A scathing takedown of a ham-handed attempt to rename “Huxley College”

October 7, 2021 • 11:15 am

Here we have a fairly short but scholarly and passionate piece by Nick Matzke, whose name may be familiar to you—he used to work at the National Center for Science Education and posted often on the Panda’s Thumb website. As you see from the article’s screenshot below (click on the image to see the piece or get a pdf), Nick now teaches biology and does research at The University of Auckland.

The backstory, which I’ve written about three times (here, here, and here) involves a wokeish but completely misguided attempt to rename the well known Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, Washington. Huxley College is noted by Wikipedia as one the University’s “notable degree programs“, and it was “the first College dedicated to the study of environmental science and policy in the nation.”

Why the renaming? Because, as I’ve explained in my previous posts, the College’s namesake, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), was supposed to be a racist and a eugenicist. (If you know your history of evolutionary biology, you’ll remember Huxley as “Darwin’s bulldog”, a staunch defender of his friend Charles, who was too timorous to defend his own theory set forth in The Origin.) But Huxley did a lot more than that. He was actually an anti-racist, an opponent of slavery, and a friend of women and workingmen (he campaigned for suffrage half a century before British women got the vote, and gave free lectures on science to poor working people).  All of these facts, in particular Huxley’s antiracism, are explained in Nick’s piece, which is infinitely better than the “case for denaming” put on the WWU President’s website. The latter piece is embarrassingly bad and even, in parts, illiterate.

Click below to read Matzke’s vigorous nine-page defense of keeping the name. Another benefit of reading it is that you’re going to learn a lot about Thomas Henry Huxley, and, I hope, will be appalled at how WWU distorted and degraded his legacy to make him look like he was an ardent racist. (Nick has also posted the essay in full at The Panda’s Thumb.)

Now let it be admitted that Huxley, like Darwin, did make sporadic statements that, by today’s lights, would be considered unacceptably racist. All of them come from a single essay he wrote in 1865.  But that was early in his career, and by its end he’d established himself as one of the rare progressives in Victorian England, favoring the abolition of slavery, the establishment of women’s rights, and acting out of concern for the “lower” classes.  A few other points in Nick’s report:

a.) Several of the important assertions in the President’s report are simply dead wrong—in fact, the opposite of what Huxley said or what genetics says.

b.) Some of these errors were taken straight from the creationist literature. It appears that WWU leaned on the creationist denigration of Huxley that they’ve used for years to impugn all of evolutionary biology (“See?” they say, “Evolutionary biology is racist.”)

c.) Huxley engaged in three separate anti-racist campaigns that, in fact, made him anathema to the real British racists of his time.

d.) The report tries to tar Huxley by dissing his grandson, Julian Huxley, for being a racist eugenicist. While Julian had some views that could be interpreted as “reform eugenics”, he was an anti-racist. As Matzke notes:

Julian was also the founding director of UNESCO in 1946, and helped draft UNESCO’s famous anti-racism declarations in 1950 and 1952. The Encyclopedia of Evolution says, “largely due to his efforts, the UNESCO statement on race reported that race was a cultural, not a scientific, concept, and that any attempts to find scientific evidence of the superiority of one race over another were invalid.”

But it’s madness to conflate Julian with his grandfather, and mentioning Julian, no matter what his views, was completely irrelevant.

I’ll give one quote from Nick, but you should read his piece:

How does it serve justice to treat T.H. Huxley as if he were [the vicious British racists] James Hunt or Governor Eyre, when he actually was their vehement opponent?  Removing Huxley’s name from the College would in fact be removing the name of a pioneer for educational inclusion, a key figure in scientifically establishing that all humans are one species, and undermining the concept of biological “race.” Doing so while relying on propaganda deriving from fundamentalist creationists and other right-wing provocateurs would be falling into the exact trap arranged by these provocateurs: namely, to drive a wedge between science and the causes of social and racial justice. Helping to drive this wedge deeper cannot help increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in science. Imagine creationists, for the next several decades, going to legislatures and state school boards with a line like: “Evolution is a racist theory. After all, Western Washington University acknowledged this when they removed the name ‘Huxley’ from their College of the Environment.”

WWU hasn’t decided formally on the renaming, but, as I noted, they appear to have put it off until December so it would look like it wasn’t a rush to judgment.  Look at this duplicity! (bolding is mine)

. . . 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.

It was worked out in advance, and what we have here is the appearance of due diligence without the diligence itself. It’s a case once again of a university truckling to a mob who knows virtually nothing about the salient issues.

By my own standards, in which a name should be kept if two criteria are met, Huxley College should definitely NOT be renamed. But tell that to the administration, who must meet the demands of WWU’s Black Students Organization as well as many other students.  I venture to guess that almost none of those calling for Huxley’s cancellation knows anything about the man or what he really did.

My criteria for keeping a name or a statue:

1.) Does the name or statue honor the good things that the person did?

2.) Was the person’s life a net good, making a positive difference in the world?

For Thomas Henry Huxley, the answer to both questions is, “Hell, yes!”  Huxley College should not be renamed. But I’d bet big bucks it will, for you know how these campaigns go.


