Beachbooks 3: Uncommon science and danger

I am determined to finish the third and final installment of the posts about my vacation reading before the holiday season comes to an end — which I think is tonight. I want to tell you about the biography of Huxley and Eric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger.

Truth be told I have been struggling with this post. Like an over-stimulated tourist, I have bought too many shiny souvenirs and am having trouble stuffing them all into my little suitcase. As with all packing, the problem is basically one of size.

The first two books of my holiday selection were quick and easy reads; even a dullard such as myself managed to polish them off in two days apiece. But Adrian Desmond’s Huxley, weighing in at about 640 pages of a miniscule, close-packed font, was truly monumental.

Or perhaps mountainous is the word because the ascent up the story of Thomas Henry Huxley’s life is fairly demanding. By the time I reached the teary end, watching as the scientific giants of the late 19th Century gathered sorrowfully around his grave, I was exhausted, wrung out. But the view was spectacular and my head was dizzy with new facts and connections and questions.

Last two books

Born into a modest family in 1825, the bright young Huxley initially trained as a medic, spending much of his time developing his skills as an anatomist. At the age of 21 he sailed as the Assistant Surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake‘s four-year surveying voyage of the waters around north-eastern Australia. Trawling the seas as they sailed, Huxley dissected the invertebrates of the southern oceans and his original observations on their unusual anatomy helped to make his name back in England. Though his career stuttered for a few years on his return to London — Huxley lacked the finances that lubricated Darwin’s rise — he eventually established himself not just as a formidable scientist, but as one of the foremost men of his age.

Today Huxley is chiefly remembered as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, the man who carried the battle for evolution to Ecclesiastical England. Huxley would have acknowledged that moniker but Desmond delves into the complex strata underneath. Not only does he paint the broader, richer canvas of Huxley’s combative role in Victorian society, but he also picks apart Huxley’s surprisingly complex attitude to Darwin’s famous theory.

Although there are evident parallels between the lives of Darwin and Huxley, who were to become such close friends, they were very different characters, and Desmond does an excellent job of delineating the distinctions between them. Each was gifted academically and undertook a career-defining sea voyage in his formative early twenties, but the reaction of these elements produced very different results in the two men. Whereas Darwin had spent much of his education combing the shorelines of Scotland, beetling in Cambridgeshire or learning geology in Wales, Huxley was the more assiduous student at medical school, devoting all his spare time to reading and microscopic dissections. He had even published his first paper before sailing on HMS Rattlesnake — on the discovery of a new membrane in hair cells. Darwin’s equivalent claim at the same age was to have found a new species of beetle.

The difference in the nature of the discoveries is telling and may go some way to explaining the fact that Huxley returned from his voyage in 1850 with no notion pertaining to the speciation of life on earth, even though he had been absorbed in efforts to group and classify the morphologies of the invertebrates he netted from the sea. Desmond makes a convincing case that Huxley’s medical fixation on anatomy and structure, coupled with the lack of exposure to the flora and fauna of the countryside in his metropolitain youth, may have limited his vision of the processes that formed the natural world.

But it is a disservice to Huxley to speak of him only in relation to Darwin. Desmond brings the man fully to life, in all his dimensions (though I fear I can only sketch a monochrome outline here). Established as a celebrated anatomist, Huxley then taught himself paleontology and was the first to identify the link between dinosaurs and birds. His fossil interests brought him into direct conflict with Richard Owen with whom he had a long and bitter feud about the links between primate and human skulls and brains. The implications of the similarities that Huxley demonstrated horrified Owen, who chose to see the natural world as the ongoing work of the divine author who had fixed a special place for man. Huxley would have none of it and delighted in the battle. His most famous book Man’s Place in Nature (1863) underscored the evolutionary links between man and primates in a way that Darwin, famously, had not dared to do.

But such courage and fire were the mark of Huxley. His lasting legacy is to have imprinted science on Victorian Britain. Not only did he excite the working men of the day — 600 at a time — with his public lectures on the latest developments in the emerging science of biology (Huxley was to become that subject’s first professor), but his tireless campaigning for science to be taught in schools and universities, where the bible and the classics had long prevailed, changed education forever. Indeed I was surprised to learn that the emergence of London as a vibrant centre for science — in large part due to Huxley’s stimulus — eventually prodded the ancient Anglican giants of Oxford and Cambridge to make space for the subject on their curricula.

These educational gains were just one of the fruits of Huxley’s wider fight to establish a place in society for science and its secular outlook. His gospel message was clear: the learned ‘seek for truth not among words but among things’, he declared. Huxley preached the ‘sin of faith’; for him science showed ‘that the ultimate court of appeal is observation and experiment, and not authority’.

