The Huxleys: 200 Years of Science & Culture in One Family

Alison Bashford

The Huxley family drove scientific discovery for 150 years.
Thomas Henry and Julian Huxley, 1895. Julian and Juliette Huxley Papers, 1899–1988, Permission to reproduced granted by Victoria Huxley and Susan Ray
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The Huxleys. I like to think of nineteenth-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and his twentieth-century zoologist grandson Julian as one very long-lived man. This Huxley lived from 1825–1975.  Controversial exponent and explainer of evolution by natural selection, his vital dates bookended the colossal shifts in world history from the age of sail to the Space Age; from colonial wars to world wars to the Cold War; from a time when the Earth was 6,000 years old according to Genesis, to a time when it was 4.5 billion years old, according to rock samples returned from the Apollo missions.

Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s most outspoken spokesman, always wanted to be patriarch of a new scientific dynasty. He was, and of a literary one too. Pulling himself out of a less-than-modest Midlands beginning, and a miserable medical apprenticeship, aged of 13, he began to mercilessly attack powerful scientific and religious structures of the mid-Victorian era. He brought them down, one by one.

In his most famous portrait, Huxley claims the skull-of-everyman, like a sovereign holding an orb. Inventor of the term ‘agnostic’, this representative of God’s dominion on earth self-transformed into secular trustee of all humankind.

Thomas Henry Huxley, by John Collier, 1883. Oil on canvas, © The National Portrait Gallery London.

Are humans animal, was his core question? Yes, his explosive answer, years before Charles Darwin could muster courage to say so. Huxley put it all down in 1863: Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. He was himself a force of nature.

Except when depression hit. Inside this family of high-profile biologists and authors, lies is an intimate intergenerational story of melancholy. A brilliant family, their collective depression was only matched by capacity to think about it in highly curious ways, to be intrigued by the mysteries of minds, bodies, and inheritance. As often as they looked to outer or future or nether worlds, the Huxleys looked inwards, into their very selves. Such introspections were sometimes public in the form of poetry books and unrestrained memoirs, or else were entwined in essays on religion, on ethics, on philosophies of knowing and ways of being. For neither Thomas Henry nor Julian Huxley were their depressions ever fully hidden or sequestered.

In the psychoanalytically intense 1920s, Julian disclosed the crippling melancholy he shared with his grandfather – that is to say, crucially and technically, that he knew (from his Mendelian training) that he inherited. His public honesty in early adulthood makes the child’s hand in this early studio portrait softly covering – claiming, seeking – his grandfather’s, poignant and painful, as above. It holds a truth. These men of science were privately tied together by their suffering. Publicly and professionally they were tied together by Julian’s own hand, by his work and will, as he actively grafted himself onto grandfather’s lineage, to become first Director-General of UNESCO, director of the London Zoo, and pioneer filmmaker of natural history.

In so many ways Julian was David Attenborough’s antecedent. Indeed in his very first film Attenborough was behind the camera, producing, and Julian Huxley, biologist-narrator, was in front. The Huxley tradition of exploring and explaining animals and humans on planet Earth, via Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection, endured. In the meantime, Julian’s beloved brother Aldous was fictionalising it all. His family’s science entered the world’s treasure box of science fiction.

This long-lived Huxley, 1825–1975, not only shows us, but also actively gave us, models to pursue and to avoid: for thinking humanity and nature together; for placing the species into deep pasts and distant futures; for tracking a repetitive human tendency to dominion, and for considering the Earth with and even without Homo sapiens, the trustees of evolution.

Alison Bashford is a historian and author of An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family.

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