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.
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.