Huxley College name canceled for the usual reasons

September 18, 2021 • 1:15 pm

In August I reported that Huxley College of the Environment, a part of Western Washington University (WWU) named after renowned biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog”), was likely to be renamed. The reason, as I explained earlier:

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.

I predicted that Huxley would be  canceled, and, while it’s not yet a fait accompli, the college is certainly going to be renamed, for Huxley’s moral transgressions—according to modern lights—are not to be forgiven and the authorities have just pronounced judgment.

A new piece at The Panda’s Thumb (click on screenshot below) by Matt Young describes a meeting of the WWU Board of Trustees, and it’s clear from a report of someone who was there (not Young, but an anonymous reporter) that there never was going be real debate about the name change.

It doesn’t matter that Huxley’s presence in the world improved it, and the education of working people in Britain; a few unseemly remarks by the man in the mid-nineteenth century were sufficient to blot him out of history. There were even falsehoods in the President’s report about Huxley: as I said:

[From the report on the WWU President’s website]: 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. [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.

My response:

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.

Didn’t matter; read the report on Young’s website, which convincingly shows that the outcome—no more “Huxley College” name, was determined before the hearing (my emphasis):

The next board member recognized that she was talking from an emotional perspective. She repeated the creationist trope that Huxley advocated a hierarchical theory of race and, because of that, going to a school named after him reminded her of the harm caused by going to a high school in Baltimore named after Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who wrote the Dred Scott decision. So in short, she compared Huxley’s legacy to Taney’s.

Sensing the overwhelming sentiment, the Board chair than suggested that they needed to start thinking through how they were going to communicate the thought process behind their decision.

. . . One Board member suggested voting at the October meeting. The president suggested it would be better to do so at the December meeting, or it will look like it was all worked out in advance. Several others concurred and suggested that the October meeting focus on communicating the rationale for the denaming.

So in summary, they totally bought the creationist narrative in the Task Force report. I was embarrassed for them, for WWU, and for my own association with WWU.

and

Another source observed that, when a committee was appointed,

. . . usually the decision on the path forward had already been made. We [the objectors] were part of the required process.

So another biologist goes down the drain, and as the name gets effaced, the man gets forgotten. I tell you, Darwin is next, and the crowd is already muttering darkly about CD’s racism.

28 thoughts on “Huxley College name canceled for the usual reasons

  1. I stayed in the Huxley dorms for a year. If ‘moral transgressions’ are the sin in question, there were many committed by human beings of all colors, genders, genetics, biases, and beliefs.

  2. I think you are correct that the renaming or denaming is a fait accompli, but thanks to an all too small number of faculty members they may decide to make the change on the pretext that the college in reality had nothing to do with Huxley, and vice versa. The real reason will thereby be buried, but at least they will not appear to be giving in and labeling Huxley a eugenicist or a racist. It will be a small victory but better than nothing.

  3. Names are dangerous. Better to just use numbers: Environmental College 23. Of course, the English language itself is racist. Hmmm. Better to just close the college.

    1. I’ve occasionally contemplated whether it would be easier for one’s address to merely consist of one’s name and the latitude and longitude of one’s abode. But, I suspect that there would be many more address misprints and therefore more incorrect mail distribution.

  4. *Sigh* The objections were based on historical facts and reasoning. Meanwhile the rush to judgement was hinged on emotion and a chance for some showy virtue signaling. Which, by the way, will do nothing to heal actual wounds or advance any real social change. So of course the result was inevitable. A done deal. The historical lies become the truth if repeated often enough.

    Meanwhile there is a campaign closer to my neighborhood. The Entomological Society of America is discussing changing the name of the “Linnaean Games”. This is an annual trivia competition about entomology, and its a rather big social event during the annual meeting in the society. Linnaeus did write some pretty nasty things in his descriptions of the different human races (this being in the 1700s), but he also classified them as one species. How he described most of them was not exactly complementary, though, and so you know where this discussion will conclude. On this matter, I personally think the campaign is pretty reasonable, albeit again not one that leads to real social change.

