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21 September 2022

What the Huxleys got wrong

Aldous, Julian and Thomas saw themselves as arbiters of the good life – but they fell prey to prejudice and pseudo-science.

By John Gray

“Human beings are not equal in respect of various desirable qualities. Some are strong, others weak; some healthy, others chronic invalids; some long-lived, others short-lived; some bright, others dull; some of high, others of low intelligence; some mathematically gifted, others very much the reverse; some kind and good, others cruel and selfish.” The inequality of humankind was the message that Julian Huxley, writing as the director-general of Unesco, chose to propagate two years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights appeared in 1948. “Our new idea-system,” he continued in a pamphlet setting out what he believed should be Unesco’s guiding philosophy, “must jettison the democratic myth of equality. Human beings are not born equal in gift or potentialities, and human progress stems largely from the very fact of their inequality.”

As Alison Bashford notes in her biography of the Huxleys, “It was a family tradition so to argue.” All three of the most publicly influential Huxleys – Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) and his grandsons Aldous (1894-1963) and Julian (1887-1975) – were never in any doubt as to their superiority over the mass of humankind. They had supreme confidence in their intellects, though that did not spare them mental troubles. All were familiar with what the elder Huxley called “the malady of thought” and Aldous (reviving a Chaucerian usage) “accidie” – a melancholy that in Thomas Henry and Julian produced recurrent periods of acute depression.

Two of them spent their later years searching for a religion. Julian found solace in “evolutionary humanism”, which Bashford describes as “a kind of transcendental naturalism, but with a teleology, a direction, even a purpose that he himself invented and then insisted upon”. Julian rebranded evolutionary humanism as transhumanism – a term he devised and used as the title of an essay he published in 1957. Aldous embraced a California-style version of the Indian mystical philosophy Vedanta. Thomas Henry remained an agnostic, a word he coined and employed in a lecture in 1869. The most tough-minded of the three, he never attempted to conjure a religion or a system of ethics out of the theory of evolution.

The Huxleys may have abandoned the faith into which they were born, but they never lost faith in themselves as arbiters of the good life. Julian sat on a Eugenics Society Committee for Legalising Eugenic Sterilisation. The Committee insisted the procedure would be voluntary, but in 1962, as well as individuals exhibiting “some kinds of sexual deviation”, “dwarfism” and various medical conditions, he endorsed its decision to consider those who had “previously been insane” or suffered from “the lesser mental ‘disorder’” as potential candidates for the operation. It seems not to have occurred to him that he might not have been born if these criteria had been applied to his grandfather.

The authority the Huxleys claimed for themselves and their values might appear the entitlement of an established intellectual dynasty. But as Bashford shows, none of the three had a secure position in society. The son of a teacher who ended his days in an asylum, Thomas Henry was born poor and had little formal education (although Julian and Aldous attended Eton). They all made a living as jobbing public intellectuals, addressing audiences they needed to interest, please or outrage. While Thomas Henry received a salary from the Royal School of Mines, his wife Henrietta recalled that they would have been “in a sore plight” without his literary earnings. Aldous achieved a measure of financial security only after migrating to Hollywood in 1937, where he earned substantial sums as a screenwriter. Julian drew salaries from occasional academic posts, and in the 1930s from London Zoo, where he, his wife Juliette and their two sons lived in an apartment in the grounds, but for most of his life his income depended on his media work. He helped create a British genre of natural history films, appearing as the narrator on David Attenborough’s first television production in 1951.

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[See also: What Harold Wilson can teach Keir Starmer]

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A popular narrative has it that debates about evolution express a conflict between science and religion, but they also reveal a tension between science and the modern humanist belief that humankind can transcend its animal origins. The idea that we have a destiny higher than that of our evolutionary kin was resurrected by Julian as a vision in which the human species leads a cosmic advance towards ever higher states of consciousness.

By today’s standards the humanism of the two biologists is distinctly patchy. Thomas Henry spoke out against slavery and the pseudo-science invoked by its defenders in the US, but he dismissed the belief that “the negro is the equal of the white man” as so “hopelessly absurd as to be unworthy of serious discussion” and wanted slavery to be abolished “for the sake of the white man”. Julian was a signatory of the Geneticists’ Manifesto, published in Nature in September 1939, which condemned Nazi “racial dogma” as bogus. In 1953, however, he denounced the idea that “different cultures are not higher and lower, but merely adjusted in different ways”, writing:

This is to neglect the lessons of biology… There can be no doubt that the social and cultural organisation of the Australian black-fellows is a survival of a very low and primitive type of culture, even though some features of it, like the intricate details of its totems and its marriage system, are clearly a recent specialisation.

