T.H. Huxley: Early Proponent of Publicly Funded Research

October 15, 1998


Thomas Henry Huxley, whose contemporaries included Darwin, Maxwell, Koch, and Pasteur, was unsurpassed in his efforts to stimulate public awareness of science and to open up careers in the field.

Book Review
James Case

Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest. By Adrian Desmond, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1997, $37.50, 832 pages.

For better or worse, science sells! Tang, pocket calculators, "moon boots," freeze-dried snacks, and other by-products of the space program have all made their way into the malls. We brush our teeth with "lab-tested" toothpaste, purchase "Science Diet" pet food, and follow fitness routines designed by "exercise scientists." Colleges and universities offer instruction in physical science, biological science, social science, computer science, military science, food science, library science, management science, and secretarial science. It requires an act of will to imagine a time when the public knew little and cared less about science; that time was just ending as Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) was growing to adulthood.

The likes of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Leibnitz, Euler, the Bernoullis, Lyell, Lamarck, Lavoisier, and Darwin thought of themselves not as scientists, but as "naturalists," or "natural philosophers." The term "scientist," like the more provocative "agnostic," was among Huxley's lasting contributions to the English language. Due in large part to his own unstinting efforts, at the time of Huxley's death people in the industrialized nations were keenly aware of science, scientists, and their growing list of accomplishments. While a handful of his contemporaries-among them Darwin, Maxwell, Mendeleev, Koch, and Pasteur-did more than Huxley to advance the frontiers of knowledge, none was more effective in stimulating public awareness of science or opening up careers in the field. In addition to being insightful and informative, Adrian Desmond's excellent biography dramatizes the considerable debt modern practitioners of science and technology owe to a small group of intrepid reformers led by Huxley.

The group sought to persuade the body politic that science would richly reward both public and private investment. They advocated the professionalization of the enterprise via peer-reviewed research, the emulation of Germany's newly emerging technical universities, and the teaching of science to school children, by teachers trained to teach it at colleges dedicated to the purpose. To the latter end, Huxley wrote some of the first elementary science texts in the English language, conducted summer science schools for working teachers, and delivered countless public lectures, all without curtailing either his own zoological research or his extended campaign---conducted both in print and at the podium-against the defenders of an oppressive social hierarchy.

Born the son of an impecunious school teacher, Huxley struggled long and hard to launch his own scientific career. Originally trained in medicine---at the Charing Cross Hospital in London's East End, after brief service as an apothecary's assistant---he became unusually skilled in the art of dissection. Dwellers in the city's mean streets were dying like flies, during Huxley's student years, from the starvation, disease, and foul play so unforgettably described in the works of Charles Dickens. The resulting supply of cadavers found its way to Charing Cross, where it soon became apparent that the eager teenager could learn from them in days what even the most astute of his contemporaries took months to digest.

After finishing first in his medical school class, Huxley found himself deeply in debt. Inspired in part by the success of Darwin's voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, he accepted a commission in the Royal Navy, sailing-on the first of December, 1846---as assistant surgeon aboard the HMS Rattlesnake for parts then all but unknown. That voyage was to be the foundation on which his entire career was built.

Huxley was surprised and delighted, on his return to Great Britain in November of 1850, to find his name on every scientific lip. One of the many papers he posted back to England from scattered ports of call had been published in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, which he described (in a letter to Henrietta (Harriet) Heathorn, the Australian fiancée he acquired in his travels) as "the first scientific publication in England." Another had been read into the Zoological Society's Proceedings by Edward Forbes, a mentor and friend, while others were still in press. Even a letter he had written to Forbes appeared in toto in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. Within months of his return, Huxley was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and nominated for the Royal medal he finally won in 1854. This was recognition of the highest order, an honor even a Lyell or a Faraday would have been pleased to accept. London's burgeoning scientific community waited, seemingly with bated breath, for further word of his exciting discoveries!

Huxley had returned with enough drawings and detailed descriptions of exotic sea creatures to produce an entire shelf of books. He lacked only the time---and money---to write them. By the end of the month of his return, he had been appointed an "additional assistant surgeon" aboard the ancient hulk Fisguard, moored more or less permanently at Greenwich, and granted six months' leave, renewable, at half-pay. But his request for £300 to offset the costs of publication was summarily denied. It never ceased to irritate Huxley that, whereas the independently wealthy Darwin had received £l000 for such purposes after his voyage aboard the Beagle, the Admiralty could spare nothing for a junior officer still owing £100 on his student loans.

