Consider two names associated with one of our state’s public universities, one a slave owner and the other an abolitionist. Which do you think might be canceled? You got it, the abolitionist.
As Western Washington University examines the names of its building and programs, it’s not George Washington, the slave owner, being reviewed. It’s the abolitionist Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his public defense of the theory of evolution, Huxley was also an early humanist (he invented the word “agnostic”) and social reformer. WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment was named after him when it was founded in 1970 as the world’s first interdisciplinary environmental college.
Universities around the country are conducting such reviews. Princeton recently removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs, citing his segregationist policies. Clemson and Yale both changed the name of colleges previously named after vice-president John C. Calhoun, a slave owner and white supremacist best known for his “positive good” theory of slavery.
Is it now time for T.H. Huxley’s name to go, too?
Ironically, it was fundamentalist Christians who first had Huxley in their cancel crosshairs. As the leading voice for the idea of humankind existing within, rather than divinely apart, from nature, Huxley posed an existential threat to church authority. Then in 1973, Henry M. Morris, founder of scientific creationism, fanatical anti-evolutionist and himself a racist who espoused a biblical justification for slavery, wrote an article accusing evolutionists like Huxley of supporting racism and genocide. Morris knew that the charge could split his enemies.
Indeed, some at WWU have swallowed Morris’ culture-war bait, claiming without evidence that the Huxley name has “caused harm.” Some even accuse him, history’s most outspoken opponent of social Darwinism, of being — you guessed it — a social Darwinist. It took 50 years, but Morris’ gaslighting worked.
The distinguished historians WWU asked to look at the issue overwhelmingly concluded the claims just don’t hold up. Huxley’s early writings did reflect the prevailing bigotry and prejudice of Victorian society, although even then to a lesser degree than his scientific peers. By the 1860s, he became a vocal abolitionist and by the end of his life called for universal human equal rights regardless of race or gender. The beautiful irony of his scientific work on human diversity is it ultimately leads him to see the oneness, and equality, of all humanity.
The Huxley quotes first used by Morris and now his WWU detractors are from his 1865 essay “Emancipation — Black and White,” which in reality is an impassioned defense of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. While the quotes sound dreadful to our modern ear, remember that Huxley was appealing to a British public that supported the Confederacy. Arguing against racial oppression, he goes much further to extend the proposition of universal rights, and to condemn the oppression that denies these rights.
Huxley later expanded these ideas in his great battles against social Darwinism and religion, which he saw as grounded in the dark forces of authority, bigotry and superstition. He feared they led to social order based on competition, subjugation and inequality. In this he was prescient, for indeed both have been used to justify not only laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism, but also colonialism, eugenics, racism and eventually fascism.
Huxley’s egalitarian views ran deep. Forced to leave school at age 10 to work, he was determined to educate himself. By 13 he was a medical apprentice in the poorest sections of London. At 17 he was admitted to study at Charing Cross Hospital, where he served London’s poorest citizens. Completing his studies deep in debt and too young to get into the Royal College of Surgeons, he enlisted in the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon but spent much of his time as a marine naturalist. The rest is history.
It’s telling he didn’t teach at Cambridge or Oxford, but rather working-class institutions, the Royal School of Mines and later Imperial College, where he brought science and industry together to solve societal problems. He gave hundreds of free public lectures to common folk. As an early advocate for public education, he was elected to the London School Board, where he worked to bring a decent education to ordinary people and implemented the first training for science teachers. In other words, he’d make an exemplary WWU faculty member today.
What would Huxley say about his legacy? First, he’d commend us for interrogating it, especially the brave students, who without power and risking reproach, stood up to raise the issue. But he’d then remind them that “it is not what we believe, but why we believe it. Moral responsibility lies in diligently weighing the evidence.” And to all of us he’d likely say, “learn what is true in order to do what is right.” Now that the question is before us, address it with honesty and integrity.
There may be other reasons to change the name of Huxley College. Reluctant to look at the university’s name, we might need other credibility-enhancing displays. How hypocritical, then, to keep the slave owner name, while canceling Huxley. A much better reason would be to build a more inclusive and welcoming identity, something you don’t get from a long-dead, mutton-chopped, British scientist. If so, let’s be honest about that and do it. There’s no need to vilify Huxley.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Each generation of social reformers travels a different segment of that arc, navigating by a moral constellation unique to their time and place in history. Huxley wasn’t perfect, but he brought himself and the rest of society to a more just place on that arc. We should celebrate his journey for making ours possible.
Don’t be fooled. Huxley’s message isn’t privileged. It isn’t elitist. It isn’t racist. It’s timeless. The values he fought for are at the core of public higher education to this day. Far from causing harm, we are in a better place because of Thomas H. Huxley.
Originally published at https://www.seattletimes.com on May 7, 2021.