Biologist and educator Thomas Henry Huxley about to get canceled

August 9, 2021 • 9:15 am

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.

Here’s Huxley:

38 thoughts on “Biologist and educator Thomas Henry Huxley about to get canceled

  1. Why did WWU name one of their colleges after Huxley in the first place? What substantive connection did WWU have to Huxley? None as far as I can tell from histories like this one.

    It seems ungrateful (among other things) to adopt Huxley’s name as a branding tactic in 1970 (when the college was named), then throw it away when the cultural winds blow from a different direction fifty years later.

  2. // “students of color have repeatedly identified the harm they experience from the name.”//

    offs, when will you people grow the hell up. If you let mere words control you, mere words will control you.

  3. Thanks for calling attention to my earlier PT article! Joe Felsenstein and I will post a short report on the Legacy Review Task Force’s report to the President later today. In our post, we will, in effect, ask readers to crowd-source a response. Like you, we are dismayed that as important a scientist as Huxley will be erased for holding views that were common to virtually all his contemporaries, when in fact Huxley was well out in front of most.

  4. Maybe Facebook should introduce an “I cancelled” button now, so that people can express their “feelings” in a way analogous to prayer…since such cancellation does just as much actual good in the real world at addressing actual, difficult problems, as clicking on an “I prayed” button would.

  5. It is now widely accepted that the common prejudice against people of colour is really about Class, and not Race, and so will diminish in time. Integration is moving rapidly in Europe. In the last 20 years so many minorities have dropped the distinctive ‘black’ accent…which is the single most important step towards greater equality.
    If ever one has lingering, and unfair, prejudices concerning black people there are brilliant examples of black super-intelligence. I particularly like the black American journalist, Joy Reid, who has a mind like whirling razor-blades. It is truly sad, but understandable, that people like Joy avoid politics. Imagine her debating Trump…!

    1. “It is now widely accepted that the common prejudice against people of colour is really about Class, and not Race, and so will diminish in time. ”

      Do you really believe that? Why are so many lower class people the most bigoted with respect to race?

      1. Perhaps, if that is the case, because being near the bottom of the barrel generates in some the desire to push some other group under them and even closer to the bottom?

        However the “…so will diminish in time” is not at all clear.

        1. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

          Lyndon B. Johnson

          1. “If we were to wake up some morning and find that everyone was the same race, creed and color, we would find some other cause for prejudice by noon.”

            — Howard Aiken

      2. You seem to be exhibiting a little class prejudice of your own there! My experience in the UK over 27 years was that in the poorer areas of the north, and in the east end of London, there was remarkably little friction between immigrants and British-born whites. The disdain with which the upper middle classes treated both was one of the reasons why I have spent the last 36 years in Canada.

    2. “I particularly like the black American journalist, Joy Reid, who has a mind like whirling razor-blades.”

      True enough. Perhaps she can also develope the skill of letting guests, with whom she does not agree, finish at least one sentence before interrupting them. But, this seems to be the state of American civility, at least in the bloviating U.S. television media, and one may be asking too much.

      1. I got the same impression. Maybe I haven’t seen enough of her interviews, but in the ones I saw, she was “brilliant” in the sense that Bill O’Reilly was brilliant on Fox.

  6. In this instance, it is abundantly clear that cancellation of the name is not appropriate. The defense above is more than persuasive. But those historical facts that acquit Huxley won’t change The Cancellers minds, since a long list of facts don’t outweigh a snippet of emotion and a chance to Do Something.

    It’s like that recent Family Circus cartoon. “What do we say to get what we want?”

  7. Suggesting a methodology to determine who should be cancelled and who shouldn’t…give them a grade on the moral arc relative to the time they lived.

    If civilization has truly been improving morally and ethically, the so-called moral arc, then clearly it is difficult for those who lived in the past to not appear unethical on many issues in comparison to us, the beknighted moderns. But, we should be able to plot, for any given person and for any specific moral issue, where they placed on the moral arc of improvement into the present, relative to the time they lived in.

    Using such a method, there will be individuals who held positions that seem backward to us today, but were well in keeping with the respectable standards of the time. There will be folks that held positions that were stretching the limits of progression in their day, but would seem to be bog standard ethical in modern times (such as abolitionists in the 1830s).

