Thursday, September 22, 2011

Adam Tickell on Thomas Henry Huxley at Great Read at Birmingham event

Professor Adam Tickell, PVC for Research and Knowledge Transfer, University of Birmingham, speaking at the launch of the Great Read at Birmingham initiative, September 22nd 2011

Video and text of the speech

Dear students,

I am sure that you have enjoyed the two excellent talks from our external speakers. First let me introduce myself. My name is Adam Tickell and I am Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research here at the University of Birmingham, which means it is my job to ensure that the academics that lecture you produce the very best research that they can, on top of their excellent teaching.
Now, I know that Mark Pallen later in the term is going to tell you about Charles Darwin, who formulated the Theory of Evolution.

But it is worth stressing that Darwin was a retiring person who left the defence of his theory in the rough and tumble of Victorian society to others.

His most famous, and robust, advocate was a remarkable man called Thomas Henry Huxley, who was so vociferous in his defence of Darwin’s theory that he earned the nickname Darwin’s Bulldog.

Many of you will have heard of Huxley’s famous encounter in 1860 with the Bishop of Oxford, with the famous gibe about whether Huxley was descended from an ape via his grandmother or grandfather. In fact, that gibe was probably never uttered and one of the things you should learn in your three years is the importance of going beyond what is written in textbooks and newspapers and even academic publications and evaluating the evidence for yourselves!

But whatever the truth of that encounter, Huxley was a remarkable individual. Although he left school at the age of ten, he was a voracious reader and taught himself science, philosophy, history and German. An adventurer medic, who served as surgeon’s mate on the delightfully named HMS Rattlesnake, as it surveyed northern Australia and New Guinea. An expert on invertebrate comparative biology, authoring several papers that clarified some tricky taxonomy.

In 1854 Huxley took up a Chair of Natural History at the Royal College of Mines (now part of Imperial College), where for over thirty years he made valuable contributions to science and education in Britain. Huxley’s numerous achievements include his prescient classification of birds with dinosaurs (only recently recognized as correct), a treatise on the physical geography of the Thames valley, a classic book on crayfish and a biography of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Huxley helped secularize schools, opened up adult education and transformed the academic activities of universities, viewing them as factories of new knowledge rather than storehouses of old. He even coined the word “agnostic”.

Huxley also left behind a treasure trove of aphorisms:

“After all, it is as respectable to be modified ape as to be modified dirt”

“Life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain more than once”

“Science is organized common sense”

“The great tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

From his biographer Edward Clodd, comes the greatest tribute of all: “It was worth being born to have known Huxley”!

But why, you may ask I am bigging it up so much for Huxley?

First, he is important in the history of ideas. Great ideas, like the theory of evolution, need to be argued over and Victorian society was, by no means, receptive to an explanation of life on earth that didn’t rely on God. Huxley’s advocacy of Darwin’s theory was powerfully influential.
Second, Huxley is important to the history of this University. Although the University on this campus dates back to 1900, before that, where the Birmingham Central Library now stands, there was something called the Mason Science College. This college was founded in 1875 by Sir Josiah Mason, a Birmingham industrialist and philanthropist, who made his fortune in making key rings, pens, and nibs. Mason College had several notable alumni before its incorporation into the University of Birmingham, including two prime ministers, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and a Nobel Prize winner Francis Aston.

But the key point is the foundation stone of Mason College was laid in 1880 by none other than Thomas Henry Huxley. So there is direct link between the institution in which you are enrolling and Darwin’s Bulldog! In Huxley’s honour, each year the university holds a Huxley Lecture, a tradition which goes back over a century. And of course, Darwin himself is built into the very fabric of our buildings, as a statue above the main entrance to the Aston Webb building.

Huxley gave a speech at the foundation of Mason College on the topic of “Science and Culture”. The speech makes interesting reading even today, packed full of sound bites and arguing that a scientific education was more important than a classical one. In it, Huxley delights in pouring scorn on the distinction between pure and applied research and suggests that the scientific method, which has proved so successful in the physical sciences, should be applied to the study of society.

My third reason for talking about Huxley is more personal.

Huxley died in 1895, but not before founding a family, that like the Darwin family was marked with a record of high achievement. He and his wife Henrietta had eight children. Like they Darwins they suffered the pain of losing a child in infancy. Two of Huxley’s daughters married the same man, the Pre-Raphalite painter John Collier, although not at the same time! You can see his paintings in the Tate gallery and Bridgman Art Library in London.

The most eminent of Huxley’s sons, Leonard, had six children by two wives. These included Julian Huxley – an evolutionary biologist who was not only the first director of UNESCO and a founder of the World Wildlife Fund, but also a eugenicist who – at least before the horrors of the holocaust – had unsavoury views about the rate at which what he called the lower strata reproduced. Julian was the brother of Aldous, who wrote Brave New World, and Andrew, who won the Nobel prize for his work on the physiology of nerves. One of Leonard’s grand-daughters, Angela Huxley, married a great-grandson of Charles Darwin, thus fusing these two notable lineages.

As I said, Thomas Huxley had eight children. His eldest daughter Jessica was lucky to survive scarlet fever when two years old, a disease which had killed her brother Noel. She grew up to marry Frederick Waller, who was architect to the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral.

And now, I’m afraid, you will have to indulge me.

Jessie and Fred begat Oriana.

And Oriana begat Renée, Celia and Elvira.

And Renée wrote novels and married an Irish writer.

And I think you all might be able to guess where this is going when I tell you that the Irish writer was my grandfather Jerrard Tickell.

I have to say, I knew little of this as a child – my abiding memory of my grandmother is of her bringing packets of Rowntrees Fruit Gums when she came for Sunday lunch.

However, in the absence of fruit gums, I am very pleased to help kick off the Great Read at Birmingham initiative, which has so much to do with the legacy of Thomas Huxley and his closest associate, Charles Darwin.

I would like to close by quoting my great-great- great grandfather’s closing from his foundation speech, which calls on us, as his to praise Mason’s “crucial instance of wisdom” in establishing his Science College:

"In conclusion,” Huxley said, “I am sure that I make myself the mouthpiece of all present in offering to the venerable founder of the institution, which now commences its beneficent career, our congratulations on the completion of his work; and in expressing the conviction that the remotest posterity will point to it as a crucial instance of the wisdom which natural piety leads all men to ascribe to their ancestors."