Faculty response to Western Washington University’s proposal to cancel the name of T. H. Huxley

August 20, 2021 • 11:30 am

As I reported on August 9, Western Washington University (WWU) is poised to change the name of its well known Huxley College of the Environment, named after “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley and listed as one of the University’s “notable degree programs“. The reason? It’s the usual, detailed in a committee-produced document residing on the website of WWU’s President. One quote:

Even though Thomas Huxley made significant contributions in the field of biology [JAC: none are given], 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 [sic]. 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 [sic] 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.

Huxley’s supposed racism is said to cause “harm” to people, both in furthering racism and making students at Huxley College and WWU uncomfortable—in fact, causing them “harm.” The latter claim is simply ludicrous, while the former misguided.

There’s other bad stuff Huxley’s said to have done or said as well, but all of it, without exception, is either wrong or grossly exaggerated. If you know anything about Huxley, you’ll recognize that painting him as a racist who contributed to the discipline of eugenics which then was implemented in humans is risible. Further, his positive contributions to both science and society were completely neglected in the document, which was produced by people who had no expertise in nineteenth century England or Huxley in particular.

Now, eight academics from the Huxley College, trying to set the record straight, have produced a response to WWU’s proposal (the name of Huxley College is only one of several up for cancellation), and it’s pretty telling. I suggest you read it to see how distorted the original proposal for cancellation was.  It made several blatant errors, is rife with false and exaggerated claims, and draws largely on material produced by young-earth creationists who want to attack evolution by cancelling a school named after evolution’s most famous early defender.

You can see the document by clicking on the link below:

 

A few quotes to give you the tenor of the defense:

Natural Racial and Gender Inequality

Regarding the first claim, that Huxley held views of natural racial and gender inequality, we strongly encourage the Board of Trustees to reread the views of the historians, included in Appendix C. The LRTF’s summary is simply not an accurate reflection of their views, Rupke excepted. The concluding words of Paul White, one of those distinguished historians, presents a more accurate synthesis of those views:

Huxley is described as an abolitionist, he was in fact much more than this. He called for the elimination of all political, legal, and economic prejudices, equal rights and opportunities for people of all races (and sexes). If the staff and students agree to remove Huxley’s name, they should at least do so with a better understanding of his views, and an appreciation for his place in the history of human emancipation and activism.

An extremely troubling aspect of the LRTF report is that it lifts quotes first mined by creationists to confirm the racism and sexism claims against Huxley, while ignoring Huxley’s writings and other evidence that disprove the claims. Additionally, the report relies on earlier writings of Huxley, but totally ignores the evolution of thought that led him to see the unity and equality in all humanity. To be sure, Huxley’s earlier views reflected the same Victorian-era prejudices and bigotry of his scientific and clerical peers. But the report ignores the fact that Huxley escaped these prejudices to adopt views expressive of full racial and gender equality.

I guess if you engage in Wrongthink, but then come to Righthink later, it’s already too late. You’re in perdition forever.

Another false claim of WWU, one that I attacked in my earlier post:

Human Hierarchy and Scientific Racism

As for the second and third claims, that Huxley promoted a hierarchy of humans and scientific racism, the LRTF again relies on the ideas of Lyndon LaRouche operative Paul Glumaz (but without citation) and Rupke to paint Huxley as a polygenist (someone who accepts the idea that the human “races” evolved from different origins) and as holding that there exists a greater difference among “the races of man” than that between “the lowest Man and the highest Ape.”

First, it is a complete fabrication to claim that Huxley was a polygenist. This is simply another gaslighting distortion that was uncritically accepted by the LRTF. The consensus view in the history of science literature is that Huxley opposed the theistic theory of monogenesis – the idea that humans descended from Adam and Eve. This does not make him a polygenist. What he did support was scientific monogenesis, or the “new monogenism” – that H. sapiens is a single species with a monophyletic (one population) origin followed by diversification through migration and geographic isolation. The “poly-” element to Huxley’s thinking explicitly relates to the diversification through migration and geographic isolation, not to human origin.