    People who might legitimately deserve cancellation would be those who held positions on important issues that concern us that, even in their time, would have been considered retrograde. Henry Ford’s strange antisemitism might qualify, for instance.

    This could be included along side an evaluation of the net effect of the person’s contributions.

    I don’t know, just throwing this out there.

  8. We seem to be sliding into a “let’s not honor anyone” era. All buildings, schools, organizations will be given bland “descriptive” names (“School of Insect, Fish, Reptile, Small Mammal, Large Mammal and Historical Life Forms … Building”) or totally made up names unrelated to any known culture (as Robert Klein sang “[P.S.] 80, oh 80, your name will rise above …. Your name will rise above 79!”).
    I hope Joe Biden survives to serve another term so we have a chance to outgrow this stupidity. Does that seem like a non sequitur? I mean it sincerely – it will take time to move the current mob of neo-confederates out of power/media and allow their followers to recover their brain cells enough to know that fire is hot, up is not down, etc. Having a normal guy out front helps that.

    1. “…schools…….given bland “descriptive” names…”
      Actually, though the cancellation of Huxley is itself really wrong, that quote might not be a bad idea. It’s pretty clear that those pushing this, and others agreeing, are almost entirely ignorant about Huxley. When this is the case for most people encountering such an attempted honour, what’s the point in having it in the first place? There’s no need for ridiculously long names which you sarcastically suggest. ‘School of Multicellularity’–might get some people to try to learn about a word of which they have been ignorant.

      With tongue in cheek, maybe ‘Faculty of Jockstrap Science’ —except you’d need to add ‘Sportsbra’ of course.

  9. “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. ” ” I must protest language like this on behalf of the Humoristx Community: it makes satire well nigh impossible.

    Nonetheless, habit compels me to suggest some name changes to Western Washington U. First of all, “Washington” has to go, of course. I suggest that this name be replaced by the holiest of nouns, Inclusion. And to be sure of avoiding harm, “Huxley” should be replaced by “Harmless”. There it is: “Harmless College of the Environment” at “Western Inclusion University”, fairly dances off the tongue. But wait: “Environment” might still be problematic, since the natural environment is lamentably deficient in D/E/I officials and facilitators. Maybe all subject matter should be eliminated, so that Western Inclusion University can concentrate on the primary function stated in its name.

    1. Also “Western” is colonialist and invokes settler culture, so I think the name might have to be “Mid-longitude Inclusion University.”

  10. … but the term Huxley’s Law is not in common use and appears to have been coined by Prof. Rupke himself …

    An instance of Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, per which scientific discoveries tend not to be named after their original discoverer. (True to form, Stigler’s Law of Eponymy was not discovered by the person after whom it is named, U of C statistics professor Stephen Stigler, but by sociologist Robert K. Merton.)

  11. Joe Felsenstein and I have just posted a short article here:

    Besides providing a link to the report to the president, we request help responding to the attack. In particular we have posed 5 questions, but you may also submit comments and advice that are not directly related to our questions. In addition, if you think that we should not oppose the name change, please tell us why.

  12. On one hand, its a pretty simple problem, we form of committee, and come up with a creed along the lines of “I believe in the Blank Slate, I believe that there are no biological differences between the sexes, I believe there are no sexes,” etc. and end with the recitation the assertion that “I renounce the power of Satan and all his works, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.” Initiates will recite the creed and then be dunked in water, and then you can name buildings and make statutes in their honor, and non-initiates will have their effigies destroyed and all their discredited heretical works burned.

    We will have to have an on-going committee as more and more sexual identities and pronouns and the like are invented and rules promulgated about who is the hater and who is the sacred victim of oppression, so the creed will be an on-going evolving process, and committee members will be specially selected and will have symbols of their office like some kind of special cane. There will also be lists of words you cannot say unless you are a Brahmin, and people who say those words will be socially punished and members of our secular association will perform public rites to propriate the benevolent powers of anti-racism lest they become angry and inflict diseases. There will also be kneeling and other collective displays of piety.

    It will be a universal movement, even though there will be a sexual, racial and educational hierarchy within it (it will be equitable, each to her station, not equal), and we will call it the true universal people or community, which if we use funny old languages to make it sound important would be the Ecclesia Katholikos or something.

