GUEST POST (#PDEx): the scientist and the anarchist (part I)

NinjaJen-Luc NOTE:
Among those who left the SEED Science Blogs fold in the wake of PepsiGate is Eric Michael Johnson, proprietor of the excellent Primate Diaries blog. While he's casting about for a new home, he hit upon a novel idea: a Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour! We at the cocktail party are delighted to serve as one of many stops on the tour, and that Eric has written a fantastic historic account about Huxley, science and anarchy. Good times! You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter. In the meantime, welcome to Cocktail Party Physics, Eric! And if this is someone's first time visiting, feel free to browse our archives.

How East London defined "Darwin's Bulldog" and brought him into conflict with the world's most dangerous anarchist.

Applicants For Admission To A Casual Ward by Luke Fildes (1857) shows a crowd of East London poor waiting in the snow, trying to gain access to a homeless shelter. Source

The first thing you noticed was the smell. It was an oppressive, suffocating odor. It assaulted your senses day and night, at work, at rest, preparing a meal, or enjoying children’s games. It pervaded every aspect of your life and soiled the very experience of living, and dying. It was the birth of modern civilization. East London in 1841 was a society on the brink of collapse. Charles Dickens used the words “pestiferous and obscene” to describe what he experienced. However, a poor resident of Soho put it much more elegantly, "We live in muck and filth . . . all great and powerfool men, take no notice wasomedever of our complaints." Open sewers, garbage littered streets, contaminated water, and overflowing cemeteries had transformed the detritus of overpopulation into a veritable miasma and the result was simply repugnant. [1]

Ignored by politicians and abandoned by those able to escape its slums, East London during the latter half of the 19th century represents one of the most profound failures of urban planning the world has ever seen. Starting in the late 1700s, modern industry and agrarian capitalism had made the open-field farming system of feudal lords and their laboring peasants obsolete. Over six million acres, or a quarter of the country’s cultivated area, were enclosed under parliamentary acts between 1750 and 1850 (and most occurred during the Napoleonic war years from 1793 to 1815). What had previously been communal lands were now off limits. Without a means of subsistence people migrated to the cities en masse, nearly tripling the size of London in a single generation (from 675,000 to 1,945,000). [2]

This was a social reengineering project of massive proportions. In much the same way that privatization of land today (backed by free trade policies) has pushed the landless poor of Latin America into the great northern cities, so the Industrial Revolution sent millions of English tenant farmers flooding to urban centers at the ushering in of the 19th. Most of them ended up in the slums of East London. Steven Johnson cites one report from the time that estimated a densely packed 432 people per acre (even with our modern skyscrapers Manhattan only houses about 110 per acre). In many slum tenements large families or groups of laborers would crowd into a single room. Without any resources for public health or sanitation – aspects of social life that had yet to be invented – and with wages depressed from the legions of poor workers, these slum dwellers were forced to survive in any way they could. In this way, London in the mid-19th century parallels many parts of our world today: teeming cities of the impoverished, lacking resources and meaningful employment, left to suffocate in their own filth. [3]
It was into this environment that Thomas Henry Huxley emerged. If the city is an ecosystem, Huxley embodies the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Lanky and high-strung, estranged from his father at an early age, and the youngest of six children, Huxley was primed from birth to view life as a struggle. Born on May 4, 1825 above a butcher’s shop on London’s outskirts, Huxley was the son of a poor schoolteacher and a member of England’s newly emerging middle class (in culture though not in wealth). As such he was determined to separate himself from the ranks of the working poor. In the years to come he would claw his way out of obscurity and establish himself as a celebrated anatomist, President of the Royal Academy of Sciences, and evolutionary theorist widely hailed as “Darwin’s bulldog.” He would forge a path of his own and create a revolution in the way science was practiced. As his biographer, Adrian Desmond, would later put it:

The young hothead scrambled to the top of his profession; indeed he made a profession of science. With him the ‘scientist’ was born. [4]

An important theme that is found throughout Huxley’s life and work is one that can only be understood from his early experiences in East London: the brutal conditions of the poor. At the age of sixteen Huxley was apprenticed to a "lowlife doctor" named Thomas Chandler whose patients lived exclusively in the East London slums. In later years Huxley would describe in vivid detail the depravity he experienced:

Men, women, and children are forced to crowd into dens wherein decency is abolished and the most ordinary conditions of healthful existence are impossible of attainment; in which the pleasures within reach are reduced to bestiality and drunkenness; in which the pains accumulate at compound interest, in the shape of starvation, disease, stunted development, and moral degradation; in which the prospect of even steady and honest industry is a life of unsuccessful battling with hunger, rounded by a pauper's grave.

