Over at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, WA, 19th-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley is poised for cancellation, as the administration contemplates (and will probably enact) changing the name of its well known Huxley College of the Environment, listed as one of the Unversity’s “notable degree programs“.
Famously known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his defense of evolutionary theory when Darwin was too shy to appear in public to defend his own ideas, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) is also known to the layperson as the man who defended Darwin against Bishop Wilberforce in the famous 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate, though stories of what really happened in that exchange are elusive.
Like Darwin, Huxley was a “man of his time”, who made some sexist and racist statements that today would be considered intolerable. But Huxley was also a great popularizer of science (he spent man years teaching courses to working people as well as defending Darwinism), an abolitionist, a leader and administrator of British science, and a reformer of schools. Although I’m biased, I’d say his positive contributions of science outweighted his bigoted remarks, and he seems to have had little influence on eugenics, as there was no British movement that led to the practice of eugenics, nor does anyone, as far as I know, cite Huxley in support of eugenics. Eugenics was practiced in Nazi Germany, and not with the excuse of evolution, and to a lesser degree in the U.S., promoted by American scientists.
In a document on the WWU President’s website defending the criticism of Huxley as a racist, this is noted (misspellings and all):
Even though Thomas Huxley made significant contributions in the field of biology, he also had significant contributions to scientific racism. He was a polygenist: someone who is of the belief that all races evolved from different origins instead of coming from one homosapien. This is not only scientifically disproven, but also a racist mindset, and an argument that one of his “archrivals” at the time called Richard Owen attempted to refute with evidence that we all are the same species that evolved from the same homosapien thousands of years ago. Huxley won the argument, and it is historian Nicolaas Rupke’s thesis that this argument between Huxley and Owen in which Huxley’s “deeply racist, polygenist viewpoint” won lead to building the scientific racism of the early 20th century.
It’s not true that Huxley was a “polygenist”; like Darwin, he correctly believed in a single evolutionary origin of humans: both were monogenists.) Huxley believed, correctly, that different ethnic groups (then called “races”) evolved in geographic isolation from one another following migration to new places. But, like Darwin, Huxley also thought that whites were on the top of the racial hierarchy.
An oft-cited example of Huxley’s bigotry is what’s called “Huxley’s Rule,” which, as the Panda’s Thumb article below explains:
Huxley’s “sin” is to have held many of the same views regarding race as most of his contemporaries. More specifically, according to the historian Nicolaas Rupke, Huxley
formulated what became known as ‘Huxley’s Law’ or ‘Huxley’s Rule,’ which stated that the distance in biological, evolutionary development between the highest and lowest humans is greater than the distance between the lowest humans and the highest apes (chimpanzee, gorilla), thus degrading native peoples across the British Empire.
True, as nearly as I can determine, but the term Huxley’s Law is not in common use and appears to have been coined by Prof. Rupke himself, here. Indeed, the distinguished philosopher of biology, David Hull, has noted in a book review that “nothing today goes by the name of Huxley’s Law.”
Huxley also said, “It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognisant [sic] of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.” This statement and the “law” above are insupportable, and rightly condemned today. They were ubiquitous sentiments of the time, even among abolitionists like Darwin and Huxley, and it is these things that have led to the call to change the name of Huxley College.
But Darwin was also an abolitionist who also made racist and sexist statements not so different from those of Huxley. If you are going to “cancel” Huxley in this way, then, as Matt Young wrote in the Panda’s Thumb see below), Darwin’s cancellation may be in the offing too—something I predicted a while back but was poo-pooed for saying. Now that doesn’t look so improbable.
To summarize the fracas, because of “the list of demands of Black students [at WWU]”, the University commissioned a group of university professors and other school members to examine the possibility of changing the name of Huxley College. As the report said, “students of color have repeatedly identified the harm they experience from the name.” The University report was designed to see if another name would “foster a sense of belonging and inclusion” since “Huxley contributed to upholding values that have made education less inclusive, and his words harm Black, Indigenous, and other students of color at our institution ” The report says virtually nothing about Huxley’s positive accomplishments.
The full report of WWU, which involved the possibility of renaming several WWU units, can be accessed as a pdf here (see pp 5-13 for the Huxley College of the Environment). There are some scientific misstatements in this section, including the false claim that genetics research has “disproven the idea that intragroup [intraracial] difference exceeds intergroup differences.” No, that idea was not disproven, but rather supported: variation within groups far exceeds variation between groups [with “groups” being the classic named “races”].
In response, over at the evolution website Panda’s Thumb, Matt Young has a brief dissection and critique of WWU’s report and conclusion.
Young begins by citing another anti-Huxley source:
Ask Thomas Henry Huxley if you do not believe Marc Antony. According to an article in AS Review, Thomas Huxley: Once Respected, Now Rejected, a big brouhaha has erupted over the name of the Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. The issue is important, because if people succeed in “canceling” Huxley, possibly Darwin will be next.
And some of Young’s points:
- Huxley’s Law, which wasn’t named by Huxley, is no longer mentioned in biology. It’s dead.
