crisis.” Desmond’s biography is a contextual history of the man and his ideas. “How did England’s vicarage view of a designed, happy world of 1830 become the cold, causal, and Calvinistic evolutionary vista of 1870. . . . This is a story of Class, Power and Propaganda.” Huxley virtually created the profession of scientist. Much of his antagonism to the established church arose with the general “industrial Dissent,” a backlash of the underprivileged against the upper social strata typified by the Anglican hierarchy.

“Huxley boosted the ‘Scientists’ ‘ profile by trenching on the clergyman’s domain, raising the territorial tension by equating authority with technical expertise.” The English schools of 1870 rejected science as “useless and dehumanizing.” Their world was constructed around the classics and theology. The universities were “finishing schools” for prosperous Anglicans.” Huxley’s great feat was persuading society that science was essential to an industrial nation.

Huxley did not begin hating religion, but the experience of his youth as an apprentice drug-grinder who wandered through the poverty-stricken, rat infested, sewage-laden London of 1841 where children were literally starving in front of him made him question the validity of a religion that had failed to help these people. Huxley spent several years studying at Charing Cross Hospital on scholarship. The honor came from successful competition on a very hard exam sponsored by the Apothecaries Guild. He was the ultimate academic and could often be found dissecting corpses past normal hours. Corpses were plentiful: the squalid poor who could not be allowed in the front door for treatment of mere starvation, arrived often by the back door for the morgue. At the end of his studies he was considerably in debt, having had to pay for food and lodging, so he went to sea as surgeon's mate on the recommendation of a friend. The ship was the Rattlesnake, whose captain was as interested as Huxley in scientific observation.

Regretfully, the numbers of books he purchased for the voyage added to his debt. On any long voyage, one has a great deal of time to speculate about things, and Huxley began moving away from the orthodox. “It is not what we believe, but why we believe it. Moral responsibility lies in diligently weighing the evidence. We must actively doubt; we have to scrutinize our views, not take them on trust. No virtue attached to blindly accepting orthodoxy, however ‘venerable’ . . . .”

Huxley remained a devotee of reason and intellect, but he was not anti-religion. “My screed,” he wrote, “was meant as a protest against Theology & Parsondom . . . both of which are in my mind the natural and irreconcilable enemies of Science. Few see it but I believe we are on the Eve of a new Reformation and if I have a wish to live thirty years, it is that I may see the foot of Science on the necks of her Enemies. But the new religion will not be a worship of the intellect alone.” He meant to retain the moral core, the ethics of love and duty, but stripping Christian mythic excrescences. “In his own pugilistic way, he was proving that evolutionary heterodoxy did not equal moral delinquency.”

Huxley was a brilliant lecturer whose perorations became famous. It was common practice for experts in shorthand to take down the words of a speaker and rush them into print, a sort of piracy, as Huxley received no royalties, but the fabulously successful little books did much to popularize Darwin’s ideas. Perhaps Desmond overstates Huxley’s triumph of rationalism over darkness for, as reviewer James Kincaid said in his review in The New York Times, the “contemporary United States seems to me about as skeptical, scientific and agnostic as a 10th century tribe of frogworshipers.” ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
This is a thorough biography of the life of one of the most important scientists of the 19th century (in fact, the man who first used the term "scientist" to describe a profession). It was Huxley, even more than Darwin himself, who spread the idea of natural selection to the masses. Desmond does an excellent job of making Huxley come alive to the reader. The book drags in places, especially during Huxley's youth and Rattlesnake voyage. To me, the most interesting part is Huxley's championing of Darwin's views, and his endless feud with Owen. ( )
  jfetting | May 23, 2008 |
I read "Huxley" after "Darwin" (also by Adrian Desmond) and enjoyed it even more.

Huxley had none of the privileged background that Darwin enjoyed, working his way up by necessity, a fascinating struggle against social adversity. He was a brilliant man in his own right, and yet he is only known (if at all) as "Darwin's Bulldog", which is a shame.