    Darwin wasn’t false, he is just discredited, G– magically made everyone the same despite different selective pressures, and that is why his books should be burned as well as the works of evil bigots like Huxley. The very idea that isolated human populations on different continents over thousands of years might evolve differently is violence, and any theory (like Darwin’s) that holds that out as a theoretical possibility must be removed from the curriculum. Because if its possible, someone could do a study, and if someone did a study, it might be verified, and if it were verified, then the benevolent powers would undoubtedly chuck an asteroid at our planet and destroy us all for our wickedness (or at very least, a large chunk of the American South and Midwest). The world would end and all the demons that have been chained since the beginning of time would then be unleashed.

    Anyways, I am happy to see the way that America has risen from the ashes of Christian Fundamentalism and the Moral Majority to embrace empiricism, science, rationality and skepticism in this new age of enlightenment. Further, I am glad to this secular movement acts from the power centers of our society, government, corporations, foundations, education, even the military, and everyone has to pay to support it whether they believe it or not, almost like the Christian Church in the Byzantine Empire.

  13. Two important addenda to what Jerry, Matt Young, and Joe Felsenstein have written.

    First, Rupke, who is identified as the chief inquisitor of Huxley, is best known for being a partisan of Richard Owen, Huxley’s opponent in a number of scientific debates, most of which Huxley is generally conceded to have won. I read Rupke’s biography of Owen some years ago. It was a valiant, but ultimately failed, attempt to rehabilitate Owen. Although he found some nuance in and mitigation of Owen’s behavior, after I read the book I was able to conclude that the usual, unkind, characterization of Owen’s reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution is basically correct: Owen tried to both deny the truth of Darwin’s theory, and at the same time take credit for it. Owen’s view could, with only a bit of unfairness, be summed up as “Not only is Darwin wrong, but I thought of it first!”

    Thus, asking Rupke to evaluate Huxley is liking asking a failed defense attorney to evaluate the character of the successful prosecutor. This doesn’t mean that Rupke’s arguments must be wrong, but he is certainly the wrong person to go to for a disinterested evaluation of Huxley.

    Second, Huxley (and Darwin) went well beyond merely being abolitionists. (Slavery was abolished in most of the British Empire in the 1830s, before Huxley became a public figure.) Huxley and Darwin both joined the “Jamaica Committee”, a group formed by John Stuart Mill that sought the prosecution for murder of the British governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, for his bloody suppression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865. Many were killed by Eyre’s forces, including many executions of questionable legality, including of Paul Bogle (who did indeed lead the rebellion) and George William Gordon. The latter was a mixed-race businessman and member of the Jamaican assembly who was not involved in the rebellion, but was a sharp critic of Eyre’s policies. Bogle was a not a slave (there were none in Jamaica at that time), but a free subject of the Crown, and Gordon, as noted, was even a noted politician. Efforts to indict Eyre, and then a civil suit against him, ultimately failed. Bogle and Gordon are both honored today in Jamaica as members of the Order of National Heroes. (There are only 7 so honored.)

    This case was, if any, the litmus test for the British intelligentsia of its day. Liberals rallied to bring to justice those who had condoned and sanctioned the questionable use of force and executions, while conservatives supported Eyre.

    It is thus beyond comprehension that Huxley, one of the leading liberals of his day, should be condemned as beyond the pale by so-called “liberals” of today for his views on race, when he was, in fact, one of the most progressive of his time. It’s as though no one who wanted to bend the moral arc of history toward justice can be tolerated today, because bending it was not enough; it had to be snapped immediately to whatever position today’s self-appointed arbiters of righteousness demand.


    1. I was going to mention the role of T. H. Huxley (and Darwin) in condemning Eyre’s response to the Morant Bay Rebellion, but Greg beat me to it. The well-known figures who supported Eyre’s actions and contributed to his defense — consider Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson! — are shocking.

  14. Thanks to Jerry for this post, I think he’s right that, given that WWU Task Force report, the Huxley name is doomed. It needs to be read, it’s quite a mess.

    I might as well re-post the comment I posted over at the Panda’s Thumb, in a presumably vain attempt to clarify some of the mistakes in the Task Force report. Some of these things have been said by Coyne and others.

    [I was initially replying to another comment, then I read the Report and had to say more.]

