Adrian Desmond, Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest.
Here are two examples of new cultural studies, imaginative scholarship deeply informed by extensive archival research and by a fascination with the challenges, accomplishments, and blindness of Victorian science and scientists. These books tell us (with radically different projects) how the institutions of biological science evolved its intellectual authority and social power. Adrian Desmond's biography describes (along with facts about education and family) how Thomas Henry Huxley and a group of scientists, supported by new wealth from merchants and manufacturers, fought to change science from an institution dominated by aristocratic amateurs to a professional meritocracy accessible (primarily) to the middle class.
Harriet Ritvo's comparative analysis of the various taxonomies developed in the nineteenth century by naturalists, breeders, farmers, sportsmen, and even pet owners, shows us, among other things, how naturalists tried to establish intellectual authority within their own community and over others outside it. And, while the social project was successful, she states that the naturalists' efforts to develop "scientific" systems of classification (taxonomies that describe nature on its own terms) were shot through with utilitarian, anthropocentric, and political discriminations, and that "the delicate membrane that separated specialist and lay expertise was highly permeable in both directions"(45).
The taxonomies of both specialists and lay experts demonstrated imaginative ingenuity, a startling lack of uniformity and, as Ritvo's analysis makes clear, the power of gender, class, and race (the holy trinity of contemporary criticism) to shape the various systems. Indeed, so different are these systems that Ritvo concludes (with a slight challenge to Thomas Kuhn?), "The history of zoological classification seems as much a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of competing systems and principles as a steady evolution and elaboration of a dominant paradigm" (38).
Darwin, in Chapter Two of The Origin of Species, acknowledged the situation in passing when he remarked, "Nor shall I discuss the various definitions which have been given the term species. No one definition has satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of species....[T]he term 'variety' is almost equally difficult to define...." (1) Vaguely, indeed. But a naturalist's sorrow is a scholar's opportunity.
And, to a great extent, what Ritvo offers is a fascinating taxonomy of taxonomies, classifying the various classifications and categorizations explicitly defined or assumed, by experts and amateurs, as they tried to divide the zoological world around them. It is an enormously interesting, even entertaining, book based on scientific and medical journals, agricultural manuals, herd books, sportsmen's memoirs, and even cartoons. But the topic was dead serious. The game of same and other was played for high intellectual, economic, social, and political stakes.
In her early chapters Ritvo describes how the Linnean taxonomy was weakened by finding new animals in the course of exploration and colonization. For example the platypus, found in Australia, was a four-footed, warm-blooded creature which caused a crisis in the taxonomic distinction between mammals and birds since it laid eggs. And any effort to revise these distinctions forced a rethinking and reclassification throughout the original system.
Then too, these problems encouraged various systems of zoological classification: whole animal, the quinary system of William MacLeay (which used anatomical likeness as well similarities in manner of living), single organ or tissue comparison, single attribute or function (source of food, forms of the brain, methods of reproduction). Furthermore, controversies over classification among rival systems and systematists emerged as battlegrounds that involved broader and more important issues, such as Richard Owen's attack on British followers of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's evolutionary theory.
In later chapters, Ritvo describes conflicts between breeders and zoologists over taxonomies. For breeders, issues of purity and descent were crucial in determining the commercial value of stock. They obviously had an interest in maintaining distinctions they'd developed based on color, on function, and on anatomy. Aside from Darwin, however, few zoologists were interested in studying the records or analyses of breeders. For its part, the British Association for the Advancement of Science decided it was necessary to professionalize the nomenclature of taxonomy and used this process to criticize individuals or groups it considered objectionable for political, cultural, or social reasons.
Ritvo also discusses the popular and scientific discourses concerning monsters, by which she means creatures that diverge even slightly from what is typical of their species. Museums as well as entertainment venues were often the fate of these misfits. For zoological investigators they offered the same challenges and possibilities as creatures like the platypus. What appeared to be an oddity needed to be classified with new and more elaborate systems. Generally, however, such explanations involved disease or degeneration of a normal type. In any case, teratology, the study of anomalies, thrived in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, even though scientific analysis did little to explain their mysteries. Their existence could be used to explain a process of evolution or to confirm the hierarchical scale of nature.
