TH Huxley’s legacy, a campus college renaming controversy, and appeal for signatures

Western Washington University, a well-respected publicly funded university in Bellingham, WA, is conducting a review of the naming of its buildings, in the course of which demands were expressed for the renaming of the [TH] Huxley College of the Environment, and as a result the University’s Legacy Review Task Force has invited comment. Background information including links to solicited academic comment is available at https://president.wwu.edu/research-and-resources.

My own initial reaction was outrage, but closer examination convinced me that serious engagement is a more appropriate response, given aspects of Huxley’s legacy of which I was not aware. There is no doubt, however, that the movement to rename is seriously misguided, and can be traced back to the long-standing creationist tradition of pretending that evolution science is responsible for racism. The attack on Huxley, as spelt out in a submission by one member of the Task Force (Why is TH Huxley Problematic?) has therefore evoked a detailed rebuttal by Glenn Branch of the [US] National Center for Science Education.

With the encouragement of a WWU faculty member, I have drafted the following letter, for which I invite signatures. If you wish to add your name, and especially if you have some academic, educational, or related standing, and please let me know, either by comment here or by email to me at psbratermanATyahooDOTcom, giving me your name, and position(s) held. I will then include you among the signatories when I forward the letter to Paul Dunn dunnp3@wwu.edu – President’s Chief of Staff and Chair of the Task Force, with copy to Sabah Randhawa randhaws@wwu.edu – President of the University. Alternatively, you may wish to write to them directly as an individual.

We welcome the opportunity to comment on the proposed renaming of Huxley College of the Environment.

We are used to making allowances for people of the past, on the grounds that their behavior was conditioned by their time and place. For example, your own University, and the State that it serves, are named after a slave-owner. But Huxley, his detractors may be surprised to hear, requires no such forgiveness. Like most Englishmen, and most scientists, of his time, he believed in the racial superiority of Europeans, and this misguided perspective affected his anthropological studies. It did not, however, affect his progressive social outlook, and as the evidence submitted to the Task Force shows, he was deeply opposed to slavery and to all forms of unequal treatment and discrimination, argued in favor of equal treatment for women and against Spenserian  “Social Darwinism”, and campaigned vigorously on behalf of Abolition during the American Civil War. 

The attack on Huxley has deep roots, and is part of a wider creationist strategy to discredit evolution science. For this reason, the case has attracted attention from as far away as Scotland and New Zealand. The creationist connection accounts for the presence, among critics of Huxley cited in support of renaming, of the creationist Discovery Institute, and of Jerry Bergman, associated with Creation Ministries International, among other suspect sources. Ironically in this context, Bergman once wrote for support to the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

However, despite these tainted connections, current discussion of renaming at Western Washington is part of a praiseworthy worldwide process of re-evaluation, and student involvement in this is to be commended. It may therefore be helpful to display prominently in the Huxley Building a brief summary of his achievements, including his campaigning against slavery, and on behalf of equal treatment for women, in which he was far ahead of his time.

Sincerely,

File:Western Washington University Looking North.jpg
Western Washington University looking north over Bellingham; Nick Kelly / Faithlife Corporation via Wikipedia

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on May 22, 2021, in Creationism, Education, Evolution, History of Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    A silly exercise as probably all in the 19th century were in a sense racist by our present standards, and terribly so by the woke! I doubt if the Wilberforce family would pass today’s test either.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alyson Miller

    I oppose the renaming of the Huxley building. His work inspired my efforts to defend the teaching of science as the study of natural history as opposed to supernatural history. He was such a noble character, stepping up to defend Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection when Darwin was too ill to defend himself, that I have his name as the license of my car. It reminds me daily to volunteer to help others, even if I have a lot of things I’d rather do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Is this an invitation to add your name a a signatory? And if so (perhaps I should know this), do you have or have you held any kind of science teaching positions, in the broadest sense, or degrees, and where do you live?

      Like

  3. Abraham Eastwood, PhD

    Degree: PhD in Biology, Lehigh University 1971
    Taught human anatomy and conducted research on muscle structure and function with a joint appointment in Anatomy and Neurology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University for seven years. Switched from doing real science to research grant management for first MDA and later the NMSS, I consider leaving science the biggest mistake of my life.
    I wish to be included as a signatory of your on your letter
    Best regards,
    Abe Eastwood

    Liked by 2 people

    • Excellent. What was the title of your appointment at Columbia, and what do MDA and NMSS stand for?

      Like

      • At Columbia I had several positions over the years I was there, starting with my postdoc. But my last appointment was Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Neurology. MDA = Muscular Dystrophy Association. NMSS = National Multiple Sclerosis Society. As an aside, I’ve found the current pandemic both scary and interesting — I had several undergraduate and graduate courses in virology!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I would be happy to sign (Professor of Astrophysics, Keele University).

    Liked by 2 people

    • The letter has already been sent, because of deadlines, but you can certainly with advantage write to the President of the University, copied in his assistant, addresses in this post. Points to emphasise may be the poor scholarship of the indictment against Huxley, the misrepresentation in that indictment of his progressive and forward-looking outlook, the creationist motivation of Huxley’s detractors, and the damage that renaming would do to the reputation of the University worldwide.

      I would suggest being tactful about the renaming process in general, not only for political reasons, but because there are genuine issues involved. Indeed, one of the faculty members who initiated that process was horrified when it was extended, so completely inappropriately, to Huxley College.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Michael Fugate

    A better solution is to take every name off and take down every statue. Communities are responsible for scientific discovery and social change not individuals.
    https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/jun/01/gary-younge-why-every-single-statue-should-come-down-rhodes-colston

    And of course, the Discovery Institute, like all right wing think tanks, is a hypocritical joke. Their own Christopher Rufo battles critical race theory in an effort to suppress and white wash history while keeping white men in power.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Puck Mendelssohn

    I just saw this — I live in Seattle and used to do legal work, back when I was still practicing law, up in Bellingham where I encountered a lot of Huxley grads because my work often involved environmental issues. And, as it happens, I am a great fan of Thomas Huxley’s writings. I didn’t actually know the school was named after him — figured it probably was named after some other Huxley.

    Anyhow: you are very right, and while I wouldn’t have been an appropriate signatory for your letter I wish I’d known of the issue and written on my own. It looks like it’s still called Huxley, and there don’t seem to be news stories about it in the last few months — do you know if the hubbub has died down? If it hasn’t, I’ll get a letter in to the University. I recall being quite impressed to discover how progressive Huxley’s views on equal treatment of people without regard to race and sex were, given the time in which he lived and wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The news is not good. The Task Force is recommending a change of name, but we don’t know when a final decision is going to be made, and your letter would certainly be helpful

      Like

    • You can link to the Task Force report here: https://president.wwu.edu/legacy-review-task-force. Alengthy document, but scanning on “Rupke2 will take you to the money quotes. They have swallowed Rupke’s misdescription of Huxley, complete with quote from Rupke regarding “Huxley’s rule”, wich seems to be of his own invention, and mis-statement of Huxley’s views on the differenes between humans vs that between humans and non-human apes. If you wish your comments to be considered by the Board of Trustees, send them to rambor@wwu.edu and paul.dunn@wwu.edu, as well as to the President. Ofc, they will need to know who you are and why you are qualified to comment

      Like

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