Cancelling Huxley

J. Scott Turner

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) was a central figure in the founding of Imperial College London (ICL). Since its founding, ICL has grown to be one of the top 20 research institutions worldwide. It is England’s MIT.

Until recently, Huxley was best known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” for his tenacious defense of Charles Darwin’s theories against all critics, secular and divine. Less well known is Huxley, the ardent abolitionist; the strenuous advocate for equality of education for men and women, boys and girls; the tireless laborer for the democratization of science and university education. In any conceivable context, Huxley stood out from his contemporaries as a champion of liberal values. ICL had long honored that with a statue, and by placing his name on one of its buildings.

ICL is like MIT in other—less fortunate—ways. Following the BLM riots of 2020, ICL was mau-maued into “re-examining its history,” code for sniffing out witches, wherever they might be hiding. Among the witches and warlocks they turned up was Huxley himself: he apparently had expressed some Bad Thoughts about black people and women. The ICL diversity police determined therefore that Huxley had to be cancelled.

Fortunately, this particular witch hunt had a happy ending. The proposal to cancel Huxley was vigorously opposed by academics throughout Britain, and their high profile campaign worked. The diversity police backed down, the ICL administration became slightly less invertebrate, and it was determined that Huxley’s statue would remain. His name would still grace that building, but as a sop to the witch-hunters, his name would share the building with a physicist, Abdus Salam.

The campaign to thwart Thomas Huxley’s cancellation is interesting in another way, because it rested on another form of moral preening: that it is unfair to judge historical figures by our present supposedly enlightened moral standards. Left unasked is the uncomfortable question: are we as enlightened as we think? But that uncomfortable question opens the lid on the essential anti-intellectualism of the modern mania for ‘decolonizing’ science. In the end, the standards of the 19th century can actually teach us a thing or two about race and racism.

Race and evolution

To Victorian scientists like Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, race was the key to a coherent theory of evolution. A close reading of the title of Darwin’s magnum opus makes the point directly: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (emphasis mine). Solving Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries”—how new species came to be—would be impossible without a clear understanding of what race is.

Darwin opened On the Origin of Species with pigeons, so let me explore the matter using Australian rock pigeons, of which there are only two species, distinguished by different colors of the wing’s quill feathers. The chestnut-quilled rock pigeon (Petrophassa rufipennis) has reddish quills, while white-quilled rock pigeons (Petrophassa albipennis) have whiteish quills. The species names are literally descriptive. Rufipennis is Latin for “reddish feather,” while albipennis translates as “white feather.”

To Darwin’s question, then: how did these two species come to be, presumably from a common proto-rock pigeon ancestor? Race comes in because the distinction between the two species living in nature is not as clear-cut as I have described it. Even though chestnut-quilled rock pigeons do indeed have distinctly reddish quills, some individuals may have quills that are lighter-red than most, while others may have darker-red quills. Similarly, there is variation of quill “whiteness” among ostensibly white-quilled rock pigeons.

If these variations within a species are heritable, these constitute different races of rock pigeons. There might arise, for example, a race of chestnut-quilled rock pigeons whose quills are lighter red in color across generations, but not so much that they could be classified as white-quilled rock pigeons.

To Darwin (and to his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, whom some claim was the real discoverer of natural selection), these racial variations were indicators of incipient new species. For example, if races of lighter-red-quilled Petrophassa rufipennis did better in some habitats than darker-red-quilled races, and darker-red-quilled races did better in other habitats than lighter-quilled birds, the races would diverge, generation to generation. If they diverged far enough and persistently enough, a new species of distinctly white-quilled rock pigeons, Petrophassa albipennnis, would emerge. Two species from an ancestral one.  

