Morning column opposing Huxley’s cancellation

October 29, 2021 • 9:15 am

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.

21 thoughts on “Morning column opposing Huxley’s cancellation

  1. 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.

    Wow. 1) Adrian has a great memory; 2) dude is old. I mean, 18th century? Did he ever run into Johnson and Boswell back in the day? 🙂

    1. According to my memory, the Harmless Drudge and his Bawdier Buddy were complaining about being fed horse-food and pottering around the Inner Hebrides at the time.
      As long as they weren’t listening to lectures by the “Father of Geology”, old Jim “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end” Hutton, who could bore all four legs off a donkey and it would still try to run away from his lectures. (Actually … maybe that does explain why the Drudge went slumming it in the Highlands? It always seemed such an incredibly odd thing to do for the thoroughly-urbane gentleman to do.)

  2. Coming from a family whose forebears were oppressed by British Imperialism, that any university should have the gross insensitivity to call itself Imp*r**l College makes me feel very ‘unsafe’. Perhaps they need to look at that elephant in the room before they start going after Huxley?

  3. Also in The Times today, and sorta relevant to such issues:

    “A town in North Wales has voted overwhelmingly to keep a controversial statue of the explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley despite thousands signing a petition to remove it.

    “Denbigh’s most famous son is widely remembered for his exploration of central Africa and rescue of David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary, in land that now forms Tanzania. He greeted him with the famous words: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

    “But Stanley has also been condemned for his links to European imperialism and to King Leopold II of Belgium, who committed acts of inhumanity against the population of the Congo Free State, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    “His supporters, meanwhile, have argued that Stanley was not working for the Belgian despot when the atrocities took place.

    “There was divided opinion when plans for the statue were first announced over a decade ago. More than 50 academics, authors, and other prominent figures had signed a letter opposing it.

    “The debate was reignited last year during the Black Lives Matter protests, when a petition calling for the statue to be removed was signed by thousands of people.

    “Denbigh town council decided not to act until a public vote could decide the outcome. The poll took place last week and the results were announced on Wednesday.

    “Although turnout was low, almost 80 per cent of those who voted were in favour of the statue staying put in its place outside the library.”

    1. widely remembered for his exploration of central Africa and rescue of David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary, in land that now forms Tanzania.

      Hmmm, my memory had that meeting in the vicinity of Malawi, but I never was interested enough in Livingstone to actually read up on his depredations through Africa.
      I do remember scuba diving in the harbour from which he disembarked on that last trip though. Or was it one of the intermediate trips? Regardless, the building where he stayed was going to rack and ruin when I was working nearby. I (vaguely) wonder if the locals did get funding to put it into order and try to boost the “Livingstone Tourism” trade.
      I should have some photos somewhere.

  4. An excellent piece. “Stupider rather than kinder” brilliantly sums up the thrust of wokery. It applies
    with particular salience to the incessant woke campaign against advanced courses in schools, and to
    advanced schools themselves like the Bronx High School of Science in NYC. It could also summarize the growing phenomenon of private companies with a feudal culture and super-feudal pay inequalities that subject their serfs to rituals of obedience in “anti-racist” hectoring programs. See:
    https://www.city-journal.org/inside-cvs-health-corporations-racial-reeducation-program

  5. “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.” Absolutely!

  6. Oliver Kamm is a good bloke. He was a Times leader writer, and still writes with authority on economic issues, as well as occasional op-eds such as this. He suffered a debilitating period of depression recently, about which he has written very courageously. (And whatever one might think about Murdoch’s empire in general, The Times has looked after him throughout).

    Kamm’s mother was Anthea Bell, a great translator (Kafka, Sebald), perhaps best known for translating the Asterix books into English. He has credited her for inspiring his interest in the English language, which has resulted in many interesting articles, and a really good book on modern English usage, ‘Accidence Will Happen’. Recommended!

    1. What a family! Anthea Bell’s brother is the former war reporter Martin Bell, who famously stood as an independent candidate in one of the safest Conservative seats in the UK in 1997 and won on an anti-corruption platform.

  7. I’m against cancelling Huxley, but for removing statues of Confederate generals. So I had to consider: What’s the difference? Is it just my personal bias? The difference is that Huxley is honored for his scientific achievements, while the Confederate generals are commemorated for precisely those things that are objectionable: treason, defense of slavery.

    1. Except for Robert E. Lee who after the war worked to reunite the North and the South. My grandmother respected him for that.

  8. I saw the column this evening (in Britain), and left a plug for the website. Prepare to be inundated by curious Brits!

  9. ” 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.”

    I’m reminded of the whistle manufactured in England, the “Acme Thunderer.”

  10. I’m puzzled why they would go after an abolitionist like Huxley (“no man can arbitrarily dominate over another without grievous damage to his own nature”), while Columbus is only weakly attacked. Columbus was considered by his contemporaries -not exactly choirboys themselves- as excessively harsh, bloodthirsty and cruel. He was even jailed for his cruelty, but Ferdinand got him out of jail due to his thirst for gold.

  11. The reason is that in his writings Huxley advocated eugenics and made racist and sexist remarks.

    It would be hard to find a Victorian (sense : age and culture) gentleperson who was well enough educated to spell “race” or “sex” who was not, by the standards of today, racist and sexist. While “eugenics” ideas (if not the word, until it was invented) were literally what was on the curriculum of those schools who considered themselves “training men [sic] to run the Empire” (capitalised, see the red-coloured section of the map on the wall).
    How did that Jesuit guy put it? “Give me the boy at the age of 8, and I will give you the man,” or something close to that.
    As I recalled, he sported a fine pair of lamb chops too, and that too can be blamed (equally effectively) on being a Victorian.

  12. Now I see. The solution is to cancel the archaeopteryx.

    But seriously, yes, thank you for emphasizing the final line – that certainly puts words to an increasingly present sentiment – and for the similar coverage of WWU, whose campus I regularly walk through; I doubt I’d have known.

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