A small victory: Thomas Henry Huxley not “cancelled” but “contextualized” at Imperial College

February 25, 2022 • 12:15 pm

Over the last few months I’ve reported on misguided attempts to “cancel” the famous biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who despite making a few statements about race that would considered offensive in today’s world (though some of his “racist” statements actually quote-mined), spent the bulk of his career not only defending Darwinism, but promulgating educational reform, especially for women and those of the working class. He repudiated any racism in the latter part of his life.

Two institutions were engaged in the task of “reevaluating” Huxley’s historic and scientific legacy, a legacy summarized in a scholarly and masterful piece by Nick Matzke at Panda’s Thumb. Matzke’s conclusion is that there is no way in hell that Huxley should be debased, erased, or deplatformed.

Yet he was at one college: Western Washington University (WWU; see my posts here and here). As NIck wrote:

WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment may be renamed after a bizarre report uncritically plagiarising far-right creationist & conspiracist materials gets Thomas Henry Huxley exactly backwards on racism.

And, indeed, after some weaselly waffling, Huxley College of the Environment has been renamed and given the boring name of “College of the Environment“.

But the movement jumped the Atlantic as well, for Imperial College in London (a college which might ponder the rectitude of its own name!) engaged in an investigation of Huxley for the same reasons: his early statements which would be seen as racist today, though Huxley was even more anti-racist than Darwin and was an abolitionist was well.  Well, IMPERIAL College not only harbors a Huxley Building, but a bust of Huxley, and both of those came perilously close to being “canceled”. As I reported last October:, quoting the Torygraph:

Imperial College London has been told to remove a bust of slavery abolitionist Thomas Henry Huxley because he “might now be called racist”, following a review into colonial links.

An independent history group for the Russell Group university has recommended that a bust of the renowned 19th century biologist, dubbed “Darwin’s bulldog”, be taken down and the Huxley Building on campus renamed.

The group of 21 academics was launched in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last year to address Imperial’s “links to the British Empire” and build a “fully inclusive organisation”.

Its final report, published on Tuesday, said that three buildings and lecture rooms named after influential figures should be changed, along with the removal or redesign of two statues.

One is the Huxley building and a sculpture honouring the anthropologist Huxley, who helped form Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and first suggested that birds may be closely related to dinosaurs.

Huxley was a vocal slave abolitionist, but the Imperial report said his paper, Emancipation – Black and White, “espouses a racial hierarchy of intelligence” which helped feed ideas around eugenics, which “falls far short of Imperial’s modern values”.

A group of scientists (many from Imperial), cognizant of the unfair treatment that Huxley was getting at Imperial, wrote a letter to Nature organized by Armand Leroi, objecting to the proposed cancellation. (I was one of the signers.) Nature rejected it, but it was published in full, with all the signers, in the Torygraph. (The introductory Torygraph article is still up for free; the letter has disappeared, but you can find in on the first link in this paragraph.

At any rate, the good news is that Imperial has rethought its plans, and it’s now going to keep the Huxley Building and the Huxley bust. However, it will “contextualize” them, the first by adding another name to the Huxley Building—a scientist from a minority group—and the second by putting some verbiage on a placard near the Huxley bust. Here’s the article from the Imperial College news site; click to read.

The short take:

The College will consider a joint name for its Huxley Building – named after biologist Thomas Henry Huxley – with the aim of adding the name of a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background. While the name and bust of Huxley will be retained, it will be clearly put into a fuller context in order to provide everyone with a more complete understanding of Huxley’s complex character and achievements as well as his flaws, including his racially prejudiced writings. Historical context will also be provided for any person whose name is added jointly.

. . .The names of key buildings, including those named after Thomas Henry Huxley or Alfred and Otto Beit, will be retained, but the College will launch an ambitious project to put these figures into context and clarify their histories, the Board concluded.

The College will find new, prominent ways of ensuring that their complexities are fully understood alongside the College’s modern values. This will include acknowledging both their positive contributions to science and to Imperial in parallel with the ways in which they have furthered historic injustice or hampered progress towards racial equality.

I’ll take that as a victory despite the “contextualization”. I just hope they don’t make Huxley look like an out-and-out racist or slaveholder, which he wasn’t. And it seems a wee bit patronizing to pair Huxley’s name with that of a “Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic background.” I’m not sure what that pairing will accomplish. If the name “Huxley” was harmful because he was a racist, well, that name is still there, and will the harm be palliated by pairing a “racist” with a marginalized person?

At any rate, this is better news than it could have been. But there are skirmishes to come. As Armand noted “Nothing was said about the fate of the Hamilton building at Silwood Park or the Fisher and Haldane lecture theatres. A committee has been appointed to implement these changes.” All of these are part of Imperial College, and none of them deserve to be renamed. The names at issue are the evolutionists W. D. Hamilton, J. B. S. Haldane, and Ronald Fisher (Fisher was also the “father of statistics”). 