Huxley’s view is wholly consistent with current scientific consensus and follows current thinking based on DNA evidence. The claim that Huxley’s views were not monogenist demonstrates fundamental misrepresentation of his views, the basic tenets of evolution, and the seeds of disinformation planted by creationists. Huxley in fact wrote that polygenists “have as yet completely failed to adduce satisfactory positive proof of the specific diversity of mankind.”

And, to make a long report short, the WWU cancellation document completely ignores the many positive contributions Huxley made. He was a big reformer of education and spent much of his later life giving lectures on science to working people. But here’s from the new rebuttal document:

. . . the report utterly ignores the demonstrable benefit and good that Huxley did create in his life work. In reality, the whole thrust of Huxley’s career was to make 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 LRTF report completely overlooks the concrete evidence of positive impact Huxley made on society generally, and in the lives of its marginalized and underrepresented members in particular. Historians recognize Huxley as “the premier advocate of science in the nineteenth century”. He is also recognized as the single most influential person in the democratization of science and science education, for his role in the founding of the journal Nature, as founder and president of many scientific societies, for his work on the Jamaica Committee, and for his work on ten Royal commissions. He is widely recognized for his leadership in the creation of the field of science education, for devising modern K-12 education curriculum for both the privileged and the masses, for bringing college and vocational opportunities to the working class, for fighting for the admission of women to universities, and as history’s greatest popularizer of science for common people. Lastly, Huxley’s life and work contributed significantly to the secularization of society and secular educational institutions like WWU.

Also not acknowledged in the LRTF report is Huxley’s decades-long battle against the idea of scientific racism, and its chief proponent, James Hunt. He also vehemently opposed Hunt and the Anthropological Society for their support of not only the Confederacy, but for the institution of slavery.

I’ll stop here, but, having read the original de-naming proposal and the rebuttal (yes, of course I’m biased), I have to say that the original proposal is not only ignorant, but unscholarly and, at times, illiterate (“homosapien”??). They didn’t even check their sources about things like Huxley’s supposed polygenism (his view was in fact the opposite), and Huxley’s claim that there was a greater evolutionary distance between the “highest and lowest humans” (races) than between the “lowest” humans and the “highest” apes, like chimps and gorillas. That’s not what Huxley said, and the “law”, mentioned only once in the old literature, isn’t even in the consciousness of modern biologists.

One gets the sense that the de-naming proposal was a rush job, confected from dubious sources, ignoring Huxley’s contributions, and designed to give succor to those individuals who claimed that the name of the school caused them “harm” (I’m sorry, but I have trouble working up empathy for that claim). The cancellation of his name may be a done deal, but if it’s not, this new document should change the mind of any rational person. Of course, it’s dangerous to assume that university administrators are rational, as they’re easily swayed by the quotidian breezes of political change.

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The pro-evolution website The Panda’s Thumb has also covered this controversy, defending Huxley in three posts (here, here, and here). They also give two other useful links:

Also, today at 8:50 am PDT, Dr. Wayne Landis and I will be making public comments at the BOT meeting, introducing them to the response document and briefly summarizing it.

You may find documentation for the meeting here. The meeting itself will be audiocast here.

Thomas Henry Huxley

 

37 thoughts on “Faculty response to Western Washington University’s proposal to cancel the name of T. H. Huxley

  1. Well, he’s white, male, and there’s a statue of him somewhere. I feel a great harm coming upon me.

  2. At the risk of repeating myself, this is another case of starting with your conclusions and then digging up dirt. The goal is not to help improve society, it’s to put another notch on their belt devoted to cancellation of well known figures. It won’t be long, they’ll be coming for you.

    1. it’s to put another notch on their belt devoted to cancellation of well known figures.