It was Huxley's fondest hope that the books and papers he proposed to write would win him a professorship and a salary on which he could live, pay off his remaining debts, and marry. It was almost a year since he had last set eyes on his Australian fiancée, and he was still too poor to pay her passage to England. Nor was it by any means clear-in an age when professorships paid between £30 and £300 annually, while a bank clerk might earn £400, a society doctor £3000, a lawyer £15,000, and the Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, received £1000 per annum for performing no discernible duties-that Huxley's plight was temporary! Yet he remained optimistic and continued dissecting and classifying invertebrates on what he described as "a servant's pay." He was doing what he wanted, turning his back on the lucrative medical practice his skill and engaging manner would almost surely have allowed him to build.

Financial relief was not to come until May of 1854, when Forbes was named to a recently vacated chair in Edinburgh and Huxley replaced him at the newly organized Government School of Mines. Although the annual salary was a meager £200, the attendant opportunities to write and lecture promised at least to double that figure. By autumn, he was projecting £500 a year and could at last send for his fiancée. They were wed a year later, and Huxley became the very model of a dedicated family man, a fact that was to stand him in good stead during the high-profile debates in which he was soon to become embroiled. Any hint of personal scandal, at the height of the Victorian era, would have done irreparable damage to any cause with which he was associated.

The England to which Huxley returned in 1850 had survived, with little outward change, both the Irish potato famine and the tidal wave of socialist revolution that swept across Europe in 1848. Yet change was unmistakably in the air. Census data revealed that fewer than half the population-and far fewer in the expanding industrial ghettos---still attended church on Sunday. Socialism was so common in the workplace that employers hesitated to sack even outspoken free thinkers lest the ensuing chain reaction force them to curtail production. Gradually, Britain was being overtaken by a wave of prosperity, the like of which she had not experienced since the close of the Napoleonic Wars.

By the time Darwin published his Origin of Species, in 1859, evolution was an idea whose time had plainly come. As if in anticipation, a sort of indigenous street science had grown up, seeming to link the fossil record with liberty, fraternity, and egalitarian notions of social justice. Pamphleteers hawked natural (miracle-free) explanations of creation, and the "man in the street" seemed almost eager to acknowledge his apelike ancestors, subject only to the willingness of the nation's dukes, earls, bishops, and squires to do likewise.

The ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Scotland's David Hume, who stressed the primacy of tangible evidence over competing justifications of belief, were "trickling down" to the public at a rate that many found alarming. The Church of England, which had long identified the nation's rigid class structure with the will of God, was finding it increasingly difficult to divert public attention from the growing body of evidence clearly indicating---among other things---that the last ice age had ended some 12,000 years earlier, whereas a careful reading of the Bible would reveal that God had created the Earth, the Moon, and the stars no more than seven thousand years earlier.

Agitators held forth on every street corner. They pressed, among other things, for progressive, technical education to ready their proletarian followers for the day when the meek might at last inherit the Earth. Aware of the situation, Huxley's employers at the School of Mines moved to satisfy popular demand. Huxley soon became a box-office sensation at their regularly scheduled winter evening science lectures, which were open to the public at nominal prices. All six hundred seats in the school's gigantic first-floor auditorium, seldom more than half-filled by day, were invariably occupied during Huxley's evening lectures.

Though tempted, no doubt, by demagoguery, he was on most occasions a scrupulously factual lecturer who could communicate subtleties, and somehow found a way to convey the impression that science was supremely relevant to the hopes and thwarted aspirations of the working class. He quickly developed, moreover, a knack for expressing himself in the vernacular, and would often delight his listeners by phrasing utterly heretical conclusions in sonorous biblical language. As the admiring Desmond puts it, "Evangelicalism fired his sermons. He was turning the heathen to righteousness, making Science the Path."