    1. “[H]istorical facts and reasoning” versus “emotion and a chance for some showy virtue signaling” – as you rightly say, the outcome was inevitable. We urgently need Enlightenment 2.0.

  5. The point of this cancellations is to denigrate white heterosexual men. In other words, erase the achievement and remember whatever perfidy has been identified. It’s wholesale denigration of a group.

    (The case of Robert E Lee, etc, is very different…..)

    A question: What practice is accepted today that you think will be verboten in the future?

    1. Circumcision. Eating pigs (possibly cows too). Having three or more children. Surgical and hormonal treatment for gender dysphoria.

      Just predictions, not certainties.

    2. I think the actual goal is the de-legitimization of American and Western culture. Obviously, straight, white men are representative of that. The trans community, though, is going after the traditional definitions of women and even gay men and women. And, of course, “people of color” who step out of line are re-raced as “white.” If you look at “Titania McGrath’s” twitter, and the running catalog of “racist” things, you will see that there is nothing so sacred or so small that isn’t being attacked. The most critical things, however, are the idea of objective truth and evidence. “Feeling” something to be offensive or racist is sufficient for it to be so, or, at least, to signal the mob and intimidate leaders, whether in education, government, or business.

      1. Many women/feminists and lesbians/gays have come to realize that trans ideology is totally antithetical to them. In that regard, the LGBT etc acronym is nonsense.

      1. I predict that in the future it will be possible to clone a steak, or the meat of your choice, in a lab. No more killing animals!

        1. So what happens to them? Either we allow natural predators to flourish again, or, following Malthus, they die from having too little food. Humans are able to die of old age only because of birth control, and even so there are too many humans on Earth.

            1. Indeed – humans are responsible for the population explosion in domesticated animals. The environmental impact is pretty immense.

              1. Yes, without the farming of animals, there wouldn’t be as many chickens, cattle, swine, etc. However, if left to themselves, their population would of course grow until culled by predators or starvation.

            2. My point is that animals will still die before they die of old age, and that that won’t necessarily be better for the animals. Would you rather be shot in the head and die instantly, or die of hunger, or pulled down by a lioness after unsuccessfully running for your life?

  6. The birding world is now struggling on what to about John James Audubon. The Audubon Society and other birding groups are busy cancelling birds named after 18 and 19th C. naturalists . Audubon is already being denigrated from within and rumor has it that staff members are being cancelled. To rename the Audubon Society would be a colossal undertaking and would certainly alienate a large portion of its membership.
    As someone above mentioned, heterosexual white males of the Enlightenment and beyond are a primary target, which includes scientists, musicians, philosophers, politicians and all their works.

  7. Episodes of this sort make me scratch my head about what happened to the Left. The Old Left, that of old-timey Progressives, Socialists, and Communists (i.e., my parents’ family) had its doctrinal defects, such as widespread (although not uniform) credulous fantasies about a certain large Eurasian country and its doings. But a strong positive feature of the Old Left was close involvement with constructive activities: constructing labor unions in particular, and also cooperative organizations, such as Consumers’ Union, the Berkeley Consumer Cooperative, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, etc. etc.. Some of these lasted for decades, some still exist, albeit in modified form. In the radical 1960s, much of this organization-building impulse remained, as witness the founding of assorted communes (short-lived though they turned out to be), and non-commercial media organizations. [ I was somewhat involved in a few of the latter.]

    Later on, however, it seems to me that the US Left developed a neurotic penchant for complaint instead of construction: the offense brigades, the social media lynch mobs, the microaggression hunts, the campaigns to fire this or that employee or to cancel a speaker or book for wrongthink, and the frenzy of denaming and renaming. Strangest of all, for a “Left”, are the now widespread systems of anonymous offense reporting (talk about the “culture of complaint”!)— with their mewling appeal to management. In short, the entire petulant mindset that has become endemic in academic institutions, and is now moving into professional groups and media offices.

