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An Intimate History of Evolution by Alison Bashford review – the incredible Huxleys

“Dear Sir,” wrote a nameless correspondent to Julian Huxley in 1937. “Would you consent to being the father of my wife’s child, possibly by artificial insemination?” Alison Bashford doesn’t reveal what prompted the request, nor if the evolutionary biologist, eugenicist and ecologist supplied the genetic material.

But she certainly knows why the correspondent would request it. The Huxley family, seemingly, had the right stuff that anyone would want to graft on to their family tree. The dynasty of geniuses began with Julian’s grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95), the great Victorian biologist and comparative anatomist known as Darwin’s bulldog for savaging critics of his friend’s account of natural selection, and proselytising that we descend not from Adam and Eve but from apes. His grandson Julian (1887–1975) was a biologist, a transhumanist, a poet, sci-fi writer, the secretary of London zoo, the first Unesco director general, a broadcasting catalyst for David Attenborough, a eugenicist and a leading figure in the “modern synthesis” that married Darwin’s theory of evolution with the first geneticist, gardening monk Gregor Mendel’s ideas on heredity.

The rest of the Huxleys were no slouches either. Julian’s physiologist half-brother Andrew was a Nobel laureate. Julian’s son Francis was an anthropologist and founder of Survival International. The most famous Huxley, Julian’s brother Aldous, author of Brave New World and devotee of consciousness-altering drugs, was perhaps a bit of an underachiever. The Huxleys were like the Kardashians in one sense only: it was hard to keep up with them.

When he was five, Julian read The Water Babies, the bestselling Victorian moral fable about a boy presumed drowned but raised underwater. It had been written by TH Huxley’s friend the Rev Charles Kingsley, inspired by debates over the threat Darwin’s dangerous idea of natural selection posed to the account of God’s creation. The book included an engraving of Julian’s grandad mesmerised before a water baby who had been captured in a bottle. “Dear Grandpater,” little Julian wrote, “Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day? – Your loving Julian.”

Thomas Henry replied that he had never seen such a water baby, which was no grounds for positing its nonexistence, adding: “My friend who wrote the story of the Water Baby was a very kind man and very clever. Perhaps he thought I could see as much in the water as he did – there are some people who see a great deal and some who see very little in the same things. When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing.”

Julian certainly saw, and made, things that, if not wonderful, were beyond the ordinary. He spent much of the 1920s in a lab in Oxford injecting thyroid hormones into axolotls (now-endangered Mexican salamanders), which could transform them from aquatic beings one day to terrestrial, air-breathing ones the next. Such injections enabled him to make organisms larger or smaller, more or less male or female, longer- or shorter-lived. He resembled, perhaps, a relatively benign version of his friend and literary collaborator HG Wells’s character Dr Moreau.

But could humans be transformed too? Could the Huxley genius be bottled? “Artificial insemination had long been practised in animal breeding, and crude versions – by today’s standards – were already under way among humans,” writes Bashford. Julian noted, rather than endorsed, his geneticist colleague Hermann Muller’s suggestion that well-endowed males might be selected to sire more of the next generation.

Julian Huxley served on the Eugenics Society’s Committee for Legalising Eugenic Sterilisation, and argued in 1927 “how a quite small measure of negative eugenics could enormously reduce the burden of defective humanity which the race has to carry on its shoulders”. For all that, he was one of the most prominent critics of Nazi eugenics. In We Europeans: A Survey of Racial” Problems, written in 1935 with the influential anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon, he railed against the idea that the Aryan pure race could be recovered through forced sterilisation and other reproductive practices. There was no such thing as the Aryan race, he and Haddon argued; no excuse either for forced sterilisation or the other evil experiments on humans being conducted then in Germany.

Huxley was too good a scientist to suppose that genius could be selected and passed on artificially. Artificial selection in agriculture and horticulture, he argued, was predicated on producing a “particular excellence”. The parallel with humans didn’t work. “Man owed much of his evolutionary success to his unique variability,” he wrote and, adds Bashford, human improvement must retain that diversity.

For all that, Huxley did believe in improving humans. Bashford claims that he coined the term transhumanism in 1951, and argued for eugenics even after Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz. Like Malthus, Huxley worried about overpopulation, but he worried not just about quantity, but quality, approvingly quoting fellow eugenicist Francis Galton’s remark: “If the prudent avoid marriage whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society.” How, Huxley wondered, could humanity avoid such ignominious descent? Science and technology – possibly including eugenics but also, importantly, the improvement of the social environment – were what he counselled.

‘Darwin’s bulldog’: Thomas Henry Huxley. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What Julian Huxley’s correspondent perhaps didn’t appreciate was that, while there was not, and could not be, a Huxley genius gene, there was a worrying family history of mental illness. TH Huxley and Julian both suffered from paralysing depression. Julian’s brother Trevenen killed himself in his 20s. Aldous reintroduced Chaucer’s term “accidie” to describe the condition that “forsloweth and forsluggeth” a man. Bashford writes: “This was what was passed from Thomas Henry Huxley to his grandson and what was inherited here and there across the wider family.”

Prof Bashford, the historian of science, has made a rod for her own back with this wonderful book. There is so much material to cover, so many beguiling byways to explore – from ripping yarns with TH Huxley on his voyage on the HMS Rattlesnake to scintillating vignettes about Julian studying the mating rituals of great-crested grebes on Tring reservoir; romances, affairs, tragedies, the evolution of evolutionary science from TH’s skull measurements to Julian mourning Guy the gorilla. There is more material than you can shake a stick at, still less write a cohesive narrative about.

Bashford makes things more difficult for herself by eschewing a straightforward chronological narrative that tells of the descent of Huxleys; instead, she does a crazy dance, organising her material thematically. There are chapters on apes, animal cruelty, eugenics and even a very surprising one on how the materialist Huxleys delved into the spirit world. Sometimes this leads to vertiginous switchbacks that leave the reader flummoxed, but it’s mostly a compelling performance held together chiefly by the juxtaposition of two very different men – Thomas, the man of bone, theorising from bones and soft tissue; Julian, the observer of living beings – both bent on understanding what life is.

We may delude ourselves by thinking eugenics ended in the 20th century and that the Huxleys are best considered as part of the fossil record – dead white men whose ideas about human “fitness” are repellent and obsolete. Not so, argues Bashford compellingly. “Less fit humans are every day diagnosed and made viable, in utero,” she writes. “This might be good, this might be bad, but it is certainly fact.” Huxleyan transhuman dreams are part of everyday lives, from gene-editing, abortion and IVF to the accelerating extension of human life. We live, depending on your politics, in the shadow or the light of the Huxleys.

  • An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family by Alison Bashford is published by Allen Lane (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: The Guardian

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