In one incident during a house call Huxley encountered a deformed girl nursing her ill sister. There was little he or his mentor could do for her and, out of compassion, Huxley suggested that the sick child needed a better diet than simply "bread and bad tea." In response, according to Huxley:

[The girl] turned upon me with a kind of choking passion. Pulling out of her pocket a few pence and halfpence, and holding them out, "That is all I get for six-and-thirty hours’ work, and you talk about giving her proper food."

Surrounded by such crushing poverty, Huxley anguished over the conditions that seemed to afflict both good people and bad without remorse. “I see no fault committed that I have not committed myself,” he wrote at the time, quoting Goethe. Already moved towards religious skepticism because of his voracious appetite for knowledge and his pursuit of science, Huxley now moved closer to the agnosticism that would define his life. After all, what sort of loving God could allow such horrors to persist? Where was the justice in a divine plan that forced more righteous men than he to a life of squalor, "I confess to my shame," he wrote, "that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I."
Late at night, cackles emanated from the busy pubs along Paradise Street where Chandler's slum-row surgery was located. Prostitutes offered their wares to the drunken and downtrodden while knife-wielding gangs clashed in the dark alleys, sometimes leaving a fresh corpse for the “bone-pickers” to scavenge a few pennies worth of clothing from.

With so many of his days and nights spent in the ramshackle surgery, just a hundred paces from the festering Thames, Huxley experienced “gloom with every breath” and felt his ambitions stifled.
He had only one hope of advancement: a university degree. However, with only two years of formal education he was greatly outclassed by his social betters. And so, by the thin light of his lantern the young man sat grinding drugs late into the night, and reading. Humes’ History of Great Britain, Müller’s Elements of Physiology, Hutton’s Theory of the Earth. Whenever he could fit in time for personal study, Huxley maintained a punishing schedule. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he studied physiology, other days of the week he focused on “a chronological abstract of reigns”, he spent evenings devoted to mathematics, Saturday’s were for chemistry and physics with an hour of German daily. “I must get on faster than this”, he chided himself, “and let me remember this – that it is better to read a little & thoroughly than cram a crude undigested mass into my head.” He studied Latin and Greek and wrote his mother to ask for a copy of Euclid’s Geometry. The university entrance exams required a solid background in the classics and he had a great deal of catching up to do.

Interestingly, there is one title on Huxley’s reading list during this time that doesn’t seem necessary for college admission: Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism. Published a year earlier in 1840, the book was a passionate manifesto of the struggles that the poor experienced, explaining the backdrop of what would became the first major labor struggle of the Industrial Revolution. “To me,” Huxley reflected, “this advocacy of the cause of the poor appealed very strongly.” That August as Huxley ground drugs and studied anatomy, factory workers took to the streets outside demanding the right to vote, for decent wages, and a ten-hour workday. By 1841 the Chartist movement was already several years old but was still a profound mystery and a source of great anxiety to Victorian England. In 1837 six sympathetic members of Parliament and six working men wrote the first draft of The People’s Charter, a document that advocated universal male suffrage, annual elections, and an end to property qualifications for membership in Parliament. The Charter was then taken around the country to eventually be signed by 1.3 million people (nearly twice the number of propertied voters) before being presented to the House of Commons in 1848.

