Well, I was told by the writer that the Telegraph would publish their version of following story (with a truncated version of the multiply-signed letter), at exactly midnight tonight GMT, and that was 13 minutes ago. She also promised that I would get the link. Bupkes. So if the story appears (the Telegraph is usually paywalled), I’ll discuss it tomorrow morning. Here’s what I was going to put up at 12:01 UK time.
Once again a group of us—this time a different group—got together not to protest an article in Sci. Am. or Nature, but to make a public statement in Nature about the impending defenestration of a great scientist: Thomas Henry Huxley. As the Guardian and other sites have reported, Imperial College in London is pondering—and almost certainly will execute—the relocation of a statue of Huxley, and is also considering renaming one of its structures, the Huxley Building. From the Guardian:
An investigation into Imperial College London’s historical links to the British empire has recommended the university remove a statue and rename buildings and lecture theatres that celebrate scientists whose work advocated eugenics and racism.
The recommendations by the college’s independent history group are intended to address racial inequalities and improve inclusivity at the Russell Group university.
The report identified a number of problematic renowned scientific figures who have been honoured with buildings, rooms and academic positions in their names.
For example, it calls for a building named after the English biologist and anthropologist Thomas Henry Huxley, lauded for determining that birds descended from dinosaurs, to be renamed due to his racist beliefs about human intelligence.
The report says Huxley’s essay Emancipation – Black and White “espouses a racial hierarchy of intelligence, a belief system of ‘scientific racism’ that fed the dangerous and false ideology of eugenics; legacies of which are still felt today”.
A bust of Huxley, the first dean of the Royal College of Science from 1881-85, should also be removed from display and placed in the college archives, it adds.
As you’ll see if you investigate Huxley’s life (and I’ve put some relevant facts below the fold), while she aid a few things that might be considered “problematic” today, he was nevertheless far more liberal and abolitionist than nearly all of his peers. His early views on races also changed over his life, becoming more tolerant. More important, he was an ardent advocate of evolution (Darwin was too timorous to defend it in person), and an advocate of women’s rights and of the education of working people. He spent much of his later life actually giving science courses to people from the working class, and trying to enact educational reform. There is nobody who can claim that, on balance, his life caused more harm than good.
In light of the misleading accusations of Huxley’s inherent racism, claims that can rest only on either ignorance or an drive to efface the past to make it palatable to today’s standards, a group of us from the U.S. and the U.K. wrote a short letter to Nature. I’ve put it between the lines below. Nature summarily rejected our letter on the grounds of “we don’t take petitions”, but that’s completely disingenuous. It’s not a petition but a comment or a letter, and I can guess why Nature didn’t touch it. (They are, of course, very woke.) As one of my colleagues said, “Cowardly f*****s—they have loads of self-righteous letters. Calling it a petition is a way of ducking the issue.”
Having lot of signers doesn’t make it a “petition” but a statement of joint agreement. I’ve put the letter between the lines, but below the fold I’ve also added some comments by Nick Matzke, now a biologist at the University of Auckland. Nick is known to many of us for his work with the National Center for Science Education.
Because Nick did a ton of work investigating Huxley’s past when his name was about to be—and now has been—removed from the Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University (see here and especially here, which links to Nick’s long analysis of Huxley’s views), I asked him a simple question, “Was Huxley a racist? Did his views change later if he was?” Nick sent back a long response that I’ve put below the fold. Anyone interested in this controversy should read it.
Now to the letter that Nature rejected. You may recognize several of the signers. Four people have requested that their names be removed from the version that will be published by the Telegraph, so I’ve crossed through their names below. Note all the academics from Imperial College who have signed. The organizer of this letter was Armand Leroi, who’s also at Imperial.
Huxley at Imperial
A committee charged with investigating Imperial College’s past has accused Thomas Henry Huxley of “scientific racism” and proposes that his name be removed from a building and his bust from its lobby. This accusation is, on the historical evidence, false. Huxley was, in fact, an ardent abolitionist who fought the virulent pro-slavery scientific racism of his day and publicly welcomed the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865. Early in his career, it is true, he believed in a hierarchy of races, but as he aged he became sceptical of racial stereotypes. “We knew,” he is reported as saying “so little about the races that it was impossible to disentangle what any particular nation was. We did on the other hand, know that there was a great deal of human nature in all kinds of men, and of social conditions which exercise an enormous influence.” (Nature 18,480 (1878)).
Huxley was a remarkable man. From childhood poverty he rose on his merits to become President of the Royal Society and Privy Counsellor. “Darwin’s Bulldog”, he fought for the theory of evolution, and first demonstrated our evolutionary descent from an ape-like ancestor. He believed that everyone should have a scientific education. So he reformed London’s schools, was a Principal of a Working Men’s college, wrote volumes of journalism, gave lectures for working people, and opened his classes to women. He brought science to government, serving on eight Royal Commissions. He reorganized higher scientific education, transforming it, in the words of his biographer, “from a gentleman’s occupation into a profession.” To that end he founded the Royal College of Science, later Imperial College, the very institution that now seeks to disown him.
