HUXLEY by Adrian Desmond


From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest
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 A whopping life of Thomas Huxley (182595), who did much to bring Victorian-era science to a lay audience. History has tended to remember Huxley as a stalking horse for Charles Darwin, a man who popularized evolutionary theory but did not himself contribute much to it. Desmond (Darwin, 1992), a biologist and historian of science, does much to correct this view- -albeit somewhat breathlessly. It is true, he writes, that Huxley, a physician born into a family of decidedly modest means, spent much of his time speaking to workingmen's associations and other working-class groups about ape ancestors and cave men; it is also true that he popularized the word ``scientist'' and coined the term ``agnostic,'' and that he wrote the first article on evolution for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet Huxley made several important advances in the study of the polyp- and medusa-bearing animals, the Coelenterata. Like Darwin, he saw the wonders of the natural world at first hand, having sailed as ship's doctor and scientist on a Beagle-like voyage that introduced him to odd creatures and ecological mysteries; he was thus equipped to appreciate evolutionary arguments concerning the great variability of species over time and space. Huxley was in many ways Darwin's equal, Desmond suggests, but was marshaled as a lieutenant into the cause of natural selection after abandoning his anti-utilitarian view of nature, an abandonment that made him a follower, not a leader. Desmond is too fond of overwrought prose (he describes a dissecting-room cadaver as ``a cold body and a dead brain that had once glowed with hopes and desires''), but he makes a compelling case for our viewing Huxley as a crucial figure in the 19th-century social transformation toward the modern world. This is an unfailingly interesting contribution to the history of science. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-201-95987-9
Page count: 848pp
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1997


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