      The cynic in me also sees an ulterior motive. School administrations think they can get ahead of the ire of their woke students by changing a mascot, building or other name. Then, they can re-brand and sell new merch to alumni while patting themselves on the back. And if the institution does have real issues in regards to equity, these changes do nothing. Purely cosmetic.

    2. As the response letter notes, the social activists are now going to the Institute for Creation Research and other creationist sources to get their information on science. So whether they go after Charles Darwin is probably a foregone conclusion. The bigger more concerning question is whether they’ll go after the Theory of Evolution itself. I have no doubt the creationists see these social activists looking at historical figures as a potential door for getting them to look at the ToE itself as racist and ‘harmful’.

      1. Those who succeeded in cancelling Margret Sanger also relied on supposed facts and quotes from right wing sources.

  3. These students are in fact being harmed–by their ignorance and by the administrators who give in to their misguided demands.

  4. Accurate knowledge concerning evolution, biology, science, or science history is not expected among members of the Legacy Review Task Force, as knowledge of that sort would make them feel unsafe. The member of the LRTF, by the way, are as follows (from the WWU President’s. Office):

    Josh Cerretti, Professor of History

    Paul Dunn, Chief of Staff to the President

    LeaAnn Martin, Past Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

    Melissa Nelson, Assistant Attorney General (Ex-officio)

    Kaylan Rocamora, Student Representative

    Phil Sharpe, Past WWU Trustee

    Collette Taylor, Alumni Representative (’87)

    Laura Wagner, Student Represent

  5. Wow, that committee is deeply unscholarly. What a slip-shod wreck of documentation! This in contrast to the clear and factual rebuttal, which is also written quite well.

    I feel “a Carl Sagan” moment coming on…

    “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

    1. Okay, I must pipe up, as a Washingtonian. People joked about this on the last thread, but I didn’t get a chance to respond. WWU is not named after George Washington, it’s named after the state of Washington – because it is on our state’s west side. There is also an Eastern Washington University and a Central Washington University. Why our state is named after George Washington at all is a topic up for discussion (and indeed, I do discuss it when I’m on my shift as a legislative tour guide at our capitol).

      In fact, it wasn’t even renamed WWU until 1977, further distancing the name from the man.

      1. Joke aside, my point is : it may be that at times the “cancel” crowd is not too much into nuance and subtle distinguos. At times only. Don’t get your hopes of convincing them too high.

        1. Absolutely- having spent a lot of time with feet on both sides, professionally and personally- I’ve most certainly seen this play out.

          1. I am not sure I understand what you mean by that. You were a “cancel” person and on the opposite side at the same time ?

    1. At the University of Washington a few years ago, a student protest group demanded that the name of Marcus Whitman, a 19th century white missionary to the Cayuse Indians, be removed from a roadway on campus; Mr. Whitman’s offense was that he was a 19th century white missionary to the Cayuse Indians.
            Shortly afterward, my own group, the Student Peoples’ Liberation Front for Diversity, Inclusivity, and Sensitive Language (SPLFDISL),  issued its own proclamation in solidarity with the protest.  We seconded the demand to banish the name of the infamous Marcus Whitman from our campus.  We further demanded that the University remove “Washington” from its name, in view of General Washington’s infamous record as a general, a militarist,  a slaveowner, and an old dead white man.  Instead, we proposed to rename our University after Tjolzhitsay, a great chief of the Salish nation who was known in English as Chief Big Face.  Needless to say, other state institutions could follow suit, to become Western Tjolshitsay, Central Tjolzhitsay, and Tjolzhitsay State in Pullman. Of course, the name of “Pullman” will have to be changed too, but that is another story.  

      1. Whitman College did also change their school mascot from The Missionaries to The Blues (like the mountains). See my comment above regarding my cynical hypothesis about that decision.

        Marcus is also getting the boot from Statuary Hall in Washington DC, to be replaced by Billy Frank Jr. I doubt it will be long before a Mother Joseph goes to.