Huxley lived and breathed science and nowhere was this better demonstrated than in his willingness to swallow errors when proved wrong. There are two delightful episodes of this recounted in the book, the first when reports from the survey ship HMS Challenge fail to find a single Bathybius, an enucleate jelly that he considered to be a very primitive form of life. Huxley had to concede that his own specimen was a laboratory artefact (a precipitate in alcohol?) and took responsibility for shepherding the negative result into Nature, the journal that he helped to found. ‘I shall eat my leek handsomely’, he told Wyille Thomson, the naturalist who had conveyed the disappointing report.

The second incident occurred when Patrick Geddes, student dissecting a whelk under Huxley’s tutelage, showed a detail of the tongue that was different to his earlier description. ‘Pon my word, you’re right! You’ve got me!” Huxley told him “I was wrong! Capital! I must publish this for you.’

With such excitement at a new finding, even when it is in contradiction to his own observations, you can’t help but warm to the man. His belief in observation and experiment drove him repeatedly into argument with the bishops (it wasn’t just Wilberforce who felt the lash of his tongue) and those scientists such as Owen who clung to the divine hand when simpler mechanisms were in evidence. On one memorable occasion Huxley castigated Owen for his elliptical enunciation of a divinely-controlled evolution: ‘the first duty of a hypothesis [is] to be intelligible,… this may be read backwards, or forwards, or sideways, with exactly the same amount of signification.’ One can only imagine what he would have made of the unscientific nonsense spouted by many of today’s alternative medicine community.

But Huxley’s gift with words, evident even in the letters from his youth, was not just deployed in battle. During the arduous voyage on the cramped HMS Rattlesnake there were numerous deaths among the crew who were soon dispatched overboard. ‘There is hardly room for the living on board a ship, so that no wonder that the dead find no resting place in it.’ And later, when he is pining for his long-awaited fiancée, Netty, he writes of imagining her ‘bright smile — a kiss — one of the thousand nothings that make life something’.

Desmond’s book, in its turn, feels like the sum of a thousand somethings. In contrast to my disappointment at Buzz Aldrin remaining caged and distant within the pages of Magnificent Desolation, I was delighted to see TH Huxley leap, full of colour and complexity from this wonderful biography. There is a curious parallel between the two men since both suffered breakdowns through depression, but even here Huxley’s plight is more vivid. Alarmed by the havoc wrought on his health by his enormous workload, a large chunk of it unpaid, his wealthy friends club together to make him a gift of £2100. They are concerned that his pride may prevent him from accepting such a large sum, but he does so graciously, honestly and revealingly. His letter of acknowledgement to Darwin is full of pathos.

‘I accept this splendid gift… for the first time in my life I have been fairly beaten. I mean morally beaten. Through all sorts of troubles & difficulties poverty illness, bedevilments of all sorts have I steered these thirty years, and never lost heart or failed to buffer the waves as stoutly as they buffeted me… [But] I have for months been without energy & without hope and haunted by the constant presence of hypochondriacal apprehensions which my reason told me were absurd but which I could not get rid of — for I was breaking down; sliding into the meanest of difficulties, the would be climber of heights, mired in a mere bog…
Have I said a word of appreciation for your own letter? I shall keep it for my children that their children may know what manner of a man their father’s friend was & why he loved him.’

If I have a gripe it is mainly that I was too thrilled to read the book more slowly so as to absorb a greater part of the detail. But one of the remaining puzzles for me is that, despite Huxley’s vigorous defence of Darwin and his theory (at least in his popular lectures and writing), evolution did not become more closely enmeshed in his own research work beyond 1860. Desmond contends that Huxley’s reticence on the details of evolution, which sometimes frustrated Darwin himself, was due to the tenuous and fragmentary nature of the evidence supporting the phylogenetic trees. But I cannot yet square this with Huxley’s honest and sophisticated appreciation of the sometimes erratic development of scientific hypotheses. I guess I will just have to read some more, no great hardship since I been here before and will probably willingly return to the subject.

By the end of the book I was stuffed, replete as after a huge but hugely satisfying meal. The switch, finally, to Eric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger with its taut, lean prose came as a welcome digestif. This slim thriller provided a lively jaunt through pre-war Austria and Czechoslovakia as Soviet and Romanian agents — the former aided by a hapless English journalist and the latter in the pay of a brutish British oil company — manoeuvre and out-manoeuvre one another on the trail of stolen military plans. It was breezy, quick, barely plausible and wonderfully absorbing.

I’m done now.

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13 Responses to Beachbooks 3: Uncommon science and danger

  1. Clare Dudman says:

    I think this is a stunning review, Stephen! You have done both Huxley and Desmond proud. I am intrigued by that daughter of his – she was obviously quite an artist. Why tragic? Maybe I ought to read the book to find out.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks Clare. There was so much that had to be left out but his daughter Marian, a gifted artist who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, went mad in her twenties and had to be institutionalised. She only lived to about the age of 28.

