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.
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.