For the lay population, however, monsters were just "freaks." The most interesting were those with obvious deformities, of height or weight, or those with an excess or deficiency of limbs or organs. Even hybrids created naturally by the crossing of races, species, or breeds were often defined as monsters. While sometimes the rhetoric of promotional literature was cast in scientific or medical terms, the popular response was often fascination that turned to disapproval or disgust.
Ritvo also discusses how gastronomic taxonomies confirmed cultural chauvinism of various sorts. What you ate and how you prepared it often defined you as civilized or barbarian. British beefeaters often viewed vegetarians as a shady lot that probably held other strange beliefs, while vegetarians often described meat eaters as cannibals. On the other hand, a good Brit did not eat horseflesh, even though (or perhaps because?) the French, Russians, and Belgians did. Even more disgusting to them were the habits of other foreign cultures which consumed dog, cat, insects, monkey, and rat. And cannibalism was a clear sign of barbarism. Ritvo ends this chapter with an anecdote she finds particularly telling. The "rigorously racist" inner circle of the Anthropological Society called itself "The Cannibal Club" and used the preserved head of a cannibal as a gavel to call their meeting to order: the men "had no fear of being confused with their namesakes. The manifest distance between them made the irony obvious" (212). For Ritvo, the irony is equally clear but cuts in a different direction.
Taxonomies involving food are quite different from the more specialized discussions that begin the book, yet Ritvo is persuasive in identifying the threads that connect the two concerns. And there is no question that both scientific and lay taxonomies were shaped by and reinforced nationalist, racialist, and imperialist projects. This is not news. What is so fascinating about this book is the research--the details that support these generalizations.
Adrian Desmond, the author of several books on the history of science (including the highly praised biography of Charles Darwin co-authored with James Moore) gives us a Huxley who both shapes and is shaped by the massive historical forces (economic, political, social, and intellectual) that transformed England, and indeed much of Europe in the nineteenth century.
The story of Huxley's role as "Darwin's bulldog" has been told many times (most elegantly by Loren Eiseley and William Irvine), but never more thoroughly or dramatically than in this biography. Nevertheless, the special element of the book is Desmond's emphasis on the central role Huxley played in the transformation of England's scientific and educational institutions.
Huxley's personal life is the stuff of romantic fiction. Born to an impoverished and sometimes disreputable Dissenter family, Huxley fought his way to an education, to a profession, to economic security, and finally to a respectable position in society. Science was his means to those ends. Desmond's research has uncovered some new information about Huxley's family life. Most of it involves the financial or personal problems of Huxley's relatives. None concerns Huxley himself, except insofar as he took up the burden of dealing with these situations.
Indeed, Huxley's family responsibilities placed an enormous emotional and financial strain on him for most of his life. In his youth Huxley earned scholarships that allowed him to study medicine at a hospital in the slums of the East End of London, where he later set up practice. These experiences made him aware of, and sympathetic toward, working-class causes, but he could not support himself or provide help for his parents and siblings on a doctor's earnings.
To improve his financial status, he applied for and received (from an aristocratic patron) a four-year appointment as a junior surgeon on H.M.S. Rattlesnake. While on the mapping tour of South Asian waters, Huxley caught jellyfish and wrote studies of their anatomies, hoping that, when published, these papers would win him a liveable income as an academic lecturer. During brief stays in Sydney he met and romanced his future wife, Hettie.
When he returned to England Huxley found his studies published, but no academic appointments. So he spent several years working as a freelance writer and lecturer, still not earning enough to bring Hettie to England and marry. At this time science was, essentially, practiced by amateurs, gentlemen of leisure like Darwin, who lived on inherited wealth and needed no jobs. The few positions that supported scientific work were patronage appointments often awarded on the basis of social position rather than scientific achievement. The same process determined membership in, and leadership of, scientific societies. Universities, controlled by an Anglican clergy hostile to material philosophy and practical education, taught no science and had no laboratories. There were no technical universities, and science was not taught in primary or public schools. In short, a weakening landed aristocracy and the Anglican Church controlled the educational establishment and maintained that control by making all appointments a matter of patronage.