The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, April 10, 1848, photograph taken by William Kilburn. Crowd estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 people. Source

The aristocracy viewed this movement as dangerous, if not outright seditious. In the year prior to Carlyle’s book, Lord John Russell (a liberal Whig in the House of Commons who would later serve as Prime Minister) had a letter sent to The Times of London requesting that reporters report on “any meeting convened by persons calling themselves Chartists” so that their “illegal transaction” could be prosecuted. Carlyle, however, referred to the democracy movement among the poor as, "the bitter discontent grown fierce and mad . . . of the Working Classes of England. It is a new name for a thing which has had many names, which will yet have many." [5]
For young Huxley this struggle, and the conditions which gave rise to it, became pivotal in his development and can be seen to have influenced his thinking as well as his scientific theories many years later. “I had had the opportunity of seeing for myself,” he wrote of the time, “something of the way the poor live. Not much, indeed, but still enough to give a terrible foundation of real knowledge to my speculations.” However, while it’s clear that Huxley sympathized with the plight of the poor and found the conditions of East London both shocking and unacceptable, he was already developing a distinctly middle-class sensibility. The destitute of East London were as strange to him as “the savages of Australia,” he would later write. Even so, no Aborigine was “half so savage, so unclean, so irreclaimable as the tenant of a tenement in an East London slum.” He went on to write:

I used to wonder sometimes why these people did not sally forth in mass and get a few hours’ eating and drinking and plunder to their hearts’ content, before the police could stop and hang a few of them. But the poor wretches had not the heart even for that. As a slight, wiry Liverpool detective once said to me when I asked him how it was he managed to deal with such hulking ruffians as we were among, "Lord bless you, sir, drink and disease leave nothing in them."

Morally offended by many of the vices that people turned to in an environment that offered little hope of social betterment, Huxley found inspiration in Carlyle’s missionary solutions. As Carlyle wrote in Chartism:

Light has come into the world, but to this poor peasant it has come in vain. . . Education is not only an eternal duty, but has at length become even a temporary and ephemeral one, which the necessities of the hour will oblige us to look after.

To teach the moral qualities that he viewed as central to his own future success, Huxley would emulate Carlyle in his own policy recommendations for the poor:

[W]hat dweller in the slough of want, dwarfed in body and soul, demoralized, hopeless, can reasonably be expected to possess these qualities?…[I]n a densely populated manufacturing country, struggling for existence with competitors, every ignorant person tends to become a burden upon, and, so far, an infringer of the liberty of, his fellows, and an obstacle to their success. Under such circumstances an education rate is, in fact, a war tax, levied for purposes of defence.

For Huxley then, as it was for Carlyle, the crisis of poverty was one of proper training. The reality of their economic condition may make them poor in material goods, but it was their poverty of mind that made them truly destitute and unable to rise in the world. It was only through proper education that the poor would be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The call from the radicals for economic and political change were ultimately addressing the wrong problem. As Huxley read and dreamed of escape into university life and upper-class respectability, Carlyle's sermon brought a glean to the young agnostic's eye.

Intellect is like light; the Chaos becomes a World under it, the discernment of order in disorder; it is the discovery of the will of nature, of God’s will.

Huxley had no use for God, but what did nature say on the question of order and disorder? It was something he would spend much of his life contemplating and his final years obsessing over. It would also bring him into direct conflict with one of the most influential political radicals in the world, a fugitive already wanted in three countries who was now intent on bringing anarchy to the UK.
The Scientist and the Anarchist – Part II will be published next week at Skulls in the Stars.


[1] Roy Porter (2006). London: A Social History, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995; Liza Picard (2006). Victorian London: The Life of a City, 1840-1870. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

[2] John E. Archer (2000). Social Unrest and Popular Protest in England, 1780-1840, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Steven Johnson (2006). The Ghost Map, New York: Riverhead Books.

[4] Adrian Desmond (1997). Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest. Massachusettes: Addison-Wesley.

[5] The Times, Tuesday, Mar 26, 1839; pg. 6; Issue 16999; col E

5 thoughts on “GUEST POST (#PDEx): the scientist and the anarchist (part I)”

  1. Oh, yes!! Poverty takes from its inhabitants all effort, all liveliness, all energy. Education will bring some out, and could even more, if they possessed the strength to avail themselves of it.
    Poverty is quicksand, pulling its people under. It takes massive resistance to get out of its gravitational pull.

  2. Nice! I have read a couple biographies of Huxley, but have not seen this type of assessment before.
    If you haven’t already, Huxley’s own “Voyage of the Rattlesnake” is excellent. The man had a sharp wit and a iconoclastic bent that even comes through the Victorian language.

  3. I must pass this on to friends who get all misty-eyed about Olde England, from watching movies like “Young Victoria” and the like…
    Thank you.

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