The evolution of human races

The campaign to cancel Huxley was not motivated by arcane debates over pigeons, of course. Darwin predicted that through his new theory, “light may be shed” on the origin and evolution of humans. An understatement, to be sure! As long as the subject was pigeons, few feathers were ruffled, but when the question turned to humans, unavoidable controversy erupted. It needn’t have. Like rock pigeons, humans come in varieties that differ from one another in skin color, texture of hair, stature, physiognomy, and many other traits. These traits are heritable, so it was only natural that the same questions that applied to pigeons would be asked about humans. Were all humans one species of Homo sapiens, differentiated into races? Or were the different types of humans actually different species of Homo? And where does one draw the distinction between races and species?

The question is by no means a simple one to answer. Africans differ from Europeans in obvious traits. But Africa is host to a number of human types that also differ substantially from one another. Should one comparison (between European and African races) carry more weight than another (between races of Africans)?1 For example, the Bantu tribes, who spread with their cattle from west Africa through southern Africa, differ from the Khoi-San tribes, whose origin is centered in the African southwest. Their skin colors are different, the texture of their hair differs, their statures differ, and their languages are radically different. Are the Khoi-San then different species from the Bantu? Certainly, some Bantu tribes thought so, to the point of hunting the Khoi-San to near extinction. Yet, there is also considerable variation among the Bantu tribes, in skin color, hair type, stature, and other traits. Are the Khoi-San more distinct a race than the Bantu races are from one another? Or less distinct? Hard to say.

This is the basic problem with race and species. When modern-day activists claim that race is a mere social construct, they have a point, but really only half a point. The scientific problem with race and species is that there is no agreed-upon standard to define them and to differentiate them clearly from one another. Biology is not much help here: biologists recognize more than two dozen concepts of what species are, and there is little agreement on which definition among that multitude is the objectively “correct” one.2 Add to that the endless quibbling among biologists about more finely-divided categories, such as sub-species, varieties, and races, and one can grant that there is, indeed, a great deal of social construction of the human races. Of all creatures, to be honest. Just ask a birdwatcher.

I will come to the erroneous half-point momentarily. What did the Victorian scientists think about race? To put it simply, they were as confused as we are presently. Darwin, Wallace, and Huxley all came down on different sides on the distinctiveness of the human races. Darwin, for example, leaned toward the idea of multiple human species, prompted by his fleeting experience with the natives he encountered in Tierra del Fuego (he later softened this stance). Wallace, who had been immersed in the culture of native peoples much more deeply than Darwin had been, thought that the Borneans and Malaysians he worked with were equivalent in nearly every way to Europeans, intelligence included. He did think the Borneans’ comparatively primitive culture left their intellects underused. As for Huxley, he occupied himself with the question of whether humans and apes had a common ancestor (they did), which he approached by documenting the similarities, rather than the differences, between the two. The more similar humans were to apes, the greater the likelihood that both evolved from a common ancestor.

So there was a broad diversity of opinion among the Victorians about the races of humans and their relationships to one another. Was this racist? Only in the sense that race was an intense focus of interest, in particular of scientific interest. The debate was sometimes marked by use of infelicitous words that should elicit no more than a raised eyebrow, but could stoke the rage of the racially hypersensitive. The scientific discussions about race among the Victorians were exactly what should be expected from any unresolved scientific question: many hypotheses, substantial disagreement, vigorous debate, and an open mind to all possible outcomes until one or the other can be decisively ruled out.

Can we say the same about our modern discourse over race? Again, not really. Which brings us to the cancellers’ erroneous half a point.

Heritability, race, and eugenics

Just because we do not have a good idea what race is, it does not follow that race is a “mere” social construct: such a glib dismissal ignores the very considerable uncertainty on the subject. Where there is disagreement and uncertainty, the scientific mind will, by its nature, keep looking for better ways to define the question. In this instance, the question is still: how do we differentiate race and species? Ironically, it was Charles Darwin’s second cousin Francis Galton (both Darwin and Galton had the same grandfather, Erasmus Darwin) who thought he had discovered a way.

Francis Galton was one of the Victorian era’s remarkable geniuses. He was an adventurer and explorer,3 a mathematical prodigy, and a stunningly imaginative thinker. He created the first weather maps, for example, and pioneered the use of fingerprints in criminal forensics. He conducted experiments on the power of prayer and invented the modern discipline of statistical analysis. He was the epitome of the Victorian polymath.

