Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’

Reading: Paul White, Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (CUP 2002).

220px-T.H.Huxley(Woodburytype)In a sense, this book is about the term “scientist”. Thomas Huxley regarded it as a crass Americanism, a term that belittled anyone who devoted their life toward gaining an objective understanding of nature, and who tried to base moral and political principles on that understanding. He preferred the more exalted title, “man of science”. But one ironic consequence of his boisterous life was that he helped make it possible to be a scientist – or one who sought the facts without weighing in on issues of value.

Paul White’s book is not a biography. It does not provide a list of the sequence of events in Huxley’s life. Instead, it provides an overview of how his life and character came to be shaped by social, cultural, and economic forces. As the title suggests, it is about how Huxley was made, not about what he did. This is a valuable approach to a figure, as it helps us understand a context, and the deeper currents shaping a life. It serves to remind us that lives can’t just be boxed up and lifted into other times. 

Early on, as a young man, Huxley worked out his identity in several spheres at once. He served with manly nautical men aboard the HMS Rattlesnake. He exchanged thoughtful and sensitive letters with his Australian fiancée, Henrietta Heathorn. He began to envision his trajectory along the lines of a new career arc, that of what we might now call a research scientist. His challenge was to find a way to build a solvent career that combined “manly virtues” with a spirit dedicated toward the disinterested pursuit of natural truths. He wasn’t going to be able to become a university don (he lacked the credentials) or a churchman (he lacked the faith) – but this left little else, in terms of available careers. 

Once he returned to England, Huxley made the acquaintance of Edward Forbes and Joseph Owen, who were able to help him build a career, as they could provide recommendations, influence, and entrance to societies and clubs. Men like him, without estates, had to grasp jobs at museums, institutes, and hospitals while doing their scientific work. In the beginning, Owen supported Huxley, though their relationship was complicated: Owen was becoming prominent as a museum curator and dramatic lecturer, and adopted a lordly attitude toward everyone, including Huxley.

When Darwin came along, Huxley championed his theory of evolution by natural selection, and used it to promote a different view of science: rather than a community of polite gentlemen clustered around museums, and maintaining a strict social order within Victorian society, Huxley viewed science entirely in meritocratic terms, and was quick to excoriate anyone who offered pious platitudes for the sake of “getting along” rather than actually pursuing the truth. This led to the sharp disputes between Owen and Huxley. Huxley favored laboratories over museums, and rough and tumble arguments over measured and polite consensus. He called himself “Darwin’s bulldog”. 

As he gained notoriety, Huxley began to publish essays on broader cultural themes in popular journals. He eventually turned to educational reform, promoting more science and less literature and languages in the curriculum. But in so doing, his public persona was negotiated among literary artists, critics, and scientists. He opposed both the elitist and religious sentiments of Oxbridge scholars and the industrialist attitudes of more crass reformers. He thought all students should be trained to think as scientists, and to value literature and the arts as an important decoration to their minds. He joined cause to some extent with Matthew Arnold, who also sought to democratize education, though with more importance placed upon literature and the arts than Huxley allowed.

As he offered social criticism, a confrontation with religion was inevitable. But Huxley’s relation to religion is complicated. He wrote vehemently against high church dogmatism that insisted upon its doctrines and the shortcomings of science. He despised superstitious thinking and the social pressures enlisted to enforce religious dogmas. He was friendlier to liberal clergymen who adopted a more tolerant, experimental attitude toward religious truths, and he coined the term “agnosticism” to name a more open-ended and less prejudicial attitude toward all truths, including religious truths.

But many of his friends and supporters were liberal clergymen, and Huxley himself adopted many methods of religious instruction, such as sermon-like essays and public addresses, and certainly treated science as something like a holy order. So one might say on his behalf: “Science is the one true god, and to the extent that religious thinking can be made consistent with science, in approach and with efforts toward verification, it is permissible.” Huxley worked alongside clergymen in a plan for public schools, and in that case he advocated some measure of Biblical instruction, particularly parts of the Bible which did not conflict with science and were appropriate for the moral formation of the children of lower classes.

As a man of science, Huxley feigned a public indifference to money, and wrote against crass industrialism, but later in his life he came to the defense of capitalism and private industry, and against the formation of labor unions, redistribution of land and wealth, and assertions of workers’ rights.

Interesting intellectual tensions were at play in this period. Herbert Spencer had argued that clever and strong men had exerted their force to seize capital and subjugate lesser men to their rule, following the laws of social darwinism. But workers now used that argument to show that the wealthy had stolen their capital and were thus not entitled to it. Spencer backpedaled, retracting some of what he had written. Others like Huxley argued in defense of the status quo, and criticized labor movements for being based on ignorance and passion – in a word, “degeneration” – instead of clear thinking. They also argued that England was in economic war with America and other imperial nations, and for this war a disciplined class of workers was required – even for the sake of the workers. We know what happened: labor unions gained some ground through force and violence, but in time the power of money and land overwhelmed the opposition.

The fight for workers’ rights was coupled with a fundamentalist Christianity in the book of William Booth which helped to promote the Salvation Army, In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890). Booth argued for a Christian brand of agrarian communism, or a return to the land and communities ruled by their devout members. Huxley argued against such religious fanaticism, and wrote a series of letters and essays targeting Booth and the Army. Nevertheless, at the end of his life, Huxley seemed to believe that science could not provide an ethics, and in fact nature was profoundly amoral, and ethical foundations would have to be gained from other sources.

It would not be far off to see Huxley as the grandfather of the people today (New Atheists, secular humanists, etc.) who see science as the sole purveyor of truth, and who take dim views of anything that doesn’t fold neatly into its doctrines. But what needs to be taken into mind is that this general attitude evolved in historical circumstances that included social class, economics, gender roles, religion, and politics – all of which could have been otherwise. The study of nature is framed within a contingent human context.


About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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