Desmond's biography shows in detail how Huxley, and men similar in background, beliefs and aspirations, fought first to gain recognition, then appointments, and then to wrest power from this Anglican establishment. They worked to make science and scientific research a respectable part of education, and professional merit the crucial criterion for appointment to positions in schools, universities, and government. Indeed, the word "scientist" did not exist until late in the century, when it marked a real profession.
Huxley was called "the General" of this revolutionary conspiracy, which waged a successful struggle, intellectual and political, to fundamentally change English society. He formed a social group, the "X Club" (Herbert Spencer, John Tyndall, Joseph Hooker, and others), which recognized its task: They referred to themselves, informally, as the "Committee of Public Safety," after the revolutionary French organization. This group planned institutional takeovers and expansions. They were supported by newly rich industrialists and manufacturers who endowed chairs, built laboratories in established universities, or gave money to create entirely new and secular schools where science could be taught freely. They were also supported by working-class institutions (which were predominantly secular) that recognized the politically subversive power of science.
The theory of evolution by natural selection, jointly formulated by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, the poor and eccentric naturalist, proved to be a lightning rod for the conflicting intellectual, political, and class conflicts in mid-Victorian England. Huxley publicly championed Darwinism as the best natural explanation for biological history, but privately had doubts about it for many years. For him, supporting evolutionary theories was a means of attacking the secular power of the Church and offering in its place the naturalistic search for truth. He coined the term "agnostic" (one who believes we cannot have certain knowledge on matters metaphysical and theological) to describe himself. Quite quickly agnosticism became as much a dogma for many scientists as the Thirty-Nine Articles were for clerics.
Much of this book is taken up with the details of the thirty or so years of public controversies and conflicts that resulted in the triumph of Huxley's army of scientists. The devil is, of course, in the details, and Huxley was often that devil. He was everywhere making things happen. His life was constant labor: writing papers and textbooks, serving on commissions, taking up lectureships at universities, designing new courses of study or new universities and institutes, inspecting schools, participating in, and governing, scientific societies and, always, taking up the cudgel against those opposed to science and evolution, those who offered supernatural explanations for the phenomenal world, and those who held to conservative theories of education. By 1882, Darwinism had become so respected and acceptable to the establishment that Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey and few objected.
The strength of Desmond's book, like Ritvo's, is in the amassing of the details of this cultural war. And it is a great strength indeed. Like a good realistic novelist, Desmond adds details which don't bear directly on his major concern, but add depth and interest to the narrative. There was a brief craze for prayer meters, devices designed by scientists to measure the effect of prayers. There was Alfred Russel Wallace announcing that he believed the human brain was created by some supernatural intervention. Imagine Huxley's perplexity and rage at that! There were the many efforts to reconcile religious and scientific explanations of the world that now seem only desperate or silly. And there were the tortured efforts of some scientists, including Huxley, to offer naturalistic grounds for ethics and values.
Out of Desmond's massive study, Huxley emerges as an extraordinarily complex and interesting man. Ferociously aggressive in the public forum, he was a sensitive, playful, and gentle family man. Always insisting he held the high moral ground, he was a wily and subtle political intriguer who trimmed and tailored his radical beliefs to fit respectable middle-class ideology. Yet in an age of optimism he was a lonely skeptic, one of the few Victorians who resisted a belief in progress. Indeed his cosmic views are well represented in the dark science fiction of one of his last students, H.G. Wells.
Desmond tells us the personal problems that earlier biographers scanted: family tragedies, financial insecurity, and deep bouts of depression. These certainly influenced his dark vision. Yet Huxley's achievements were mammoth. At the time of his death, hundreds of scientists and teachers of science were working in schools and laboratories. Even more important, the values and beliefs Huxley fought for now seem common sense. Desmond's biography shows us how uncommon that common sense once was, and how unnatural and changeable our institutional arrangements have been and can be. He also examines, from an historical perspective, an important and complicated question we still face: the tangled relationship of the claims for scientific objectivity on the one hand, and the power of class consciousness and ideology to shape those claims on the other hand. It's a weighty book on some weighty topics, but it's a book that's well worth the weight.
University of Pittsburgh
(1) Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (New York: Random House, n.d.), 38.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
|Previous Article:||Matthew Arnold, our contemporary.|
|Next Article:||Alan P. Barr, ed., Thomas Henry Huxley's Place in Science and Letters: Centenary Essays.|