      2. The word “Western” should be canceled as well because it could be associated with Western civilization, Western World, etc. And the use of the Roman alphabet is a sign of cultural colonization; we should switch to the Sumerian script.

    1. Wow. Isn’t there a gap in the fossile record though, between minus infinity and 1492 ?

      Well, what do you want to do about it ? Followers of Moroni they are.

      1. Do you think that USian university Ph.D.s should be available for fantasists and their BS like that?

    2. It’s necessary to look down through the letters to realize that this was a Ph.D. awarded by a department of Indigenous Studies, not by any science department.

      Makes me unhappy to have such a negative attitude—
      but any department of a post-secondary institution whose name includes the word “Studies” is immediately a suspect to me of being mainly academic bullshitters, despite what they purport to study undoubtedly being capable of valuable contributions to human knowledge.

      Mathematics departments oughtn’t to be called departments of Mathematics Studies, nor history of History Studies, etc. for exactly that reason. They have had, and continue to have considerable content. It’s quite likely that departments of Aboriginal History, of Indigenous Archaeology, … could be quite valuable, maybe even of Pre-European Indigenous Biology though less likely.

      But using “… Studies” has had me more-and-more suspicious of academic empire building on a foundation of utter vacuity.

  6. Well, I hope reason succeeds here, but the logic of cancellation is that it is powerful because it doesn’t not stop to examine facts. To do so would be to admit that each case is worthy of debate, which would defeat the purpose.

  7. The Huxley case is particularly egregious. But I suppose that I, too, as a former academic paleontologist, am biased. When I was a college professor, I took a great interest in Huxley’s voluminous writings. I didn’t come close to reading his entire corpus, but I read a fair amount. And, I still have some beautiful old copies of several of his works. The bound books alone are works of art. I’m sad about this move by a major public university to cancel T.H. Huxley.

    Academics, in particular, should be sophisticated enough to understand that our past intellectual giants were embedded in the cultures of their day. Even the most prominent among them held at least some beliefs that would be wrong to hold by today’s standards. It is simply unfair and unrealistic to expect any historical figure to be divorced from his or her time and culture. Such people don’t exist today and they never existed. To be entirely divorced from the culture of his or her age, if such people existed at all, would surely have been to be branded a misfit or even insane.

    And therein lies the more general problem—beyond the immediate problem of Huxley. Since all historical figures were embedded in the cultures of their time, all figures who had any public presence are subject to criticisms undertaken with the benefit of hindsight. By extension, *all* historical figures are subject to cancellation, and who gets cancelled is determined only by how far the critics want to go in unearthing writings or speeches they find unacceptable. As a prominent 19th century British intellectual, Huxley becomes a tempting target.

    Because all historical figures are vulnerable, cancellation is a subjective slippery slope that has no end. Every accomplished person who lived in the past is subject to it. And every accomplished person of today will be subject to cancellation tomorrow, by the next crop of cancel critics. Do we really want to live in a society that can never have heroes, where yesterday’s admired politicians or intellectuals become tomorrow’s pariahs?

    The one saving grace is that today’s cancel critics will themselves be subject to cancellation once the world comes to its senses. Let’s hope that happens soon.

    1. “Academics, in particular, should be sophisticated enough to understand…”

      Surely. But the people who administer universities (at least in North America) these days are often a long ways from being academics. And in many cases, were never there in the past (sorry, going backwards).

  8. I have a non-serious suggestion:
    Perhaps this university could institute a double-naming policy. They have their list of present names for buildings. With tongue firmly in cheek, I’d suggest an infinite sequence of alternative (perhaps ‘alternate’ in USian-speak) names: Woke #1 House, Woke #2 House, etc. …

    Then everybody can use what they prefer. And surely at the august level of US universities, it is not much of an imposition to expect people there to have a bit of extra memorizing so as not to get lost on campus.

  9. That response document was a brilliant dismantling of the original Legacy Review Task Force report – if WWU stands by the latter’s botched, biased, and unscholarly conclusions it should be ashamed of itself.

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