    Wait a minute, that is the explanation of what happened! The Left’s transformation came precisely from its retreat to, and proliferation in, the groves of academe. The faculty lounge, bitter scholastic feuds, and the modes of academic politics—these all turned the American Left into today’s narcissistic, intolerant, peevish, hypochondriac, “woke” version. Puzzle solved!

  8. About thirty minutes into a discussion between Congressman Jamie Raskin and Prof Randall Kennedy, Prof Kennedy speaks of his feelings about eating in a hall at Princeton University named after racist Woodrow Wilson. He says it didn’t bother him because he could look at Wilson and say “look at me…I am here”. While the full hour interview is interesting and informative, including some discussion of weighing (as Jerry says) overall contributions of people, He talks at some length about names and monuments starting at around 29:00. Url for this one hour Politics and Prose Bookstore event video is

    1. In the video, Jamie Raskin referred to John C. Calhoun as a traitor. This is not correct since Calhoun died in 1850. He may very well have become a traitor if he had lived to the Civil War. Although he was perhaps the most noted slavery apologist in the country, he always claimed that secession should be a last resort. During his life, he devised several schemes to save the Union. In particular, he called for a system of the “concurrent majority” in which the North and the South would each have a veto power over legislation. He argued that such a plan would protect the South and allow it to remain in the Union. Of course, his plan was never adopted.

      Also, beyond doubt, it was the right thing for Yale to rename Calhoun College.

      As an interesting anecdote, Clemson University, most noted for its football team, is named after Calhoun;s son-in-law, Thomas Green Clemson. Clemson married one of Calhoun’s daughters and took over John C. Calhoun’s plantation (Fort Hill). Clemson donated the land for the university, which was Calhoun’s plantation.

  9. Of course TH Huxley was racist by modern standards. His “lived experience” was as a crew member on HMS Rattlesnake, a ship with state-of-the-art technology – microscopes, chronometers – meeting with the original inhabitants of Australia who had not even discovered how to smelt bronze.

  10. It looks like WWU is a public university whose board of trustees is appointed by the governor. In reviewing some of the board’s meeting procedures and FAQ for board members ( https://trustees.wwu.edu/files/NewTrusteesOrientationPortfolio_web.pdf ), It appears that the board is expected to be a rubber stamp for the president’s proposals. HOWEVER, this does not have to be. Some leadership among one or two members can allow the board to take the charge that it theoretically has and drive the president’s agenda on wokeness matters such as this renaming idiocy. These are fundamental policy issues and providing leadership here is not micromanagement. So things pretty much depend on the backbone of a few trustees and the political proclivities of the Washington governor who named them. Without this leadership, anything else, other than careful and persistent lobbying of board members, at a lower organizational level will simply end up as kvetching with no constructive outcome.

  11. Clearly we have to give some thought to a replacement name. Vlad the Impaler College of the Environment? Possibly too white. Genghis Kahn College of the Environment? Not white, but possibly too paternalistic. Ooh, I know, the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez College of the Environment. Not white, not male.

  12. The attitude behind the denaming of Huxley College of the Environment was explained by a member of
    the student senate as follows.
    ” “[Huxley] is the college where my BIPOC friends feel the most unwelcome and unsafe. And that could be in part due to the culture that’s reinforced and enabled by that name,” Handa said. “How do we expect BIPOC students to enter that space when it’s not even made for them or welcoming them?” ” The plan offered by commenter #11 above will no doubt remedy this serious problem.

    1. It’s people that make other people unwelcome, not dead biologists from 150 years ago. Still, changing the name of your college is a lot easier than examining your own attitudes and maybe changing them.

  13. People mentioned in today’s WEIT who, if they were around now would have been totally “me-too”ed:

    Feynman (a regular dame-killer), Charlie Chaplin (skirt chaser in the B&W era, liked ’em young btw)… and probably Urtzi on the basis that the manner of his death suggests he pissed a lot of people off then*. 🙂
    You think Charles Darwin is in the firing line for racism (he is)… the above guys would be ruined now.
    JUST a thought!

    D.A.
    NYC
    *Think of a list of “Stuff that’ll get you killed” in those times.

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