    I doubt very much that Huxley’s (AFAICT very few) statements on race were all that “well-known” in the 1970s. It’s not like they had Google back then. I am reasonably well educated on the history of evolution, have been reading about it for decades, and never came across this stuff until the WWU controversy (although I never did a deep dive specifically on Huxley).

    The real path seems to be this: creationists dug up the Huxley quote, put it on various websites, where they were mostly ignored until picked and redeployed by a WWU student in the midst of the red-hot 2020 cultural battles about race & police violence, etc. This rather bizarre transmission from far-right quote-mining to far-left quote-mining is a weird phenomenon in itself — but seen in other places, e.g. with the “Fisher Must Fall” petition last year.

    Other topics: The historian Rupke’s thing about “Huxley’s Rule” seems to be his one-man campaign to take Huxley down a few notches in support of Rupke’s own favored historical figure, Richard Owen, whom Rupke wrote a biography of, and whom Rupke clearly sympathizes with against Huxley (who was a regular, vehement opponent of Owen). I think it’s fine to push back a bit on the default anti-Owenism that most Darwin fans have, but it will be quite weird if Rupke’s Owen work + right-wing creationist fundamentalists + left-wing social justice advocates end up teaming up to take down Huxley, despite Huxley himself being mostly a very progressive/revolutionary guy in actuality. The 2020s are a weird time.

    I think the opinion of this other historian, Paul White, that also commented for WWU, is key — and this is the reason why, ideally, a collection of historians should be called in to comment when these kinds of controversies arise:

    “Where the difficulty arises, is his belief in racial hierarchy, and in natural inequality. He makes the point very starkly in his popular essay, “Emancipation Black and White,” written in the aftermath of the American civil war (1865). The ‘negro’ is a man, a brother; he must not be enslaved, he must not be treated any differently, he must be granted equal rights, legal, political, and professional. Not because he is the equal of the white man, but because slavery and oppression degrade all men and impede civilisation. Equality of opportunity must be granted for civilisation to thrive. All races can and will improve; but they will not be equal in their achievements. It is an extremely polemical and curious essay. In fact only two pages address the emancipation of blacks, the rest considers the ‘woman question’, but with exactly the same conclusion. Women should have every opportunity afforded men in society, remove all natural impediments. Their true differences, strengths and weaknesses, will then be apparent.

    Were these views typical of his time? Not at all. They were far in advance of it; highly progressive, even radical. They were not simply views, but causes, and Huxley devoted a great deal of his career to them in the field of education reform. He campaigned tirelessly for universal education, for the introduction of science and other modern subjects to schools and universities, for a true ‘liberal education’ as well as technical education for the working classes. In doing so, he opposed some of the most entrenched ideological and institutional hierarchies in Britain at the time, those of class. In less outspoken ways, he also supported women’s causes in higher education, scientific education, medical training and certification. ”

    Source: Paul White report,

    Sadly, based on the recommendations of the WWU Task Force, it sure looks like the Huxley name is doomed:

    The Task Force report seems to have a lot of flaws:

    1. It really only quotes one side of the debate, totally ignoring Paul White’s report (despite naming him in the Acknowledgements amongst those thanked as “provided invaluable historical perspective”)

    2. The Task Force members expressing concern about Julian Huxley giving a talk near the college’s founding in 1969, because of his eugenics views, not noting that Huxley was (a) a famous anti-racist, lead author of probably the most important anti-racist book of the 1930s, the 1935 We Europeans, and his eugenics was of the mild “reform” type that represented the lingering vestiges of the movement that persisted after WW2 amongst (crucially) eugenicists who had explicitly & publicly criticized the Nazi movement & its version of eugenics before WW2 (Julian Huxley was one of these).

    3. The Report states:

    “In his essay, “On the Geographical Distributions of the Chief Modifications of Mankind,” T.H. Huxley contributed to the classification of the world into four supercategories of races, with subcategories, based primarily on their physical attributes.15 Genetic scientists have since disproved the notions of a “Black gene” or “White gene” and have disproven the idea that intragroup difference exceeds intergroup difference—establishing that race is a social, not biological, system.16”

    The concept of “gene” did not exist during TH Huxley’s lifetime, it is not relevant to his understanding of races (the “black gene”/”white gene” idea is not an idea entertained by actual major historical figure, racist or antiracist, that I’ve ever seen).