- The scholars evaluating the name weren’t asked about Huxley’s positive accomplishments. Young:
The president’s office at Western Washington University has appointed a task force and solicited comments regarding renaming the College. They asked three questions:
What role did Huxley’s beliefs on race occupy in his intellectual works, his public statements, and his life as a whole? Were they remarkable in the context of the time and place in which he lived?
Did Huxley’s scientific work contribute, either in support or opposition, to the development of scientific racism and Social Darwinism, both during his lifetime and after? What portion of his total work did these contributions occupy, and how significant are those contributions in supporting or refuting the ideology of scientific racism?
What harmful institutional practices, policies, or general practical consequences, if any, can be specifically traced to Huxley’s views?
Consistently with the quotation from Shakespeare, above, they did not ask a single question about Huxley’s many accomplishments, which, I take it, are to be interred with his bones.
- Most of the academics evaluating Huxley were “generally favorable”, with two even noting, snarkily, that WWU itself was named after a slaveholder. From Young:
I read the submissions by Prof. Rupke, who is a professor of history at Washington and Lee University; Paul White of the Darwin Correspondence Project of the University of Cambridge; Sherrie Lyons of Empire State College; Michael Reidy, Professor of History, Montana State University; and an article in the Seattle Times, Reconsider cancel-culture target at WWU, by Steve Hollenhorst and Wayne Landis, both professors and administrators at Huxley.
The submissions that I read, save that of Prof. Rupke and the AS Review article, seem to me to be generally favorable toward Huxley.
- Finally, two scientist (granted, members of Huxley College) gave a very favorable evaluation of Huxley. As Young writes:
Cattiness aside, I would like to let Profs. Steve Hollenhorst [Dean of Huxley College] and Wayne Landis [Professor and Director of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology] get the last word [this is from their op-ed in The Seattle Times]:
The distinguished historians WWU asked to look at the issue overwhelmingly concluded the claims just don’t hold up. Huxley’s early writings did reflect the prevailing bigotry and prejudice of Victorian society, although even then to a lesser degree than his scientific peers. By the 1860s, he became a vocal abolitionist and by the end of his life called for universal equal rights regardless of race or gender. The beautiful irony of his scientific work on human diversity is [that] it ultimately leads him to see the oneness, and equality, of all humanity.
. . . Huxley later expanded these ideas in his great battles against social Darwinism and religion, which he saw as grounded in the dark forces of authority, bigotry and superstition. He feared they led to social order based on competition, subjugation and inequality. In this he was prescient, for indeed both have been used to justify not only laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism, but also colonialism, eugenics, racism and eventually fascism.
. . . It’s telling he didn’t teach at Cambridge or Oxford, but rather working-class institutions, the Royal School of Mines and later Imperial College, where he brought science and industry together to solve societal problems. He gave hundreds of free public lectures to common folk. As an early advocate for public education, he was elected to the London School Board, where he worked to bring a decent education to ordinary people and implemented the first training for science teachers. In other words, he’d make an exemplary WWU faculty member today.
. . . What would Huxley say about his legacy? First, he’d commend us for interrogating it, especially the brave students, who without power and risking reproach, stood up to raise the issue. But he’d then remind them that “it is not what we believe, but why we believe it. Moral responsibility lies in diligently weighing the evidence.” And to all of us he’d likely say, “learn what is true in order to do what is right.” Now that the question is before us, address it with honesty and integrity.
. . . Don’t be fooled. Huxley’s message isn’t privileged. It isn’t elitist. It isn’t racist. It’s timeless. The values he fought for are at the core of public higher education to this day. Far from causing harm, we are in a better place because of Thomas H. Huxley.
Now of course I’m not completely objective about this, for I don’t want the history of my field erased (and make no mistake, removing Huxley’s name and demonizing him in a report is erasure). Nor do I want the mob to move on to Darwin, whose “sins” are qualitatively the same as Huxley’s. Huxley and Darwin made positive contributions to evolutionary biology, and those should be recognized.
As I’ve said before, when I’m thinking about whether a statue should be removed or a building renamed, or other forms of cancellation contemplated, I look at the answers to two questions.
1.) Is the individual being honored for the positive things he/she did in life?
2.) Do those positive things outweigh the negative things that the individual did?
In the case of Thomas Henry Huxley, I find the answer to both questions to be “yes”. (Remember the diverse areas in which Huxley made advances.) Yes, some students can complain that they are “harmed” by the name of the school, though in this case I find that relatively trivial because offense, real or pretended, doesn’t outweigh Huxley’s positive contributions to science and education. Nor do I think that eliminating the name “Huxley College of the Environment” will do much to foster racial equality in this country. It is a purely performative gesture designed to placate those students who find offense everywhere.
But the die is cast. I know of no case lately in which a name change proposed because someone was bigoted at a time when everyone was bigoted was not enacted. Huxley is pretty much toast. What a shame, and what a blight on WWU!
And if they decide to change the name of the Huxley College of the Environment, they’d damn well better change the name of Western Washington University! After all, Huxley was an abolitionist, but George Washington was an actual slaveholder.