How about a little critique of misguided “renaming” this morning? Reader Adrian sent me a link to this column in the Times of London, which isn’t paywalled. Adrian adds that “Oliver Kamm (acquaintance of Steven Pinker I think), has just written this defense of Thomas Huxley in today’s edition of The Times’ ‘Thunderer’ column. He cites your recent comments too.”
When I asked Adrian who Oliver Kamm is, and what “Thunderer” means, he replied, ” Thunderer was an old affectionate name of the readership for the Times in general – maybe dates back to 18th century from memory. Now, it seems to have been repurposed as the name the paper attaches to a column principally used for short, single issue polemics. Oliver Kamm is generally good – similar to Nick Cohen in many ways.”
And sure enough, Kamm has a Wikipedia entry.
Click on the screenshot, though I’ll save you the trouble by putting the whole column below (pardon the self-aggrandizement!).
Kamm takes out after Imperial College London’s proposal to rename lecture halls, buildings, statues, and academic positions after the famous but “tainted” biologists T. H. Huxley, Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and William Hamilton. None of these people warrant cancellation. And Kamm predicts, as I have, that Darwin is next. (I’ve considered, though, that some people are so well known and so iconic that they are almost immune to cancellation attempts. These include both Darwin and George Washington, though miscreants have gone after both of them.)
Herewith, Oliver Kamm:
When considering the ancestor of birds, the Victorian naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley concluded that it had to be a reptile of the type known as archosaurs. A few years later the discovery of a fossilised feathered dinosaur, Archaeopteryx, confirmed his thesis. It was a triumphant example of the explanatory power of the theory of evolution by natural selection and random mutation.
The passage of 150 years has not dimmed Huxley’s achievements. He was a great figure of scientific inquiry, and a famed defender and populariser of Charles Darwin’s discoveries. Yet not everyone approves. A report by an independent history group at Imperial College London recommends that the university remove Huxley’s bust and rename a building that bears his name. The reason is that in his writings Huxley advocated eugenics and made racist and sexist remarks.
The reasoning is specious. It’s not necessary to relativise Huxley’s views as being common among men of his time (though they were), let alone dispute their bigotry, to insist that his name be celebrated rather than eradicated.
It is a good thing that historical reputations are continually revised in the light of evidence and indeed modern mores. The common claim that we should not judge the past by the standards of the present is beside the point: scholars must do this, or knowledge would not advance. The issue is the criteria we use. Removing Huxley’s name in censure pre-empts the question of what weight to accord his contribution to knowledge. It should be immense. And as the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has pointed out, if Huxley is treated this way then the “cancellation” of Darwin (who was likewise an abolitionist who made racist comments) may not be far behind.
Coyne suggests that before we do any such thing with a historical figure, we ask whether their commemoration is due to the good they did, and whether this outweighed the bad. In Huxley’s case the answers have to be yes or the practice of science itself no longer matters.
Consider that the human costs of the coronavirus crisis would have been unimaginably greater but for the ability of scientists swiftly to identify the cause, sequence its genome and develop vaccines. The work of Huxley advanced what is perhaps the most important intellectual discovery in history, and even then he did not fully grasp its grandeur. (Unlike Darwin, he was a saltationist, believing that evolutionary changes happened in great leaps rather than over geological ages.)
If Imperial succumbs to a misguided campaign to suppress the name of Huxley then British society will become stupider without being kinder.
I love that last line, for it epitomizes the futility of these cancellation campaigns. They may succeed renaming buildings, but all they do is erase the history of biology without improving society one whit.