At age 37, Galton’s imagination was captured by reading his cousin’s book, particularly Darwin’s conception of heredity. Galton eventually concluded his cousin’s ideas were muddle-headed. Characteristically, he said so publicly, which set off a family tiff.

Darwin’s concept of heredity had two-dimensions: “hard” inheritance and “soft” inheritance. Hard inheritance was conservative: why offspring of pigeons would reliably be pigeons, and not eagles, for example. Adaptable change, on the other hand, was embodied in soft inheritance, which allowed offspring to inherit some of the parent’s life experience. This included adaptive modification of the body, such as development of thicker plumage in the cold. Variation of both would determine whether a race (of, say, pigeons) would be favored in the struggle for life. Think of hard inheritance as the “script” for the play, while soft inheritance serves as the improvisations.

Galton had carried out his own independent studies of heritability, in particular for humans. He meticulously gathered measurements of every human trait within his reach, sometimes by subterfuge, and how they passed from parent to offspring. To make sense of the data he gathered, Galton developed new statistical and mathematical tools, founding modern statistical theory. In a nutshell, Galton concluded that any notion of soft inheritance—of the heritability of adaptation—was bunk. Based on his analysis of his observed patterns of heritability, Galton concluded that hard inheritance was all there was. In Galton’s mind, Darwin’s soft inheritance could only be defended by hand-waving and wishful thinking, which to a positivist like Galton, meant that it could not exist.

Galton concluded therefore that race was determined by the differing genetic endowments (the hard inheritances) of the different races. Africans were Africans and Europeans were Europeans because they transmitted their respective genetic endowments to their offspring. For this reason, Africans could never be Europeans and vice versa: their genetic endowments precluded it. This made Galton the founder of the modern gene-based theory of natural selection.

Galton did not limit his studies to racial differences in physical appearance. He also developed the first quantitative tests of intelligence and cognition, upon which he built a new field he called “differential psychology.” Galton found that cognitive traits also differed between races, and these showed the same patterns of heritability as other traits. His conclusion? Cognition and intelligence were just as much determined by genetic endowment as skin color and hair texture.

Galton’s statistical analyses had broader social implications, the most notorious being eugenics, for which Galton became an enthusiastic evangelist. He founded the Eugenics Society, for example, and like the apostle Paul, spread his new eugenics gospel throughout the Western world. Like Paul among the Gentiles, Galton found a receptive audience.

Eugenics is where the charge of racism against Galton comes in most prominently, but for a mind like Galton’s, the charge doesn’t really stick. Galton’s eugenics did not really stem from racial animus or chauvinism. He had encountered African races on his explorations through southern Africa and had written vivid impressions of their habits and cultures. Read through one lens, Galton’s writings could be construed as irredeemably racist. Through a different lens, they could be construed as the unfiltered comments of a certifiable genius.

In the end, Galton’s eugenic ideas stemmed from observed statistical phenomena of breeding populations, human or not, in particular, a phenomenon he called “regression to the mean.” In any breeding population, there would be variation of genetic endowment, which would include heritable variation in traits like intelligence, moral character, family loyalty, and so forth. A society’s elites would naturally be drawn from the high end of that scale of variation: if high intelligence and strong moral character had value to a society, individuals with those traits would emerge as a society’s natural elite.

Regression to the mean meant that a genetically-determined elite class could never endure. The mating partner of a well-endowed person would, just by the statistical odds, be inferior in those traits, so their offspring would inevitably be less well-endowed. Carried on for generations, the genetic endowments of elitism would “regress to the mean.” A hereditary class of genetically well-endowed elites would therefore be impossible.

Galton thought this a bad outcome for society, and this was his rationale for eugenics: would it not be in society’s best interests to cultivate its best and brightest? The only way out of the trap of regression to the mean, according to Galton, was to manipulate who breeds with whom: eugenics, in a word. It’s hard to understate how powerfully Galton’s eugenics swept through the intelligentsia of his day: eugenics was “settled science,” endorsed by the best and the brightest. Everyone else was expected to fall in line and “follow the science.” Eugenics was the climate science of Galton’s day.

In hindsight, the best and the brightest seem not to have thought the thing through. Eugenics had power, not because the science behind it was sound, but because it provided useful justification for the horrific social pathologies that followed, like the sterilization and state-sanctioned murder of the “inferior.” Lest too many fingers be pointed, it is sobering to realize that this tendency was widespread in the United States, as well as in National Socialist Germany.4 Perhaps there are lessons for us presently? Just asking.

Galton’s differential psychology produced other … problematic … conclusions. Galton not only quantified the heritability of intelligence; he also ranked the races on a scale of cognitive ability. Asians were cognitively superior to Europeans, according to his measurements, who in turn were cognitively superior to Africans. Why then, Galton asked, should it be Europeans who colonize Africa? From that, Galton hatched a plan for a “rational colonialism.” Galton thought Europeans were poorly suited to colonizing Africa because they were not genetically equipped to tolerate the hot conditions and tropical diseases that prevailed there. The Chinese, in contrast, were not only cognitively superior to Europeans but were also better at tolerating tropical climes. The natural colonists for Africa were therefore not the European races but the Asian races. “Africa for the Chinese” is how Galton phrased it in an 1873 letter to The Times.

Are present standards superior to the past’s?

Galton was not making a Swiftian “modest proposal” here. He meant it, which is why Galton was the subject of his own 2021 cancel campaign, at University College London. Galton’s cancellation was marked by the same moral preening that accompanied the Huxley cancellation and the same hand-wringing argument that, oh, everyone was racist then, so we can’t really blame Galton for his Bad Thoughts. He couldn’t help it. Fortunately, we’ve all now risen above having Bad Thoughts. To be fair, it’s not easy to read passages like this, from Galton’s 1873 letter, without the hair standing up on the back of the neck: “the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position … they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race.”

But have we really risen above all that? In many ways, we presently live in the world Galton envisioned, and it is still our society’s self-defined best and brightest that are its most enthusiastic advocates.

Eugenics is alive and well, for example. Its practice can be benign and voluntary, as in the self-sorting and assortative mating patterns that prevail among our cognitive elites: marrying within one’s class is voluntary eugenics, as documented so well by Charles Murray,5 and the result is still preventing regression to the mean, as Galton advocated. But the more violent side of eugenics is still rampant, even in the enlightened west: it may no longer be directed at adults and children, as it was in the Rwandan outburst of genocidal enthusiasm, but it is now directed against the unborn.

Meanwhile, Galton’s dream of “Africa for the Chinese” has been an ongoing project for several years running. It is hidden behind the carefully constructed theater of wildlife tourism that brings in floods of money from foreigners venturing to Africa for safaris. Look closely, though, and you will see the ongoing demographic replacement that Galton envisioned. The main streets of villages and small towns in the African country where I have worked for many years are now populated with “Chinese shops” that have displaced the African bazaars that had previously been a prominent feature of these towns. I once ventured onto a major public works site in this African country and found that the entire project workforce, from site manager to the lowliest laborer, was Chinese: not a single African or English speaker was to be found. And in that country’s capital city, where manufacturing provides paid employment for the country’s rapidly urbanizing population, Chinese managers oversee an African underclass of employees. Africa for the Chinese, indeed! Galton’s program of demographic displacement is ongoing, advanced by policies deliberately created and vigorously defended by the world’s political and social elites. The color of the faces may have changed, but the outcome is the same.

Nowhere, however, is the incoherency and hypocrisy over Galton’s legacy deeper than in the current mania for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) that is sweeping through our elite institutions: the sciences, academies, professions, and corporations that comprise the establishment Uniparty.

Contrary to its loud assertions, DEI ideology does not condemn racism: it is the enthusiastic practitioner of it. Galton asserted that the Chinese are Africa’s natural colonists because they are genetically endowed to be so. DEI ideology, for its part, asserts that the black, the brown, the female, and the sexually unorthodox are the natural colonizers of our elite institutions because the new colonists will bring different “perspectives” and “ways of looking at the world” to the sciences by virtue of their genetic endowments: simply by being black, brown, female, or sexually heterodox. Galton rules, nowhere more strongly than among the cultural warriors that seek to cancel him, Huxley, and a host of others. Galton was at least honest about it: we are not, preferring to dress it up in soothing and self-congratulatory verbiage.

The faltering gene

Why, then, do we condemn Galton and all his works—eugenics, differential psychology, genetic determination of the races, and the genetic justification of colonialism—while enthusiastically endorsing it, if only in disguise? There is a common thread weaving through all this: Galton’s elevation of hard inheritance as the only meaningful form of heredity. Arguably, Galton was more open-minded than the current generation of masked social justice warriors. He recognized that “nurture” could ameliorate the effects of the “nature” specified by one’s endowment of hard inheritance. In fact, it was Galton himself who coined the “nature versus nurture” phrase. For Galton, though, the data could not be ignored. Hard inheritance would always endure, while nurture could only have a transient and limited effect. Genetic endowment was destiny.

The logic of Galtonism draws together some strange bedfellows. Racial differences in mean IQ, measured first by Galton, have endured through decades of every imaginable critical test, making it arguably the social science’s most solidly established scientific finding.6 Thus are figures like Charles Murray brought into uncomfortable intellectual proximity with neo-Galtonians like Ibram X. Kendi7. If Murray is correct, logically Kendi and his ilk be must be too, with their insistence on “whiteness” as an indelible trait of Europeans. Murray may argue that sound public policy must be informed by the science of IQ, and Kendi is right there, eager to oblige with his own proposal: racial quota systems to ameliorate inequity. Accept Murray’s proposal, and you will have a difficult time defending against Kendi’s, because both are fundamentally Galtonian. Both put undue emphasis on genetic determinism.

Kendi and Murray sharing the stage? That can’t be! When faced with such a quandary, we naturally go back to first premises, to see where a contradiction might lie. The premise of Galtonism is the gene as a heritable specifier of racial traits: hard inheritance, or genetic determinism as we style it now. But what if that concept of the gene is itself erroneous? Perhaps our notions of heredity are the source of the rampant confusion?

Our conception of the gene has been undergoing a radical transformation in recent years. Indeed, we’re not even sure anymore what a gene is or, for that matter, what inheritance is. That’s the nature of science: always tentative, always changing, always the enemy of certitude. Suffice it to say that the same genetic certitude that underlies both Murray’s and Kendi’s form of Galtonism is resting on a crumbling foundation. It is impossible right now to know what will come next. Will we rise to the challenge? Or will we continue to sit comfortably in our certitude?  

Thomas Huxley has a word or two to the wise about that. In his famous 1893 essay, “Evolution and Ethics,” Huxley writes:

the practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion, it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows … It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage. [emphasis added]

In short, we should not look too closely to science (in particular evolutionary science) for guidance in how to construct our ethical lives. When we do, we fall too readily into the “gladiatorial theory of existence,” which is an apt description of where we presently are.

Are you listening, cancellers? It is Huxley, after all, who can teach us a thing or two.

1 George Peter Murdock, “Cross-Cultural Sampling,” Ethnology 5, no. 11 (January 1966): 97–114.

2 Quentin D. Wheeler and Rudolf Meier, eds., Species Concepts and Phylogenetic Theory: A Debate (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

3 Charles John Andersson, Lake Ngami, or Explorations and Discoveries During Four Years' Wanderings in the Wilds of Southwestern Africa (New York: Harper & Brother, 1861); Francis Galton, Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa (London: Ward, Lock and Co, 1891).

4 Thomas C. Leonard, “Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 19, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 207–24;
Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

5 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2013).

6 Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1996).

7 Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019).

J Scott Turner is Director of the Intrusion of Diversity in the Sciences project at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Project Gutenberg, Public Domain

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