Here’s the Huxley Building at Imperial College. As I recall, I gave the annual lecture to the British Humanists in this building:

19 thoughts on “A small victory: Thomas Henry Huxley not “cancelled” but “contextualized” at Imperial College

  1. “The College will consider a joint name for its Huxley Building – named after biologist Thomas Henry Huxley – with the aim of adding the name of a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background” – that seems to unintentionally give the impression that Huxley’s name will be attached to the building in recognition of his achievements (albeit with some ill-founded caveats) whilst the co-namee (?!) will, in the first instance, be chosen for their ethnicity. Way to go, Imperial!

  2. Imperial’s “contextualization” will confess that Huxley was too busy to turn in the Diversity Statement, as is now required of all historical figures. Alas, he also neglected to take an Implicit Association Test. Fortunately, we can look forward to a new breed of specialists who will adapt this test for use on the writing and letters of individuals long dead.

  3. Why do I imagine several goons smacking their fists into their hands, “Come on, boys! Let’s contextualize this guy!”

    1. Nice bust of Huxley you got in the entryway. But wouldn’t you like to move it somewhere else? Where it is, it’d be a shame if someone came along and contextualized it.

      1. That’s exactly what the contextualizers do. During the national hysterical fits last summer and fall over the “discovery” of neglected Native cemeteries, Hamilton City Council voted against a demand to remove a statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A Macdonald, from a city park. (The park has been taken over by a homeless encampment but that’s another story.) A week or so later, a mob assembled for the occasion toppled and defaced the statue. The city executive reversed the decision of Council and decided to put the statue in storage for indefinite safekeeping. Having got what he wanted, the ringleader gave himself up to police, stating that he had felt obligated to strike at the intergenerational violence inflicted by the statue and could not allow it to remain on view. It is safe to assume that he will never be prosecuted as the Crown is fearful of the repercussions. Extortion works best if the extorters know they can’t be punished even if they ply their trade in plain sight.

  4. with the aim of adding the name of a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background.

    Jerry, you should nominate Charles Turner. Biologist, overlaps Huxley (born 40 years later…best I could do with just a brief search), worked on insects, and worked at U. Chicago. ‘The Huxley Turner building’ or ‘Turner Huxley building’ both roll off the tongue pretty well, too.

    The only detraction is I don’t know if Imperial is specifically looking for someone from the UK or Commonwealth; we Yanks might be excluded from consideration.

  5. That Huxley building is not exactly pleasing to the eye. Maybe TH Huxley would have cancelled himself if he could. We’ll never know.
    Why are the Woke/Intersectional etc. always going after great reformers and progressives like Huxley? Why not go after profoundly evil ones like Christopher Columbus, who was, judged by his contemporaries, considered excessively tyrannical, cruel, predatory and bloodthirsty?

    1. Because easy targets don’t show your moral superiority. If you *really* want to stand out, you have to go after someone still on a podium. Going after a still-respected target shows that you are so enlightened you see evil where nobody else before you saw it, and that you are so courageous you will call it out where nobody before you called it out.

      It’s related to muckraker journalism: you don’t get on the front page by finding dirt on dirty politicians, you get on the front page by finding (or inventing) dirt on the cleanest politicians.

      1. Yes, the 60s and 70s produced some notable eyesores. This one opened in 1977 which wasn’t exactly a high water mark in architecture IMO.

  6. … by putting some verbiage on a placard near the Huxley bust.

    The problem is that any fair placard would describe his views and writing in proportion to his overall oeuvre. And if one did that, one would hardly mention the stuff the woke are objecting to, which is a pretty small part of his overall writings. It’s going to be hard to word that placard in a way that is both fair and balanced, and which satisfies the critics.

  7. “The College will find new, prominent ways of ensuring that their complexities are fully understood alongside the College’s modern values.”
    The individuals in question are human and thus not perfect. Seems trite to have to say that, but it is true. Just as great minds that I disagree with are never completely wrong in all their conclusions, the people I do agree with also are never flawless…..being human, and all.

  8. The contextualizing statement instead of cancellation may be the best we can hope for for these cases right now. In future defenses of those targeted, it would help if this compromise was urged along with the defense.

  9. “Nothing is more unfair than to judge the men of the past by the ideas of the present.” Barbara Tuchman The March of Folly.

  10. It’s not hard to imagine that with two names how one refers to the building may become a signifier of group allegiance. Those who call it “Huxley hall” will be the anti-woke, while those who call it by its minority namesake will be signaling their woke bona fides. This just looks like a bad idea. If you want to name a building (or whatever) after a previously overlooked minority researcher, identify the figure, begin a capital campaign, and build a new building (or center, whatever).

  11. It is an ugly building! If I were him I would not want my name attached to it!

    Why not just cancel the whole ruddy 19th century?!

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