21 thoughts on “A scathing takedown of a ham-handed attempt to rename “Huxley College”

  1. This whole business is crazy considering who is bringing these false accusations against Huxley. It is right up there with Trump’s BS about the election. How an educational institution could be influenced by this sham is nuts.

    1. It is crazy, and it is a case study of how reform movements, originated with the best of intentions, can morph into vicious, irrational manias. Of course, such manias are not new to history. They demonstrate that a world based on enlightenment values is nothing more than a hope with little chance of realization. It takes only a relatively small part of the population to create chaos. The reason for this is that human nature hasn’t changed regardless of technological and scientific advances. Now this condition is more dangerous than ever. It would take only a handful of people to create weapons that kill millions in moments or days. The post-World War II world has been lucky so far. But that luck can run out at any time.

  2. The Western Washington University document on Huxley implies, as our host has warned us elsewhere, that Darwin will be in the cross-hairs next—and after that evolutionary biology tout court, along with naturalism and “reductionism”. The document makes it clear in this quote.

    “Darwin and Huxley’s naturalistic reductionism, as witnessed in their ill-considered
    persistent attempts to derive animal continuities with humans, exposes their unsightly
    racism. It will do no good to say they were just “a product of their time.” Richard Owen
    told them how wrong they were from the beginning, a historic clash of “metaphysical
    attitudes” worth pondering at the next Darwin Day celebration.”

    The WWU farrago is part of the woke program of “decolonializing” STEM, which means in effect dismantling STEM. No surprise that they draw on creationist sources—birds of a feather etc. etc.

  3. Nick Matzke says: “Confronted with Huxley’s actual record, we should all ask ourselves: What have I done lately? Can any reader say they have accomplished as much as T.H. Huxley?”

    It would be nice to think that the WWU commissars are capable of asking themselves that question. But I doubt whether they are even capable of understanding it.

    1. Perhaps they’ll convince themselves that in cancelling Huxley they have achieved even more than he did.

  4. After reading more about Huxley, I can’t believe how badly WWU have distorted the truth here. But for most of the decision makers involved, I would put it down to pure fear and laziness, rather than intentional misrepresentation. Unfortunately, I would not expect any of them to admit that they were so misinformed.

    This is quite revealing. It seems that so many of those in positions of power at our educational institutions are themselves quite anti-intellectual, in addition to lacking basic decency and moral courage.

    None of them are fit to trim Huxley’s sideburns. For shame.

  5. From George Carlin: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.” We have too many of these groups now, and this is just one example. Groups on the left or right.

      1. That the University of Sussex (of all places, I would have added some years ago) has stood up for
        Professor Kathleen Stock, and academic freedom (not to mention rationality and biology) could be a very important signal—of a change in the tide. Let’s hope. The eventual outcome of the silliness at Western Washington University thousands of miles may yet prove to be another straw in the wind.

  6. Seems to me that Western Washington University doesn’t deserve to be associated with Huxley. In common with so many academic institutions now, it is run by timorous fools.

    1. I’m hardly surprised by ‘facts’ not being as important as some peoples’ feelings and lived experience. But by ignoring ‘facts’ there is no counterargument to my feelings and lived experience. Hence the philosophies of CRT/DEI/BLM contain the contradictions that will undermine them.

  7. A very powerful piece by Matzke. As I’m sure I’ve remarked before, WWU should be totally ashamed of itself.

    There were a few embarrassing proofreading errors, but that’s only a professional gripe. In my (totally biased) opinion, there’s nothing worse than a carefully crafted piece of writing being spoilt by an unnecessary missing word etc. that someone other than the author would have quickly pointed out.

  8. Unfortunately the alliance between Creationists (In the example I am linking to Mormons.) and the ‘Woke’ has been going on for longer than this instance. In 2019 a student was given a degree for ‘proving’ that Horses have ‘always existed’ in the Americas because ‘native people’ say so. Her prime source of evidence turned out to be Mormon Apologetics, on the grounds that those books conformed with what she ‘knew’ to be true.


    1. Interesting article. The student seems to have had a null hypothesis of “horses have always existed in the americas, humans didn’t wipe them out” and then made no attempt to falsify that null hypothesis. Makes research so much easier doesn’t it?

  9. It still seems naive to me to think that this is a reasoned debate, where those demanding everyone be cancelled will listen, realize they are mistaken, and withdraw their complaints.
    Under the best of circumstances, an angry mob is not to be reasoned with.
    In the current circumstances, you are not even dealing with people who genuinely want to improve their university or are concerned with truth, or the love of scientific knowledge. They are an inherently destructive force.

  10. Sorry to be a day late to the party, but wanted to reiterate what I wrote on this issue a couple of weeks ago: the decision on these types of proposals are entirely up to the board which, if I recall correctly, for this public college, is appointed by the governor. So the leverage to have the clear analysis by Nick read and actually considered and discussed by the board is either with: 1. the Governor and his staff; or 2. A board member with a spine who can put it in play at a meeting and lobby his or her fellow board members one at a time offline. The administration makes recommendations, but the board can accept, modify, or reject those recommendations. The rejection of this recommendation would send a strong message to the administration regarding such future requests….and, of course, approval will send the opposite message and encourage future similar woke behaviours.

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