Never alone in his quest, Huxley was a long-time member of the Philosophical Club-which Desmond describes as "a sort of dining-circle-cum-think-tank inside the Royal Society"-and later founded his own even more exclusive secret society. Known to its members as the X-club and meeting for dinner on the first Thursday of every month, just hours before the regularly scheduled meetings of the Royal Society, the club soon became a de facto steering committee. Only nine strong, the group included three biological scientists, three physical scientists, two mathematicians, and the influential author Herbert Spencer, best remembered for having coined the phrase "survival of the fittest."

To a man, the X-clubbers saw the furor aroused by Darwin's Origin of Species, and prolonged by his Descent of Man (1872), as a golden opportunity to effect meaningful reform. The battle that would be joined in America at the famous Scopes monkey trial of 1925 was fought half a century earlier in England, by Huxley and his confederates. By portraying themselves as champions of evolution and social progress, while painting all others as enemies of truth and the popular will, they earned the overwhelming public support needed to establish research institutes, technical universities, and teacher-training programs. They were opposed, of course, by numerous defenders of the status quo, none of which was more formidable than the Church of England, which stood to lose some or all of the tax revenues from which roughly 30,000 vicars, parsons, and bishops drew the bulk of their incomes.

Desmond describes in great, sometimes amusing, and often illuminating detail the means by which the war for state support was eventually won. It was a triumph of public relations, in which Huxley was by all accounts the key strategist on the winning side. One close colleague went so far as to call him "only accidentally a zoologist", a born publicist, and a one-man lobbying machine.

For both Huxley and Spencer, competition was an essential ingredient of the meritocracy they meant to establish. Admission to the proposed scientific and technological universities would be by competitive examination, with the highest-ranking graduates moving into the best entry-level jobs, after which promotions would be based exclusively on job performance. Nepotism would have no place in the kingdom of science and reason. So long as these essentials were opposed by powerful forces, their friendship endured. But by 1888, with those battles won, the two fell out over an issue that plagues industrialized nations even today.

While Spencer honed his pro-competitive rhetoric into history's most blanket denunciation of governmental involvement in any and all forms of commercial activity, Huxley continued to advocate a comprehensive program of science education and research, paid for by tax dollars, and an extensive system of public libraries to complement publicly funded schools and experiment stations. Huxley further infuriated his old friend by advocating the appointment of a cabinet-level secretary of science. Their increasingly acrimonious dispute ended a 35-year friendship and caused Spencer to resign from the X-club. Cooler heads urged Huxley to mend the rift, but he merely wondered aloud how he had put up for so long with that "boorish, long-winded . . . pedant." Nothing in Huxley's experience inclined him to believe that private enterprise could or would---soon or ever---sustain the quality and quantity of research he knew to be under way in the British Empire.

Were Huxley alive today, he might well observe that corporate research all too often degenerates into market research, designed to determine the color of the wrapper for a particular product, or legal research designed to discover a loophole through which "fat-free lard" can be offered to the public. Whereas industrial research can be, and often is of the highest quality, few participants would deny that it differs unavoidably, and in significant ways, from publicly funded research.

It is ironic that the dispute between Huxley and Spencer arose even as the captains of American industry whom Spencer so admired---men like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller---were reaching tacit agreement with Huxley. Long before they began, in the earliest years of the present century, to endow permanent foundations for the funding of basic research, such folk had begun to encourage domestic science via generous bequests to scientifically oriented universities. They did so precisely because they were convinced that progress and prosperity would lag if such research were overly dependent on the vagaries of the corporate bottom line. In general agreement with the principle of English common law asserting that "Charity has no business to sit at boards of directors qua charity," and with the legal interpretation of that principle directing that corporate funds be used to support only research that promises the prompt acceleration of the flow of corporate dividends, they moved to provide alternative sources of funding for more basic research. The foundations they established were the main supporters of basic research in the U.S. between the two World Wars and are still, despite massive government support since the last one, important players in certain phases of the game.

Many now in Congress express---usually without mentioning Spencer---opinions remarkably similar to his concerning the funding of scientific research. Why, they ask, should tax dollars support research for which the free market is unwilling to pay? Desmond's book suggests that Huxley's answers to this and other questions of enduring interest are by no means out of date.

James Case is an independent consultant who lives in Baltimore, Maryland.


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