    <em class="From Wikipedia“>)
    She was married to the artist John Collier) who painted the portrait of Huxley that now hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Well worth a look, next time you are in town.

  3. Tim Jones says:

    Great write-up. I’m a long term Huxley – and Desmond – fan, and remember reading the separate editions when they came out. Looks like a handy combo there from Penguin. Apart from his scientific achievements, the biography brings out the personal challenges he faced – not least in supporting his own family – while pushing back professional frontiers on multiple fronts.

  4. Tim Jones says:

    This short post I did to mark Huxley’s birthday might be of interest; and a few more photos.
    Huxley’s Birthday

  5. Clare Dudman says:

    Thanks Stephen – such a beautiful tragic face. She looks peaceful there at least. That must have been a dreadful thing for her family.

  6. Kristi Vogel says:

    Beautifully written and thorough review, Stephen – now I’m inspired to read the book myself (though finding the time might be a challenge).
    One of TH Huxley’s grandsons, Julian Huxley, spent a brief period at my undergrad alma mater, the (at the time named) Rice institute. Apparently some members of the extended family also suffered from depression, as both Julian and one of his brothers spent time in a nursing home after having “nervous breakdowns”. I remember finding an old framed photograph of an egret (seem to recall that it was a Snowy Egret), which had Julian Huxley’s signature and a date on the back, in the office attached to the zoology lab at Rice. He might have taken it on one of his birdwatching trips to Avery Island in Louisiana. Wonder what happened to it?

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the link Tim – glad to meet another fan! Will definitely read through your blog post – looks v. interesting.
    Kristi – what a nice coincidence (finding the photo, that is!). It reminds me of comments made by Julian Huxley on a visit to Imperial some years back that I must try to dig out.

  8. Matt Brown says:

    Excellent as always Stephen. Reminds me of The Bone Man by Wendy Moore – the biography of anatomist John Hunter (he of Hunterian Museum fame), which I’m reading at the moment. Hunter also struggled against an entrenched establishment who favoured ancient authorities (Galen, Hippocrates) over rational inquiry and observation. He seems to have had a similar effect on London’s medical world as Huxley had on scientific circles. I can highly recommend it if you can face another biography.

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    @Tim – very much enjoyed your Zoonomian post on Huxley (some striking parallels – but I guess that just means we agree on the facts!). Good to have the link to the Huxley file – that looks very useful.
    @Kristi – I am preparing for an upcoming lecture in which I hope to weave some references to Huxley (the pretext being that I currently work in the Huxley Building at Imperial College) and I have been doing a bit more digging on THH in the library. I came across a slim volume that records a lecture given by GJ Whitrow on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the original Huxley building (which housed the School of Science that he helped to establish in South Kensington:

    The original Huxley Building (now part of the V&A museum)
    Sadly this has now been sold to the Victoria & Albert Museum where it has become the Henry Cole Wing. Sadly the current Huxley building is a 70’s monstrosity.
    Anyway, Whitrow’s lecture isn’t that great but who should stand up to give the vote of thanks but Sir Julian Huxley — this was back in 1972, almost close enough to touch. The grandson in a few moments said much more about Huxley the man than Whitrow had managed. What was most charming was to have the impressions of the very young Julian:

    He died when I was six, and by then I had often been taken to stay at the house he built in Eastbourne when he retired… I remember his splendid head of hair, by then crowned and fringed with snowy white, his warm smile, his understanding and patience with us children.

  10. Matt Brown says:

    Sorry – my comment should have said The Knife Man, not The Bone Man.

  11. Stephen Curry says:

    @Matt – oops! I was so focused on my previous comment that I missed yours. Thanks for reminding me about the Hunterian — I must visit. And for mentioning Hunter’s biography — I could certainly stand another one.
    Co-incidentally (?) as a medical student Huxley used to avail himself of the library at the Royal College of Surgeons and would have walked past the skeleton of the Irish giant, O’Brien, whom I think was rendered thus by Hunter, despite his wishes to the contrary. This story is mentioned in Ann Lingard’s _The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, which we discussed recently at Jenny Rohn’s book club.
    And incidentally, I have you to thank for pointing out the wonderful scientific portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I was on a visit there that I came across John Collier’s painting of the great man:

    _Huxley at the NPG
    I was greatly amused to discover that it hangs right beside the portrait of his arch-nemesis Richard Owen! I would like to think that Huxley derives some mischievous satisfaction from this arrangement!

  12. Tim Jones says:

    I’ve just got to second Matt’s recommendation of The Knife Man by Wendy Moore. It’s great, ghoulish, and unputdownable.

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