Finding a win-win outcome for justice and science in the Huxley College name issue.
By Wayne Landis, David Leaf and Steve Hollenhorst
Originally published at https://theplanetmagazine.net on May 18, 2021.
Huxley College of the Environment on Western Washington University campus in spring. Photo courtesy of Huxley College of the Environment.
Anti-evolutionary creationists use many different tactics to undermine evolutionary theory and the teaching of evolutionary science. Two common ones are gaslighting and quote-mining.
Gaslighting happens when creationists sow seeds of doubt to get people to question their own perceptions or judgments about science, and evolution in particular. Quote-mining is a strategy in which creationists lift a passage of writing from its context to construct a “straw man” argument that misrepresents the writer’s position.
Sadly, this is exactly what has happened on the issue of denaming the Huxley College of the Environment. The college was named after Thomas H. Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his public defense of the theory of evolution, as an early humanist (he invented the word “agnostic”) and social reformer.
Gaslit by the creationists to think the worst of Huxley, last spring well-meaning social justice advocates at WWU began calling for Huxley’s name to be removed from the college, claiming he was a racist. Some even unwittingly began doing the creationists’ work for them by engaging in a quote-mining campaign aimed at discrediting Huxley.
All we have to do is open our eyes and look. The first citation in the A.S. Review’s op-ed arguing for the denaming is pulled out of the creationist, anti-evolution, anti-science, white supremacist swamp of disinformation and conspiracy. The article is written by Paul Glumaz, a long-term activist for the Lyndon LaRouche organization. He published in Executive Intelligence Review, a notorious LaRouche newsmagazine known for hawking conspiracy theories over the past five decades, including that climate change is a hoax and the “Big Lie” conspiracy that claims the election was stolen from Trump. Glumaz himself is currently a leading promoter of the Big Lie.
Glumaz’s article is a tour de force synthesis of the creationist, Christian fundamentalist, anti-science attacks on Huxley. The attacks have spread and multiplied since Henry M. Morris published an article in 1973 accusing Huxley of racism and connecting evolutionary theory to genocide. Morris was the founder of scientific creationism, a fanatical anti-evolutionist and himself a racist who supported a biblical justification for slavery.
Glumaz’s absurd rhetoric escalates to a dramatic climax of mind-control conspiracy where Huxley single-handedly (well, with a little help from Darwin) purges God and scripture from society. In its place he builds an “empire of Malthusian genocide” (Malthusian often being code for birth control and reproductive rights) that is leading us into a secular “Dark Age collapse of civilization.”
Glumaz’s arguments are used throughout the A.S. Review op-ed. We should take to heart the concluding words of Paul White, one of the distinguished historians the Task Force asked to comment on Huxley’s legacy. White is the editor and research associate for the Darwin Correspondence Project, at Cambridge University. White wrote the following about the A.S. Review articles:
“I have tried to understand something of the situation you are facing, and have read several articles in the AS Review (“Thomas Huxley: Once Respected, Now Rejected,” “Students Continue to Push for Huxley College Name Change”). These are not well informed and are stitched together from a handful of sources. From the Executive Intelligence Review (one of the sources cited), I learned that Huxley orchestrated the hideous conspiracy that man is an instinct driven ape-like creature. Huxley is described as an abolitionist, he was in fact much more than this. He called for the elimination of all political, legal, and economic prejudices, equal rights and opportunities for people of all races (and sexes). If the staff and students agree to remove Huxley’s name, they should at least do so with a better understanding of his views, and an appreciation for his place in the history of human emancipation and activism.”
While the Glumaz citation was not included in the follow-up research document submitted to the Task Force, the basic framework and arguments were maintained. Quote-mining is used extensively throughout the report, with most of the lifted passages quote-mined previously by creationists. Virtually all the arguments against Huxley can be traced back to creationist sources.
This is more than a war of words. If successful, this denaming case represents a new strategy creationists can deploy to advance their anti-evolution agenda. We encourage everyone interested in this issue to dig under the hood and do their own due diligence on what’s happened here.
We of course acknowledge that there are serious issues of racism and prejudice in the history of science. While a radical progressive reformer of his day, Huxley’s views still reflected many of these Victorian-era beliefs. It is our obligation to address it with all the resolve and energy we can muster. But let’s do it with honesty and integrity and not promote anti-science propaganda. We support the steps and actions outlined by Joseph L. Graves, Jr., the first African American to earn a PhD in evolutionary biology. In his article in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, Graves gives us a path away from vicious word wars and toward real action and real change.
As the Seattle Times guest editorial makes clear, changing the name of the Huxley College of the Environment could be a good thing if done for the right reasons. In the long and hard work of building a more inclusive and welcoming culture, being named after a long-dead, mutton-chopped British scientist might not be the best strategy. But let’s have that conversation without playing into the hands of creationists.
There is a win-win outcome to this issue. The Legacy Review Task Force should recommend that the Huxley College community take the coming year to explore a set of actions to create a more inclusive identity. This may include a new name that brings the college proudly through the next 50 years. But they should stand up against the anti-science creationists by not recommending a mandatory denaming. That way both justice and science win.
Note: The Legacy Review Task Force is taking comments until May 21.