Monkey business

HUXLEY: EVOLUTION'S HIGH PRIEST by Adrian Desmond, Michael Joseph pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY - "Darwin's Rottweiler" - was born above a butcher's shop in the London suburb of Ealing: a distinctly borderland address for one who later electrified Victorian society as the radical champion of evolution. If most thinking people now accept as fact our descent from the animal world, T H Huxley must take some credit. His own popular gloss on Darwinism - Man's Place in Nature - was published in 1863 with the now famous frontispiece of a skeletonised human loping ahead of a diminishing procession of ape ancestors. No other image so memorably depicts our simian heredity, and Huxley's book outsold the latest thriller by Wilkie Collins.

In present-day America, it is estimated that about half the population still regards Genesis as more plausible than Darwin's The Origin of Species. During his own visit to the US in 1876, Huxley was able to appease the creationists by demonstrating that American scorpions had not altered since coal-swamp times: change was not necessarily inevitable. But he was under no illusions: evolution was the most portentous natural truth science had ever discovered.

A controversial character, Huxley made the headlines in 1860 after his notorious showdown with Bishop Wilberforce. I'd rather be an ape, he quipped, than a bishop. Wilberforce enquired whether the apes might be on Huxley's grandfather's or grandmother's side, all swinging from the family tree. The first life of THH (as he was affectionately known) was written by Huxley's own son, Leonard, in 1900: unfortunately, it was a work of uncritical adulation.

The second and final volume of Adrian Desmond's superb biography, Evolution's High Priest, is a corrective to this earlier hagiography. It has all the cinematic sweep, racy prose and precise erudition of Desmond's first volume, The Devil's Disciple, published three years ago. The author is aware that T H Huxley is not much read today - consigned to the dustbin of history with other Victorian progressives like Herbert Spencer - but he successfully explains his subject's fascination. Occasionally there are awkward metaphors ("Huxley was seizing up, like a millipede wondering which leg to move next"), but no matter: the pages keep turning.

Desmond was the co-author of a superb biography of Darwin, and Evolution's High Priest is a worthy successor. All Victorian history is here. The narrative moves queasily from Custer's last stand in Little Big Horn to an outbreak of diphtheria in St John's Wood. T H Huxley survived the birth of his grandson, Aldous, by only a short year, dying in 1895, but the author of Brave New World may have inherited something of his grandfather's preacherly nature, the call to edify humanity. Unfashionably for Victorian times, T H Huxley held that biology moulded the character quite as much as the Classics. A high regard for Darwin was common among modernising liberals at the turn of the century. If civilised man is descended from a monkey, then endless progress is a law written in nature and no man has a right to view himself as superior to another.

T H Huxley coined the word "agnostic" but he was not above the sexual and racial prejudices of his time. He indulged in jingoistic Russophobia during the Crimean war, and was vigorously anti-Irish. Yet he supported the Dissenters' movement and the northern cotton magnates in their opposition to the Anglican hierarchy. A natural freethinker in his youth, Huxley also condemned the pseudo-scientific apologists in the American South, who claimed that blacks were merely metamorphosed orang-utans. In this second volume, however, a more crotchety Huxley emerges. "That man never enters my house again," he grumbled of the velveteen Oscar Wilde.

Leaning towards a High Tory belief in the organisation of society on a caste basis, Huxley became Privy Councillor to the Queen. Certainly the Darwinian notion of a struggle for life does not reconcile very happily with the socialist ideal of co-operation. Huxley's theory of evolution was in fact less radical than Darwin's, whose insistence on the harsh amorality of nature appeared too brutally materialised. People may have arisen from apes, insisted Huxley, but they are not necessarily of them. Huxley presented evolution as a sort of secular Genesis and he referred to Darwinists as a "sect"; sometimes he seemed locked inside the very tradition he was trying to overthrow.

In private Huxley was a vulnerable man, whose severe depressions deepened in middle age. Today he would probably be diagnosed as manic depressive with violent mood swings. George Eliot called him "brilliant"; Beatrice Webb thought he was half cracked. Whichever, Britain's foremost exponent of Darwin was a classic figure in the tradition of the Enlightenment: he championed a surrogate theology which recognised no God, and made mankind the object of its adoration. Professor Desmond's two-volume Life, richly documented across a teeming canvas, is a monument to science and a book that it is impossible not to enjoy.