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Imperial misdemeanours

Getting at the truth about T H Huxley

Artillery Row

Earlier this month the President’s Board at Imperial College convened to decide what to do with the recommendations of their History Group, which was commissioned by the President Alice Gast and Provost Ian Walmsley, to examine the university’s history “through its links to the British Empire”. The most striking recommendation is that the founder of Imperial College, T H Huxley, be “cancelled”, with the Group proposing removing his name from a building and consigning the famous terracotta bust of him to a cupboard.

We can expect an announcement on this very soon, as well as on other recommendations for cancellation (including Alfred Beit, Imperial’s most generous donor). When the report was published in October the President announced a period of consultation and stated, “We stand for openness, transparency and freedom of speech — and that will define this dialogue.’’ But the process has been anything but open and transparent.

The last charge is particularly odd because Huxley was a social progressive

Huxley is best known as Darwin’s bulldog, championing the theory of evolution, and fighting against the conservative side of the church, including Sam Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, whom he famously sent packing in a debate at the Oxford University Museum in 1860. He is also well known for proposing that birds are descended from dinosaurs, based on analysis of a fossil of Archaeopteryx. His biographer Cyril Bibby described him as the “chief builder’’ of Imperial College, because he assembled in South Kensington the three elements from which Imperial was later created (in 1907, 12 years after his death): the Royal School of Mines, the Royal College of Science, and the City and Guilds of London Institute.

In the History Group report Huxley is accused of scientific racism, espousing a racial hierarchy of intelligence, and “falling far short of Imperial’s modern values”. Strangely the first charge is disposed of in the report itself, by Adrian Desmond, another of Huxley’s biographers, who was asked to give his view on the matter. The last charge is particularly odd because Huxley was a social progressive, and is a role model for how a leading scientist can influence social policy for the good.

He was motivated by the goal of equal opportunities for all, including the working classes, women, slaves in the US, and freed slaves in Jamaica. His view was that “the duty of man is to see that not a grain is piled upon that load beyond what Nature imposes; that injustice is not added to inequality”. He was most proud of his work on the London School Board to provide universal education for children, at a time when only half of children received any education at all. In the same vein, he actively promoted university education for women.

Although he drops the idea in his later writings, earlier in his career Huxley did indeed share the widely held view of a hierarchy of races, as did, for example, Darwin and Lincoln, who were also progressives. Another biographer, Professor Sherrie Lyons, has stated, “In Europe and the United States one would be extremely hard pressed to find anyone in the sciences, not to mention the society at large in the 19th century, that did not have a hierarchical view of the races.’’

They changed their minds and refused to share these contributions

The moral issue of the day was whether this justified discrimination, and Huxley was firmly on the progressive side on this. He was an active slavery abolitionist, supporting the North against the Confederacy in the American Civil War, and declaring in an 1864 address to the Ladies London Emancipation Society that, “the North is justified in any expenditure of blood or of money, which shall eradicate a system hopelessly inconsistent with the moral elevation, the political freedom or the economical progress of the American people.’’

In the same address Huxley strongly attacked a real scientific racist, James Hunt, President of the Anthropological Society of London, for his paper On the Negro’s Place in Nature, which argued for “classifying the Negro as a distinct species from the European’’. Later, Huxley was a member of the Jamaica Committee, formed to prosecute Edward Eyre, Governor of Jamaica, who had brutally suppressed the Morant Bay rebellion of freed slaves. For his role on the Jamaica Committee, which was very much in the minority on Eyre, Huxley was vilified by Hunt, who accused him of “negromania”.

What has been the reaction of the Imperial community to the report of the History Group, and what other arguments have been put forward? In response to the call for an open and transparent dialogue, there have been 208 contributions emailed in, over half from alumni. These include several lengthy essays, some from professional historians. An assurance was given that these would all be made available to the Imperial community to read, anonymised. This is what one would expect; sharing these views and insights would register the range and strength of opinion and allow everyone to gain a deeper understanding of Imperial’s history.

But that hasn’t happened. Instead the President and Provost changed their minds and have refused to share these contributions, and only the President’s Board has seen them. Why the secrecy? Without seeing the results of the consultation, we’re only left with speculation, and with it suspicion and mistrust. If the process is to be fair, and the decision is to be respected by the community of Imperial College, it must be seen to be transparent, and the debate open. Regardless of where you stand on Huxley as an individual, the values of scientific rigour and fearless public debate that he upheld are essential to Imperial College, and it is those ideals that are being betrayed by a closed process.

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