    Saying “intragroup difference exceeds intergroup difference” is backwards — the Report is accidentally claiming science says that races are genetically distinct, when it means to say the opposite — but, anyways, this discovery was not well-known until Lewontin publicized it in the 1970s (you get hints of it all the way back to the beginning of gene frequency studies though, e.g. Fisher etc.).

    4. What really takes the cake is claiming that Huxley made education “less inclusive”:

    “As a prominent scientist, 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, especially as coming from an individual given the honor of representing one of Western’s Colleges. ”

    In reality, the whole thrust of Huxley’s career made science, and education, *more* inclusive. Paul White again:

    “Huxley devoted a great deal of his career to them in the field of education reform. He campaigned tirelessly for universal education, for the introduction of science and other modern subjects to schools and universities, for a true ‘liberal education’ as well as technical education for the working classes. In doing so, he opposed some of the most entrenched ideological and institutional hierarchies in Britain at the time, those of class.”

    The main critique of Huxley seems to be that the very significant progress that actual historical Huxley actually did make in opening up science and education to the masses — progress and reforms which themselves served as the basis for further reforms later — doesn’t matter, because he wasn’t perfect in all respects.

    These same issues will come back to bite if this demand from the “letter of demands submitted by leaders of Western’s Black Student Organizations (BSO)” is ever met:

    “Rename Huxley College, and rename campus buildings to honor important figures in Black History.”

    There are, and deserve to be, many buildings and other structures/institutions named after these historical figures; but none of them are going to be perfect, either. Should we tear down their names as well?

  15. Its fascinating to see that Darwin is doomed, you can’t have a blank slate without Lamarckian evolution and no real role for genetics. As a theorist, Stalin was absolutely correct that genetics was not compatible with Communist/Blank Slate ideology. Of course, communist theorists were a lot better at making coherent and consistent arguments than our modern “theorists” but the hand-writing is on the wall. The question is do we continue to bracket our society in two (as we already are), where scientific discourse and research findings are discussed in arcane professional circles and never introduced into discussions of public policy or permit them to be discussed accurately in mainstream media ( for example, continue the unofficial ban on teaching courses on human intelligence to undergraduates), or do we just root out the heresy at its source (there is a lot of investment based on developing genetic therapies)? Its strange to see that where intelligent design failed, wokeness succeeds. Further, that intelligent design lost by making cogent (if not ultimately persuasive arguments), wokeness wins by “my feelings” and ad hominem attacks. Its like watching the Christians sack the Library of Alexandria again!

    Let’s say I embrace M/L Mao Ze Dong thought and the Blank Slate, I know that all racial and sex-based disparities are the result of systemic racism and patriarchy, what do you do about the discipline of biology, specifically Darwinian evolution, where it appears to contradict my revealed truth? What do you do with psychology, in which psychometerics is one of the few fields where you not only have replicable findings, but 100 years of replication? What about evolutionary psychology? It is actually more of a mess than 7 day young creationism, where you can just say God faked the fossil record, its more cutting edge science versus a state sanctioned ideology/religious commitment. “Systemic Racism” operates the same way “Satan” operates as a causal explanation, which is to shut down any discussion of causation. I recognize this is a religion, people care about public piety, and not about doing anything that will work about disparities (which would call for an honest exploration of causation), but this means that you have to basically shut down most of biology if you want to be consistent and protect young people to falling prey to the Devil/White Supremacy. How many Noble Prize winners in science in the last 100 years will met the purity test? Clearly James Watson is out.

    I don’t necessarily mind reciting whatever rank b.s. the people in power want me to say in order to live my life, being a realist about the world, (although I wish they would just come up with a confession rather than changing the rules every week, it makes it very hard to conform) but I just don’t see how you can have scientific inquiry continue in a parallel track to this ideology, any more than it worked under Stalin or Mao.

  16. Darwin & Huxley’s sin or blind spot, was to fail to appreciate how culture & education could & did form the mind. How could poor black people, or indeed women, hope to show their potential, when education to a high level was the preserve of the wealthy & white male?

    1. This gets Huxley totally wrong — Huxley thought the chief cause of a group’s social/political conditions was not biology, but their previous social/political conditions. Huxley was a hugely important advocate of democratising science and education and giving access to the masses.

Leave a Reply