Huxley’s early belief in a hierarchy of races is not ours. But, for his scientific accomplishments, his conviction that all men and women should be judged on their merits, civic mindedness, and the reforming zeal he brought to British science and education, we remain in his debt. For these reasons we think his name should stay on Imperial’s walls. And he has one more claim on our affections: he was instrumental in the founding of this journal and, in 1869, wrote its very first article, a lyrical paean to Nature (Nature 1,9-11 (1869)).
Armand M. Leroi Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Arkhat Abzhanov Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Thomas D.C. Bell Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Graham Bell Department of Biology, McGill University
Walter Bodmer Cancer & Immunogenetics Laboratory, Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine
Janet Browne Department of the History of Science, Harvard University
Deborah Charlesworth Institute of Evolutionary Biology, Edinburgh University
Brian Charlesworth Institute of Evolutionary Biology, Edinburgh University
Jerry Coyne Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago
Mick J. Crawley Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Richard Dawkins Department of Zoology, Oxford University
A.W.F. Edwards Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University
Robert Endres Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Joe Felsenstein Departments of Genome Sciences and Biology, University of Washington
Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, Cambridge University
Nick Franks Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Mel Greaves Molecular Pathology, Institute for Cancer Research
John Hardy Institute of Neurology, University College London
Michael P. Hassell Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Erhard Hohenester Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Steve Jones Genetics, Evolution & Environment, University College London
Vasso Koufopanou Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Dimitri Kullmann Institute of Neurology, University College London
Russ Lande Norwegian University of Science & Technology
John Lawton York, UK
Peter J. Nixon Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Paul Nurse Francis Crick Institute
A. Richard Palmer Department of Zoology, University of Alberta
Julian Peto Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health,London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
William Richardson Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, University College London
Alice Roberts School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham
Adam Rutherford Division of Biosciences, University College London
Sophie Scott Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL
Dallas Swallow Genetics, Evolution & Environment, University College London
Joseph A. Tobias Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Andrew Tobym Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction, Imperial College London
Veronica Van Heyningen Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London
Stephen J. Warren Department of Physics, Imperial College London
Katie Willis Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
Nikolai Windbichler Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
William Wisden Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
John Wood Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, University College London”
Denis Wright Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London
And you should read Nick Matzke’s take on Huxley’s supposed racism below the fold. (Click “read more”.) He says that “Huxley was clearly an *anti*-racist.” I quote Nick below with his permission.
From Nick Matzke:
My view is that Huxley was clearly an *anti*-racist, with some imperfections. Short version:
- Huxley hated slavery, publicly opposed it (1840s onwards)
- supported equal rights and the vote for all (including blacks and women) – 1865 onwards at least
- established scientific/evolutionary monogenism – 1863 (Man’s Place in Nature)
- established common ancestry of humans with gorillas/chimps while explicitly denying that any extant human races were transitional – 1863
- publicly joined John Stuart Mill’s Jamaica Committee to prosecute Governor Eyre for the illegal murder of blacks – 1865
- from 1863-1869, fought official leading scientific racist James Hunt over #1-5, in person, in writing, and organizationally. James Hunt died in 1869 & Huxley + friends took over the ethnology/anthropology organisations. Hunt accused Huxley of “equal rights-mania” and “Negro-mania”.
- Geographic classification of human races, avoided the word race, basically non-hierarchical unlike many others – 1870
- Emphasized the role of environment/history/politics in explaining the poverty etc. of the Irish etc – 1870s
- Opposed eugenic & social darwinist-type thinking, which was then rising strongly, in his Evolutionary Ethics (1890 ish)
- Massive amounts of hard work, and success, in terms of what we would now call DEI in STEM — i.e. making scientific education available to the working class & women
Some people (like the historian and former YEC Nicolaas Rupke) accuse Huxley of polygenism and putting races in a transitional hierarchy, but they just haven’t read Huxley very carefully. Rupke seems to take Haeckel’s racist gloss on Huxley 1863 as definitive. Sadly, Rupke was the main authority the WWU [Western Washington University] administration listened to.
The argument that Huxley was a racist boils down to a few lines in his 1865 “Emancipation–Black and White”, where he says that once all legal/economic burdens are removed from black people, as morally needs to happen, the average black will not be as smart as the average white. This comes with a florid line about strength of wits vs. strength of bite. The best analysis I’ve read suggests that this part of the essay was a sop to reassure nervous supporters in the midst of the Huxley/Hunt battle for the control of the Anthropological Society. Huxley goes on to apply there-can-be-natural-inequality-but-we-need-equal-rights-nonetheless to the case of women, arguing that they deserve political rights and the vote also.
The main argument that he changed further from his 1865 position is an 1867 talk on race where he makes several very clever egalitarian points, and then points #7-9. As Adrian Desmond says, if anything, society and science were getting more racist in the late 1800s, but Huxley was an exception seeming to go the other way.
Altogether, I actually think Huxley was better than Darwin on the race issue, and Darwin was pretty good for his day. But in an age where one quote that looks bad on Twitter is enough to nuke someone forever, it seems to be a challenging argument to get across.
JAC: If you want a more thorough analysis of Nick’s research on this issue, go here.