Darwin sailed the world on the "Beagle" but Huxley joined the "Rattlesnake" - which is an amusing comparison of their characters. Without men like Huxley, who were prepared to stand up and support Darwin's ideas, no-one today would have heard of Charles Darwin.

The book captures Huxley brilliantly, his friendship, constrasts and similarities with Darwin, and the social and moral harnesses of the age. ( )
  richardtaylor | Sep 27, 2006 |
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Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest combines Adrian Desmond's previously published two-volume biography into one. Please do not combine with either of its constituent works (Huxley: The Devil's Disciple and Huxley: Evolution's High Priest).
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0738201405, Paperback)

T. H. Huxley (1825–1895) was Darwin’s bloody-fanged bulldog. His giant scything intellect shook a prim Victorian society; his “Devil’s gospel” of evolution outraged. He put “agnostic” into the vocabulary and cave men into the public consciousness. Adrian Desmond’s fiery biography with its panoramic view of Dickensian life explains how this agent provocateur rose to become the century’s greatest prophet.Synoptic in its sweep and evocative in its details, Desmond’s biography reveals the poverty and opium-hazed tragedies of young Tom Huxley’s life as well as the accolades and triumphs of his later years. The drug-grinder’s apprentice knew sots and scandals and breakdowns that signaled a genius close to madness. As surgeon’s mate on the cockroach-infested frigate Rattlesnake, he descended into hell on the Barrier Reef, but was saved by a golden-haired girl in the penal colony.Huxley pulled himself up to fight Darwin’s battles in the 1860s, but left Darwin behind on the most inflammatory issues. He devasted angst-ridden Victorian society with his talk of ape ancestors, and tantalized and tormented thousands-from laborers to ladies of society, cardinals to Karl Marx—with his scintillating lectures. Out of his provocations came our image of science warring with theology. And out of them, too, came the West’s new faith-agnosticism (he coined the new word).Champion of modern education, creator of an intellectually dominant profession, and president of the Royal Society, in Desmond’s hands Huxley epitomizes the rise of the middle classes as the clawed power from the Anglican elite. His modern godless universe, intriguing and terrifying, millions of years in the making, was explored in his laboratory at South Kensington; his last pupil, H. G. Wells, made it the foundation of twentieth-century science fiction.Touching the crowning achievements and the crushing depths of both the man and his times, this is the epic story of a courageous genius whose life summed up the social changes from the Victorian to the modern age. Written with enormous zest and passion, Huxley is about the making of our modern Darwinian world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:31 -0400)

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"T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) was Darwin's bloody-fanged bulldog. His giant scything intellect shook a prim Victorian society; his "Devil's gospel" of evolution outraged. He put "agnostic" into the vocabulary and cave men into the public consciousness. Adrian Desmond's fiery biography with its panoramic view of Dickensian life explains how this agent provocateur rose to become the century's greatest prophet." "Synoptic in its sweep and evocative in its details, Desmond's biography reveals the poverty and opium-hazed tragedies of young Tom Huxley's life as well as the accolades and triumphs of his later years." "Huxley pulled himself up to fight Darwin's battles in the 1860s, but left Darwin behind on the most inflammatory issues. He devastated angst-ridden Victorian society with his talk of ape ancestors, and tantalized and tormented thousands - from laborers to ladies of society, cardinals to Karl Marx - with his scintillating lectures. Out of his provocations came our image of science warring with theology. And out of them, too, came the West's new faith - agnosticism (he coined the word)." "Champion of modern education, creator of an intellectually dominant profession, and president of the Royal Society, in Desmond's hands Huxley epitomizes the rise of the middle classes as they clawed power from the Anglican elite. His modern godless universe, intriguing and terrifying, millions of years in the making, was explored in his laboratory at South Kensington; his last pupil, H. G. Wells, made it the foundation of twentieth-century science fiction."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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