Saturday, March 03, 2007

The handmaiden of knowledge

Speaking of Huxley and his sea creatures: His monograph on Oceanic Hydrozoa had the misfortune to be published within weeks of Darwin's Origin of Species. It was lost in the furor occasioned by Darwin's book. Huxley was a big enough man to know he had been properly upstaged. His work on the hydrozoa was a patient gathering of the tiny truths out of which he thought grand Truths might be made. The Origin was about as grand a Truth as science had yet conceived, and Darwin was manifestly the Newton of biology. (Science awards capital Ts sparingly, if at all, and takes them back at the first sign of unworthiness.)

Natural selection was the cause Huxley had been waiting for, the cause he was born for. Darwin's synthesis was not just a scientific idea; it was a challenge to the Establishment, to the whole encrusted apparatus of Church, State and Class. No sooner had the book appeared than the guns of privilege began blasting away, and Huxley drew out his fiercely talented pen in rebuttal. Of the Origin, he wrote: "Bigots denounce it with ignorant invective; old ladies of both sexes consider it a decidedly dangerous book, and even savants...quote antiquated writers to show that its author is no better than an ape himself."

Huxley had some qualms about the Origin, in particular its unwavering emphasis upon chancy adaptation; he had hoped to find in nature some guiding developmental laws. But he was awed by the breadth and scope of Darwin's vision, and left his qualms aside as he entered the rhetorical fray. He knew, with Darwin, that even if nature was cruelly red in tooth and claw, human ethics stood above the struggle for existence. There was a place in the Darwinian scheme of things for his own liberal politics and work on behalf of the poor. One need not have the promise of heaven and fear of hell to be good, nor did natural selection negate his moral vision. "Freedom and order are not incompatible," he wrote, "[and] reverence is the handmaiden of knowledge."