Bashford writes that she tries “to understand these flawed Huxleys less through our own imperfect measures, and more through the measures and responses of their own changing times”, and she succeeds. An Intimate History of Evolution is a vivid account of a family at the heart of some of the great cultural shifts of the modern era. Bashford avoids the censorious moralising all too common among historians today. Yet I cannot help feeling that on occasion she may be a little too sympathetic to her subjects. Some of the episodes she relates are almost comically awful.

The visits to British colonial territories by Thomas Henry and Julian are particularly memorable. When the elder Huxley arrived on a South Pacific field trip to Joannet Island in July 1849, his ship was met with three canoes containing around 30 of the island’s inhabitants. One of the English was hit on the head with a stone axe, and they reacted by opening fire on the islanders. Huxley thought this was insufficient punishment for the islanders’ disturbance of a peaceful visitation. More than 100 years later, when Julian made a visit to the South Seas, he was impressed by how well rugby was played in Fiji. In his 1970s memoir, he wrote of meeting “some cheerful abos on Melville and Goulburn Islands”.

[See also: The “Five Eyes” spies who fought the West’s secret wars]

Thomas Henry’s and Julian’s repellent and often ridiculous judgements reflected their sense of superiority over the rest of humankind. Neither of them wavered in this conviction, but Julian may have unconsciously doubted the topmost place of humankind in evolution. The most striking of many photographs in the book is one of Guy the Gorilla, a captive in London Zoo during Julian’s tenure there. The noble beast’s sombre, commanding gaze through the bars of its cage gives the lie to any idea of the innate superiority of humans over other animals. Julian loved Guy “perhaps more than anyone”, Bashford tells us.

An Intimate History of Evolution is a masterpiece of biography. All of the extended family are included, including its gifted and much put-upon women, but the chief focus is on Thomas Henry and Julian. The elder Huxley emerges as the most engaging of the three protagonists. Constantly embattled in struggles with illness and poverty, he was stoical in his refusal to turn evolution into a pseudo-scientific faith. In a lecture on “Evolution and Ethics” (1893) that remains powerful and illuminating, he poured scorn on the belief that evolution can provide a basis for morality or politics.

Aldous is the least interesting of the three. Like Evelyn Waugh, he began by satirising the mores of his contemporaries in light, witty novels, then developed a concern with spirituality – though the faith to which he surrendered was less well-defined than Waugh’s. Like his pacifism, which was common among London’s intelligentsia, a watered-down Indian mysticism was popular in Hollywood. He is remembered for a single work of genius, Brave New World (1932).

Julian is the heart of Bashford’s story. A founding panellist on the BBC’s Brains Trust programme, he embodies to perfection the mixture of rationalism and credulity characteristic of many 20th-century intellectuals. To his credit, he rejected Soviet biology as unscientific when it was led by the charlatan Trofim Lysenko under Stalin’s watchful eye. However, the Soviet Union of his 1931 documentary film A Month in Russia is a country of crèches, football fields and bathing huts. It is unlikely that he deliberately avoided mentioning the fear that stalked its people. He probably didn’t notice it.

A certain obtuseness can be detected in Julian’s personal life. One of his longer and more turbulent love affairs was with a German-born New Yorker, Viola Ilma (1910-89), an admirer of interwar European youth movements. In Hitler’s Germany, she wrote, young people had “something to live for”. Viola met Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi youth Führer, and José Antonio de Rivera, the son of the former Spanish dictator. “Their visions of power captivated her,” a critic observed. According to some reports, she may have been a Nazi spy. Despite this, Julian seems not to have had suspicions regarding Viola’s sympathies. The letters he wrote from the Athenaeum Club to his wife, Juliette, who was deeply distressed by the affair, are all about his own feelings. Another lover, the American poet May Sarton, wrote to Juliette that Julian was “a very spoiled baby person”, who “did not really listen, or very rarely”.

Julian was most credulous in his quest for a new religion. In the 1930s Aldous was an earnest student of palmistry; he may have been slightly perplexed when he was told that his prominent Finger of Saturn revealed “a predilection for rationalism”. Julian outdid his brother in his penchant for pseudo-science. Under the inspiration of the French palaeontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, he embraced the idea of an emerging cosmic mind. For Teilhard evolution was a process of “cosmogenesis” extending from an “Alpha” of elementary particles to “Omega”, a universal intelligence in which the human “noosphere” would be absorbed.

A century earlier, the young Thomas Henry toyed with the idea of the “eon”, a primordial state of matter that featured in the pantheistic secular religion of Monism. The elder Huxley was too clear-thinking to be interested in such tosh for long. Sadly, Julian did not inherit his grandfather’s good sense. If zealous rationalists have any congenital traits, a fondness for gibberish seems more prevalent than sceptical doubt.

An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family
Alison Bashford
Allen Lane, 576pp, £30

[See also: Tsitsi Dangarembga: “People started pointing fingers at me, saying ‘She’s a Western puppet!’”]

This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke