06 June 2014

Review: Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest by Adrian Desmond

Hardcover, 820 pages
Published 1997 (contents: 1994)
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest
by Adrian Desmond

Though not the earliest professional scientist by far (Owen, for example, sustained himself through his scientific work, and he was from the previous generation), Huxley is more on the professional side of the amateur-professional transition than not. As a young man who wanted to pursue science, Huxley faced a dilemma. In the early part of the century, few direct opportunities were available to the man of science. In 1838, when Huxley decided that he wanted to study “natural philosophy” as a boy of thirteen, he had to pursue a surgical apprenticeship because he had no money available to him. Adrian Desmond reports that Huxley wrote in his diary, “Philosophy can bake no bread; but it can procure for us God freedom & immortality. Which is now the more practical Philosophy or Economy?” (9). Huxley was later forced to join the Royal Navy as surgeon’s mate to avoid debt.

Huxley (along with his friend Tyndall) wanted to reshape science, wanted to make it a legitimate part of the everyday life of Britain. This required both a change in scientific education and scientific practice. For starters, “Science required factory discipline, ‘steady punctual uninterrupted work’. His scientific-artisan lineage was being forged, a work-bench mentality far from the leisured aristocratic ideal” (198). Education was one of Huxley's biggest fights (he famously exchanged words with Arnold on it), and he was very frustrated by the level of knowledge available in Britain. He once observed that a Roman centurion’s son in a contemporary university “would not meet with a single unfamiliar line of thought” (275).

According to Desmond, Huxley foresaw a science-led society being governed by “only knowledge well organized and well tested. And that made Nature’s own education the best guide… the only way forward was a competitive, technocratic society, with the science professionals at the helm” (210-11). But such an arrangement of society privileges those who master the profession of science, and means that advancing within science becomes advancing within society, making the desire for scientific knowledge something other than just a desire to discover unknown truths.

As Ursula DeYoung observes in her intellectual biography of Tyndall (A Vision of Modern Science), the outcome of Tyndall and company’s drive to professionalization was eventually a model of science that rejected the kind of science Tyndall had done; remembrances of him published after his death depict him as a necessary transitional figure in the development of science, not someone to be remembered for his own scientific work. The new science had been constructed along the vision of Huxley; Desmond mentions biology professors who claimed their whole discipline and vocation had been created by Huxley and then describes the changes of the century: “Huxley’s professionals in their ‘knowledge factories’ would become ‘pioneers in the exploration and settlement of new regions’” (627). But the employment of the factory metaphor pushes away from a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, the type of neutrality that Tyndall claimed for science in Fragments of Science for Unscientific People (1871). If the laboratory is a factory, then knowledge becomes a product—and making product becomes a means for promotion. The privileging of scientific knowledge means both that knowledge is no longer acquired for its own sake.

Tyndall’s transcendental materialism did not meet the requirements of the laboratory science era, which Desmond describes as having “a deadroom air… a dead, desiccated nature” (628). Huxley and Tyndall succeeded too well, in the end. In establishing science as a legitimate, professional pursuit, complete with various specializations, they carved it into its own sphere, removing it from the realm of “society,” and thus ultimately denying its ability to comment on the world.

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